The Evolution of Digital Art

Up until the late 20th century, the graphic-design discipline was based on handicraft processes: layouts were made by hand in order to create 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 photographic copying and platemaking. During the 1980s and early ’90s, however, rapid advances in digital pc hardware and software utterly changed 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 majorly revolutionary human interface. Tool icons controlled by a mouse or graphics tablet enabled designers and artists to use computer graphics in an intuitive way. The Postscript™ page-description language from Adobe Systems, Inc., enabled pages of type and images to be placed into graphic designs on-screen. By the mid-1990s, the development of graphic design from drafting-table action to an on-screen computer action was essentially complete.

Digital computers allowed typesetting tools to be placed into the realm of designers, and so a period of experimentation occurred in the creation of new and unusual type and page layouts. Type and images were layered, fragmented, and dismembered; type columns were overlapped and run at very long or short line lengths, and the sizes, weights, and fonts were changed within single headlines, columns, and words. Much of this type of research happened in design education 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, caught the imagination of a youthful audience by taking such an experimental approach into publication design.

Fast changes 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 connect 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. Interwoven, these images evoke a rich expression of Olmsted’s life and work.

The digital revolution in graphic design was shortly followed by public access to the Internet. A completely new sphere of graphic-design activity mushroomed in the mid-1990s when internet business became a growth sector of the global economy, causing companies and businesses to scramble to establish Web sites. Designing a website involves layout of screens of information rather than of physical 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 considerations, including designing for navigation around the site and for using hypertext links to jump 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 developed a strong visual identity, effective navigation, and informational clarity. Attributes that added to the effectiveness of this website included a pleasing colour palette, an informative use of pictures of products, and a scrolling imagery of products.

Because of the universal appeal and reach of the Internet, the graphic-design trade is becoming increasingly global in scope. Moreover, the blending 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 the main component of the complex print and electronic information systems. It permeates modern society, bringing information, product identification, entertainment, and persuasive messages. The relentless advance of technology has changed dramatically the way graphic design is created and distributed to a mass market. However, the basic role of the graphic designer, providing expressive form and clarity of content to communicative messages, remains the same.

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