Summer 1995

Advertising: mother of graphic design [extract]

The word ‘advertising’ makes designers cringe. But it is central to the profession’s history and practice

The word ‘advertising’, like ‘commercial art’, makes graphic designers cringe. It signifies all that sophisticated contemporary graphic design, or rather visual communications, is not supposed to be. Advertising is the tool of capitalism, a con that persuades an unwitting public to consume and consume again. Graphic design, by contrast, is an aesthetic and philosophical pursuit that communicates ideas. Advertising is cultural exploitation that transforms creative expression into crass propaganda. Graphic design is a cultural force that incorporates parallel world views. Advertising is hypnotically invasive. Graphic design makes no such claim.

Though graphic design as we know it originated in the late nineteenth century as a tool of advertising, an association today with marketing, advertising or capitalism deeply undermines the graphic designer’s self-image. Graphic design history is an integral part of advertising history, yet in most accounts of graphic design’s origins, advertising is virtually denied, or hidden behind more benign words such as ‘publicity’ and ‘promotion’. This omission not only limits the discourse, but misrepresents the facts. It is time for graphic design historians, and designers generally, to remove the elitist prejudices that have perpetuated a biased history.

First published in Eye no. 17 vol. 5, 1995