Graphic Design: a concise history

popular potted history of 19th and 20th century graphics

Review of: Graphic Design
Book by:
Richard Hollis

Reviewed by:
On 27 June 2009
Last modified:12 January 2016


Illustrated survey of posters

This is an introduction to graphic design in a series from Thames and Hudson which offers very good value for money. Richard Hollis takes as a starting point the idea that graphic design begins in the late nineteenth century with the development of the poster which combined word and image. If you are happy to ignore what went before, what he presents is thought provoking and a visual treat.

Graphic Design: a concise historyThe main feature of the book is that each point of his argument is illustrated by small marginal pictures which function like a lecture slide show (which I suspect is their origin). It’s not quite clear if he is following a chronological, a thematic, or a national structure – but this isn’t really important, as the main pleasure of his account is the exuberant variety of illustrative examples he discusses. These act as a fascinating introduction to the subject.

It’s rather like a very entertaining series of illustrated undergraduate lectures. He starts with the poster in the nineteenth century, then goes on to chart the development of word and image in brochures and magazines, advertising, television and electronic media, and the impact of technical innovations such as photography and the computer.

The strength of his approach is his internationalism and excellent choice of materials. He covers the main figures in Swiss, Dutch, French, American, and British design, and en route there are special features on movements such as Italian futurism, Soviet constructivism, and German expressionism.

His exposition and analysis of the various movements is handled with a light touch, which makes the subject accessible to non-specialists. The most successful parts of the book are his detailed tracing of artistic influences and his arguments for the relation between design and function.

He knows the names, the products, and the businesses which produced the commissions. Maybe the book should have been called ‘Twentieth Century Graphic Design’, but this is excellent value, and always in print.

© Roy Johnson 2000

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Richard Hollis, Graphic Design: a concise history, London: Thames and Hudson, 1994, pp.224, ISBN: 0500202702

Design links

Red button Books on graphic and product design

Red button The Graphic Language of Neville Brody

Red button The Design of Everyday Things

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