The 20th century witnessed a remarkable evolution in graphic design, with creative minds pushing boundaries and shaping the visual landscape of their times. From the innovative use of typography to groundbreaking design principles, this journey into the past explores the lives and contributions of some of the most influential graphic designers of the 20th century. Their work reflects the aesthetic trends of their era and laid the foundation for the visual design landscape we know today.
Paul Rand (1914-1996)
Paul Rand, often hailed as the “father of modern branding,” left an indelible mark on graphic design with his pioneering work in corporate identity. Born in 1914, Rand’s career spanned several decades, and his influence is still palpable in contemporary design.
Rand’s breakthrough came with the design of the iconic IBM logo in 1956. The simplicity and clarity of the invention set a new standard for corporate logos, emphasizing the power of minimalism in conveying a brand’s identity. His other notable works include logos for UPS, ABC, and NeXT, Steve Jobs’ computer company.
Beyond logos, Rand’s approach to design extended to the realm of publications, where he seamlessly integrated text and image. His book covers for the likes of Henry James and E. B. White showcased a masterful blend of typography and visual elements.
Rand’s legacy goes beyond his tangible designs; he advocated for design education, authoring influential books like “Thoughts on Design” and teaching at prestigious institutions such as Yale University.
Saul Bass (1920-1996)
Master of Film Title Sequences
Saul Bass, born in 1920, revolutionized the art of film title sequences. His work not only introduced a new dimension to the moviegoing experience but also influenced how designers approached motion graphics.
Bass’s collaboration with filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock produced some of the most iconic title sequences in cinematic history, including “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” and “North by Northwest.” His ability to distill the essence of a film into a few visual elements became a hallmark of his style.
In addition to his contributions to the film industry, Bass made significant strides in corporate identity design. His logos for companies like AT&T and United Airlines reflected a harmonious blend of simplicity and symbolism.
Saul Bass’s impact on the graphic design landscape goes beyond aesthetics; he elevated the role of designers in the filmmaking process and showcased the power of visual storytelling through motion graphics.
Milton Glaser (1929-2020)
I ❤ NY and Beyond
Born in 1929, Milton Glaser was a design luminary whose work transcended the confines of traditional graphic design. His creations were not just visual elements but cultural touchstones that resonated with people worldwide.
Glaser’s most famous design, the “I ❤ NY” logo, created in 1977, is a testament to the enduring power of simple and memorable design. The emblem became an iconic symbol for New York City and a case study in effective branding.
In addition to his graphic design work, Glaser co-founded New York Magazine in the 1960s, where his innovative layouts and typographic treatments became synonymous with the publication’s identity. His psychedelic poster for Bob Dylan in 1966 and the “DC bullet” logo for DC Comics in 1977 further showcase his versatility.
A proponent of art education, Glaser co-founded the renowned School of Visual Arts in New York City, leaving an indelible mark on the next generation of designers.
Herb Lubalin (1918-1981)
Typography and Editorial Brilliance
Herb Lubalin, born in 1918, was a trailblazer in typography and editorial design. His innovative approach to letterforms and layouts set new standards for visual communication in the mid-20th century.
Lubalin’s most notable work includes the design of Avant Garde magazine and its accompanying typeface. The magazine’s bold and daring layouts and Lubalin’s custom typefaces became a hallmark of the avant-garde design movement.
As a co-founder of the International Typeface Corporation (ITC), Lubalin was pivotal in bringing innovative typefaces to the market. His type designs, such as ITC Lubalin Graph and ITC Avant Garde, continue to influence graphic design.
Beyond his contributions to typography, Lubalin’s work on identity design for companies like CBS and The Museum of Broadcasting showcased his ability to create cohesive visual systems that transcended traditional design boundaries.
Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014)
Massimo Vignelli, an Italian designer born in 1931, was a torchbearer of the modernist design movement. His work was characterized by a commitment to simplicity, clarity, and a belief in the universality of good design.
Vignelli’s iconic subway map for the New York City Transit Authority, created in 1972, is a testament to his ability to distill complex information into a visually intuitive and elegant form. His design principles, rooted in the Swiss Style, emphasized grid systems, sans-serif typefaces, and a disciplined approach to layout.
In addition to his contributions to wayfinding and transportation design, Vignelli left an indelible mark on brand identities. The timeless logos for companies like IBM, American Airlines, and Bloomingdale’s reflect his belief in the enduring power of simple and timeless design.
Vignelli’s influence extended beyond graphic design; he was a proponent of design education and co-founded Vignelli Associates and the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Alan Fletcher (1931-2006)
Co-founder of Pentagram and Design Visionary
Alan Fletcher, born in 1931, was a design polymath whose career spanned multiple disciplines, including graphic design, illustration, and corporate identity. As a co-founder of the renowned design firm Pentagram, Fletcher played a pivotal role in shaping the design landscape on an international scale.
Fletcher’s approach to graphic design was characterized by wit, playfulness, and a deep understanding of visual communication. His ability to seamlessly integrate imagery and typography is evident in his iconic poster designs, editorial layouts, and brand identities.
Pentagram, founded in 1972, became a collective of design minds, each bringing a unique perspective. Fletcher’s collaborations within Pentagram resulted in timeless designs for clients ranging from cultural institutions to global brands.
In addition to his design work, Fletcher was a prolific author, sharing his insights and philosophy on design in books such as “The Art of Looking Sideways.” His legacy lives on not only in the tangible designs but also in the way he inspired future generations of designers.
Josef Müller-Brockmann (1914-1996)
Swiss Design Pioneer
Josef Müller-Brockmann, born in 1914, was a Swiss graphic designer and teacher whose work became synonymous with the Swiss Style, also known as the International Typographic Style. His contributions to design theory and education profoundly impacted the development of modern graphic design.
Müller-Brockmann’s grid-based approach to design, as outlined in his seminal book “Grid Systems in Graphic Design,” became a foundational principle of the Swiss Style. His iconic posters for the Zurich Tonhalle and the Zurich Opera House showcased the precision and clarity that defined his design philosophy.
As a teacher at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts and later at the Basel School of Design, Müller-Brockmann influenced a generation of designers, emphasizing the importance of structure, order, and a disciplined approach to design.
Beyond posters, Müller-Brockmann’s work extended to corporate identities, including the design of the visual identity for the corporate group IBM Europe. His legacy continues to resonate in contemporary design, with the Swiss Style remaining a source of inspiration for designers worldwide.
David Carson (Born 1954)
The Maverick of Graphic Design
David Carson, born in 1954, is a graphic designer known for challenging conventions and ushering in a new era of experimental design in the 1990s. His unorthodox approach to typography and layout shattered traditional design norms, earning him a reputation as the “godfather of grunge.”
Carson’s rise to prominence came with his work as the art director for Ray Gun magazine. His visually striking and unconventional layouts, often featuring distorted typefaces and overlapping images, captured the rebellious spirit of the alternative music and youth culture of the time.
Rejecting the rigid grid systems of traditional design, Carson’s work embraced chaos and spontaneity. His philosophy, rooted in the idea that legibility should not always be the primary goal of creation, sparked debates within the design community and left an indelible mark on the trajectory of graphic design.
While Carson’s style may not be universally embraced, his influence is undeniable. He challenged designers to think beyond established norms, encouraging a more expressive and experimental approach to visual communication.
Elaine Lustig Cohen (1927-2016)
Designer, Artist, and Archivist
Elaine Lustig Cohen, born in 1927, was a designer, artist, and archivist whose multifaceted career left a lasting impact on graphic design and fine art. Her work ranged from book covers and posters to corporate identities, showcasing a diverse skill set that defied easy categorization.
Lustig Cohen’s early career was shaped by her collaboration with her late husband, Alvin Lustig, a prominent modernist designer. Following his untimely death, she took the helm of his design studio, preserving and extending his legacy while forging her path.
As a designer, Lustig Cohen’s work reflected a keen sensitivity to typography, form, and colour. Her book covers for Meridian Books and New Directions demonstrated a mastery of composition and a deep understanding of the relationship between image and text.
In addition to her design practice, Lustig Cohen pursued a career in fine art, creating collages and mixed-media pieces that reflected her continued exploration of visual language. Her later years were marked by her role as a design historian and archivist, contributing to preserving design history.
The journey into the past reveals a rich tapestry of graphic designers who, each in their unique way, contributed to the evolution of the discipline. From the precision of Swiss design to the rebellious spirit of grunge, these designers shaped the visual language of their times and left a lasting legacy.
As we navigate the complexities of contemporary design, it’s essential to look back and draw inspiration from the innovative thinkers and creatives who paved the way. The influential graphic designers of the 20th century left us with a visual archive of their achievements and a set of principles and philosophies that continue to resonate with designers today.
In the ever-evolving landscape of graphic design, the lessons learned from the past serve as guideposts for the future. The fusion of tradition, innovation, discipline, and experimentation remains a hallmark of a vibrant and progressive design ethos. As we pay homage to these design luminaries, we are reminded that the journey into the past is not just a retrospective exercise but a forward-looking endeavour, shaping the trajectory of design for generations to come.