Bonnie Siegler | Dear Bonnie

Naive in Norwalk

Editor’s Note: As students get ready to head back to college, we’re re-posting this article from April that guides you through the graphic designers you need to know. Are we missing any? Leave a comment and let us know. 

Dear Bonnie,

I'm a graduate level design student who did not have an undergraduate design education. This semester I’ve already gotten scolded by two professors for not having heard of graphic designers they’ve mentioned in class. So, lay it on me: who are the designers that I absolutely need to know about? I don’t want to be embarrassed again!

Naive in Norwalk

Dear N.,

I’m so glad you asked. Knowing your design history is a crucial component of being a good designer (as is knowing your art history and ideally, having a general notion of what’s happening in the world around you as well). So I thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some heroes in this space.

I’ve made the executive decision to go with historical figures and not include people still practicing today, so this is a list of great graphic designers you should know about who are no longer living. I am keeping the list to twenty, but of course, could go on and on. Perhaps we’ll do additional installments in future columns.

And, to avoid debate about order, this list is alphabetical, and each designer is shown with a representation of their work. I’m making an executive decision and assuming you know Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, Saul Bass, and Charles Eames.

Rather than try and give you an insufficient crash course in each designer here, I ask that you please, please look each of them up and read about their unique and brilliant contributions to the field of graphic design. And if you already know everyone on this list, good for you! I put it together for the guy sitting next to you.

And one final note: don't think I’m unaware of how few women are on this list. It’s not my fault. The field was dominated by men for a very long time. But thankfully not anymore. Female students now outnumber males at most design schools and, as more and more women achieve higher positions at corporations, they’ve been more open to hiring female designers and female leaders. Maybe a new generation of men will feel the same way. They will if they’re smart.

Herbert Bayer 

Lester Beall

Alexey Brodovitch 

A. M. Cassandre

Lou Dorfsman

Ray Eames 

 Bea Feitler 

William Golden 

TIbor Kalman 

Leo Lionni

El Lissitzky 

Herb Lubalin 

Alvin Lustig 

Herbert Matter 

Josef Müller-Brockmann

Cipe Pineles 

Ladislav Sutnar

Bradbury Thompson 

Jan Tschichold 

Piet Zwart 

Posted in: Dear Bonnie, Graphic Design, History

Comments [5]

I absolutely love this response Bonnie. It is up to the student to dig and learn more, so you made an illustrated list, and it’s a good one. If Naive in Norwalk drops a Ladislav Sutnar name in a future critique—he just may watch his teacher think “huh?”
John Foster

This is a great response and a great list! But I'm disappointed in the professors for scolding their student for her (his?) lack of knowledge. It's a professor's job to educate, and a student's ignorance should be seen as an opportunity to teach, not to scold. Also, while, yes, there are designers in the (western) design canon whose work is worth studying, a diverse range of influences — including from outside the design world — often leads to much more interesting and "original" work. Sharing your heroes with others is a great idea, but there is no essential list of people whose work you need to have studied in order to be a responsible practitioner.
Eric Doctor

Can anyone recommend good books about graphic design history? About specific designers, eras, movements, general history, anything? Nothing beats a good read, except maybe when it's about design!
Tory Hoffman

@ Tory Hoffman—The classic graphic design history text is Megg's History of Graphic Design, published by Wiley. Pricey but comprehensive and sensitively and authoritatively written.
Mimi Sheiner

Tory, I have a small book that I like on this subject called Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design by John Clifford. It gives a one-page bio on the designer and shows examples of that person's work. A few people on this list are not included (Leo Lionni for example—you can look him up) but most are. I agree the Meggs book is wonderful, but you can't carry it around.
Kristen Smith

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