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How the Future of Graphic Design Lies in Its Past

by Shane Mehling
art & design, featured

There is a fascinating lecture from design legend Lance Wyman about his life’s work, including a focus on the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, which ended up being where he created some of the most iconic visuals the games has ever had. This is most obvious from his work on the mesmerizing Olympics poster, which not only was a massive hit at the time but has been held up as a stroke of design genius ever since. 

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And one thing Wyman focuses on when discussing his approach is how his inspiration came from looking at design from the pre-Hispanic culture. He looked at how they approached design and he tried his best to integrate it so that both there was no need for language in most cases and that it still created a feeling that what people were seeing at the games in some way was still a product of the country. 

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That means that while Wyman was using (at that time) modern design tools, the work itself was rooted in a dedication to design that had been created hundreds or thousands of years earlier. It was a modern creation that could not have existed without these sometimes ancient reference points. For example, the use of icons certain events were based on the Mayan glyph system, for example, while his dependance on silhouettes were co-opted from the early Greek games.

As Wyman points out, both his icons and his use of silhouettes were then co-opted about forty years later when Apple began to use very similar iconography, taking essentially wholesale the ideas that he himself had created.

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And while Wyman thinks that Apple probably didn’t do this purely by coincidence, and while some may want to accuse Apple of stealing, this does bring up two important points — 1. Everything is a remix, as you may now know and 2. There is no expiration date on good design.

What this really means is that while we often like to think of design as what happens in Photoshop or how colors complement each other in Illustrator, design has been around since cavemen began to scratch on walls. Civilizations have always had a desire for visual design and it has been a fundamental part of most every people since the dawn of time. And often the design that may have been created for utilitarian uses ages ago also has an innate beauty to it. It is a knowledge of the history  of this work that so often becomes the most important way for designers to create something that feels new and forward-thinking. 

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Designers may get swept away with what they consider cutting edge ways to frame an image or present text, but it can usually be followed back and back back until we are looking at some early prototype that has origins in an early culture. This isn’t some unfortunate circumstance but rather a good way to know if what you’re working on has some staying power or if it may not be as a compelling as you first thought. 

So if you are finding yourself stuck with how to approach a project, trying to keep up with the design that is around you right now may not provide any meaningful answers. There may be a lot of fads and short-sighted visuals that are trying too hard to be something new while missing out on a lot of what makes classic design, well, classic. Go back, way back, past what you would consider retro and begin to look at how design functioned in eras that are long past. You may find the perfect way to move forward.

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Shane Mehling

Shane Mehling is a freelance writer and editor who plays in noiserock bands.