Great Graphic Design Ch.1

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This article studies some of the greatest graphic design from the last 100 years. This first chapter takes a look at how form, color, materials and techniques have been used — starting in the 1920s when Russian Constructivists successfully combined art and technology to produce powerful, modern-looking graphics, and when the Modernist German Bauhaus school began to do away with ornamentations and to celebrate the qualities of materials in art.

Chapter 1: 1920s1940s

1923 Dobrolet poster

When Lenin allowed limited private enterprise in the Soviet state in the 1920s, and when the then Soviet airline company Dobrolet tasked two of the most prolific artists of the period — Aleksander Rodchenko and his partner in business and in marriage, Varvara Stepanova — to design a campaign poster for investment, the pair made the most of the opportunity to exercise the most modern graphics. The art of Rodchenko and the art of Stepanova is for the most part of a constructivist movement, which was fueled by the revolutionary period in Russia in, and after, 1917. Constructivism aimed to embrace technology and to promote art as a commodity in the service of society — as propaganda, as many as 20,000 copies of a poster of that period were printed and circulated. In the wake of a revolution, artists had taken a pragmatic approach that used art to encourage the construction of a socialist society.

Dobrolet poster (1923) by Alexandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova


The movement originated as a philosophy of design by Vladimir Tatlin, who wanted to construct art with new types of crafted materials — to emphasize the character of those materials that composed a piece of art, furthermore that the piece itself was the art and was not a frame with a window to a different world. Rodchenko, especially, had been inclined toward the work of Tatlin. In 1921, Rodchenko exhibited a piece with three monochromatic canvases: painted red, yellow and blue, which he famously described, “reduced painting to its logical conclusion.” It was his declaration of: The End of Painting — that there was no reason to continue to explore the medium. This particularly pure visual statement has been an archetype for later generations of abstract artists — minimalists, in particular. It was one of a collection of works by Rodchenko, along with Stepanova — two of a collection of constructivist artists, who helped pave new ways to approach graphic design — to design with purpose: to construct society.

Constructivist art was based on an industrial aesthetic, with geometric compositions and shapes: circles, rectangles and straight lines that often aligned to a diagonal axis. With its intersecting forms and dynamic angles, the arresting poster for Dobrolet in 1923 typifies the principles of constructivism. Its bold, angular sans-serif letterforms fitted the strong sense of structure, and the clarity and modernity of its typography in a poster at that time suggested that the airline in and of itself was efficient and modern.

1923 Bauhaus poster

Founded in Germany in 1919, the Bauhaus — the school of building — rose from the ashes of World War I, in a hopeful period of artists and machinists creating together, however, in part in fear of loss of the purpose of art in an increasingly industrial society, in which the ethos of arts and crafts had become unhinged from that of manufactured things. The school sought to fuse design with industrialization, to put into practice the new modernist ideals: to create beautiful functional things, which could be mass produced for the betterment of everyday life. Even before it was forced to close under the Nazi regime, and its teachers and designers relocated, and its ideas spread around the world, the experimental and problem solving design at the Bauhaus proved widely influential.

The clear geometric form is the one that is most easily comprehended and its basic elements are the circle, the square and the triangle. Every possible form lies dormant in these formal elements.—Johannes Itten, 1916

It had shifted its identity from a radical school of art and design to a design school that favored functionality and simplicity, however, in the 1920s in the face of political pressure, in particular from the German authorities, the school was ordered to justify its existence with an exhibition of its accomplishments. Designed to promote that first Bauhaus exhibition, in 1923, Joost Schmidt’s poster caused an immediate sensation with its bold, geometric forms and dramatic block-like lettering. Schmidth’s poster showcased the early characteristics of new typography developed at the Bauhaus — Bauhaus designers were the first to combine graphics and typography in this way. Type was seen as both a tool of communication as well as a form of artistic expression; type was not only intended to be read, but also designed to have a visual impact on its reader, with its different character sizes, letter spaces, typefaces and so on. The lettering, “Staatliches Bauhaus” — the name of the school was wrapped around the official Bauhaus symbol, which was created by artist Oskar Schlemmer in 1922, and which was then designed as a focal point in, and around, the black and red circle in the poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition. The limited use of color: black, red and yellow, together with the stark shapes made the composition of the poster as visually striking as it is strikingly recognizable to this day.

Bauhaus poster (1923) by Joost Schmidt

When the 1923 exhibition was postponed, Schmidt created red and white labels with the revised dates, which he then personally pasted onto all of the printed posters. The new dates: 15 Aug – 30 Sept, were part of the diagonal red bar that served as a strong visual anchor for the overall design.

About face: the logo of the face in profile, abstracted as geometric lines and surrounded by lettering, still symbolizes the Bauhaus and all that the school has represented, including its inability to escape the influence of the constructivist movement. Like constructivism, geometric compositions were a defining feature of Bauhaus design, and both were inspired by the art of cubists and futurist Italians, which represented its subjects as simplified shapes and colors. Even though constructivism was in decline in the mid 1920s under the Bolshevik regime and the Bauhaus was closed in 1933 when the Nazis came to power, the legacy and philosophy of design at the Bauhaus traveled with its faculty and reshaped education in the arts around the world. The fine arts was thereafter rethought as the visual arts, which was considered as a kind of research science as well as a point of reference in history and literature.

1931 London Underground map

It is not exactly clear what inspired Harry Beck to make simple the map of the interwoven London underground railway network. The design of his map, however, was clearly a product of his six years as of then as an engineering draftsman at the signals office for the London Underground, which, as well, clearly influenced the mechanical aesthetic of his map. Although he may not have been explicitly commissioned — it is difficult to think that anyone at that time could have been commissioned to come up with such a solution, explicitly: to represent lines that criss-crossed several squares miles of central London yet also stretched across large landscapes, which had been all agricultural as of a few decades before, to reach remote villages of Middlesex; and, to fit it all onto a single map that folded neatly into a coat pocket.

His idea was a departure from the convention of plotting physical locations. Instead, it skewed the scale; it ordered the stations with equidistant ordinates; it eschewed the above ground street grid. His was a diagrammatic map that showed how the stations and lines related to one another. Commuters were no longer able to examine the distance between, and the exact geographic layout of, stations but Beck reasoned that this was unimportant: what commuters needed was to know how to get from one station to another as efficiently as possible, and where to change between lines — all at a glance. Senior curator at the London Transport Museum — Anna Renton spoke of the map and of Beck at a ceremony for the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. “It was more a demonstration of his ingenuity,” she said, “in seeing a problem and coming up with a solution to it, rather than a response to public demand.”

London Underground map (1931) by Harry Beck

Beck replaced the map’s snaking curves with straight lines that only ran horizontally, vertically, or diagonally at a 45-degree angle. The result was a minimalist, circuit board-like design that forwent accuracy for legibility. This was the most innovative feature of his map: its convex lens, which disproportionately enlarged the area around central London to account for the higher density of stations. It offered a more elegant diagram for commuters to make sense of their fast-growing urban jungle, but it also carried a more subliminal statement insofar as it displayed the suburbs as nearer to commercial centers.

The suburbs were basically created by the expansion of the Underground. […] By making them look closer to the center, and showing how easy it was to commute to the city, the map could have encouraged more people to move there.—Anna Renton, Senior curator at the London Transport Museum, at a ceremony for the 150th anniversary of the London Underground in 2013

In 1933, the London Underground was grouped with other transit systems under the umbrella of a single public corporation: London Passenger Transport Board. This step towards modernization in part moved the management at the London Underground at the time to transition to Beck’s radical new map. After a successful test run of five hundred copies, which were made available from a select few stations in 1932, a series of reprints of the pocket format were ordered in early 1933; a poster format was published by that March; and, in total: 700,000 copies of the map were printed that first year. Before long, Beck’s map became the standard across all of London; before long, the graphic clarity of its design — its lines indexed in vibrant colors and its titles labeled in the tip-top sans-serif typeface that Edward Johnston had designed specially for the network in 1916 — had not only empowered many daily commuters to memorize every station on the Underground network, but the design became commercialized in souvenir shops and referenced in popular culture. His map is considered one of the great achievements of 20th-century design and its functional approach is considered typical of the modern movement.

1940 Harper’s Bazaar magazine

For twenty years as the magazine’s art director, Brodovitch transformed Harper’s Bazaar magazine designs by overhauling the layout of the cover, creating lavish double-page spreads, and introducing the work of top photographers such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, Lisette Model and Irving Penn. Brodovitch confirmed the reputation of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the leading fashion magazines in the US, and its bold use of typography and expressive layouts had an influence internationally.

In his early years working for Harper’s Bazaar, Brodovitch benefited from the influence of art movements in Europe, bringing some of the elegance of Art Deco and the daring of Surrealism to the magazine. He was one of the first art directors to use cropped shots of details on the cover rather than complete figures — an idea that he may have adopted from Surrealist artists such as Joan Miro. By the 1940s he was using photography in a similar way, as in the repeated image of the model’s face on the August 1940 cover. Images like this were innovative and elegant, and created just the impression of chic modernity that the editors wanted.

Harper’s Bazaar cover (Aug. 1940) by Alexey Brodovitch

Harper’s Bazaar, founded in 1867, already had a long history by the time Brodovitch started work there. Most magazine covers of the time featured a head-to-toe or portrait photograph of a model, but Brodovitch chose to concentrate on elements of the face for this cover. By repeating the model’s three-quarter profile in an overlapping pattern, he created a semi-abstract, tonal image. Half of the face is in shadow and all attention is focused on the eyes and brightly colored lips, which provide the only color on the cover apart from the masthead and other lettering. They are printed as blocks of primary yellow, red and blue, plus a green motif, and their stylized, sensuous shapes suggest butterflies or flowers.

Brodovitch was equally unconventional with the other element on the cover. The typography, which used traditional typefaces, was set close to the top edge of the page. This left plenty of room for the photograph and helped to make the cover stand out on the newsstand. He retained the script typeface as a symbol of the magazine’s illustrious past, but kept the words that were set in the font relatively small, so that the modernity of the cover was able to shine through.

Harper’s Bazaar (Apr. 1946)

Harper’s Bazaar (Dec. 1953)

Harper’s Bazaar (Jan. 1952)


Brodovitch favored traditional typefaces of the kind known as Didone, in which there is a marked contrast between the thick and the thin strokes. The thick strokes are mostly vertical and the thin strokes are generally horizontal. These features are exaggerated in the bold capital letters used for the word: Bazaar, emphasizing the name and creating a strong identity for the magazine. The designer increased the impact of the type by setting the letters very close together — so close that the serifs, or thin strokes, actually join at the bottom. In part, in places, this creates the effect of underlining the magazine’s title.

The unusual treatment continued inside the magazine, where Brodovitch often abandoned the conventional column-based layout, creating graphic shapes with text and using bold type inventively.

He was unusual in thinking of layouts in terms of double-page spreads. This meant that he was very conscious of the way a pair of pages worked together, mirroring or forming a contrast to each other. Brodovitch often let a full-page image extend across the central gutter between the pages and encroach upon the facing page. Some of his most distinctive layouts, however, relied on pairing a strong image on one page with an innovative arrangement of type on the facing page, for example, where the text is set diagonally to imitate the line of the model’s dress, complete with a heading in italics so that all type on the facing page is leaning the same angle, creating a layout that is both surprising and pleasing.

Harper’s Bazaar (Dec. 1959)

Harper’s Bazaar (Feb. 2013)

Harper’s Bazaar (July-Aug. 2013)


1940 Mickey Mouse, Fantasia

Mickey Mouse came into the public eye in Steamboat Willie (1928), which premiered in New York in late 1928, only months after Disney lost Oswald. Few remember the original cartoon star of Walt Disney and his animation studio: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Yes, Oswald. The lucky rabbit — not the now-famous mouse, appeared in the 1920s in silent black and white films and might have been animated along the road to stardom were it not for a dispute between Walt Disney and his film financier, which signaled the end of Disney’s involvement with his beloved cartoon rabbit. Though it is not clear exactly when and where Mickey Mouse came into the picture, it is clear that Walt Disney was set on starting his own cartoon. It’s also clear that Disney has since received the acclaim for the success of the character, however, Ub Iwerks is the artist who gave form to the mouse that built the house, and that mouse was named Mortimer. Yes, Mortimer Mouse. So the story goes, Walt’s wife Lily thought the name sounded pompous, and instead suggested Mickey.

Mickey “Mortimer” Mouse (1928) © Disney

Steamboat Willie (1928) © Disney


Steamboat Willie was actually the third cartoon to feature Mickey; both Plane Crazy (1928) and The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928) had debuted, though they did not see a wide public release. These first appearances of one of the world’s most familiar fictional characters proved significant to the history animation because they had synchronized sound — a first for cartoons and a revelation for American audiences. Mickey’s first few cartoons, and those that followed in the early 1930s, however, reveal a dramatically different Mickey Mouse from the one we’ve come to know. Mickey was originally mischievous and misbehaved.

He was absolutely and demonstrably the most recognizable and popular film star in the world for about three or four years in the early 30s. […] He was a little ray of sunshine [through the Depression]. He seems kind of sweet and innocent, and his films don’t seem as anarchic and crazy and maybe relevant as today’s films do, but at the time it was exactly what the country needed, what the world needed. So he was there to provide it.—Warren Spector, video game designer of Epic Mickey, in an interview with Game Informer in 2009

Within a few years, the world was in love with Mickey Mouse. In 1932, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences awarded Walt Disney a special Oscar for his creation of the adored animated character. By the middle of the decade, Mickey had movies, comics, a magazine, and regular coverage in the news. The comics, too, were originally drawn by Ub Iwerks, though Floyd Gottfredson took over as temporary replacement, eventually became the chief creative voice behind the strip, and ended up crafting the comic for the next 45 years. Mickey Mouse was also one of the earliest fictional characters to hit it big with merchandising: toys, watches, lamps, phones and so on. Mickey Mouse branded items became uniquely ubiquitous in the United States during the dark days of the Depression.

Largely responsible for Disney merchandising in the 1930s was Kay Kamen, who was called a stickler for quality and recognized by The Walt Disney Company as having a significant part in Mickey’s rise to stardom. With such mass appeal, Mickey’s mischievous behavior became a victim of the success of the character, and was inevitably directed to favor more friendly behavior. Mickey’s more dangerous and questionable activities were either eliminated or shunted off to his many cartoon buddies. Interestingly, during this transition in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Donald Duck began his rise to popularity, which in many ways eclipsed Mickey in the following years.

They took his mischievousness and his anger and need for revenge and gave it to Donald. At some point they took his naive simplicity and gave it to Goofy. They took his loyalty and infinite affection and gave it to Pluto of all things. They took his character and just shattered it, and all of a sudden he’s kind of a straight man for the gang.—Warren Spector, cont’d in 2009

One of the great cartoons for Mickey in the later 1930s — now mostly presented in color — was Brave Little Tailor (1938), nominated for an Academy Award, and one of the last shorts that depicted Mickey Mouse in the original, simplistic design. With the release of The Pointer (1939) and Fantasia (1940), Mickey Mouse’s look evolved into his familiar modern appearance: his eyes changed in shape and size, and developed pupils. His head grew larger. His body became less rat-like. His limbs grew slightly pudgy. In many ways, Mickey Mouse was made to look more childlike.

Fantasia (1940) © Disney

For many, Mickey’s role as the sorcerer’s apprentice is an overwhelming favorite. Mickey‘s appearance in the feature film Fantasia saw hints of the troublemaking personality that the character first had, but it was the scope and grandeur of the feature film that amazed audiences. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice had originally been planned as a short, but the incredible expense led to an increased ambition, and other pieces of music and animation were added to create Fantasia in its final form. Today, Fantasia is regarded as one of Disney’s (and Mickey’s) greatest triumphs for its stylish integration of music and animation.

I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing: that it was all started by a mouse.—Walt Disney, in the first episode of the television series Disneyland on ABC in 1954

Much of the world’s attention in the early 1940s turned towards the momentous and terrible events of World War II, yet Mickey’s presence in the cultural landscape of the war was apparent, specifically, in propaganda and other imagery supportive of the American war effort. The 1950s set the stage for the way that following generations would meet Mickey Mouse. The Mickey Mouse Club, which first aired in 1955, was one of the tremendously successful ways, and expanded Mickey’s media stardom to television through the late 50s. The show was a selection of musical numbers and cartoons from Mickey’s vast catalog of shorts. Another of the ways that the world would meet Mickey Mouse was Disneyland. The California theme park featured a costumed Mickey character, opened in July 1955, and was the first of many — Walt Disney World opened in 1971, five years after the death of Walt Disney in 1966.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940) © Disney

Decades later, when Sussman/Prejza & Co., designers of the acclaimed graphics for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, were commissioned to redesign the Walt Disney World wayfinding system, the task underscored Disney’s continued quest for distinctive ways to communicate its time-honored spirit. Collectively, the extensive sign system had to be functional for roads, buses and gateways. The goal was also to engage the visitor’s imagination in the park entrance and exit. Ultimately, Sussman and Prejza relied upon the universal symbol of entertainment that embodies the famous Walt Disney World resident, Mickey Mouse. The solution was a graphical kit of sign parts with a color palette selected from the colors of Mickey Mouse: red and yellow, and black and white, supplemented with a vibrant purple, green, and blue. A white arrow contained in a black circle presented an efficient means to communicate both as a clear directional sign and as a symbolic mouse ear. Two plain black circles suggested the immediately recognizable silhouette of Mickey’s bold and bulbous head. Disney has one of the most successful corporate image, and it draws directly from its character design — the character that was brought to life among highly stylized animation of fireworks, ferries, glistening waters, dancing mushrooms and all things Disney, and introduced on-screen in silhouette, in shadow on the candlelit and moonlit walls of Fantasia at the Broadway Theater, where the film’s first roadshow opened in November 1940.

1947-49 Penguin paperback covers

Edward Young had come up with the original idea for the series cover layout, which was simple and identifiable. The design used three broad horizontal bands, with the title in the central white band and the publisher’s name and symbol in the upper and lower colored sections. Most of the type was in the 1920s Gill Sans typeface, designed by Eric Gill, though Penguin originally used a serif face, Bodoni Ultra Bold, for the type inside the distinctive quartic shape. Penguin used this layout for ten years, but not in a systematic fashion until 1947, when German typographer Jan Tschichold was hired to improve and standardize the design of the books.

Penguin paperback covers (1947-49) by Jan Tschichold and Edward Young

Instead of embarking on a radical redesign, Tschichold made a number of fine, and perfectly judged, adjustments. All type on the front covers was now set in Gill Sans, with precisely calculated, consistent letter-spacing and a special typographic for long titles, subtitles and descriptive copy. The title was to be the only element in bold type. Tschichold drew a new Penguin symbol with a smooth outline and a head that could be turned to the left or right, and added a short rule between the title and author’s name. These changes were subtle but they had a profound effect. The composition rules were used across the board, and created a clear identity that contributed significantly to Penguin’s recognition and success as a publisher.

Tschichold’s penguin remained in use for several decades. The different colored jacket banks of Penguin’s books indicated the various publishing categories. Fiction titles in the company’s familiar orange, and so on, and this color-coding endured for decades, as well.

Continue to Chapter 2: 1950s-1970s

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