Additional information on the history of the terms “Graphic Design” and “Graphic Designer”

Commercial Designer / Graphic Art Designer / Graphic Designer

In my recent post about The Daily Heller I asked for people to do serious research into the history of the terms “graphic design” and “graphic designer”. Alex Jay quickly responded to my plea with a lengthy email summarizing what he has discovered about “commercial designer”*—which he says encompasses the graphic and industrial arts—as well as about “graphic art designer” and “graphic designer”. I am posting an edited version of his research—which cites only American sources—below.

It should be noted that there are several women among the individuals listed in Jay’s research. More can certainly be found using additional occupational terms such as “artist,” “designer,” and “decorative designer.”

Commercial designer

The Appeal (St. Paul, Minnesota) January 17, 1891
Advertisement for Edward H. Lee, Engraving and Commercial Designing.

School of Industrial Art of the Pennsylvania Museum
Circular of the School of Applied Art 1898–1899
Six former students listed as commercial designers (pp. 39, 41 and 42). Many others listed as “designers”; some as “designers and illustrators”; and E.H. Hawley and W.H.  Wheeler listed as “advertisement designers” for Ayer & Son (pp. 41 and 46)
Also see another copy of a Circular of the School of Applied Art 1898–1899

New-York Tribune October 21, 1900
An employment advertisement for someone with commercial designer skills.

Daily Kennebec Journal (Kennebec, Maine) April 4, 1901
Advertisement for the New England Art College (Boston) offering commercial designing as part of its courses.

San Francisco Call November 9, 1902
An employment advertisement for someone with commercial designer skills.

Decorah Public Opinion (Decorah, Iowa) March 4, 1903
“Phil. Hexom is thoroughly equipped to fill orders in the following: Lettering and designing, newspaper drawing, magazine and book illustration, commercial designing, cartooning and caricaturing.”

New York Tribune August 29, 1903
The New York School of Caricaturing offered Commercial Designing as part of its curriculum.

New York Tribune October 8, 1905
The Acme School of Drawing in Kalamazoo, Michigan offered a course in Commercial Designing and Lettering.

Harper’s Weekly August 1, 1914
“Confetti of Commerce: The Foreign View of It” by Dryden Hale (pp. 106–107)
Discussing poster stamps, Hale says, “As was to be expected, the mechanical printer and the ordinary commercial designer began to flood the market with trashy stamps—the so-called ‘Schund-marken’—a contemptuous term frequently heard from the lips of juvenile connoisseurs as you pass along the streets of German cities.” p. 107

Pilgrim Publicity 1914–1915
The Commercial Designers Division of the Pilgrim Publicity Association consisted of ten members, five of whom described themselves as commercial designers and illustrators. One called himself an advertising designer and illustrator. In one advertisement the members of the Commercial Designers Division describe themselves as “Designers and illustrators who throughly understand the requirements of art as applied to the various forms of commercial publicity….” W.A. Dwiggins was a member of the Pilgrim Publicity Association in April 1914, but had dropped out by the fall of that year.

The National Lithographer 1917
“Hints and Memoranda for the Guidance of the Letterer and Commercial Designer” is the subhead for a column by J.C. Strickland.*

1910 United States Census

Looking at the 1910 census, ten people (eight men and two women) listed their occupation as commercial designer or as an artist in commercial design. That number more than doubled in 1920. Here are the names in the 1910 census:

Louis V. Bonhajo (age 25); Hawthorn Street, Cincinnati, Ohio—commercial designer; engraving
George E. Gardner (age 30); 16 Irving Street, Worcester, Massachusetts—commercial designer
Adam Greis (age 42); Dithers Street, Brooklyn, New York—commercial designer; lithography
Gertrude M. Hart (age 26); West 91st Street, New York, New York—artist; commercial design
Adelaide T. S. Hecker (age 35); Seventeenth Street, Portland, Oregon—commercial designer
John L. Kuehner (age 22); California Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio—artist; commercial design
William M. Laxton (age 28); 159 Devens Road, Swampscott, Massachusetts—commercial designer; engraving
William A. Richards (age 43); 12 Rasalin Avenue, Quincy, Massachusetts—commercial designer
William L. Schloz (age 32); East 22nd Street, Lancaster, Nebraska—commercial designer
John H. Whyte (age 23); Irving Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—commercial designer; engraving

Graphic art designer

New York Evening Post May 18, 1900
Under “What Is Going On this Evening” column: “Graphic Art Designers’ entertainment, Webster Hall.”

The Inland Printer March 1907
Mr. E. F. Wagner, for many years editor of the Department of Lithography in The Inland Printer, has embarked in the business of graphic art designer for the trade at 70 Fifth avenue [sic], New York city [sic]. (p. 901)

Graphic Arts February 1911
Advertisement for Letters and Letter Construction by F.J. Trezie says the book is “Just the thing for a graphic-arts designer and letterer.”

The Graphic Arts October 1913
“Are You a Designer?” editorial (pp. 229-230)

National Lithographer May 1921
Advertisement for The Litho Art Studio (New York), owned by T.W Henninger, which included graphic art designers and lithographers.

The Inland Printer October 1925
“Copyright Revision Will Aid Graphic Arts” by Walton Fawcett (pp. 59–60)

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle June 9, 1929
“… Prof. Lucian Bernhard, the wellknown [sic] architect and graphic arts designer…”

Interiors October 1953
Announcement of Industrial Design: “Layout, type, and presentation are under the direction of Alvin Lustig, one of America’s foremost graphic art designers.”

Graphic designer

1935 Eastport, Maine city directory
Dede L. Reilly—167 Water Street, graphic designer.
Dede Louise Reilly was a 1933 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Sometime after 1935 she married John Alan Hamer.

Print vol. 3, no. 3 (1943)
“George Salter is a graphic designer whose speciality is book jackets.”

1945 Lansing, Michigan city directory
Pearl E. Turner—725 West Ottawa Street, graphic designer, State Department of Health

1946 Lansing, Michigan city directory
Arden B. Isbell—319 New York Avenue, graphic designer, State Highway Department

Who’s Who in American Art vol. IV (1947)
Albert John Theodore (A.J. Ted) Meurer (b. 1887)—Graphic Designer, U.S. Tariff Commission

*In looking through some of the references to commercial designer it seems to me that the occupation may have been closer to that of an illustrator or draughtsman, than to what is considered a graphic designer today. Note the many instances of a commercial designer being part of an engraving or lithographic establishment. Determining what a commercial designer did requires more research.