9 Big Ideas That Changed The Face Of Graphic Design

In a new book from Laurence King, Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne chronicle when the use of floating heads and pointing fingers came into vogue.

What makes for good graphic design? You’ve probably formed your own opinions on the subject as you’ve looked through countless books, magazines, posters, and signage. And chances are you’ve also begun to recognize certain patterns: diagonal lines lend a certain dynamism to a page, typography can be readable or illegible, a layout can honor or obliterate white space. But how did graphic design develop into what it is today? Fortunately, there are people like Steven Heller to pinpoint the big-bang ideas that led to the standards we take for granted. In 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design (Laurence King), he and Véronique Vienne identify, define, and illustrate the breakthrough moments that continue to inform contemporary visual conventions.


When the authors began to compile their list, they made sure to focus on the big-bang ideas rather than “tropes or conceits–as in stylistic manifestations rather than substantive design foundations.” They also avoided the urge to catalog overarching movements: “Under the ‘great historical isms, there can be numerous big ideas, such as asymmetric or discordant typography or vibrating color . . . Rather than skim the surface using the shorthand of isms, this book unpacks those art historical categories and pulls out the individual big ideas within them.”

Nor do Heller and Vienne claim to have covered every important notion, good or bad, of graphic design: “We determined more ‘aha’ moments exist than these. Yet 100 is a nice round number.” Here are nine of our favorites, excerpted and adapted from the book.


At least one graphic design genre dates back to Neolithic times. The tattoo, whether as decoration or symbolic icon, has stood the test of time–even if the actual injected images tend to fade and degrade as skin ages and wrinkles. Tattoos are more popular in some cultures and subcultures than others–sometimes even sacred–while other cultures strictly prohibit them.

Perhaps the most typographical body-markings are the ranchers’ brands burned into the flanks of animals as marks of ownership. Some look like modern-day logos. Perhaps brands were what Stefan Sagmeister had in mind when he took a razor-blade to his body, literally cutting words into his flesh, in a kind of temporary designer-self-mutilation for a poster advertising an AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) lecture of 1999. Forget about the pain-free body painting of the Brownjohn poster (and countless other examples)–cutting himself was a commentary on the absurdity of indelibly inking the body with tattoos. And yet it served its purpose. It was not only a startling way to communicate a message, but also an unforgettable lettering composition.


Whether indelibly inscribed or temporarily tattooed on skin, body type’s long tradition of use gives it continued resonance.

[Sagmeister (1999), designed by Stefan Sagmeister, is a self-promotion piece for the AIGA.]


The International System of Typographic Picture Education (Isotype) was introduced in the 1930s by the Viennese political economist and museum director Otto Neurath and his wife, Marie Reidemeister. Isotype was originally designed as an alternative to text, a starkly graphic means of communicating information about locales, events, and objects on the one hand, and complex relationships in space and time on the other.

This set of pictographic characters was intended “to create narrative visual material, avoiding details which do not improve the narrative character,” as Neurath wrote in one of his books propagating his unique idea to improve visual literacy. He believed that Isotype, formed of pictograms, icons or symbols, could, as the world’s first universal pictorial language, transcend national borders. Neurath’s Vienna School was rooted in a simple graphic vocabulary of silhouetted symbolic representations of every possible image, from men and women to dogs and cats to trucks and planes. This storehouse of icons was a kit of parts that could be used to present any informational or statistical data. Neurath’s illustrators, the German Gerd Arntz and the Viennese Augustin Tschinkel and Erwin Bernath, created a wealth of simplified characteristics that distinguished between, for example, laborers, office workers, soldiers and police officers. The neutral silhouette was preferred because it avoided personal interpretation. It could also be viewed as a signpost rather than a critique.

Neurath was keen on objectivity and ordered the artists to make silhouettes from cut paper or simple pen-and-ink drawings. Yet Arntz injected warmth and humur through gestures in the way a figure held a newspaper or carried a lunchbox.


Neurath’s work influenced the cartographic and information graphics of his day and well into the late twentieth century. He also used pictograms to stand for quantities–what he called “statistical accountability”–so they could convey numerical information at the same time as their primary meaning.

Pictographs Today and Tomorrow (1938) by Rudolf Modley is, along with Otto Neurath’s Isotypes, the prototype of contemporary graphic sign-symbols.


Whatever its intended message, a pointing finger is a declarative statement and a behavioral cue. Originally employed in graphics as a printer’s cut (pre-made illustration), its primary purpose was to indicate direction–“This way,” “Turn here,” “Detour.” Pointing fingers were also commonly used in 19th-century printing, on posters, bills, and advertisements, to be emphatic. When a finger pointed directly at a word or sentence it was a benign command to read whatever was being pointed out.

The pointing finger acquired more gravitas when in 1914, at the outset of World War I, the British designer Alfred Leere created the famous recruitment poster featuring a picture of the secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, pointing directly out of the poster at the viewer, above the words “wants you.” This was the first of many wartime (and postwar) recruitment posters to use the pointing finger in a similar way. It was later copied in the United States (James Montgomery Flagg, 1917), Italy (Achille Luciano Mauzan, 1917), Germany (Julius Ussy Engelhard, 1919), and Russia (Dimitri Moor, 1920). These were demonstrative, patriotic calls to arms rendered by both sides in both world wars, each side realizing the innate power of the trope.


The pointing finger has been used frequently and ubiquitously ever since. In some cultures it is considered offensive or rude to point, yet used decoratively or conceptually, as it is in much graphic design, the pointing finger nonetheless retains its benign character. And in the digital age, this pointing digit has taken on new relevance as the cursor on all computers. What the 1960s television show Laugh-In referred to as “the fickle finger of fate” is now the stalwart directional in the virtual world.

[Point the Finger (2011), poster designed for “Beat the Drum to Ban Cluster Bombs.” The accusatory finger indicates those nations who have not signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions.]


“If in the business of communications, image is king,” wrote Paul Rand in Design, Form and Chaos (1993), “the essence of this image, the logo, is the jewel in its crown.” Although Rand also said that a logo “cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint” (Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art, 1985), corporate marks come in many shapes, colors, and configurations, not all of them so restrained as to be void of decorative tendencies.

Some logos are indeed as ornate as jewelry. Quite a few of the world’s most famous, and lasting, early commercial logos, including the GE (General Electric) monogram designed by A.L. Rich and trademarked in 1899, were imbued with restrained Art Nouveau ornamentation.

The advent of the proto-Modern object poster in 1906 put a temporary halt to the era of Victorian decorative practices, and replaced them with stark, simplified logos and trademarks (although not everywhere). It was a move away from ornament but not a total end to it. Although the Modern design movements vociferously encouraged elementary composition–bold linear and geometric forms–there have been many who saw decorative mannerisms as a means of identification. The more unique attributes a logo has, the longer it will stick in the mind’s eye.


Today the freedom to draw on historical precedents for inspiration or direct pastiche, without being condemned as (too) passé, has caused a resurgence in decorative logotypes and marks, such as Mucca’s Sant Ambroeus logo, which suggests classic French and Italian patisseries.

[Sant Ambroeus logo (2008), designed by Mucca for a bake shop and restaurant, suggests Parisian patisserie papers.]


The word “novelty” when applied to typefaces now implies letters that are ephemeral or silly. However, when novelty typefaces were at their commercial apex during the mid- to late 19th century and again throughout the late 20th, “novelty” was a term of distinction, meaning that an alphabet was something other than classic, and frequently metaphoric.

Metaphoric letters were imbued with symbolism and served as vessel and as idea. Often visual puns, they were used to enliven the printed word and add dimension to a page. “Rustic” (later copied and renamed “Log Cabin”) was designed in the 1840s by the London foundry owner Vincent Figgins, who had also begun cutting Tuscan letterforms (ornamented type with fishtail serifs) around 1815. Rustic had cut logs forming the letters (even the round ones), came only in capitals, and was used in periodicals, bills and posters to inject a trompe l’oeil illusion, but also to imply naturalism (decades prior to Art Nouveau). In its various subsequent incarnations it was used to advertise in an obvious way rustic products and ideas, such as campsites, hunting cabins and related items.

This genre of illustrative lettering, which in the 20th century was commonly used to underscore visually specific businesses and services–including icicle-shaped letters for ice machines or air-conditioning, and chopstick or bamboo letters for Chinese food–was used by commercial job printers when customized illustration was too costly or unavailable. While such faces might be considered typographic stereotypes today–and perhaps even racially derogatory–they were meant as “typography parlant” (akin to architecture parlant, a structure that serves a basic function yet also conveys a secondary, semiotic meaning, as in a hot-dog stand shaped like a hot dog).


An avid lettering metaphorist, Austrian-born designer Stefan Sagmeister transforms everyday natural and industrial objects into letters to convey messages in which the metaphors trigger deeper understanding of the message–and they look intriguing too, which is the primary function.

[Trying to Look Good Limits My Life (2004), part of Stefan Sagmeister’s typographic project 20 Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far.]


The relationship between words and images is one fraught with creative tension. Text people command the moral high ground as custodians of the printed word, while visual types counterattack by claiming that a picture is worth a thousand words. Their feuding is now legendary. In the publishing world, it is the responsibility of art directors to arbitrate their quarrels, but the conflict that pits words against images is as old, and as vexing, as the war between men and women.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti led a charge against printed matter, using words as ammunition to turn the page into a visual battlefield. The layout of his 1912 Irredentismo composition is an example of how to transform typography into a weapon against bourgeois values. Collaged over a map of Italy, fragments of newspaper headlines became rockets. Low-flying brushstrokes provided what looked like air support. For Marinetti, art was supposed to be radical strife whose objective was “the destruction of syntax.”

Paradoxically, the best way to overthrow authority may be to become an author. Marinetti, who penned the Futurist manifesto in 1909, started what soon became a tradition among anti-establishment artists. Today, countless avant-garde painters, designers, illustrators, photographers, conceptual artists, and even performers use text as a form of visual protest. Bob Dylan was a pioneer of this genre when, in 1965, he shot the music video of his ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ single. In this amateur black-and-white film, he is seen casually tossing aside a series of cue cards inscribed with misspelled words from his lyrics. The frame that shows him holding the “Suckcess” card is an underground favorite.


[Chaumont Festival (2010), a poster by Dutch designer Karel Martens]


For the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich, the black square was the perfect icon. It did not represent anything, yet it was the expression of an absolute reality in its purest form. The founder of a short-lived art movement called Suprematism, Malevich was an admirer of Cubist artists and sculptors like Sonia Delaunay and Alexander Archipenko.

A pioneer of abstract art, Malevich believed that it was possible to convey specific impressions through the interaction of squares, rectangles, circles, and triangles. In his 1915 Black Rectangle with Blue Triangle, the tension between the black and blue shapes is so intense that one can almost feel it, taste it and hear it. Malevich contributed to graphic design by celebrating the supremacy of black over all other colors. As far as he was concerned, a black square was the most powerful form there was. Dutch architect and typographer Piet Zwart, whose surname means “black,” agreed with Malevich: he used a stark letter P alongside an oversized black square as the logo for his letterhead. To this day, black is perceived as the color with the greatest graphic impact. Not only did Malevich influence the Constructivists, the De Stijl neoplasticists such as Zwart, and the Bauhaus minimalists, but also his work never ceased to be a reference for countless designers eager to understand the principles of Modernism.

[Graphis Poster Annual (2010), by Martin Pedersen, is one of a series that manages, year after year, to be both playful and strict.]



In 1833, when the very first book jacket was used (by a British publisher, Longman & Co.), its purpose was to protect books from the damaging effects of dust and light. The heavy paper wrapped around and folded into the binding was meant to be discarded after purchase. Such were the humble beginnings of a form that would become a showcase for graphic design.

For 50 years following that milestone event, the covering known as the dust jacket was primarily utilitarian–a plain paper wrapper usually with a window cut out to reveal the title and the author’s name. For decoration, the binding (the spine and front and back covers) of the average trade book (a book marketed to the masses, as opposed to expensive fine editions) was stamped or embossed with a modest vignette. This was standard until the late 1880s and ’90s, when the trade binding began to be decorated more often. The designs of Aubrey Beardsley in England and Will Bradley in the United States were reproduced on book bindings as a kind of miniature poster. Soon publishers allowed these designs to be printed on the paper jacket as well, for additional advertising appeal. By the turn of the century the dust jacket was the standard advertising tool, but was still considered a disposable wrapper. By the 1930s the jacket had become a new form of design art.

For purists from the old school of bookmaking, the dust jacket was ephemeral while the book itself was designed to endure. Yet for the German-born American designer Ernst Reichl the jacket and the interior were equal parts of a whole. His jacket for the first American edition of James Joyce’s controversial Ulysses, which had been banned in the United States for 12 years before its eventual publication in 1934, broke many of the rules of jackets at that time. It was all type–and fairly large and curiously abstract type at that–with a limited color palette. The jacket made as much of a splash as the book.

[Ulysses (1934), hand-lettered and designed by Ernst Reichl, was said to be influenced by the paintings of Piet Mondrian.]


In art as in life, white space is the ultimate luxury. The most recent architectural addition to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan is a superb example of the way acres of empty white walls can be used to make a superlative statement On the page, white space works the same way. It signifies that you have plenty of room to spare. It frames images with an aura of accessibility. The less crowded a magazine layout, the more elitist is its attitude.


One of the first magazine art directors to realize that a blank surface could have as much impact as a printed one was Alexey Brodovitch. His Harper’s Bazaar layouts in the 1950s treated white paper as if it was an electromagnetic field, with blocks of type and photographs charged with positive and negative energy.

Because of its upscale connotation, white space was vilified in the 1970s as too elitist. Only in the late 1980s did a handful of art directors, Neville Brody and Fabien Baron among them, dare to reintroduce white space in magazines, chiefly on opening spreads, to show off their typographical wit.

Buy the book for $20 here.

About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.