Before the advent of "graphic design," a typical printer was both a designer and a crafts-person, laying out and producing commercial jobs, like invitations, posters, and ad signage.

Today we (maybe lazily) use that term as a catch-all to describe creative work. But before it was distinguished from fine art, design was simply one aspect of the average printer’s job description.

In Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers, Jury pulls together almost 800 beautiful color illustrations from American and European printers, the oldest dating from 1700.

There are rich gold cigar labels and pompous calling cards, elegant baroque business signs and plenty of campy ads from 19th-century London.

Not all of the contributors are anonymous, though most are. William Morris, another early advocate of “graphic design,” makes an appearance, as does Giambattista Bodoni, the 18th-century printer behind the eponymous typeface.

Not all of the contributors are anonymous, though most are. William Morris, another early advocate of “graphic design,” makes an appearance, as does Giambattista Bodoni, the 18th-century printer behind the eponymous typeface.

The early days of graphic design have remained something of an unexamined curiosity.

Co.Design

10 Illustrations From The Dawn Of Graphic Design

Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers collects the vibrant work of commercial printers—or “jobbers”—for whom design was just part of the job.

In August of 1922, William Addison Dwiggins, a book designer and the designer of Caledonia (a font you’ll likely find on the computer you’re using to read this), published an op-ed in The Boston Evening Herald. In his essay, "A New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design", Dwiggins proposed a new name for the commercial art that he and his contemporaries were doing: “graphic design.”

Today we (maybe lazily) use that term as a catch-all to describe 2-D creative work. But before it was distinguished from fine art, “graphic design” was simply one aspect of the average printer’s job description. A typical printer was both a designer and a crafts-person, laying out and producing commercial jobs, like invitations, posters, and ad signage. According to British graphic designer David Jury, this was called “jobbing,” and by ignoring it, design historians are missing out on a fruitful era of visual culture that spans more than 300 years.

In Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers, Jury pulls together hundreds of beautiful color illustrations from American and European printers, the oldest dating from 1700. There are rich gold cigar labels and pompous calling cards, elegant baroque business signs, and plenty of campy ads from 19th-century London. Not all of the contributors are anonymous, though most are. William Morris, another early advocate of “graphic design,” makes an appearance, as does Giambattista Bodoni, the 18th-century printer behind the eponymous typeface.

The development of graphic design roughly parallels the birth of modern architecture. Just as the International Style was born from factory architecture, modern graphic design was born from the printing press. But unlike architecture, which has a whole library devoted to its anonymous beginnings, the early days of graphic design have remained something of an unexamined curiosity. Which is odd—especially considering the intense bout of 1890s nostalgia currently gripping graphic designers.

Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers is on sale for $38 at Amazon.

[H/t It’s Nice That]

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4 Comments

  • Belinda O Thompson

    I was extremely lucky in that my training in the graphic arts came from old school commercial printers, one who was a graduate of the Gutenberg Institute. Apprentices were expected to learn everything from the ground up, literally sometimes. It would help all graphics students to learn the blood and bones of the industry if for no other reason than to keep the craft alive.

  • Don Nelson

    Commercial art was more about decorating the page, (sometimes beautifully), Graphic Design is our process to create Visual Communication that, at it's best, adds meaning to ideas, and creates a memorable and persuasive synergy.
    Don Nelson

  • Al

    That is true. These are fantastic and interesting examples of craft, but most of them have the purpose of simply showing off the skills of the printers. This is different to modern design which is always tied to a brief, a purpose and a deliberate end result.

    That also makes these interesting in another way. A lot of these craftspeople seemed to have free reign to experiment as they saw fit. In many cases they seem to be simply deliberately pushing the boundaries of what is possible to engrave, for no reason other than that they can. There's a kind of purity to that and it's interesting to see what they came up with.

  • Joe Nicklo

    Really cool. It's funny how Graphic Design has been through so many cycles of style.