Take inspiration from these tips and experiences offered by some of the world’s most recognizable and influential graphic designers.
Graphic designers achieved professional recognition in the 1950s and 60s. Pairing type and images together is both a precise science and an organic art. Dozens of iconic graphic designers have made their mark with precedent-setting projects for big brands, top universities, and major publications alike.
Perusing a overview of graphic design over the years sounds enjoyable enough, but all working professionals need an actionable takeaway from the industry’s storied history. We’ve profiled 18 famous graphic designers below and distilled their accomplishments to essential tips to keep in mind as you press forward in your career as a graphic designer.
Here are 18 timeless tips and pointers from some of the most recognizable names in the field:
1. Joseph Müller-Brockmann: Consider the Grid
Joseph Müller-Brockmann is the archetypal Swiss designer, utilizing all of the clean typographic elements of 1950s Swiss graphic design that emphasized readability. While his preference for geometric shapes, sans-serif fonts, and vivid colors inspired a generation of graphic designers, perhaps his greatest lesson was adherence to the grid system. The importance of the modular grid in modern web design cannot be understated. If you want to establish hierarchy and concoct a clean design, stick to a grid.
2. David Carson: Defy Convention
If there’s any inflexible rule in graphic design it’s that all rules are flexible. David Carson, aka “The Father of Grunge,” is known for his work at Ray Gun Magazine. His work embodies a complete disregard for convention, placing oversized or microscopic type at bizarre angles, on top of other text, or even upside down. He embraced the rock and roll lifestyle, saying “graphic design will save the world right after rock and roll does.” The takeaway? Don’t always play it safe.
3. Cipe Pineles: Only Work With the Best
In her illustrious career in magazine design Cipe Pineles revolutionized the medium, transforming Vogue, Glamour, Vanity Fair, and Seventeen into refined, respected, cutting edge publications. Pineles hired the best artists in graphic design to illustrate her magazines, never settling for second rate work. If you want to make a mark in graphic design make the effort to assemble the most talented team possible.
4. Carolyn Davidson: Know Your Worth
Celebrated graphic designer Carolyn Davidson designed perhaps the most well known logo on the planet, the Nike swoosh. The story of its creation is legendary in the graphic design industry. Davidson was paid a mere $35 for her logo that shaped a brand now worth over $16 billion. That’s it! Though the company awarded her with ample stock in recent years, this anecdote goes to show the power of a tight contract. On the other hand, it also demonstrates that as graphic designers we can’t predict the future. Take each project for what it is and keep moving forward.
5. Alvin Lustig: Evoke Something Deeper
Alvin Lustig influenced contemporary design across multiple mediums, including magazine covers, interior design, and even fabrics. A thoroughly modern, holistic designer, his work in book jackets reveals an enlightening tip: don’t rely on literal imagery. He would read the entire novel and craft a book jacket that captured the essence of the story through symbolic imagery rather than plot-driven designs.
6. Lucian Bernhard: Keep It Simple
Often what graphic designers consider artistic flair is just noise to the viewer. Lucian Bernhard’s minimalistic approach to design in the early 1900s shepherded in an era of simplicity in advertising in direct opposition to the popular Art Nouveau style of the time, and his direct, impactful style was particularly popular with major German brands. When in doubt, always simplify.
7. Jacqueline Casey: Clean Designs are Powerful Designs
In terms of inspiration for other graphic designers, few icons can boast such impactful work as Jacqueline Casey. Her poster work at MIT were perfect examples of how clean designs with stirring visuals could drive home concepts and meaning. Less is often more, especially when you’re bold in your vision.
8. Kate Moross: Look Everywhere for Inspiration
Kate Moross is a sought-after modern designer and art director who, in her own words, doesn’t go to art galleries, read magazines, or engage in traditional art culture. She suggests that designers open themselves up to be influenced by everyday interactions and observations. “I think I get most of my ideas from everyday life—going to the shop or interacting with the bus driver or seeing something by accident… I definitely think your influences are to do with your character, your life, your mood.”
9. Milton Glaser: Use Imagery to Provoke Understanding
Milton Glaser is one of the leading American graphic designers of our time, having designed the “I <3 NY” logo that adorns t-shirts, coffee mugs, and baseball caps nationwide. Glaser’s catchphrase “the act between seeing and understanding is critical” is a graphic design credo for the ages. The visual language of your design concepts should always spark something new in the minds and hearts of those reading and seeing your work for the first time.
10. Jonathan Barnbrook: Welcome Controversy
Graphic designers are artists, and you can’t make meaningful art without ruffling a few feathers. Jonathan Barnbrook’s Tourette and Bastard font families still generate controversy within the industry. Be prepared to listen to feedback but accept outrage as a possibility when taking risk. Barnbrook is also well known for his design for David Bowie’s Blackstar album, pictured above.
11. Muriel Cooper: Welcome Change
Muriel Cooper was a print designer before enrolling in her first computer class in 1967 at MIT, and then delved headlong into the realm of digital design. Cooper utilized her design prowess to transform the possibilities of computer screens, showcasing the first examples of three-dimensional computer graphics and type that could change size and focus. Approach new forms and mediums with open mindedness and passion to get lasting results.
12. April Greiman: Bridge the Gap
Along with Muriel Cooper, designer April Greiman is largely responsible for graphic design making the leap to computers. Her adamant acceptance of new technologies paved the way for the field of digital design. Greiman incorporated elements like pixelation into her designs intentionally to infuse design with computer elements. When exploring new mediums bridge the gap and proudly showcase the limitations and depths of your work.
13. John Maeda: Don’t Be Afraid to Go Back to School
Muriel Cooper and Paul Rand’s book Thoughts on Design helped John Maeda realize the potential of traditional graphic design and art education when paired with a knowledge of computers. After earning master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, Maeda pursued a degree in art and design so he could approach his career with an interdisciplinary frame of reference. Just because you are concentrating on one field of design do not assume you can’t earn an education in other areas that interest you.
14. Ladislav Sutnar: Act as a Guide
Ladislav Sutnar is one of the most authoritative architects of information design by guiding readers of manuals or catalogues through complex copy using limited color schemes and typographic hierarchies to help direct the eye to relevant information. Sutnar’s designs illustrate the attention to detail and consideration of the user experience needed to craft helpful guides through design.
15. Massimo Vignelli: Communicate Effectively
Massimo Vignelli is now lauded for his New York City metro signage that was controversial upon initial release. By removing visual clutter and paring down information to its essence he was able to communicate the intricacies of the public transit system effectively through design. Remember that graphic design, like any other means of expression, is primarily a method of communication.
16. Morag Myerscough: Think Big
Don’t be afraid of failure, lest you pass up the project of a lifetime. Morag Myerscough has created an incredible niche for herself and her studio by creating large scale installations of pop-up graphic design projects that redefine the public’s relationship with buildings and traditional spaces. Any project worth taking will probably scare you. Trust your intuition and bring big ideas to all of your projects.
17. Armin Hofmann: Value the Art Over the Pay
Influential Swiss graphic designer Armin Hofmann was as revered for his teaching and philosophy of design as he was for his output as a designer. His work emphasized clarity, visual strength, and finding the “why” of design through pragmatic means. He felt that the meaning behind design was more important than the pay, saying, “If financial gain ultimately becomes more important than the product to be created, one will no longer be able to speak of work that fulfills a higher meaning.”
18. Paula Scher: Learn From Failure
Paula Scher, one of the most famous living graphic designers, has given us many lessons, including “embrace typography as imagery” through her transcendent work at The Public in New York City, pictured above. In an interview with Psychology Today she also shares important design tips, saying, “When you do something terrible, you know what not to do. And that’s fantastic.” Another gem: “You can’t be a designer and say, ‘Oh, this is timeless.’ Nothing is timeless! Times change.”
Consider this shortlist of graphic design tips any time you’re stuck on a design or in the need for inspiration. Avoid submitting mundane work by heeding the advice gathered from some of our favorite graphic designers.
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