The compelling if somewhat obscure paintings in the caves of Lascaux, and the birth of written language in the third or fourth millennium BC, are both significant milestones in the history of graphic design.
The Book of Kells is a very beautiful and very early example of graphic design in a form that would be acceptable even today. The Book is a lavishly illustrated hand-written copy of the Christian Bible created by Irish monks in the ninth century AD.
Johann Gutenberg's introduction of movable type in Europe made books widely available. The earliest books produced by Gutenberg's press and others of the era (the Incunabula) became the benchmark by which the design of future books, even as late as the twentieth century, would be judged. Graphic design of this era is called either Old Style (especially the fonts which these early typographerss used), or Humanist, after the predominant philosophical school of the time.
Graphic design after Gutenberg saw a gradual evolution rather than any significant change, until the late 19th century when, especially in Britain, an effort was made to create a firm division between the fine and the applied arts.
William Morris' (1834-1896) Kelmscott Press published some of the most significant of the graphic design products of the Arts and Crafts movement, and made a very lucrative business of creating books of great stylistic refinement and selling them to the wealthy for a premium. Morris proved that a market existed for works of graphic design and helped pioneer the separation of design from production and from fine art. The work of the Kelmscott Press is characterized by its decadence and by its obsession with historical styles.
Modern Design of the early Twentieth Century, much like the fine art of the same period, was a reaction against the decadence of typography and design of the late Nineteenth Century. The hallmark of early modern typography is the sans-serif font. Early Modern (not to be confused with the other modern era of the 18th and 19th centuries) typographers such as Edward Johnston and Eric Gill after him were inspired by vernacular and industrial typography of the latter nineteenth century. The signage in the London Underground is a classic of this era and used a font designed by Edward Johnston in 1916.
Jan Tschichold codified the principles of modern typography in his 1928 book, New Typography. He later repudiated the philosophy he espoused in this book as being fascistic, but it remained very influential. Tschichold, Bauhaus typographers such as Herbert Bayer and Laszlo Moholy Nagy, and El Lissitzky are the fathers of graphic design as we know it today. They pioneered production techniques and stylistic devices used throughout the twentieth century. Today, the computer has altered production forever, but the experimental approach to design they pioneered is more relevant than ever -- the dynamism, the experimentation, and even very specific things like font choice (Helvetica has seen a recent revival, it was an early design based indirectly on 19th century industrial typography) and strict, orthogonal composition.
The following years saw graphic design in the modern style gain widespread acceptance and application, while it simultaneously stagnated. Notable names in mid-century modern design are Adrian Frutiger, designer of the fonts Univers and Frutiger; and Josef Muller-Brockman, who designed posters in a severe yet accessible manner typical of the 1950s and 1960s.
The reaction to the increasing severity of graphic design was slow but inexorable. The origins of post-modern typography can be traced back as far as the humanist movement of the 1950s. Notable among this group is Hermann Zapf who designed two fonts which remain ubiquitous -- Palatino (1948) and Optima (1952). By blurring the line between serif and sans-serif fonts and re-introducing organic lines into typography these designs did more to ratify modernism than they did to rebel.
An important point was reached in graphic design with the publishing of the First things first 1964 Manifesto which was a call to a more radical form of graphic design and criticised the ideas of value-free design. This was massively influential on a generation of new graphic designers and contributed to the founding of magazines such as Emigre.
Another notable designer of the latter 20th century is Milton Glaser who designed the unmistakable I Love NY ad campaign (1973), and a famous Bob Dylan poster (1968). Glaser took stylistic hints from popular culture from the 60s and 70s.
Advances in the early Twentieth Century were largely inspired by technological advances in printing and also in photography. In the last decade of the same century, technology played a simliar role, but this time it was the computer, and at fist it was largely a step backwards. Zuzana Licko worked very early using computers for layout, in the days when computer memory was measured in kilobytes and fonts were created using dots rather than lines. Together with her husband Rudy Vanderlans they founded Emigre, the magazine and computer type foundry. They played with the extraordinary limitations of computers as something which, in itself, could provide creative freedom. Emigre became the bible for digital design as the technology rapidly advanced to the point where the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.
David Carson is, in a sense, the culmination of the movement against the restrictiveness of modern design -- some of his designs for Raygun magazine which he designed are intentitonally illegible, designed to be visual rather than literary experiences. He began his career working with paste-ups, in the traditional manner, but moved to computers quickly when he saw what they had become capable of.
Modern Graphic design has since evolved into a profession that is done almost entirely on computers. Common tools for this industry include computers, sketch pads, Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Pagemaker (now considered obsolete), Quark XPress (which is slowly being replaced by InDesign), Macromedia Freehand and Fireworks, Paint Shop Pro, and many other software programs.