Visual Literacy Part 2: How Graphic Design Has Been Born

Graphic design in its modern version is a phenomenon not known until 20th century. By this time all the elements of graphic design language have matured. Beautiful book layouts which existed since time immemorial are good examples of book layout, but not of graphic design. They appeal to the perception of a pre-industrial man (who is still certainly alive in all of us, that’s why we’re still capable of enjoying classic art). On the other hand, graphic design isn’t an art in a classic sense, or let’s say it’s an art by engineers, for users.

The birth of graphic design has been very rapid in terms of historic time. The whole transition started with the impressionist movement in the second half of 19th century and ended with the Black Square by Kazimir Malevich and abstract compositions of Piet Mondrian in early 20th century.

The language of graphic design has evolved in four stages departing from objective art which reflected the outside world to subjective art reflecting our inner world.

1. Color

Before the Impressionists, the art was closely tied to observed reality (while never identical with it of course). On the other hand, graphic design is abstract in its nature.

The emancipation of art which led to the birth of graphic design started with color:,_Sunset.jpg

Color freed from the need to correspond to an object became pure emotion and established itself as one of the primary elements of graphic design.

Here’s an example of poster design using color (and form):

2. Space

The next step was space emancipation. Moving away from the laws of perspective and distance, space turned out to be an encompassing abyss, sky, cosmos, the basis of the new expressive language.,1923-_Composition_8,_huile_sur_toile,_140_cm_x_201_cm,_Mus%C3%A9e_Guggenheim,_New_York.jpg

3. Form

The departure of form from object became the next step of evolution leading to modern graphic design.

4. Object

At the fourth and final step, object has disappeared altogether, ceasing to be the focus of artist’s attention and giving space to a free expression of ideas, thoughts, messages. Graphic design has been born.,_1915,_Black_Suprematic_Square,_oil_on_linen_canvas,_79.5_x_79.5_cm,_Tretyakov_Gallery,_Moscow.jpg, 2013


The four key stages of development of the graphic design language radically transformed the most important of its basic elements, namely color, space, and form, and laid out the foundations of modern visual design.

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