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What’s In A Name? The Fate Of “Graphic Design”

An intriguing question was recently raised by Rick Poynor [A Report from the Place Formerly Known as Graphic Design, PRINT October 2011]. What term could properly describe a profession that has expanded far beyond the limits of the term “graphic design”? Rick points out that “Graphic design stopped looking like graphic design, as we once knew it, several years ago.”¹ Indeed, the discipline that began for so many of us with type and image arranged on the printed page, or even the web page, is undergoing a significant evolution. This is a profession that has never been easy to define. I appreciate Victor Margolin’s broad explanation that graphic design is “the production of visual statements”.² But nomenclature within professional fields [and educational programs], like in any system, is essential. Naming things gives them meaning and provides a basis for communication about them.

The term “designer” has been used contemporarily to describe the professional activities of others from as far back as Medieval days. It’s important to recognize, though, that the graphic arts were separated into individual specialties for centuries before our notion of a graphic designer emerged. For instance, in the beginning days of printing, producing a book with text and images required a typesetter, an artist, a woodblock cutter or copper engraver, and perhaps an illuminator who applied color to the printed pages, beyond those involved in the type-casting, paper-making and printing processes. One could make a case that renaissance man Geoffrey Tory (1480–1533) exemplified what became later known as a graphic designer, for his skills included type design, illustration, ornament and trademark design, book layout, and close collaboration with printers.³

Throughout history one can point to such men and women, reputable for their contributions to design and printing. However, it is the Industrial Revolution that ultimately lead to the recognition of new professional definitions. As the practice of design and production separated, and the range of typographic and photographic printing greatly expanded, a new practitioner was called upon to concentrate on the design of visual information. Competition caused by growth in manufactured goods and the decline of prices called for branding and packaging. Increasingly more literate and urban populations necessitated advertising and editorial design. The year 1841 marks the first advertising agency, and the 1850s saw the emergence of pictorial magazines, and thus art editors, later to be known as art directors.4

Evidence of the development of nomenclature regarding this profession is hard to unearth, but there are some clear contributors. In 1849, Henry Cole became one of the major forces in design education in Great Britain, informing the government of the importance of design in his Journal of Design and Manufactures.5 Beginning with William Morris and the Art & Crafts movement, designers in the 1890s pushed for works of graphic design to be recognized on the same plane as fine art, and they proved that a market existed for such works.6 Across the ocean in the United States, two of the most important educational institutions were established: the Rhode Island School of Design (1877), and the college that became later known as Parsons (1904) started up with a “commercial illustration” degree, later changed to advertising and graphic design.

It is hard to say exactly when terms such as “commercial art” and “graphic arts” emerged or came into favor, but the AIGA–originally an acronym for American Institute of Graphic Arts–was started in 1914. A few years later, in 1922, William Addison Dwiggins coined the term “graphic design”. A 1927 book simply titled Graphic Design, by W.G. Raffe, is said to be the first book with graphic design in its’ title. As Rick Poynor reflects, “There was a period from the 1930s to the 1990s when the idea of the “graphic designer” as a term of professional self-definition and identity took hold and flourished.”7

Naming trends around and beyond that period lean toward the multidisciplinary, and perhaps more intellectual, “communication design,” “visual communication,” and today “design thinking.” The AIGA, in 2006, changed their name to “the professional organization for design” and proposed to the Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee to change the title “graphic designers” to “communication designers.”8 A collaborative effort is under way to define the designer of 2015.9 Designers today are engaged in very diverse activities–from deep research to designing mobile applications to constructing experiences to very individual entrepreneurial pursuits. In design education, there is a slow but steady movement to redefine how we educate designers as well, and Meredith Davis has made a strong case for why this is critical.10

Will our profession require a broader name to encompass all (Poynor suggests the Rietveld Academy’s MFA course name, “Language and Image” as better than the outmoded graphic design)? Or multiple new ways to describe the specializations emerging that no longer fit the traditional notion of graphic design? Either way, as my “Design/Visual Communications” program fostered in me many years ago, I choose to reflect on this question visually, and offer the following diagram to ponder some of the many events that inspired or signaled a change in the way we identify ourselves.



Download and print your own 10″ x 13″ version.


1 Poynor, Rick. A Report from the Place Formerly Known as Graphic Design, PRINT magazine October 2011
2 Margolin, Victor / Béltran, Félix. Toward a History of Graphic Design, an Interview with Victor Margolin, 2000.
3 Meggs, Phil. A History of Graphic Design, copyright 1998 Wiley & Sons
4 Meggs.
5 Wikipedia. Graphic Design,
6 Wikipedia.
7 Poynor, Rick.
8 Sihan, Chia, [Re]Graphic Design[ated], TAXI –
9 AIGA –
10 Davis, Meredith, Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…, AIGA Presentation 2008

©2011 Jen Bracy

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