History and Styles of Graphic Design

art nouveau example poster

History and Styles of Graphic Design

Egyptian temples were filled with graphic art. Medieval navigation maps were full of symbols and imagery.

Graphic design is not a new concept. The term itself may have been first coined in 1922, but graphic design has existed since the earliest cave art.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw the heavy use of heraldry–the armour, family, class, rank and pedigree. Cattle branding was used to show ownership and quality.


In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press and moveable type. From this, hundreds of styles emerged.

Art Nouveau

From around 1880, art nouveau flourished.

It was a bridge between academic and modern art and was notable for its organic, highly decorative type and styles.

The streetscapes and train stations in Paris are examples of art nouveau. In graphic design, every inch of space was used and material was ‘over-designed’.

Toulouse-Lautrec is possibly the most well-known practitioner.

art nouveau example poster



Modernism began in the early 19th Century. It is a catch-all term that encapsulates many styles and movements. Some of these prominent styles (in no order) include:

  • Dada
  • Futurism
  • Constructivism
  • Bauhaus
  • Impressionism

Designers took on a more structured, grid-like system and sans serif typography was favoured, among these are Futura and Helvetica.

Some often quoted modernist quips are ‘form follows function’ and ‘function must always follow form‘.

The Dutch De Stijl advocated aesthetics for abstraction.

Bold visuals, political messaging, large sans-serif type became hallmarks of propaganda for Russia and Germany.

Bauhaus was a German art school that opened in 1919.

Bauhaus was marked by minimalist, anti-ornate, and curve-free work. Notable artists of the Bauhaus style were Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

constructivist example cigarette package

Art Deco

The term art deco was coined in 1925.

Thought to be a reaction to World War I, the art deco style emerge as carefree and lavish.

It was geometric, bold, symmetrical, and used strong contrast.

The movement included art, jewellery, architecture, and industrial design. The graphic styles of art deco became popular in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Advertising was often on a single colour background and there was more focus on the product than previously.


art deco posters

The 1950s

The middle of the last century is significant in that it marked the beginning of consumerism and the advertising boom.

There were innovations galore and plenty of print car ads.

Paul Rand was a pioneering figure in graphic design who created the logos for IBM and UPS.

Saul Bass (a designer and filmmaker) created the logo for United Airlines and AT&T as well as designing film titles for Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, and Martin Scorsese.

ibm logo by paul rand

Pop Art

Pop Art had the aim of popularising art for the masses. It used bold colour, humour, and everyday objects, like cans of soup.

The comic-like feel was made famous by Andy Warhol and Ray Lichtenstein.

pop art marilyn monroe








The 1980s

The 1980s was an epoch that was attention-grabbing and obnoxious. But one extraordinary thing happened: PageMaker.

Desktop publishing program, Aldus PageMaker, was released in 1985. It was co-developed by Paul Brainerd, who had a graduate degree in journalism.

PageMaker was the program I studied at University back in 1994.

PageMaker had the ability to drag sections of text and worked with typography and .eps image files. It was a perfect tool for a young writer who enjoyed laying out articles and preparing a newspaper or newsletter.

PageMaker enabled the creation of professional quality books, magazines and newspapers. It also was the catalyst for a whole industry that included things like clip art, speciality printers, and font bureaus.

In 1995, Adobe bought PageMaker from Aldus and released version 6. It later became the design juggernaut of today, Adobe InDesign.

The 1980s and the explosion of personal computers showed many how to experiment with colour and layouts. Among the styles of the day were the 1980s’-Deco (popularly pink and black), neo-noir, cyber-punk (blurry, dark, gridlines).

pagemaker opening screenpagemaker opening screen





Swiss Style

This style says Trust me, there is order here.

Swiss style is elegant. This popular style is characterised by photography over sketches and illustration.

It uses sans-serif fonts and a strict grid formula.

The trend toward the clean and contemporary means the Swiss style has become ubiquitous over the last decades. But there have been many hits and misses.

The everywhere-ness Helvetica is a case in point. There are a great many company logos that have been redesigned and ‘modernised’ and, in my opinion, eschewing personality for the smooth curves of a sans serif typeface and looking, kind of, like everyone else. As a case of what not to do, the Gap misstep springs to mind. The company then reverted back to the (pictured left) original after an outcry by disgusted brand-loyalists.

(The original GAP logo is below on the left. The new design is on the right, before the reversion.)

gap logo redesign

Current Trends

Graphic design trends come and go, but there is still a lot of work that draws inspiration from art nouveau, art deco, the 1980s, pop art, all the styles that have come in recent decades. Even my own work borrows from all sorts of styles.

It’s much the same as fashion styles get recycled.

Other than those influences, what stands out as being new is:

The rise of data visualisation (infographics)

In a world in which there is too much information and a paucity of knowledge, data visualisation is helping people take meaning from statistics and research.


No little border of ducks, thanks. Don’t let clutter get in the way of your message. Minimalism is big, especially in web design with the rise of WordPress as the pre-eminent website software and the number of clean and minimal themes now in the various marketplaces.


With creativity and technology, come new dimensions. It’s not just cinema and gaming that make use of 3D, but graphics on a screen can use typographic tools like bevel, emboss, and drop shadows, and in the enduring popularity of vectors.

The Future?

Our friends at LogoOrbit have created an infographic with their predictions of 15 coming trends.