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As a student of the history of graphic design, I’ve observed that technology—everything from the first reed stylus to Gutenberg’s moveable type—has always been a primary driver of change. When production moved to the desktop, technology took the lead and design got left behind. Thanks to new tools for designers, that’s changing. I’m excited about graphic design again.

linotype machineA work floor full of typesetters showed up at the New York Tribune in 1886, only to be thanked for their “years of valuable service” and sent home. In their place stood Otto Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine, a gigantic, hot, noisy, mechanical keyboard-driven device that could cast 32 characters of lead type at a time—a line o’ type.

Macintosh 128kA century later, Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh and the “desktop publishing” revolution began. As the Mac and its imitators rose in prominence, new software gave unprecedented graphic power to technicians who had no training in design. Thousands of typefaces were digitized. Production artists learned about “trapping” and “plate registration” and other words previously spoken by printers. Terms like “Rubylith” and “stat camera” faded. “Photoshop” became a verb.

Victorian TypographyIn the late 1990s, the Internet exploded. Everyone got connected. Techy folks created databases and developed with technologies like PHP and Java and SQL. Designers reluctantly learned HTML and CSS and Actionscript. and how to animate and edit video. They grappled with CSS and ePub files. “Text” became a verb. Young computer artists wondered what was so “futuristic” about the ubiquitous Futura, not knowing it was created by Paul Renner in 1927 at the Bauhaus in Germany. It became acceptable to set script typefaces centered in all-caps. Handwriting fonts like “Comic Sans” became cool—look how “human” the computer can be! A century of design craft catalyzed by the industrial revolution and humanist reactions to it—Victorian typography, the Arts and Crafts movement, Suprematism, Dada, De Stijl, Constructivism, Bauhaus and more—got swept under the aesthetic rug by the glow filter, the bevel filter, the linear gradient and the digital drop shadow. Typography grew sloppy and naïve. Content areas became boxes with rounded corners. The web took on a distinctly sterile and “digital” appearance. Somewhere in this rush of progress, the technology folks grabbed the wheel; designers moved to the back seat so they could study the expanding road map. Programmers, not designers, most often created content.

We designers had our hands full learning HOW to use new tools. Who had time to learn what the old masters did with the old ones? The brave new world of technology forgot about an entire century of aesthetic evolution, and industry didn’t care. The call for “click to buy” buttons drowned out the protests of old school communicators who wanted all that functionality to be beautiful.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

Industrialized design has always sparked a humanist backlash. When industry turned away from making the weapons of World War I to stamping out appliances needed to rebuild homes, the Bauhaus School responded with better designs. “If you’re going to crank stuff out, why not crank out beautiful stuff—functional art?” A few of us responded in the same way to the digitalization of contemporary design. Some got educated about design—like pop musicians who work back through their chain of influences to study Robert Johnson and the blues. Some collected textures and custom brush strokes. Others added fingerprints and paper textures to their digital works.

As far away as we’ve been carried from the core values and visions of design, for the first time in many years, I’m optimistic about where graphic design is headed. The folks who make our tools (Adobe) have finally noticed the deepening chasm between those who design and those who code—a classic left-brain/right-brain perspective gap. In this latest version of the Adobe Creative Suite (CS6), new tools empower designers to create sophisticated work without having to understand sophisticated scripting and markup languages.

Adobe Muse allows designers to work in a completely visual environment. Drag, drop and type as you would in a page layout program; Muse creates standards-compliant code.

Adobe InDesign CS6 includes a greatly enhanced set of digital publishing tools that empower layout artists to create mobile applications and eBooks—even new ePub3 eBooks for which eReader devices are yet to be made available.

Why is this shift so important and so valuable? Trained designers working with tools like Muse and InDesign are no longer constrained by digital, binary, rectangular thinking. EBooks can be typeset by artists who understand what an emdash is. Websites can be conceived by creative thinkers who have studied the history of their craft. After listening to designers complain that “print is dead,” and “all my traditional skills are useless,” a time has arrived when “real designers” are needed and valued again.

I would never assert that designers can (or should) replace programmers, but for many years, we lacked the tools and skills to work our magic in a world of evolving new media. Neither would I suggest that designers must no longer worry about having to learn HTML and other technical basics. It’s a pixely world out there; designers who know how to meddle with tags, functions, brackets and braces will have an advantage. But designers are finally empowered to create interactive content using tools made for designers. With many functional tasks handled by the new software, we can assert our value and do what we do best.