Pithy History p. II / A Graphic Renaissance

In this post I summarize Megg’s History of Graphic Design, chapter 5 – 8.

Find a summary of chapters 1-4 here.


Printing Comes to Europe

The crusades exposed Europeans to Asian technology, such as paper and relief printing. In Europe, these inventions further developed as a rising, literate middle class increased the demand for books. However, one of the earliest uses of block printing was for playing cards and portraits of saints.

In 1450,Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg was the first to combine the available technologies into a system that could print typographic books. However, typographic printing didn’t evolve directly from block printing, because wood is too fragile. Gutenberg invented his own metal alloy for the task.

At approximately the same time, an unidentified artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards created the first known copperplate engravings, which are essentially drawings scratched on to a smooth metal plate. This kind of drawing can be reproduced like a block print.

The German Illustrated Book

By 1500 printing was practiced in over 140 European towns. This new, relatively quick way of replicating books increased the flow of information, and illiteracy steadily declined. Printers started using woodblock prints to illustrate their books, and the illustrated book emerged. An illustrious tradition began and quickly spread throughout Europe.

Renaissance Graphic Design

During the Italian Renaissance, smaller, more economic books and italic scripts were developed. Despite the decline in manuscript creation, calligraphers found plenty of work supplementing printed books and drafting documents. Geoffroy Tory, the most influential graphic designer of the century, was active during this time period.

An Epoch of Typographic Genius

Apparently, there was a drought of creativity in the 1600’s, but by the 1700’s, an “epoch of typographic genius” began. “Transitional roman” type emerged, such as the Romain du Roi, and typography branched away from the realm of the calligrapher and into the realm of the engineer.


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