While emojis form part of a visual language that has taken the digital world by storm, they actually hark back to the Dark Ages. After all, they have a great deal in common with hieroglyphics, which emerged in Ancient Egypt and took centuries to develop and popularise.
This got us thinking – just how far as graphic design and the visual medium evolved over the years?
Fortunately, we need no longer wonder, with the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries set to open a new exhibition that looks back at the earliest examples of English graphic design.
Celebrating the evolution of graphic design since Medieval times
The exhibition, which will be on display at the Weston Library from December, will showcase some of the formative work of Medieval scribes, engravers and painters. Including a host of stunning artefacts from between the fifth and the 15th century, ‘Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page‘ will offer a fascinating insight into a period when design and expression become part of societies fabric.
These exhibition pieces are pivotal in the evolution of graphic design, as they present its starting point and remain the earliest examples of this in the UK. After all, it was during this period that specialists first began to preserve and showcase writing in English (historically, important texts and publications had been written almost exclusively in Latin).
This meant that writers in Medieval times were compelled to showcase design skills in every aspect of their work, as they strived to translate intricate annotation on Latin texts and experiment with ephemeral formats to ensure that the work was presented in the most legible way. Not only this, but all languages of the age continued to be heavily influenced by hieroglyphics, which influenced how texts were laid down, designed and perceived by the human eye.
Then and now: How have the principles of graphic design changed since Medieval times?
While the relationship between text and graphic design may have evolved considerably since Medieval times, there are some similarities that are hard to ignore in the digital age. Aside from the use of emojis, which are designed to create a more visual method of communication and make standard text more engaging, social media outlets like Twitter have also emerged as fluid and ephemeral mediums where people and brands connect on a daily basis.
This reflects how the age of digital communication has once again compelled graphic designers to experiment with new creation techniques, mediums and channels, as they look to connect people and businesses in the most effective ways possible.
Whereas Medieval scribes were preoccupied with the notion of educating society and translating texts so that they were as visually appealing and legible as possible, however, today’s graphic designers must cut through an excess of advertising noise to share their message. While these two challenges are very different in some respects, they’re also similar in that there is a need for designers to identify creative solutions and allow their work to be seen.
According to experts, we’ve gone from being exposed to around 500 ads each day to as many as 5,000 in the digital age. Similarly, Millennials are becoming increasingly sceptical of online marketing messages, with many using mobile and PC ad-blockers to enhance their experience when browsing the World Wide Web.
So, unless they’re able to share transparent and concise messages in a visually engaging and creative manner, today’s graphic designers are likely to see their work lost in a slew of similarly formulated messages.
The last word – Why graphic design trends tend to move in circles
So what does this tell us about how graphic design trends have evolved since Medieval times? While it may be tempting to suggest that fundamental principles of design have remained unchanged, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that they’ve continued to evolve and come full circle as times and behaviours change.
Medieval scribes and engravers emerged as designers due to social evolution, as the desire to translate Latin texts and make learning accessible to ordinary people created a need for easy-to-understand and aesthetically pleasing publications. Similarly, today’s graphic designers have been forced to adapt to the demands of social and digital media, which in turn has made them cultivate new ways of presenting ideas and conveying messages to readers.
With every new trend comes challenges for graphic designers, who must adapt their methods in order to remain relevant. This is something that will never change, and it’s why the principles and application of graphic design will also be evolutionary in their nature.