A decade of graphic design

Vector simplicity, deconstructed pixels and ornamentation. This was a decade of conflict, cliché and craft, says Garrick Webster.

Way back in 2002, when Computer Arts Projects was called Computer Arts Specials, The Designers Republic (tDR) was commissioned to create a front cover for an issue dedicated to illustration. The studio was given free rein to produce an image of its choosing, and made the decision to have fun by providing some not-so-subtle commentary on the creative scene at the time.

The image that we received from them was a flat vector picture of a toddler. Around the child's features they'd traced a vector path, shown complete with its drag handles. The child was wearing a tDR T-shirt and the text read 'Trace me', alongside small print that said 'Easy peasy Japanesey'.

The graphic created by tDR conveyed the strong sense of frustration that many designers were experiencing at the time. Creative software such as Freehand, Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark XPress and an array of other tools were becoming cheaper and easier to use.

As a result, 'Joe Company' could design its own logo, build a website, publish a newsletter and, using the experience it had gained doing so, maybe even chuck together a billboard ad. In its cover design, Ian Anderson's graphic design studio was making the point that creating a magazine cover, poster or website had become, to the unthinking designer at least, little more than the practice of tracing a photograph.

The vector graphics phenomenon early in the decade was also a side-effect of mainstream web design. Vectors meant quick downloads in the days before broadband, and became a dominant aesthetic both online and off. When Apple launched the iPod and iTunes, what better way to convey what it was all about than to use digital-inspired imagery?

Instead of pixels, ad agency TBWA employed brightly coloured vector silhouettes of people dancing - those tell-tale white wires snaking their way up into the ears of the performers. The billboards, press ads and TV commercials clearly said 'digital' and 'music'.

The advertising was excellent, but with affordable hardware, software that was simple to use and an aesthetic that was easy to copy, imitators had a field day. For some, the decade might well be remembered for vector silhouettes, Swiss fonts, and clichd imagery such as rainbows, butterflies, spray-paint effects and lens flares. All of which come right out of the tin when you buy Creative Suite.

Designers aren't solely to blame for the culture of repetitive visual solutions that prevailed. Clients themselves were cautious. The dot-com crash hit technology companies worst, and firms that were spending huge sums of money on advertising slashed their budgets - some of them went under.

The United States suffered the most when the bubble burst, and a year later it faced a true tragedy when Al Qaeda struck on 11 September 2001. Security became a watchword from then on, and this filtered through into many forms of visual communication.

However, some designers questioned this, and forward-thinking creatives continued to experiment. "I would say that tDR and Attik for sure were the superstars in the early 2000s," says Michael Paul Young of YouWorkForThem. "You're talking about a group of guys like tDR that could tight-kern Helvetica and type 'You suck'. People would praise it as if it were the second coming of Jesus. They had some mega-power, which was well-deserved after years of effort and good design work."

Like tDR and Attik, Bangkok-based Young set out to explore design software a little more deeply. Instead of tracing images, he deconstructed them. His online works, such as Designgraphik 4 and 5, were dioramas of deconstruction; visuals were reassessed, distressed, animated and supplemented with all manner of vector elements. Using a mixture of keylines, patterns, motion and image manipulation, his creations can be seen as a digital precursor to the mixed-media work that's so prevalent now.

Young's creations in turn influenced some of today's brightest stars, such as the New York designer Mario Hugo. "I can't help but feel nostalgic about the projects that really inspired me to study design," says Hugo. "I literally wouldn't be doing what I do if I hadn't seen these. Mike Young's Designgraphik 5 - I tinkered with Flash endlessly around this time and I'll never forget that Yupster track. Deanne Cheuk's issues of Tokion and Lee Misenheimer's 100 Drawings in 100 Days inspired me to keep working by hand."

Reaction to the identikit design was inevitable. The taste for vector graphics became an appetite for decoration and ornamentation - graphics with more individual style, that were a bit harder to copy. In 2006, The Coke Side of Life campaign launched, including posters that embraced decorative design. Creatives around the world were invited to express their visions as though they were bursting out of a Coke bottle.

The programs in Adobe's Creative Suite - the prevalent design package since the company's acquisition of Macromedia back in 2005 - made the creation of patterns and the process of decorating images and layouts relatively easy. Designers explored the tools heartily.

Canadian designer Marian Bantjes is known for her amazing decorative work, but even she feels it went too far: "I still believe there's a huge role for ornament to play in the design field, if used inventively, but the worst thing is the way it's been taken up and spewed all over everything in sight, like some kind of curlicue spray. This misuse and misunderstanding of 'ornament' has the potential to set us back 50 years."

During the last few years, graphic design has broadened its horizons. The software has enabled us to do a lot more on our own. You can lay out a page and in the same software create a website, and a sister application will turn illustration into animation.

"Most of the great developments in graphic design have been brought about by technological advances," Erik Spiekermann points out. "Offset printing changed what we could achieve on a press, Photoshop reinvented imaging, Fontographer made everybody a type designer, and the PostScript page description language made all of us production experts."

Being able to tackle so many different things has helped some designers become bad at not just one aspect of their work, but many. But for the best designers, software use is second nature - they're free to think about all the different ways in which they can advance their visual agenda. Designers are now publishers of books and magazines, and creators of badges, bags, posters, postcards, textile patterns, mouse mats, vinyl characters, iPod skins, iPhone apps and even crockery.

The craft approach is not new, but has gained a lot of ground in the last five years. Domenic Lippa at Pentagram London sees it more in terms of the designer as author. "This has manifested itself in many forms," he says, "but one of the strongest and earliest is Stefan Sagmeister's 1999 poster for one of his own lectures for the AIGA Detroit Chapter, where he cut type into his own body.

"Sagmeister was clearly identifying himself as the creator, and in future clients would approach Sagmeister Inc because they wanted to work with the man himself. Sagmeister has gone on to produce a lot of his own work, which crosses over between self-initiated projects and commercial commissions."

With craft the buzzword, art directors are commissioning drawings and paintings to achieve a unique edge. Designers are creating their own lettering, or using paper, scissors and glue once again. Others are building staged compositions, photographing them and adding digital elements in post production, including animation. As Sagmeister notes, there's a resurgence of fascinating installation work, like Troika's animated Cloud sculpture in Heathrow's Terminal 5.

With technology enabling graphic designers to contribute to so many more areas of a project, the concepts of 'environmental design' and 'experience design' are at the fore. It's no longer just about logos, signage or packaging. Designers can now create everything: the patterns on the staff uniform, the shop window, the lighting, the website, the direct marketing - the list goes on and on. Virgin Atlantic has exemplified experience design throughout the decade - even its safety video and illustrated air sickness bags include their signature humour.

For Robynne Raye of Modern Dog, the Target experience - including TV commercials, packaging and the in-store decor - was a highlight of the last decade. Von Glitschka cites Stanley Hainsworth's work for Starbucks as an example of design at the same level.

Big footwear retailers like Nike, and smaller ones such as Camper, have likewise made an impact by employing designers who will consider all aspects of the brand and customer experience, creating stores that are pleasant to visit.

If this all sounds depressingly like designers are orchestrating various forms of capitalist brainwashing, the decade 2000-2009 has at the same time seen designers become far more aware of the impact of their work. And, bombarded with visual messages from every angle, the public are more design savvy than ever too. Wolff Olins was undoubtedly shaken by public criticism of its 2012 London Olympics logo, for example.

Green design - the other kind of environmental design - is increasingly prevalent, as are social and charitable causes. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Southern US back in 2005, studios such as Moxie Sozo organised designers to create hurricane relief posters to raise money for the affected area.

In the UK, we've seen the establishment of groups such as Designers Against Human Rights Abuse, and in Europe the Good 50x70 poster campaign has gone from strength to strength. It's reached the stage where some think the D&AD should have an awards category for ethical design.

Where next? Some designers expect a return to cleaner, minimalist design as a response to the current economic recession. Others seek it as a response to the information overload our eyeballs are bombarded with every day.

Where classic design does prevail, it seems to be the chosen aesthetic of certain designers, rather than a growing trend. But at the moment, the range of eclectic work - and the search for authenticity, individuality and truth - looks set to grow over the coming years, which can only be a good thing for the next decade of graphic design.