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.