Design History: key moments you should know

In this image, we see a wall with posters that have a combination of techniques. This image represents the evolution of design and therefore, design history.

Construction, communication, and expression were the means that Humankind developed to evolve and thrive as individuals and later on, as a society. It’s by looking at design history, that we know how it was done.

For that reason, it’s important to look back, reflect, and support it. From Pre-Historian times until the 21st century, there is an immense evolution of technology and methodologies. 

On this page, there’s a quick overview of the most important marks in design history so we can comprehend the extension in this study field.

If there is something particular that you will like to know more about, please check the links on each section. Most likely, there is (or will be) a comprehensive post on each of the subjects.

Pre-Historian to Middle Age Period

The writing invention

Historians believe that writing was born out of the necessity of keeping a record. To effectively store food, the first writers started to identify the content of pots and sacks.
The earliest written records are Sumerian, carved in tablets of clay with a wood sharpened graver.


The word alphabet derives from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet – Alpha and Beta – so unsurprisingly, the Latin alphabet comes from Greece, specifically from the Etruscans.
When Romans adopted this alphabet, it contained twenty-one letters, to which they later added the Greek letters Y and Z. 

Illuminated manuscript

The usage of gold leaf and its reflection of light on the pages of written books, originated the term illuminated manuscripts.
Nowadays, this term is used to refer to all the illustrated books produced between the Roman Empire until the first printed books in 1450.

The Renaissance 

The illustrated book

In 1498 Albrecht Dürer published two editions of The Apocalypse illustrated by fifteen of his woodcuts.
Dürer’s work was of unique emotional power and one of the first considerable notable illustrators.

The origins of information graphics 

Information design comes from analytic geometry developed and firstly used by René Descartes in 1637.
The mathematician drew two intersecting perpendicular lines. He called them the x-axis and the y-axis, which later became known as Cartesian coordinates.

In 1786, William Playfair used the base of analytic geometry and developed the bar chart and the line graph. In 1805, the pie chart was born.

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Information design: How designers are improving data

Industrial Revolution

Printing evolution

By 1800, the printing press was constructed completely of cast-iron and was no longer made out of wood. However, it still required a long time to compose and print each page by hand.

In 1807, Friedrich Koening receive financial help and was able to obtain a patent for his press. His steam machine could print 400 sheets of paper per hour, which was a significant increase from the 250 sheets of the Stanhope’s hand press device.

The next grand break, the Linotype machine, was invented in 1886 by Mergenthaler, and would also contribute significantly to alter design history.

Children’s Illustration

Children were treated as small adults until the Victorian Era, when they started to be seen in a more tender light.
As a result, the first so-called children-illustrated appeared as well as books with the sole purpose of entertaining children.
Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and Kate Greenaway we the pioneers.

Related Posts:
Children’s illustration history: going back in time

Editorial design in the USA

James and John Harper launched their printing firm in New York in 1817.
By midcentury, their firm – Harper and Brothers – was the largest printing and publishing firm in the world. 
They shaped editorial design in the 19th century with publications such as Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazar, and Harper’s Young People. 

Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Craft movement emerged in England during the last decades of the 19th century. 
It was a movement against the Industrial Revolution and its cheap low-quality mass-production products. And in favor of the artisanal handicraft labor, that produces unique and quality pieces.
William Morris was the central figure of this movement and a crucial person in the history of design.

Art Noveau

The term Art nouveau was born in Paris in 1895.
It’s a transitional style that dominated design for most of the century, and that encompassed all the design arts, including architecture and fashion.
Even though this style was expressed differently from country to country, it’s identifying qualities are the organic feel that is dominated by color and texture.

Frank Lloyd Wright and the School of Glasgow

The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was famous amongst artists and designers for being at the forefront of the modern movement.
His approach to repeat rectangular zones and the use of asymmetrical organization was causing an impression in other designers, who started copying his method.
There was one group of students, in particular, that embraced his work and became known as the Glasgow School.
The four friends developed a unique style of work that embodied elements from Art Noveau, combined with strong geometric features from Lloyd Wright’s work.

Peter Behrens

Peter Behrens was an artist, architect, and designer that played a major role at the beginning of the new century.
He was an early defendant of sans-serif typography, an avid user of a grid system, and is responsible for designing the first complete visual identity for AEG.

Modernist Period

Modern Art influence

Modern times were characterized by different art movements that deeply influenced design.
Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and Expressionism helped to shape graphic design and pushed it into new and different directions.

War Posters

During World War I, the poster was the preferred medium. While printing technologies advanced a lot, other communications weren’t that widespread by this time. As a result, governments turned to the used of posters to do propaganda and raise funds for the war.

Related posts:
Are Propaganda posters the dark past of designers?

De Stijl

This movement was founded by Théo van Doesburg in the Netherlands in 1917. 
Several artists such as the painter Piet Mondrian and the philosopher M. H. J. Schoenmakers join van Doesburg and helped to define the movement.

De Stijl is characterized by using abstract geometry to find universal laws of balance and harmony in art.
Mondrian’s paintings, influenced by Schoenmakers’ vertical lines and colors, became the representation of De Stijl’s philosophy.

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Bauhaus was a German design school that combined ideas from art and design movements. The school took advantage of machine production to resolve problems of functional design in a modern way.
Furniture, architecture, product, and graphic design were (and still are) influenced by the work of teachers and students from this institution.

Related posts:
Bauhaus: how it changed design’s history forever

The Information Era

New York School

Modern design was first introduced in America by European immigrants who fled their totalitarian countries in search for a better life.

This movement started during the 40s and gained international recognition in the 50s while continuing until the 90s.

European design was usually very structured and theoretical, so American designers turned it more pragmatic, intuitive, and experimental. 
Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Bradbury Thompson, and Saul Bass are some of the names that mold those influences to produce their own style.

George Lois

Lois gained his reputation as the bad boy of American mass communication due to his tendency to push concepts to the limit while using simple and direct approaches.
His best know work is the Esquire covers, in collaboration with photographer Carl Fischer, which helped the magazine become a three-million-dollar profit company.

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Post-Modernist Design

Illustration was the main narrative technique in America, for more than fifty years. But, as technology evolved and photography took over as the new preference, new illustration approaches emerged.
The main influence came from a group of friends from New York named the Push Pin Studio. 
Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Reynolds Ruffins, and Edward Sorel pushed boundaries and reached a global audience.
Their work doesn’t follow visual conventions, it’s set on trying new techniques and reinterpreting work from earlier periods.

Related posts:
Push Pin Studios: the design extraordinaire

Digital Revolution

The personal computer reality

Back in the Industrial Revolution, creating and printing was reserved to specialized workers. When the usage of personal computers rapidly increased, it enabled designers to do most of the processes themselves.
Three new companies were mainly responsible for this paradigm shift: Apple Computer with its Macintosh computer, Adobe Systems with the PostScript programming language for generating typography, and Aldus that invented PageMaker, the first software that allowed to design pages on the computer (thanks to PostScript language).

World Wide Web

The Internet first appeared in the 60s, when scientists from the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the USA, established ARPAnet.
As for the Web, Tim Berners-Leed developed it in 1990 in Switzerland. There he created the main foundations of the Web: HTTP; HTML, and the URL.

Digital graphic pioneers

While some designers rejected digital technology in its early stage, others chose to embrace it.
April Greiman, Rudy VanderLans, Zuzana Licko and later on, Edward Fella, are some of the professionals that were fundamental to the digital era in design history.

Design in Portugal

Although the history of design in Portugal started way before the 20th century, it’s only then, in the first two decades, that it renews itself.

Scorched by the civil war and by the first World War, it’s in this scenario that Portuguese design flourishes. 
In big cities such as Lisboa, Porto, and Coimbra, illustrators and designers gathered to modernize, and bring light to national work.
It’s also in this era that artists receive international appraise in countries such as Spain, France, and Germany.

About Melted

Melted was born in 2017. 
Back then, I was facing some hard time regarding my profession (or lack of), but I wanted to push forward and inspire others to do the same.
So I put my fears aside, and several huge cups of coffee later, this project was online.

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