The Evolution of Graphic Design Styles

By Kathryn Pomroy on June 1st, 2019

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When beginning any design project, graphic designers typically mull over what style they should choose, or what style they like, or what style would be best for the project or topic. It doesn’t matter if you’re designing a single image or a complete website, choosing a style that will complement a company’s brand, reflect the intended message, and is sustainable long-term is beyond important? But, what about your own personal style and vision as a designer? What will your style or vision as a graphic designer say about you? Are you trendy and bold, or are you more subtle and conventional? Before you commit yourself to a specific approach, you need to first learn the history of your craft.

A Closer Look at Evolving Graphic Design Styles

William Addison Dwiggins first coined the term ‘graphic designer’ in 1922.  Even so, graphic design can be traced back to the caves of Lascaux and Rome’s Trajan’s Column.  Cave art is the very first known graphic art created by humans.  Later, archeologists found graphics on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples, followed by medieval navigation maps for exploring the seas, and as heraldry during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Then, in 1436, graphic design took a huge step forward with the invention of the Gutenberg Press, which allowed books to be mass-produced for the first time in history.

Certainly, there are many other examples of graphic design’s existence in history, but let’s focus on the aspects of what we would consider being modern Graphic Design, beginning with typography.  In the early 20th century, hundreds of fonts were created by graphic designers and typography, as we know it today, was born. At about the same time, mass media and advertising evolved, requiring more and more graphic designer’s work to fill the pages of magazines, newspapers, and more with commercial publicity and communication in the form of advertisements.  In 1919, the very first graphic design school in the world opened its doors in Germany, called Bauhaus.  In operation from 1919 to 1933, this art school combined crafts and the fine arts and became famous for the unique approach to design that was taught.

Until 1984, most all designs were created manually and drawn by hand, until Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak changed everything with the invention of the first Apple Macintosh computer.  Alas, the graphic design industry enters the digital age.  The field of graphic design has changed and evolved and today is a consolidated and complex field with many branches and specializations.  To better understand the graphic design industry, let’s look at the various styles and movements throughout history, which include:

  • Art Nouveau
  • Modernism
  • Art Deco
  • Advertisement Boom
  • Pop Art
  • Swiss Style
  • The Digital Age

In response to the industrial revolution, Art Nouveau or “New Art” became the bridge, so to speak, between historic academic art and modern art forms.  This art form mainly manifested in design, visual arts, and architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries. The art consists of ornate typography, organic, plant-like lines, whiplash curves, and the application of artistic designs to everyday objects.  Two of the most famous artists in this style include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a French painter, printmaker, draftsman, and illustrator, and Will H. Bradley, an American art nouveau illustrator and artist.

Modernism gathered speed in the mid-1850s and is most often characterized by the deliberate rejection of artists to the styles of the past, instead emphasizing experimentation in materials and techniques to create artwork that better reflects modern society.  Styles like Deutscher Werkbund (1907-1935); Futurism (1909-1930); Dada (1916-1923); Constructivism (1917-1935); De Stijl (1917-1931); Bauhaus (1919-1933); and International Style (1920-1980) form the umbrella of what is now considered modernism art.

Let’s take a look at the styles of art throughout history.


This art form originated in Russia and became a symbol of social change.  The art itself included abstract visuals and bold lettering, and usually contained political messaging.  This art form, introduced by artist, Vladimir Tatlin, was a rejection of autonomous art. Tatlin wanted to ‘construct art’, and Constructivism was born. Other famous artists of this style include Alexander Rodchenko, Russian artist, sculptor, photographer, graphic designer, and one of the founders of Constructivism. El Lissitzky, a Russian artist, designer, photographer, typographer, polemicist, and architect was also famous for working in this style.


The Bauhaus art style focused on combining design and technology and had a major impact in both Europe and in the US long after the school closed. Applying geometrical, anti-ornamental, and minimalist characteristics, this style seeks to level the distinction between the fine arts and applied arts and gave way to a reuniting of art and industrial design. Two of its most popular artists were Paul Klee, a Swiss-German painter, and professor at Bauhaus, and Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter, art theorist, and professor at Bauhaus.

Art Deco

The Art Deco style of art became popular as a reaction to the austerity during WWI, and as a spin-off from Modernism.  Its name originates from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which was held in Paris, where the style was first exhibited. This art form is best described as carefree and lavish, with characteristics like geometric shapes, symmetrical patterns, and vivid and contrasting use of color.  The intent of this style of art was to create sleek elegance that symbolized sophistication and wealth.  M. Cassandre, a Ukrainian-French painter, commercial poster artist, and typeface designer, and Paul Colin, a French poster artist are two of the most famous Art Deco artists.

Advertisement Boom/Pop Art

Not actually considered an art style, the advertisement boom was none-the-less influential to modern-day graphic arts.  Some people consider ‘pop art,’ a form of art made popular in the 1950s, to be part of the Advertisement Boom.  During this time, art celebrated commonplace items and showed people in everyday life. Perhaps owing to the use of commercial images, pop art during the advertising boom is now one of the most recognizable styles of modern art and graphic design.

Pop Art uses bold colors, humorous concepts, mundane objects, and has a comic-like feel. Famous artists during this time were Austrian-born Cipe Pineles, American graphic designer and art director. She was also the first female member of the Art Directors Club.  Paul Rand was an American graphic designer and art director, who is famous for his corporate logo designs, including IBM, UPS, and Enron.  Saul Bass, an American graphic designer and Academy Award-winning filmmaker, is probably best known for his modern use of color and abstract designs. Other famous pop-artists include Andy Warhol, an American artist and leading figure in the Pop Art style. Also leading the way during the Pop Art era, was Roy Lichtenstein, an American pop artist and leading figure in the movement.

Swiss Style

Swiss-style is also often referred to as the International Typographic Style or International Style. It originated in Switzerland in the 1940s and 50s and is the basis of much of the development of graphic design during the 20th century, and continues to influence this field today with a focus on legibility and simplicity. The characteristics of the Swiss Style include a focus on typography, it is based on a formula or grid, there is a preference for photography over sketches, and it uses, for the most part, sans-serif fonts.  A couple of famous artists that are part of the Swiss Style movement include Josef Muller-Brockmann, Swiss graphic designer and teacher, and Massimo Vignelli, an Italian designer who worked out of New York City.

The Digital Era

Since the launch of the first Macintosh computer, more people than ever before in history have had access to the hundreds of graphic design tools, and are able to play around with different style and formats and explore new trends in artistic and commercial graphic design.  A few of these trends include:

  • Data Visualization
  • Minimalism
  • 3D and Gaming Design

Some of the big names in the industry include, Stefan Sagmeister, New York City-based graphic designer and typographer, and co-founder of Sagmeister & Walsh design firm, and also the designer of album covers for Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith, among others.  Paula Scher is an American graphic designer, painter, and art educator, who was also the first female principal at Pentagram, the world’s largest independent design consultancy. Shepard Fairey is an American contemporary street artist, graphic designer, activist, and illustrator. He became widely known for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster during the 2008 presidential election.  Ed Fella is an American graphic designer, artist, and educator who created the OutWest typeface.

Graphic design has come a long way since its discovery in the ancient caves of Lascaux. It is the art and practice of projecting ideas and experiences with both visual and textual content. It is a form of communication and can include images, words, and graphic forms of any scale. It may be applied to a single postage stamp, or form a company’s brand, and can be used for any purpose, whether educational, commercial, cultural, or political.  At its widest definition, graphic design comprises the entire history of art.  And, because of its extensive and rapid growth, the demand for graphic artist’s services has never been greater.

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