Or    The Writing Is On The Wall

When we consider the first use of graphic design (GD), we have to first clarify what we mean by the term.  Common definitions of graphic Design mention the combination of text and images used as a form of visual communications.  But, written language, or text, is a rather recent invention the 170,000+ year history of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), which would seem to limit GD to the past 5,000 years or so.

However, if we consider text to be a visual mark with symbolic meaning (after all, the marks on a page for the written word “elephant” refers to the spoken word for “elephant,” which in turn, refers to the actual animal “elephant”), this pushes the start of GD back to the first use of visual representation used for communication.

The artists of the caves of Lascaux, France were graphic designers an estimated 40,000 years ago, long, long before written language was invented.  Their images are old, yes, but what about the 130,000 years that humans existed before that?  Were there no graphic designers in all that time?  And, not to belittle the French, but why France?  According to the strongest anthropological theories and genetic research, humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, evolved in Africa, so why would symbolic representation not appear until people spread out of Africa and reached Western Europe?  Was it the brie cheese that inspired them or those haughty accents? (joke)

In our search for the first GD, we of the present day, are limited to looking for forms of visual communication which

  • were made in a medium that can, and did, last for tens or hundreds of thousands of years,
  • and that we can actually find,
  • and we can recognize as such.

Currently, the oldest generally accepted human symbolic creations are engravings in ochre found in South Africa.  The artist/designer’s marks are clearly intentional and clearly not useful as anything other than symbolic representation, and are estimated to be 100,000 year old.[i]  .  That’s over sixty-thousand years older than the Lascaux paintings, ninety-five-thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt.

We cannot ‘read’ these engravings as well as we believe we can read cave art, however, we were not the intended audience.  Humans, with our ridiculously giant brains (from a biological sense), were probably capable of symbolic representation from the start of the species, maybe even our proto-human ancestors were as well.[ii]  Although those first scratches in the dirt were not recorded in the fossil record, I believe we will find older and older evidence of this type of visual communication, this graphic design.

To be human is to communicate symbolically, and, despite what Microsoft or Adobe would have us believe, one does not need software or a computer, just a stick, rock or finger and some dirt.

[i] http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1211535

[ii] http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13962