The Evolution of Digital Art

Up until the late 20th century, the graphic-design discipline had been based on handicraft processes: layouts were made by hand in order to actualise a design; type was specified and ordered from a typesetter; and type proofs and photostats of images were placed in position on heavy paper or board for photo copying and platemaking. During the 1980s and early ’90s, however, rapid advances in digital pc hardware and software completely altered graphic design.

Software for Apple’s 1984 Macintosh pc, such as the MacPaint program developed by computer programmer Bill Atkinson and graphic designer Susan Kare, had a revolutionary human interface. Tool icons controlled by a mouse or graphics tablet enabled designers and artists to use computer graphics in an intuitive manner. The Postscript™ page-description language from Adobe Systems, Inc., enabled pages of type and graphics to be assembled onto graphic designs on-screen. By the mid-1990s, the development of graphic design from a drafting-table action to an on-screen computer activity was essentially complete.

Personal computers placed typesetting tools into the hands of individual designers, and so a period of experimentation occurred in the design of new and unusual typefaces and page layouts. Type and graphics were layered, fragmented, and dismembered; type columns were overlapped and run at very long or short line lengths, and the sizes, weights, and typefaces were sometimes changed within single headlines, columns, and words. Much of this research occurred in design training at art schools and universities. American designer David Carson, art director of Beach Culture magazine in 1989-91, Surfer in 1991-92, and Ray Gun magazine in 1992-96, captured the imagination of a youthful audience by taking such an experimental approach into publication design.

Fast advances in onscreen software also enabled designers to make elements transparent; to stretch, scale, and bend elements; to layer type and images in space; and to combine imagery into complex montages. For example, in a United States postage stamp from 1998, designers Ethel Kessler and Greg Berger digitally montaged John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted with a photograph of New York’s Central Park, a site plan, and botanical art to commemorate the landscape architect. Placed together, these images show a rich expression of Olmsted’s life and work.

The electronic change in graphic design was shortly followed by public access to the internet. A completely new operation of graphic design activity blossomed in the mid-1990s when Internet commerce became a growing sector of the global economy, causing companies and businesses to scramble to establish web-sites. Designing a Web site involves the layout of screens of information rather than of pages, but approaches to the use of type, images, and colour are similar to those used for print. Web design, however, requires a number of new things to consider, including designing for navigation around the website and for using hypertext links to be taken to additional information. An example of strong Web design is the Herman Miller for the Home Web site, designed by BBK Studio in 1998. These designers created a strong visual identity, effective navigation, and informational clarity. Attributes that added to the effectiveness of this Web site included a consistent colour palette, an informative use of pictures of products, and a scrolling imagery of products.

Because of the world-wide attraction and reach of the Internet, the graphic-design sector is becoming increasingly global in scope. Additionally, the merging of motion graphics, animation, video feeds, and music into web-site design has caused the merging of traditional print and broadcast media. As kinetic media expand from motion pictures and basic television to scores of cable-television channels, video games, and animated Web sites, motion graphics are becoming an increasingly important area of graphic design.

In the 21st century, graphic design is universal; it is a major component of the complex print and electronic information systems. It permeates contemporary society, bringing information, product identification, entertainment, and persuasive messages. The inexorable advance of technology has dramatically changed the way graphic designs are created and distributed to a mass audience. However, the essential role of the graphic designer, providing creative form and clarity of content to communicate messages, remains the same.

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