This course covers the history of graphic design starting in the mid-19th century through the digital revolution. Influential movements are examined, including Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Dada, Constructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Neue Grafik, DIY Punk, and today’s digital landscape. Students will explore the evolution of the discipline from typesetting to lithography to digital design, and investigate the relationship of the graphic design discipline to propaganda, advertising, branding, personal expression, and social change.

After taking a look at today’s image world, we will begin with a fundamental question: What is graphic design? Today’s digital landscape provides unprecedented access to creating and consuming visual information. Such widespread access to distributing visual content represents a dramatic shift away from traditional concepts of authorship towards a new paradigm in which anyone can contribute to our visual culture—what is the impact on the graphic design profession? We will approach this discussion from our simultaneous roles of designer, consumer, and citizen. After examining the intentions and effects of past and contemporary design movements and values in visual culture, each student will work towards developing his or her unique philosophy towards graphic design and its role in our lives today.


  1. Orientation. What do we hope to learn through studying the history of graphic design? What is our relationship with the image world? The average American sees over three thousand advertisements each day; we consume images constantly. What is the psychic effect of this? What is the role and responsibility of the graphic designer today?
    • David Barringer, Excerpt from American Mutt Barks in the Yard (2005)
    • Ksenya Samarskaya, “E. Roon Kang on Graphic Design as a Structure for Knowledge” (2019)
  2. The Soul of Graphic Design. A meditation on the ideals of graphic design and its role as a tool of education, revolution, and commerce.
    • Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Decree No.1” (1919), Ken Garland’s “First Things First” manifesto (1964), “First Things First Revisited” (2000), and the Society Centered Design manifesto (2020).
  3. The Machine Age. Design before and after the Industrial Revolution. Ukiyo-e, the Arts & Crafts movement, and Art Nouveau.
    • William Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life”; Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet”; Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
    • Excerpts from Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime” and Edmund Burke, On the Sublime & Beautiful.
  4. Here Come the Modernists! Social factors between the two World Wars. Defining Modernism. Introduction to Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivism. Utopian visions: the Bolshevik Revolution and its effects on today’s image world: Rodchenko, Stepanova, El Lissitzky, The Stenberg Brothers.
    • Read: “Documents of Dada & Surrealism,” I. Hofmann; excerpts from The Stenberg Brothers: Constructing a Revolution in Soviet Design, C. Mount; “Sensibilities for the New Man: Politics, Poetics & Graphics,” B. Seldes; selected manifestos from the early Modernist movements.
    • Watch: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint (2020).
  5. More Modernists. The Bauhaus at Weimar & Dessau. Black Mountain & Chicago Institute; Friedrich Froebel. Theo Van Doesburg & De Stijl, Jan Tschichold and the New Typography. The legacy of modernism.
    • Read: Design & Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus, J. Itten; Bauhaus & Bauhaus People, E. Neumann; Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography, R. MacLean; Graphic Design: A Concise History, Hollis; The Bauhaus Manifesto, Walter Gropius; “Theo van Doesburg: The Splintered Self,” Adrian Searle (2010).
    • Watch: Bauhaus, Face of the 20th Century
  6. From Agitprop to Advertising: The International Style. World War II; advertising comes of age. The International Typographic Style; the politics of Paul Rand’s ABC logo. Pop Art. “Consumer engineering.”
    • Read: Visual Dictionary, E. Lupton; The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard; The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design, Jan Tschichold (1974); “Logocentric,” Jessica Helfand (1997).
    • Watch: Helvetica
  7. Postmodernism: Designer as Author, Viewer as Author. Reckoning with the postmodern image, the medium is the message, and the cult of the individual.
    • Read: “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes; excerpt from The Fall of Public Man, Sennett; The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan; Notes on Camp, Sontag.
    • Watch: Century of the Self
  8. The Digital Age. “If you use it and it’s free, you are the product”; social media and politics of culture and the self; default systems design; the Machine Zone and digital addiction; the word of Shepard Fairey and Alexandra Bell.
    • Read: “The Murakami Method,” Ludlow; “The Billionaire’s Typewriter,” Butterick; “Facebook and the Machine Zone,” Madrigal; “Modernism 8.0.” Mr. Keedy; “Searching for a Black Aesthetic in Graphic Design,” S. Harris; “Default Systems Design,” R. Giampietro.
  9. Final Essay. Address this statement from Kalle Lasn: “Whether designers know it or not, their profession is one of the key sites of struggle over the production and distribution of meaning.” This essay should draw comparisons between past design movements and our image world today. More importantly, it should reflect your stance as a graphic designer.

Learning Outcomes

After the successful completion of this course, students will:

  • Recognize the intentions, values, and effects of past design movements on today’s image world.
  • Understand the social, political, and economic forces that shape the way our world looks — and vice versa.
  • Enter the debate about the inherently political aspects of graphic design.
  • Develop their own philosophical stance as a graphic designer.