The history of graphic design is relatively recent. This language was poorly developed, and advertisements were limited to disseminating a product’s virtues until mass publicity broke out in the mid-20th century. Dedicating oneself to graphic design requires a lot of imagination, experience, and mastery of the many digital tools to create visual concepts that communicate ideas that inspire, inform, and captivate. A good design is about telling a story that supports the brand message and creates an identity and a positive emotion in the user.
The world is full of graphic designers. However, some stand out from the rest and become true masters of the discipline. Below, we will find some of the most iconic designers in this field whose common point is their resistance to design’s canonical norms. Their names serve us to analyze their works, and hopefully, this list will inspire future designers.
*Cover image: Saul Bass, Theatrical poster for the film Anatomy of a Murder
#1 David Carson
Known as “The Godfather of Grunge,” David Carson revolutionized the graphic design industry with his unique and particular attitude. He is considered one of the most influential designers of the end of the 20th century. While most of his colleagues follow a set of standards to be better at their job, Carson has never followed the rules. He does not use grids, pays no attention to color theory, and does not care about symmetry in spacing. His designs are messy and chaotic compositions. His lines are deformed and broken to the point of being almost unreadable. His urban aesthetics so imitated until today marked the “grunge” typography era, changing this field forever. His studio has collaborated with Ray Gun, Pepsi, Microsoft, Nike, Budweiser, Giorgio Armani, etc.
The iconic graphic designer had his first approach to this field through surfing, one of his primary interests. His early works date back to the late 80s in the skateboarding magazine, Action Now. Later, he became the creative director of Transworld Skateboarding, making the magazine a reference point thanks to its distinctive aesthetics. In this publication, Carson began to develop his personal style, using “dirty” fonts and high-impact images. It could be said that the experimental culture of skateboarding gave him the freedom to play with the institutionalized modernist dictates of design. His revolutionary style continued to develop and had its splendor with the music magazine Ray Gun. Creative freedom there was the norm opening the field of graphic design to a whole new world. Ray Gun was more famous for Carson’s idiosyncratic visual communication style than for the magazine’s editorial approach.
Carson’s visual language is characterized by fragmentation, distortion, clipping, deconstruction, and reconstruction of various typographic and visual elements, which disrupted orthodox approaches to design. The most notable attributes of his work include worn and textured typography imbued with an innate sense of warmth and human touch, with an emphasis on craftsmanship. Carson’s work was intended to break down the barrier between spoken and graphic language. This means that each design must be emotional, experimental, intuitive, and personal. This responds to his design sensibility, creative instinct, and natural talent, not corrupted by formal education’s limitations. Their sensitivity seems to work according to a more intuitive approach, resulting in an improvised, instinctive, and raw visual language, which has forever changed the field of graphic design.
#2 Storm Thorgerson
With a Master’s in Film and TV from the Royal College of Art, Thorgerson began his career after founding Hipgnosis with Aubrey Powell in 1968. The British agency specialized in designs and illustrations and became known worldwide for the creation of innovative rock music album covers during the ’70s. Although he later separated from the collective, the designer continued to create legendary covers. His most outstanding works are the covers of the first Pink Floyd albums (among them “Dark Side of the Moon”), created with his friend Roger Waters. Other artists he has worked with include Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller Band, Biffy Clyro, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Muse, Peter Gabriel, Styx, and The Cranberries, among others. He also made music videos to a lesser extent. His prolific career began in 1968 until his death in 2013, and without a doubt, he left his mark on music and design.
Most of his designs had surrealistic and conceptual elements. They were visual assemblies of oniric and unreal landscapes. Unusual for the time, his way of thinking was totally rebellious and provocative, and his visual hallucinations generated an impact on people’s consciousness. Thorgerson played with the imagination and transformed photography into unreal events and manipulated reality to create something unexpected, both in illustration and photography. In this way, his work was more valued and allowed to transcend in time. The designer gained recognition thanks to his great legacy and the way he managed to transmit the musical concept of a band through a cover to millions of people defined him as one of the best designers of the time in the music industry.
#3 Saul Bass
This is the man who catapulted the movie posters into art, revolutionizing Hollywood. He was the author of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Psycho and Vertigo graphic, Otto Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm” and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s “West Side Story.” His style was characterized by its authenticity, timelessness, and minimalism. The designer used to include solid color frames and play with different geometric shapes using various techniques such as scrap animation, montage, name design, and live-action composition.
Before Bass arrived in Hollywood, the big film studios did not usually give much importance to their productions’ opening titles, especially the American cinema that still used initial images in a functional way. In short, his work served to define a whole new era of American cinema. In “North by Northwest,” Bass conceived some dynamic credits full of horizontal and vertical lines that burst and disappeared to the rhythm of the music composed by Bernard Herrmann. At the same time, he followed the rhythmic procedures of the avant-garde short films of the twenties of the “absolute cinema” trend, based on the representation of geometric or abstract forms. He applied this same strategy to his last collaboration with Hitchcock in the credits of “Psycho,” where the lines and the posters with the names of the technical and artistic team were abruptly altered, as if they were unwrapped pieces of a puzzle, to suggest the distorted emotional state of their protagonist, the psychopath Norman Bates.
In addition to the opening credits, Bass was responsible for drawing the storyboard for the most famous scene in the film: the murder in the shower. The fragmented planning of this scene is reminiscent of the images of past avant-garde movements, such as Soviet Cine-Eye or the aesthetics of the New Objectivity developed during the Weimar Republic, both artistic currents based on the observation of everyday life. Bass managed to capture the interest of the general public without renouncing the artistic demand. In his works, one can guess the influence of modernist art, expressionism, Russian constructivism, or the Bauhaus school. His suggestive typographies, attractive symbolism, daring and concise silhouettes, and geometries were worthy of inclusion in any design museum. At the same time, his pieces were strong expressions of pure popular art, created to capture the attention of the masses that walked distractedly in front of the awning of a movie theater.
But beyond Hollywood, Bass’ designs can be found in the most popular logos, and you probably didn’t know it: Warner Communications, AT &T, Kleenex, Quaker Oats, United Airlines, Celanese, Hanna Barbera, etc.
#4 Paula Scher
She is the first woman to be in a leading position at the acclaimed graphic design company “Pentagram” and for very important reasons. Her impressive work in the form of perception and application of graphic design in many aspects added to her famous technique of treating typographies as one more visual element that led her to stand out in the environment. She began her career as a graphic designer at CBS Records and Atlantic Records in the 70s. As she herself acknowledges, that time was one of the most productive in her career, appearing on more than 150 album covers each of the eight years she was with the record companies. Her designs were recognized with four Grammy nominations. She also started working on her own, developing a typographic solution based on Art Deco and Russian Constructivism, at which point she became associated with Pentagram.
Scher was the first designer to create a new graphic identity and promotion system for The Public Theater, a graphic design program created for the promotion of the theater and New York’s cultural institutions. Her images have become icons of the city’s visual culture, with a graphic language that reflects street typography and graffiti as a juxtaposition. She has been described as the “master conjurer of the instantly familiar” as she stands between pop culture and fine art in her work. Iconic, intelligent, and accessible, her images have entered the American vernacular—the designer found in typography her best way to communicate with the world. For Scher, “typography is painting with words,” and it generates an immense power through which she allows herself to play to achieve different styles and manage to communicate ideas, feelings, and identities, among many others.
Today, as one of the most influential designers in the world, Scher has developed numerous systems and brand identities, promotional material, packaging, signage, and editorial design for a wide range of clients, including Bloomberg, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, the MoMa, The New York Times Magazine, the Metropolitan Opera, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Tiffany & Co. Her work is on display in the permanent collections of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Pompidou in Paris, and the MoMa, and she has a chapter in Netflix’s documentary series, Abstract: The Art of Design, about leading figures in design and architecture.
#5 Stefan Sagmeister
The contemporary designer is one of the most prominent figures on the international scene in this field. He has done outstanding work for the Rolling Stones, HBO David Byrne, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, and the Japanese artist Mariko Mori. His designs often combine humor, sexuality, unorthodox character, and certain details that seek to draw attention and inspiration from the world of design. His style moves between innovation and raw provocation. For example, there is the poster he designed in the early 1990s for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) conference on the Cranbrook campus near Detroit. At that moment, Sagmeister asked his assistant to carve the details of the lecture on his torso with a knife and then photograph the result to turn it into a poster.
During his time at the university, he began to do some work for the institution, those designs leaning towards satire tinged with subtle humor. Later, he moved from Hong Kong to Italy and New York. Then he was the driving force behind True Majority, a group of 500 artists and directors of leading companies in the United States who publicly opposed the war against Iraq. Among his objectives was to achieve a 15% reduction in military spending in that country and to have that money invested in education.
Sagmeister has been nominated for five Grammys. He has won an award for the CD cover of “Once in a Lifetime,” a box set by the rock band Talking Heads. In addition to designing and creating, he also lectures, telling the story of his life and the approach to his work. In short, Sagmeister’s style has always been characterized by being daring, direct, and provocative. This is his most remarkable characteristic, but also the key to his success.
From the most novices to the most experienced, all graphic designers are looking for inspiration and trends. Venturing into other projects and areas of expert development is an essential part of a designer’s job. Creativity is in constant transformation; the most important thing is that you are open to keep learning, keep feeding yourself with the resources of the best designers and keep polishing your style. Although some have been more revolutionary or have innovated in new elements more than others, all have found their own way of understanding design.
All have used in their own way the tools that the era has put in their hands. I hope you have been inspired by the greatest graphic designers to continue growing. We must not forget that to succeed in this profession, designers must contribute with their vision that makes them unique and helps them to become a true reference. Design is not only about functionality; it is an art in itself.
AI allows designers to do all the fun without the extra work. Isn’t that cool? This makes us very optimistic about the future of design. We can not wait to get more advanced helpers in the creative process.