The Evolution of Digital Art

Up until the late 20th century, the graphic-design area had been based on hand-craft processes: layouts that were stylised by hand so as to actualise an idea; type was specified and ordered from a typesetter; and type proofs and photostats of images were assembled into position on heavy paper or board for photo copying and platemaking. Over the course of the 1980s and early ’90s, however, rapid advances in digital pc hardware and software utterly 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 allowed designers and artists to use computer graphics in a new, intuitive way. The Postscript™ page-description language from Adobe Systems, Inc., allowed for pages of type and graphics to be placed 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.

Digital computers placed typesetting tools into the homes of designers, and so a period of experimentation occurred in the design of new and unusual type 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 fonts were sometimes changed within single headlines, columns, and words. Much of this type of research took place 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 advances in onscreen software also allowed 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 photo of New York’s Central Park, a site plan, and botanical art to commemorate the landscape architect. Interwoven, these images show a rich expression of Olmsted’s life and work.

The digital transition in graphic design was shortly followed by public access to the internet. A whole new sphere of graphic design activity mushroomed in the mid-1990s when Internet commerce became a fast growing sector of the world-wide economy, causing organizations and businesses to quickly 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 host of new considerations, including designing for navigation around the website and for using hypertext links to see 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 purposeful visual identity, effective navigation, and informational clarity. Attributes that contributed 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 appeal and reach of the Internet, the graphic-design profession is becoming increasingly global in scope. Additionally, the integration of motion graphics, animation, video feeds, and music into Web-site design has brought about the merging of traditional print and broadcast media. As kinetic media expands 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 everywhere; it is a major component of our complex print and electronic information systems. It permeates contemporary society, bringing information, product identification, entertainment, and persuasive messages. The unstoppable advance of technology has dramatically changed the way graphic designs are created and distributed to a mass market. However, the essential role of the graphic designer, adding creative form and clarity of content to communicate messages, remains the same.

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