Great Graphic Design Ch.1


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 celebrate the qualities of materials and do away with applied ornament and color.

Chapter 1: 1920s1940s

1923 Dobrolet poster

When Lenin allowed limited private enterprise in the Soviet state in the 1920s, and when Dobrolet airline tasked Rodchenko and Stepanova with designing a campaign for investment, the pair seized the opportunity to take advantage of the most up-to-date graphics. The arresting poster, with its intersecting forms and dynamic angles, followed the principles of Constructivism, a radical art movement that embraced modern technology and promoted art as a commodity in the service of society. The bold, angular sans-serif letter forms fit the strong sense of structure and geometry; the clarity and modernity of the poster’s typography suggest that the airline is itself efficient and modern. In the wake of a revolution, artists took a rational, pragmatic approach, using art to help the construction of a socialist society.

Dobrolet poster, 1923 | Alexandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova

1923 Bauhaus poster

Even before it was forced to close under the Nazi regime, and its teachers and designers relocated, taking its ideas all over the world, the Bauhaus was hugely influential. The Modernist German Bauhaus school, founded in 1919, also taught artists to combine rigorous design with modern, industrial ideas. The Bauhaus—the ‘school of building’—had shifted its identity from a radical school of art and design to a design school that favored functionality and simplicity, but, in the 1920s in the face of political pressure, was ordered by German authorities 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.

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 element.—Johannes Itten, 1916

Schmidth’s poster showcased the early characteristics of ‘new typography’ developed by the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus designers were the first to combine images and typography in this way; typography was seen both as a ‘tool of communication’ and as a form of artistic expression. The words Staatliches Bauhaus, the name of the school, are wrapped around the official Bauhaus symbol created by artist Oskar Schlemmer, which is placed inside the red and black circle, forming a focal point. Simplified geometric shapes was a defining feature of Bauhaus design, and the restricted use of color to black, red and yellow, together with the stark, geometric shapes makes the composition visually striking and instantly recognizable. The use of a distinctive range of colors and shapes creates a strong corporate identity.

Bauhaus poster, 1923 | 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 the printed posters; the diagonal red bar with the new dates, 15th August-30th September, creates a strong visual anchor for the overall design.

1931 London underground map

When Harry Beck made simple the snaking, interwoven London underground railway network, his idea was a departure from the convention of plotting exact physical locations and drawing them to scale. His idea was a radical, diagrammatic map that showed how the stations and lines related to each other, with indexed lines in different colors, and the lines ran only horizontally, vertically, or at 45-degree diagonals. All the stations were named in the sans-serif typeface that Edward Johnston had designed specially for the network in 1916.

London underground map, 1931 | Harry Beck

Today’s underground map is remarkably similar to Beck’s original, the underground rail maps of many capital cities recognizably derive from Beck’s work from the 1930s, his map is seen as one of the great achievements of 20th-century design and its functional approach is regarded as 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 at Harper’s Bazaar, Brodovitch benefitted 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 1940 cover, below. Images like this were innovative and elegant, and created just the impression of chic modernity that the editors wanted.

Harper’s Bazaar magazine, 1940 | Alexey Brodovitch (USA)

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 set in the font relatively small, so that the modernity of the cover was able to shine through.

April 1946

December 1953

January 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. This creates the effect of underlining the magazine’s title in places.

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.

Brodovitch 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. He 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.

December 1959

February 2013

July-August 2013

1940 Mickey Mouse, Fantasia

Mickey Mouse came into the public eye in Steamboat Willie, which premiered in New York in late 1928, only months after Disney’s loss of 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. It’s not clear exactly where and when Mickey Mouse came in to the picture. It is clear Walt Disney was set on starting a new cartoon and has since received the acclaim for its success, though Ub Iwerks is the artist who gave form to the mouse that built the house, originally named Mortimer.

Mickey “Mortimer” Mouse

Steamboat Mouse, 1928

Steamboat Willie (1928) 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 also proved significant to the history of animation and film, 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, Epic Mickey

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 mouse. By the middle of the decade, Mickey had a magazine, comics, toys, movies, and regular coverage in the news. It’s worth mentioning, the comics 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. More noteworthy still, Mickey Mouse was one of the earliest fictional characters to hit it big with merchandising: watches, toys, lamps, phones—Mickey Mouse branded items became uniquely ubiquitous during the dark days of the Great 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 naïve 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

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.

Mickey Mouse, Fantasia, 1940 | Walt 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, Disneyland (October 27, 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 then set the stage for the way following generations would meet Mickey Mouse. The Mickey Mouse Club, which first aired in 1955, was one of the tremendous 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 catalogue of shorts. Another of the ways 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

Decades later, when Sussman/Prejza & Co., designers of the acclaimed graphics for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, were commissioned to redesign Walt Disney World’s 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, but 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 Walt Disney World’s famous 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 efficent means to communicate both as a clear and emphatic directional sign and as a symbolic mouse ear. Two plain black circles suggested the immediately reckognized silhouette of Mickey’s bold and bulbous head. Disney, arguably, has the most successful brand image that draws directly from its character design, its character brought to life among highly stylized animation of fireworks, ferries, glistening waters and dancing mushrooms—all things Disney—and cast in shadow on the moonlit and candlelit walls of Fantasia back 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, however, 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 | Jan Tschichold and Edward Young

Instead of embarking on a radical redesign, Tschichold made a number of fine, but 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 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 success as a publisher and resulted in wide recognition of the brand.

His penguin remained in use for several decades. The different-colored jacket banks of Penuin’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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