Parsons School of Design, New York

History of Graphic Design

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 in 2015?
    • David Barringer, Excerpt from American Mutt Barks in the Yard (2005)
  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 Revisted’ (2000) and the article about Adbusters’ Black Dot Campaign
  3. The Machine Age. Design before and after the Industrial Revolution. The Arts & Crafts Movement. Art Nouveau.
    • Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”; Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime”; excerpts from 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 ef- fects on today’s image world: Rodchenko, Stepanova, El Lissitzky, The Stenberg Brothers.
    • I. Hofmann, “Documents of Dada & Surrealism”; excerpts from The Stenberg Brothers: Constructing a Revolution in Soviet Design, C. Mount; “Sensibilities for the New Man: Politics, Poetics & Graphics,” B. Seldes.
    • Excerpt from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
  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.
    • Design & Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus, J. Itten; Bauhaus & Bauhaus People, E. Neumann; Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography, R. MacLean.
    • 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. The New York School; Pop Art. “Consumer engineering.”
    • Visual Dictionary, E. Lupton; The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard
    • Watch Helvetica
  7. Postmodernism: Designer as Author, Viewer as Author. Charles S. Anderson, Tibor Kalman
    • Read: “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes; The Fall of Public Man, Sennett; ”Tear it Down,” V. Smith; “Graphic Authorship,” M. Rock;
  8. The Digital Age. The Machine Zone and addiction; default systems design; Kalle Lasn and Occupy Wall Street.
    • Read: “The Billionaire’s Typewriter,” Butterick; “Facebook and the Machine Zone”; How Egyptian and Tunisian youth hacked the Arab Spring: MIT Technology Review; “Pre-Occupied,” Mattathias Schwartz; “Modernism 8.0” and “HysteriaTM” Mr. Keedy; “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 a unique philosophical stance as a graphic designer.


  • David Barringer, American Mutt Barks in the Yard (2005)
  • Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Decree No. 1” (1919)
  • Ken Garland, “First Things First Manifesto” (1964)
  • Rick Poyner, “First Things First Manifesto Revisited” (2000)
  • Adbusters, The Black Dot Campaign (2003)
  • Kalle Lasn, “Design Anarchy” (2003)
  • Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)
  • Arthur Efland, “The Visual Arts & the Industrial Revolution” (1990)
  • Irene Hofman, “Documents of Dada & Surrealism” (2000)
  • Mr. Keedy, “Modernism 8.0”
  • Richard Hollis, Graphic Design: A Concise History
  • Ziauddin Sardar, “Advertising” (2003)
  • Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image”
  • Susan Sontag, “The Image World”
  • Walter Gropius, Bauhaus & Bauhaus People (1962)
  • Christopher Mount, The Stenberg Brothers: Constructing a Revolution in Soviet Design
  • “Sensibilities for the New Man: Politics, Poetics & Graphics,” B. Seldes
  • Design & Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus, J. Itten
  • Bauhaus & Bauhaus People: Personal opinions and recollections, E. Neumann.
  • Visual Dictionary, E. Lupton.
  • “Legible?” G. Unger; Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography, R. MacLean.



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