Design follows technology. 1/2

Graphic design and industrial design. Where we are and how we got here.

Design has always followed the latest technology. Of course, the development was influenced by a myriad of other factors as well, but somehow it is the technology that enables development in the first place.

Some examples include the printing press, mass production brought by the industrial revolution, and recently computers, the web, and artificial intelligence (AI). Design disciplines often got their names decades or even centuries after the start of the actual design work. Business people and engineers, rather than artists, performed the design work in the beginnings of the disciplines.

Printing Revolution in Europe

The introduction of the movable type printing press in 15th century Europe suddenly made previously scarce knowledge accessible to a wider population.

Printing techniques had been practised by the Chinese since 220 AD, however, their technique using woodblock was laborious and slow. Around the beginning of 11th century in China, porcelain movable type printing was invented, followed by a century later in copper, and then about a century later in 1230 Koreans invented movable type printing using bronze.

In Germany, it was Johannes Gutenberg who introduced the metal movable type mechanical printing in Europe in 1455. The woodblock printing of that day was capable of printing about 40 pages a day, while the new technology about 3,600 pages per day. By that time books were in the domain of the church, the ruling class, and rare wealthy individuals. The invention of mass print made possible great civilisation advances through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Age of Enlightenment, and opened a new era of trade and commerce. In less than four centuries the number of books in Europe rose from a couple of million copies to almost a billion.  


KNOWLEDGE DISTRIBUTION // In less than four centuries after the introduction of movable type printing to Europe, the number of books rose from a couple of million copies to almost a billion. The ratio of books to people rose from 1/16th of a book (a couple of pages) per person to more than 12 books per person.

Half a century after Gutenberg, Aldus Manutius in Italy developed a smaller and more affordable “Octavo” book format. His letter cutter Francesco Griffo designed the humanist “italic” typeface, that would be easier to read and use space more economically – and which set the foundation of a western publication design. It would be safe to say that Aldus Manutius, the leading publisher and printer of the Venetian High Renaissance and his typeface cutter Francesco Griffo were two of the first graphic designers.  


GRAPHIC DESIGN // Aldus Manutius designed and introduced the smaller, more affordable, and human scale “Octavo” book format, with the goal of making books easier to use and more comfortable to read. This format set the standard for book design for centuries to come.  His design made knowledge “mobile” and available to the masses.

Later advances in printing technologies further shortened production times, lowered the price of books and newspapers even further, and with this means of distribution made the information almost universally available. The same reasons that made the printed word accessible to more readers, made it accessible to more authors and publishers as well. Now almost anyone could make their ideas accessible to a larger audience.

Before mass print, the usual way of advertising was word of mouth, shop windows, and market stalls. Print enabled advertising, amplified the messages, and extended the reach both geographically and by the size of the audience. In the United States in the 18th century, the postmaster, printer, and the owner of The Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin, used his newspaper to advertise his books, inventions, products, and ideas. He might be regarded the first American graphic designer. He was the first to use illustrations, logos, and thought out typography, and was considered the most advanced for its time.  


ADVERTISING // The 18th-century American postmaster, printer, and publisher Benjamin Franklin used his newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette to advertise his books, inventions, products, and ideas. Before mass print, the usual way of advertising was word of mouth, shop windows, and market stalls. Print enabled advertising, amplified the messages and extended the reach both geographically and by the size of the audience.

The modern graphic design profession emerged as such only at the end of the 19th century with the separation of design from the fine arts. The term ‘graphic design’ was first used only in 1922 by W. A. Dwiggins, while actual design work began immediately after technology set up the possibilities, specifics, and limitations.


VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS DESIGN expands from printed publications to other fields. Posters and advertising, branding and packaging, way-finding, and motion graphics. They all followed specific technologies as they emerged, yet most of the visual disciplines shared more or less the same rules and methods and were invented to solve problems and seize the opportunities of printed media.

Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century was for physical products what the invention of the printing press was for the dissemination of information. It was defined by a transition from manual production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing, iron production, and mastering steam power.

Standardised and optimised mass production processes made industrially manufactured products accessible to most of the population. The new railway network and other steam-powered transportation possibilities enabled distribution of products way beyond the territorial origin of the factories. Both average incomes and population began to grow, and the standard of living for the general population increased unprecedentedly.

Hand-crafted design – where the form of a product was determined by the product’s creator in the process of its crafting – was replaced by the industrial design that takes place prior to production, and that is disconnected from the production process.

Industrial design is by definition “a process applied to products that are to be manufactured through techniques of mass production.” (Wikipedia)


INDUSTRIAL DESIGN // Design first, manufacture later. Repetitive industrial production of same products in large quantities gave birth to industrial design. In the previous type of craftsmanship, manufacturing products were defined during the process.

And further: “All manufactured products are the result of a design process, but the nature of this process can take many forms: it can be conducted by an individual or a large team; it can emphasise intuitive creativity or calculated scientific decision-making, and often emphasises both at the same time; and it can be influenced by factors as varied as materials, production processes, business strategy, and prevailing social, commercial, or aesthetic attitudes. The role of an industrial designer is to create and execute design solutions for problems of form, function, usability, physical ergonomics, marketing, brand development, and sales.”

With a growing number of mass-produced products flooding the market, modern-day branding emerged not only to mark the ownership, but as a way of differentiating a product from mere commodities, and in order for different manufacturers to differentiate their products from the competition. New professional fields of manufacturing, business management, and marketing began to develop.


MODERN BRANDING that emerged in the time of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century was a switch from branding for identification of ownership that was in use from about 2000 BC, to emphasise the quality and differentiation of commodity goods.

The introduction of the movable printing press boosted production of books and – together with new smaller and more affordable formats – made knowledge widely affordable and enable great movements that set the basis for western culture and science. Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment eventually led to the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution made mass-produced goods available to the widest population, created new and better-paying jobs, and ignited unprecedented growth in a living standard of the masses.


DAILY BUILDERS WAGE // The immediate effects of the industrial revolution on the living conditions of the new worker class are highly controversial, but the fact is that the industrial revolution, for the first time in the history, triggered long-term sustainable growth of the living standards for masses.

Next: The results of the industrial revolution got the boost with the advent of the computers in the 1940s and went ballistic with the web in the 1990s.


The Brand Ecosystem Design Blog is a part of a book in the making. In the coming months, we’ll build up our case from looking at where we are and how we got here, to develop the framework, tools, and language to understand and manage the brand ecosystem.

Matevž Medja is a co-founder of the award-winning design agency Gigodesign, with more than 25 years of experience in building interdisciplinary teams on complex projects. He believes the world is already too full of products nobody needs and brands nobody believes in. He’d like to help develop new ones properly. Read more.