Image by Benedetta Crippa

Graphic design history is, generally speaking, a history of professional practice. In text books, at conferences, and for college courses, design historians and educators explain the development of the industry through the example of pivotal figures, canonical works, and dominant styles. And yet, visual communication is not only a professional domain. It’s an active cultural practice shared by all. What would it look like to expand the scope of history beyond professional boundaries, and what might we gain from doing this? 

What we now call graphic design was originally associated with trade labor like printing and commercial art. At the turn of the twentieth century, the field began detaching from these roots. WA Dwiggins coined the term “graphic designer” in 1922, but it wasn’t widely used until after World War II. By the 1960s and ’70s, graphic design was becoming a subject for academic study in more and more institutions across Europe and the United States. By the 1980s, the emergence of the personal computer and desktop publishing put graphic design tools into the hands of anyone who could afford them. It was around that time that a movement of educators and practitioners saw a need to create a history to elevate graphic design above an amateur’s knowledge, decouple the industry from trade disciplines, and position the field as an equally important cultural player alongside architecture, fashion design, and the fine arts. It was within this imperative to professionalize graphic design that graphic design history made its debut. 

To distance the professional from both the layperson and the blue-collar worker, the rhetoric of problem solving proved to be useful. In a 1985 article published in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, historian Philip B. Meggs distinguished a designer’s skill from a print laborer: “A layout man was a pair of hands doing what he was told…no one would consider asking him to solve a problem, or even ask him to think about the problem.” In that same article, Meggs made history’s legitimating power plain: “If graphic design is to succeed at casting off the antiquated notion of ‘commercial art’ taking a rightful place beside architecture and painting as a major visual expression of our culture, the ‘history void’ must be overcome.”

Like other early graphic design historians, Meggs was also an educator, who saw a link between teaching history and training new professionals. For these educators, developing a formalist graphic design history that analyzed the visual and material aspects of objects was the best way to solidify this link. But history meant more than that. It also meant having a legacy for contemporary design that offered students role models, a set of values, and a sense of professional worth. 

This was an effective strategy for elevating graphic design’s cultural cachet. Graphic design is now an in-demand college major and it is more visible in popular media. But since the profession was (and still is) mostly white, upper middle class, and solidly situated within Eurocentric ways of knowing and being, when it comes to role models and value systems, the formalist graphic design history we inherited doesn’t offer much diversity. As a result, it delimits our understanding of who made visual communication in the past and what kinds of practices existed beyond the industry’s gaze.  

The field’s most pressing imperative today is no longer professionalization; it’s to make design practice a responsible part of building equitable, sustainable futures. But our knowledge of past practices—limited as it is to design “professionals”—carries over to the present.  The field now needs to overcome its disciplinary reclusiveness as well as its social exclusions if it is to maintain any future relevance. A more expansive history of what graphic design has been could offer a more expansive view of what it could be. 

“Our knowledge of past practices—limited as it is to design ‘professionals’—carries over to the present.”

Professional designers have contributed stunning forms and inventive methods to the field, but there is also so much catalytic design that was not made by professionals. BIPOC Design History, an online curriculum produced by educators Pierre Bowins, Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton, and Silas Munro, offers many examples of anonymous, amateur, or otherwise non-canonical design that had a significant cultural impact. Some of these examples, while ignored in their time, have since been acknowledged by the AIGA. Emory Douglas, whose work was discussed by Colette Gaiter in a lesson on protest graphics, became a medalist in 2015. Gaiter also discussed the iconic “I AM A MAN” placard used during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike. I have also written about the placard in the AIGA Design Educators Community series “Beyond the Bauhaus,” where others have written about practices like AfriCOBRA and the Gees Bend Quilters. These examples show how everyday people used design to respond to their social lives—and yes, this included solving problems.

The People’s Graphic Design Archive, led by Briar Levit, Louise Sandhaus, and Brockett Horne, is another such attempt to broaden the scope of history, this time by crowdsourcing a digital collection. The archive includes design objects, like posters and packages, but it also includes process work, contextual photos, correspondences, and other sources that help situate design in social worlds. Because anyone can upload to it, with this archive graphic design history becomes something we collectively shape. 

The People’s Graphic Design Archive addresses a challenge in historicizing graphic design beyond the profession: finding sources. We can only study what was preserved, but graphic design is ephemeral and doesn’t always survive its everyday use. (This is partly why there are so many posters in graphic design history: they were collectible and people saved them.) The first graphic design historians didn’t have many archives, which made it difficult to study and interpret the past. While we may have more archives, it’s important to remember that these are not neutral spaces. Archives are based on private or institutional values governing what should and should not be collected, and because many have excluded practices outside of the profession, we may never know about them.

Another challenge to opening up the scope of history beyond the profession is the potential for graphic design history to exploit diverse cultural practices by subsuming them under the logic of capitalism, the fount from which design professions spring. To borrow a phrase from theorist McKenzie Wark: there is culture and then there is the culture industry. Graphic designers practice in the latter but want to be taken seriously in the former. If by broadening history, the intent is to be inclusive, but the impact is only to co-opt vernacular graphics, uncanonized works, or overlooked global practices for commodity culture, then we haven’t done much to transform graphic design or its history. 

A third challenge is that the way graphic design is typically historicized does not make designing, as an active verb, intelligible. Graphic design history is a noun-based history—a history of objects that beckon to be imitated. The canon doesn’t exist to explain graphic design as situated knowledge in diverse cultures. It exists to make graphic design in and of itself important. If we add more actors to this same static history, we don’t necessarily make history more relevant. Instead of chronicling designs, history could expand understandings of practice. This would be a history of doing design that tells us more about how and why people, whether professional or not, made the things they did. Additionally, it could tell us what impacts those things had in their contexts.

“Instead of chronicling designs, history could expand understandings of practice.”

Everyone designs and design is crucial to the future. Design philosophers Anne-Marie Willis and Tony Fry discuss these matters in their scholarly writing. They see design as ontological, a definition also used by decolonial scholar Arturo Escobar in Designs for the Pluriverse. Ontology, put simply, is the philosophical study of being and existence. To name design as ontological suggests that design has being and acts toward the world. This imbues design with relational and performative potential independent of a designer’s intent. If graphic design were historicized as a kind of cultural activity with determining agency, rather than the output of important professionals, then professionally made design becomes one kind of design in history, not the criterion for inclusion and not the limit of possibility. In Meggs’ time, such an “ontological approach” to design history might have threatened the goal of achieving professionalization. Today, the historicizing of graphic design as collective, adaptive practices may be the transition needed to understand what graphic design will be in the future. 

In her Ph.D. project at Umeå Institute of Design, Maria Göransdotter argues that designers should be more aware of the ways that history embeds itself in current thinking. “Doing design in certain ways springs from implicit and explicit definitions, made over time, of what counts as design,” wrote Göransdotter. Her dissertation offers a number of case studies, which she calls prototypes, that demonstrate different analytical approaches to the history of user-centered or participatory design in Scandinavia. Each approach has its starting point in designing rather than design. A key takeaway is that in design histories, we make transparent what we value and what we search for in the future. The pressing questions of our time are not addressed by the singular story of yesterday’s profession. What we gain from diverse approaches, including history beyond the profession, are new ways to envision designing now and in the future.