Key Moments in Graphic Design History

From cave paintings to Photoshop

France, reconstruction of bull rock paintings of Lascaux caves

DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The origins or graphic design predate recorded history. From ancient cave scribbling to early developments in printing to the emergence of distinct styles in design during the 20th century, here is a timeline of graphic design's evolution.

Early Innovations in Visual Communication and Printing

  • 15,00010,000 BC: Pictographs and symbols in the Lascaux caves in southern France represent the first known visual communication.
  • 3600 BC: The Blau Monuments, believed to be from modern Iraq, are considered to be the oldest artifact known to combine words and pictures.
  • 105 AD: Chinese government official Ts’ai Lun is credited with inventing paper.
  • 1045 AD: Pi Sheng, a Chinese alchemist, invents movable type, which allows characters to be individually placed for printing.
  • 1276: Printing arrives in Europe with a paper mill in Fabriano, Italy.
  • 1450: Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg is credited with perfecting the system for printing type in books.
  • 1460: Albrecht Pfister becomes the first to add illustrations to a printed book.

Revolutionary Changes to Typeface

  • 1470: Nicolas Jenson, considered one of history’s greatest typeface designers, sets a new standard for the Roman type.
  • 1530: Claude Garamond opens the first type foundry, developing and selling fonts to printers.
  • 1722: The first Caslon Old Style font, which was later used for the printing of the Declaration of Independence, is developed.

The Industrial Revolution

  • 1760: The Industrial Revolution begins and sets the stage for advances in graphic design production.
  • 1796: Author Aloys Senefelder develops lithography, the first "planographic" printing method, which used a flat surface and set the stage for modern offset printing.
  • 1800: Lord Stanhope invents the first printing press made of all cast-iron parts, which required one-tenth the manual labor of previous presses and doubled the possible paper size.
  • 1816: The first Sans-serif type font appears in a book.

Design Comes Into Its Own

  • 1861: Williams Morris, a highly influential figure in design history, sets up his art decorating firm.
  • 1869: N.W. Ayer & Son, considered the first advertising agency, pioneers the open contract and utilizes fine art in design.
  • 1880: The development of halftone screen allows for the first photo to be printed with a full range of tones.
  • 1890: The Art Nouveau movement begins, making its way into all types of commercial design and utilized all types of arts.

Modern Design Styles Emerge

  • 1900: The Futurism style of design emerges, dropping traditional features and concentrating on sharp, straight lines.
  • 1910: The Early Modern style is developed, which uses photos rather than illustrations and minimalist, geometric shapes.
  • 1910: Hero Realism is influenced by the World Wars, relying heavily on realistic illustrations of people and a strong message (e.g. Rosie the Riveter).
  • 1919: The Bauhaus design school opens in Germany.
  • 1920: Art Deco, with its bold geometrics and high contrast colors, becomes mainstream.

Styles Closely Follow Pop Culture 

  • 1932: The Times New Roman typeface is created by Stanley Morrison and commissioned by the Times of London.
  • 1940: The Swiss style of design emphasizes negative space, asymmetrical layouts, and heavy use of Sans-serif type.
  • 1945: The Late Modern movement arises, dropping conventional layouts for more geometric designs.
  • 1947: Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand releases his first book, Thoughts on Design, influencing modern designers for decades to come.
  • 1950: Kitsch emerges, emphasizing high contrast, bold colors, fantastic imagery, and illustrations of dramatically posed people, which were popular in movie posters of the day.
  • 1957: Helvetica is developed by Max Miedinger and rapidly becomes a popular and standard typeface.
  • 1959: The magazine Communication Arts releases its first issue and quickly becomes an industry standard.
  • 1968: Inspired by hallucinations, the Psychedelic style emerges featuring swirls, obscure fonts transformed into shapes, and bright colors.
  • 1970: Illustrations that revolved around collages and overlaid elements became popular in the Post-Modern movement.

The Digital Revolution

  • 1990: The first version of Adobe Photoshop is released, creating a revolution in the way graphic designers work.
  • 2000: Grunge design emerges, using rough textures to portray a gritty feeling.
  • 2010: What became known as the Flat style emerges, emphasizing bright colors, minimalist two-dimensional shapes, sharp lines, and generous use of negative space.
  • 2016: Abstract Swiss style continues the minimalist trend, distorting and deconstructing designs in ways that seem random.
  • 2017: Cinemagraphs, photographs where one small movement is made, emerge to grab viewers' attention in the clutter of on-screen marketing.