The History of Design

Continuing with Coursera’s Graphic Design Specialization by CalArts, here I will review the fourth course in the specialization called Ideas From the History of Graphic Design.

Ideas From the History of Graphic Design isn’t an art history course, it’s actually a proper history of graphic design course. It talks briefly about the history of graphic design from the Victorian age all the way the 1970’s, discussing various style, typography, image making techniques, and ideas along the way.

So here is my full review of Coursera’s Ideas From the History of Graphic Design course. In addition, you can read my previous reviews of Coursera’s Fundamentals of Graphic Design course here, Coursera’s Introduction to Typography course here, and Coursera’s Introduction to Imagemaking course here.

FYI: I took this course in October 2020, so course assignments and lessons may change over time.

Enrollment Options

Depending on your budget and how much time you want to invest, you have some options for how you want to take this course.

Auditing: Coursera lets you audit any course for free, though that option won’t let you earn a certificate after completion of each course. You also miss out on submitting assignments for feedback and you might not be able to see all the course materials. This is still a great option if you have no budget but you still want to learn.

Enrolling: When you enroll in Coursera’s Ideas From the History of Graphic Design course you get access to all the course material, can get feedback on your work, and you get a certificate upon completion. This is the best option if you really want to learn graphic design. It’s $64 a month with a free 7 day trial.

To pass and receive a certificate in this course you need to achieve a score of at least 75% in the assignments and 80% in the quizzes.

Ideas From the History of Graphic Design

This course is divided into 4 week terms, all concerning the graphic design history that you’ll need to know. Here’s the breakdown.

  • Week 1: Early Mass Marketing (3.5 hours to complete)
  • Week 2: The Bauhaus (2.5 hours to complete)
  • Week 3: Modernism in America (2.5 hours to complete)
  • Week 4: Graphic Design Radicalism (3.5 hours to complete)

Week 1 – Image-Based Research

The Lessons

The first week of Ideas from the History of Graphic Design discusses some really interesting topics such as the Victorian Era, Victorian typography, and the age of advertising. The videos detail how mass production changed how things were actually made and how some of the forms we saw in objects of the industrial revolution were really a ‘response to the mechanization of the process’. Basically, form followed function.

The next thing discussed is the history of poster design and early advertising, in addition to the design of decorative fonts that were used on posters to attract attention. The history of sans serif fonts is also addressed, adding that they were created in order to get more information on a poster since the letters could be closer together than with serif typefaces.

Branding is discussed next, as it came out of how commercial products were made, then sold, then consumed. Products shipped from far away would need identifying marks or symbols so consumers knew who the products were manufactured by. Typically, you wouldn’t need those types of marks when buying locally because the consumers would already be familiar with the local market. So branding essentially came from mass distribution.

The Quiz

The quiz is very short and straightforward and as long as you’ve watched the videos and paid attention during this week’s lectures, you’ll do fine.

The Assignment

Okay, the assignment is a bit tricky. Students are asked to find an example of a contemporary product (Something produced since 1990) that uses a 19th century concept in its design or advertising. The product can be a graphic image like a poster, a household product, or an object. I initially had a hard time finding a product, but eventually found a household cleaner that uses some classic 19th century design ideas in their visual branding; Mrs Meyers Clean Day.

A lot of students seemed to have troubles with this assignment, judging from the peer reviews I did and some of the comments in the forum. Some simply submitted products that were actually from the 19th century, rather than current products with 19th century design elements. Other students even submitted products with absolutely no visual connections to the 1800s at all.

Week 2 – The Bauhaus

The Lessons

The lessons this week are all about Bauhaus; the school, the art style, and the design ideas that emerged from it. There are actually quite a few video lessons here, and they are all very interesting. The instructor shows you some of the work produced by students at the Bauhaus and discusses some of the faculty that taught there.

The Bauhaus is such an important and influential thing for not only graphic design, but for all forms of design as we know them. In design school, I took an Art History class as part of the mandatory curriculum. In it, we barely touched on the Bauhaus, which looking back, seems absurd. Then again, it was Art History, not Design History.

The Quiz

The quiz this week was a bit trickier than the quiz in week 1, only because there were so many more lessons to learn from. Overall, it wasn’t too bad.

The Assignment

This was probably the quickest assignment I’ve done yet. Students were asked to name three tools or technologies used by designers today and talk about how each of those tools/technologies have changed contemporary design. I went with smart phones, computers, and iPads; all which have changed how I find inspiration, research, capture, and create works of design. We’re meant to write three short paragraphs on the subject and I may have written a full essay.

Week 3 – Modernism in America

The Lessons

This week we’re introduced to design work by some incredibly talented American graphic designers. First, we see some fantastic designs by Lester Beall from the 1930’s and 1940’s that are designed using very simple shapes and symbols, in addition to some of his corporate identity designs.

Next, we’re shown some work by Alvin Lustig with his abstract and representational book covers that were really interestingly designed. After, we’re shown some work by the famous Paul Rand. We explore his ability to compress a lot of ideas into their simplest of forms with a single design. We’re also shown some of the most famous corporate identity designs he’s created, like the original UPS logo and the current ABC and IBM logos.

Last, we briefly explore some of the work created by William Golden, who was the head of design for CBS in the 1950’s and created the CBS logo that is still used today.

The Quiz

The quiz for this week is a bit tricky because is asks for some descriptive information about the design styles of each of the designers showcased in the lessons. Try to do the quiz immediately after watching all the lessons, and if you get stuck just go back and review the lessons again.

The Assignment

The assignment for this week is similar to the first week, but this time focus on symbolism in design. Students are asked to find a contemporary example of design that incorporates symbols or symbolic language in its design. We then need to write about the symbols and what they are communicating. I wasn’t sure where to start, but after looking at some of my design books I decided to see some of Aaron Draplin’s work. I actually found some great examples of symbolism in his work.

Week 4 – Graphic Design Radicalism

The Lessons

The last week of the Ideas From the History of Graphic Design course focuses on design from the late 1950’s to early 1970’s, covering Swiss design, Pushpin Studios, psychedelics and the Diggers, and Sister Corita Kent.

The Quiz

The last quiz of this course wasn’t too bad, though you might need to back and look at some of the video lessons unless you took really good notes.

The Assignment

The assignment for week 4 is difficult. Students are asked to identify a contemporary subculture; a group of designers who produced work that was in opposition to what mainstream graphic design looked like in the 21st century. The peer submissions for this one were really all over the place and it seems like very few people knew what they were doing here. For my submission, I selected European political graffiti street art, or more specifically, Banksy.

Ideas From the History of Graphic Design: In Summary

It was great to actually learn about the history of graphic design rather than just the history of art in general. In design school it always bothered me that there wasn’t a larger focus on the history of design itself and of designers in history. Instead, we studied all the styles of visuals arts ranging from cave paintings to Baroque, to Art Nouveau, to Pop Art, and beyond. This was a still good knowledge to have, but the course material ended up feeling very dry and lacking proper context about graphic design.

Despite not doing any actual design work for this course, I do feel like I learned more about graphic design overall. The last week of the course introduced me to designers and art movements I had never even heard of. Overall, this was a great course and the change in writing about design rather than actually designing was a nice change.

Next, I’ll be taking Brand New Brand, which is the last course in the Graphic Design Specialization from Coursera.

Have you taken the Ideas From the History of Graphic Design course from Coursera? Did you enjoy it? What did you enjoy learning about most? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

If you want to learn more about the history of graphic design check out Meggs’ History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Photo Credits

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash