Icons Of Digital Design

Apple launched the Macintosh personal computer in 1984. It was more user-friendly than other PCs at that time — and, with its desktop publishing software, graphical user interface and mouse (all novel at the time), the Mac was uniquely geared to designers. Compared to what we can create on the computer today, the original Macintosh, with only 128 KB of memory, had limited capabilities. At the time, though, it opened up so many new possibilities.

Of course, using a computer didn’t automatically make designers better at their craft. Instead, the new technology gave them more control and sped up their exploration process. As with anything unfamiliar, the Mac sparked debate among designers during this time: While some saw the computer as simply another tool for creating work, like a drawing pen, others saw its potential as a medium in itself.

Emerging digital technology also changed typography, exploding the number of typefaces available and giving designers the tools to create and distribute their own fonts. Some digital typefaces were updated versions of classics, while others were brand new: type that was made for low-resolution screens, and type that was less functional and more illustrative. It was easier to break the rules. There was a refreshing jolt of youthful experimentation as people moved past the limits of the rational and functional.

I wrote my book Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design to highlight the era’s influential designers, from El Lissitzky in the early 1900s to Stefan Sagmeister today. Each of these designers broke from tradition and changed the world of design in some way. Those who designed not only on the screen, but for the screen, ushered in a new era of digital design, mixing media and incorporating motion, sound and interactivity. Below are a few of those pioneers.

Wim Crouwel

First, though, let’s step back. Twenty years before the Macintosh was released, Dutch designer Wim Crouwel had an uncanny sense of how computers would influence design and vice versa. In the 1960s, developments in printing technology gave designers more control over their work: Instead of relying on a printer to compose type and position images in a layout, designers used rub-down type and photomechanical transfer to do it themselves. This DIY approach gave designers more freedom and flexibility in using, manipulating and creating type.

The computer was in its early stages at the time, and Crouwel saw an exhibition in Germany on digital type production. The limitations were clear to him. Dot-matrix printers and computer screens couldn’t reproduce traditional type with curved letterforms. So, he created a groundbreaking typeface to work with this emerging technology.

Starting with the Swiss typographic grid, Crouwel based letters on the rectangle, using only vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. The result was 1967’s New Alphabet, so radical in appearance that it was almost abstract. It was never meant to be used; it was just an experiment. Crouwel must have been surprised to see the New Alphabet used on the cover that Peter Saville designed for Joy Division’s Substance album 20 years later.

Still, that concept influenced his future work, like his poster for Vormgevers(“Designers”), for which he hand-rendered the lettering based on squares in a visible grid. Crouwel developed a system for Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum where each piece — posters, brochures, advertisements — used the same grid. Although these pieces promoted art exhibits, they never depicted the art itself. The type-centric design and common grid unified the museum’s communications, yet the system was flexible enough to remain fresh and interesting.

Crouwel also broke new ground in how Dutch designers worked. In the 1960s, Dutch companies with large projects often hired larger firms in cities like London, thinking that the local designers who usually worked solo wouldn’t be able to handle the workload. In order to attract those large projects, Crouwel and four partners, with a range of experience in graphic and industrial design, formed Total Design. It was the country’s first multidisciplinary studio, where teams handled complex two- and three-dimensional projects. It was successful: Private corporations, government agencies and arts organizations hired Total, and their designs for postage stamps, airport signage and museum posters made a distinct mark on the country’s visual culture.