Beating a Dead Horse; or, why won’t Steve Heller accept the fact that W.A. Dwiggins did not invent the term “graphic design”?

For nearly a decade I have been trying to squash the claim that W.A. Dwiggins invented the term “graphic design”. See “Graphic Design”: A brief terminological history (June 4, 2014); “Graphic Design”: more on the terminology of a profession (June 8, 2014); The Definitive Dwiggins no. 81—Who Coined the Term “Graphic Design”? (January 7, 2018); The Definitive Dwiggins no. 81A—W.A. Dwiggins and “graphic design”: A brief rejoinder to Steven Heller and Bruce Kennett (May 23, 2020); and Blue Pencil no. 46—Yet more on the early history of the term “graphic design” (June 1, 2020).

Apparently, I have still failed to convince Steve Heller. In The Daily Heller for December 5, 2022, he grudgingly notes my research while hedging as to whether or not he accepts my conclusions. His phrase is “The long-held (although questionably incorrect) credit goes to W.A. Dwiggins for having coined the term ‘graphic design’ in 1922…” But worse than Heller’s obstinacy is the content of his post which purports to discover the identity of the first person to “use the moniker” of graphic design. His big reveal—that T.A. Oliver, an illuminator, of Manchester, England was this person—is a joke. An illuminator is not a graphic designer.

Here is the complete text of Heller’s post:

“The Daily Heller: Speculation Rises About a New Genre of Graphic Design After a Discovery in Manchester, England”

Design scholars have rightly asserted that graphic design is a byproduct (a cousin, if you prefer) of the printing trades (and particularly advertising). Origins are also traced to sign painting and lettering as another chapter in the history.

Many claim to know the identity of the first graphic designer—at least the first artisan to use the moniker. But do we know for certain?

The long-held (although questionably incorrect) credit goes to W.A. Dwiggins for having coined the term “graphic design” in 1922 as a way to suggest the various multitasking jobs he did as a commercial artist, including advertising, lettering, typography illumination, editorial page composition, and so much more. But maybe “graphic design” began in another place, time and person …

After days of decidedly superficial investigation, I am adding a new name and unheralded genre to the mix of theories and speculation of what is and where did graphic design come from. While I am the first to admit that there is no concrete evidence whatsoever to support this claim, let me introduce the heretofore unknown T. Oliver from Manchester, England, a master of the art of “illuminated addresses”, which to paraphrase Wm. Shakespeare is graphic design by any other name. I would also throw out the idea that this could be the beginning of modern brand identity.

Thanks to Adrian Wilson for bringing this discovery of an 1894 advert to my attention and raising the specter of a new wrinkle in the riddle of what came first in the evolution of what we consider two dimensional communication design from graphics to graphic.

Stay tuned for further developments. (Or ignore this entirely) I will follow up in my spare time.

If Heller wants to anoint someone as an early graphic designer I would propose William J. Kelly and/or his one-time partner W.H. Bartholomew. In an undated (before 1883) trade card Kelly & Bartholomew offer “original designing”. In the Printers International Specimen Exchange vol. IV (1883) W.H. Bartholomew & Bro. describe their business not only as “Fine Job Printing,” but also as “Designing”. And in an 1887 trade card Kelly calls himself a “general printer,” “typographer,” and “original designer”. I am sure that someone else used the terms “designer” or “designing”—in the sense of our contemporary understanding of “graphic design”—prior to these examples. However, discovering that person requires serious historical research rather than superficial investigation.

Stephen Coles has reminded me that Oscar H. Harpel refers to himself as a “typographic designer and printer” on the title page of Harpel’s Typograph (and in a reconstructed version of the title page on p. 48) published in 1870. Page 104 reproduces a trade card for Stillman & Adams, Designers, Wood Engravers and Printers; and page 226 reproduces a trade card for Bogart & Stillman, Designers and Engravers on Wood.

Thanks to Nick Sherman for bringing this post to my attention.