Graphic Design In Europe by Collin Forbes, 1978

Graphic Design In Europe by Collin Forbes, 1978

Recently | talked in the United States about European graphic design. The main theme was that there is a European tradition of graphic design and development which is distinct from although very much influenced by the United States. This distinction is subtle whereas the difference between European, Japanese or oriental work, for example, is much more obvious. Overriding all this is the new international style that has been developed through the needs of the multi national manufacturing and marketing corporations. However, my contention that there is an identifiable European tradition remains true. There are four major influences that have created this: 1) the printing traditions of Johannes Guterberg from 1439, 2) the illustrators and artists who became poster designers in the late nineteenth century, 3) the Dutch/German influence from the first half of this century, and 4) the American international cultural dominance since the 39-45 world war. I will discuss each in turn.

The Printing Tradition

If we presume that typography is a part of graphic design, the European graphic tradition, of course, derives from the development of European civilization, the invention of moveable type and the international supremacy of the roman alphabet. The designers working today, Matthew Carter in England, Adrian Frutiger in France, Herman Zapf in Germany, are continuing the craft of type designers. The standard of type design in Europe is probably still the highest in the world and the crafts of calligraphy and lettering are probably better taught than anywhere else in the world. In addition, two of the best patrons for good new type designs have been European, the Brauer Company in West Germany and Letraset in the UK.

Poster designers of the nineteenth century

Artists of the calibre of George Cheret, Toulouse Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard and Seurat did posters in 1891 and concurrently Aubrey Beardsley and the Beggerstaff brothers in London and Carl Moos and Hans Rudi Erdt in Munich. They have become the classic examples of early poster art which have been reproduced everywhere. They were the beginning of a tradition that lasted until the late 50s where, of days the commercial clients for posters have largely disappeared and those that remain are often part of wider advertising campaigns, acting only as reminders for television commercials. There are few exceptions in the west but only in specialised cultural areas like Freider Grinder's theatre posters in Germany. However, in Eastern European countries where there is no commercial advertising and designers and artists are appointed to the position of 'poster artists', the medium has a special cultural status and Warsaw has probably the world's largest collection of posters through the poster biennale. Henryk Tomaszewski and Waldemar Swierzy are among the most distinguished exponents of the poster art and are direct descendants of the early poster tradition.

The Dutch and German architect/designer

Architects and designers became interested in graphic design having completely different frames of reference than earlier craftsmen or artists. From the constructivists in Russia, the De steihl movement in Holland, the Dadaists in France through to the Bauhaus in Germany, these designers were ideologically and politically motivated and were more interested in design as a means of communication than a medium in which to practice their craft. With the growth of Nazi Germany and the closing of the Bauhaus, many of these designers went to the US, for example, Herbert Bayer and Maholy Nagy who went both as practitioners and teachers and had a major effect on the formation of the international style. Wim Crouwel and Anton Stankowski are direct descendants of the original Dutch/German influence and young Wolfgang Weingart in Basel works in the traditions of the movement in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. There are, of course, many others and probably the majority of European designers have in some way been effected by the Bauhaus ethic.

The American influence since 1945

There has been an American general cultural dominance in the western world starting most strongly with the English speaking countries but also spreading very quickly in Germany and Japan where there were long periods of American military occupation after the war. In Europe, the affect was most felt in London which has become the leading centre of graphic design and has influenced the rest of Europe in turn. The emergence of London as a leading centre or graphic design was accelerated by the American designers and art directors who came to live and work there in the later fifties. The most important were Robert Brownjohn who was previously with Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar in Brownjohn, Chermayeff and Geismar and Bob Gill who joined Alan Fletcher and myself. They were the major progenitors of 'the single image school'. Bob Gill taught regularly for about ten years with a cumulative influence on generations of students. He summed up the whole essence of the American designers' conviction that the message is more important than the form in a sentence: 'if you can't explain it over the telephone you do not have an idea'. Naturally Fletcher and I and the other Pentagram graphic partners have been very much affected by the American way.

The current trends

There have been new latter influences from the US. The success of Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast in Push Pin has resulted in a revival of illustration and of the nostalgia boom. Also the success of the American realist painters and illustrators has also influenced the younger generation of illustrators. This all seems to have happened faster in London and the major West German centres than in the other European countries. 

There has been a cultural change related to the whole conservation movement mixed with an increased professional or business attitude in design. The conservation movement has spread to the designers who do not automatically just want to change everything. They find value in found images and do not knock everything down and rebuild in their own style which, in the more important field of architecture, has been a post-war crime in many cities. The professional attitude comes from a greater respect for the commercial organization that pays the fee. An attempt to understand the objectives of the corporations and help their identification and communication. Not to treat them like patrons to artists who considered that industry has a moral obligation to support the arts for their own sake, although we are all prone to self indulgence. These two factors combine to increase the interest in the communication value of graphics and have changed the 'well, that has to go for a start' attitude.

Another factor is the growing academic approach to graphic design. The interest in research and other studies also affected by the technical developments in the industry. Also the growth of information theory. This trend will continue as the entrants into graphic design come from different backgrounds. In the early part of the century, graphic design came from art schools that were part of technical colleges. All over Europe there has been an increase of these courses being integrated in universities or being given degree status. There are more post graduate courses and the entrants for these courses are required to have a broader education than their predecessors. Whether for the good or not these people will have a big effect on the practise of graphic design in the future.


This is an article from the September 1978 issue of Idea. This, and other magazines, LogoArchive zines and design books are available to buy here.

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