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Computer Graphic Design

How Was Graphic Design Done Before Computers

The computers have been revolutionizing how we made the things or live our life for almost 30 years. They have changed the way we do a lot of things, and of course, graphic design isn’t an exception.

Maybe if you are around 25 years old, you don’t know how graphic design was done before computers; but if you are 40 years or older, I’m sure you do.

First of all, we’re going to talk about the history of the profession. We can say that graphic design is as old as humans themselves. This is a profession that basically tries to transmit a message to a specific audience. Since the beginning of time we have had the necessity to communicate between us.

Tools that graphic designers use to transmit a message, such as images or text, have been used since forever for the same purpose. The perfect examples of that are the pictures on the caves or the old Greek or Chinese documents.

The invention of the first printer was a huge step for the graphic design industry like we know it today. It happened in Europe in 1439.

printing press letters

It was called the Gutenberg Press and it was used only for the industrial reproduction of scholar book and it was the one who paved the way to the invention of other printers.

At the beginning of the XVII century the first newspaper appeared, nowadays this is one of the biggest fields for graphic designers. In 1837, the technology to print in color was developed, it was called chromolithography. At the same time, chromolithography opened the door to advertising.

With the ability to print in color, all the brands started to use some marketing techniques that we use today, such as a color palette to improve the connection with the clients.

Graphic design as we know it today started with the modern era, in the last half of the 1800s. Before that, it was all focused on the technological advancements, but in this era, the artists wanted to explore all that knowledge to use it in a better way.

The first graphic design agency emerged in 1903. With all the importance that was given to advertising and marketing, it was just a matter of time. But it wasn’t until 1922 that the word graphic design was used for the very first time by William Addison Dwiggins.

William Addison Dwiggins portrait

After World War II, graphic design suffered a lot of changes. A lot of them happened because of the invention of new technologies. During this period, gadgets started to be present in the life of almost all the citizens.

The historical context helped change how graphic design was done too. All the necessary services were focused on the war needs. Japan and a part of Europe were destroyed after the war.

Another important aspect that helped change graphic design was the incorporation of women to the industries. That’s why we see a lot of advertisings of those years using women on the image.

In that period of time, most of the designers used one of these three artistic movements: Hyperrealism, Op Art, and Pop Art.

Hyperrealism wants to offer a precise and detailed image, just like a photo. The favorite topics were portraits, stores, urban scenes, animals and human bodies.

hyperrealism by sam romilly

Op Art uses optical illusions; most of the time it doesn’t transmit any emotion. Almost always, the observer needs to move around the design to catch the illusion.

Finally, Pop Art is considered the plastic manifestation of technology, and capitalist and consumerist culture. It uses images and topics from the massive communication world, and applied them to the visual arts. It uses jazzy colors with light contours. It doesn’t have any implicit message.

A Deeper Dive On: How Was Graphic Design Done Before Computers

As I said before graphic design suffered a huge change between the 50s and the 90s. Before computers, graphic designers had to do the entire job in a manual way. They literally had to copy, cut, and paste everything.

Every action that you do just pressing a bottom or clicking somewhere on the screen, had to be done manually 50 years ago. It was a time-consuming activity.

You needed a lot of hours, and maybe days of cutting, waxing and pasting to finish a job. If you made a mistake, the majority of the time, you needed to start doing everything from nothing.

Nowadays, doing a design is way simpler than 50 years ago. Today, designers can move an image, change its colors, proportions, and even improve its resolution in just a few minutes.

graphic designer editing

The same thing happens with the typography. Nowadays is pretty easy to design and use a font in any design. To do all these complicated jobs without a computer, designers used some tools like:

  • Drawing Tables: it’s one of the most important tools. Nowadays they are used too, but they have lost their importance. They were bigger, had a more inclined angle and were pretty comfortable. Designers spend the most part of their day working on them.
  • Adhesive Wax: it was added in the back part of the paper to pin it up to the table. This was really useful to avoid moving the paper while you were working.
  • X-Acto Knives: designers needed to cut in a precise way the image that they’re going to use. These knives are more exact than scissors and allowed the designers to conserve all the small details.
  • Rubber Cement and Solvent: of course, if you cut an image you will need to paste it to the paper. Sometimes, parts of the image were so small that the designers need to use a tweezer.
  • Technical Pens: these were special and rechargeable pens used for designers. The most common brand was “Rapidograph”. They were used when the designers needed to make precise lines. Pencils were used too.

Typing in that time was pretty complicated too. Designers need to create their specific font. Then, they had to send it to a special printer and create a Dry Transfer. This was a kind of decal that can be used without rubber or solvent.

The decal was transferred to the paper using a stylus or a pen. Rubbing and heating will paste the letters. Sometimes, designers didn’t use a dry transfer, so they had to cut and paste each letter. Almost always, they had to print the letters in different sizes to find the perfect one.

Definitely, the typing process was one of the most difficult ones in graphic design. Another way of typing was with a metallic mold applying heat on it. This was used on cloth and leather.

When the designer worked with images, they cut and pasted photos. When they were doing that, they needed to be pretty precise. Of course, they used a copy of the photos and not the original one on the first try.

When a print design was complete, designers covered it with glassline paper to modify the colors of the final images, letters, and other elements. Finally, it was photographed, and designers looked for some mistakes in the negative.

Nowadays, designing is much easier thanks to computers. We can’t forget the beginning of graphic design, to understand where we are today. The way that graphic design was done before computers wasn’t easy; designers needed more patience and dedication to develop a great design.

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