The Most Influential Designs of the Past 33 Years

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Feast your eyes on a sampling of the work that has informed, provoked and inspired the graphic design industry since the first issue of HOW rolled off the press.

Since 1985, HOW has taught readers about design, the designers who shape visual culture, the principles and methods they adhere to, and how design impacts culture around the world. Design has become media agnostic—it can be anything—and it appears everywhere we look, whether in printed form or in a digital landscape on the web, in an app, or in augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR). We know design when we see it. But knowing what makes great design, truly memorable design, is a bigger challenge. Does it need to be award winning? Does it need to have turned a profit? And what about client satisfaction? Sometimes, we don’t know those details. We’ve only seen the work, and it speaks to us, leaving an indelible memory. Great design resonates, sparking interest as soon as we see it—perhaps even making us recall it many, many years later. And in some cases, great design motivates us to become designers, and to continue the process—pleasurable or painful—that we must work through to create evocative, emotional, expressive, visual communication.

The Most Influential Designs of the Past 33 Years

1980s

Macintosh Icons 1984 A–Z

Susan Kare began her career at Apple Inc., creating screen graphics and fonts for the original Macintosh (1984)—a computer that forever changed the way designers, artists and illustrators worked. The third model in the Macintosh line—the Macintosh Plus (1986)—was a significant improvement over prior models, further advancing the way designers would work. Kare continues to release special-edition prints of Macintosh icons at kareprints.com, and designers around the world continue to recognize the icons that she created decades ago. kareprints.com


Kenneth FitzGerald on Emigre (1984–2005)

Emigre was a transformative journal of critical thinking and making, engaging all aspects of design activity. Rudy VanderLans’ keen editorial sense identified essential issues defining design, and fostered new perspectives and writers. Texts were often set in the inventive faces of Zuzana Licko, who pioneered digital type design and distribution. Emigre’s pages were revelations of possibility, not only of form but DIY determination and innovation. Throughout, it promoted responsible action toward society and culture. Relentlessly challenging convention, it set a standard that subsequent discussion and conception rarely attempts or reaches.”

— Kenneth FitzGerald is an educator, writer and designer, and former Emigre contributor from 1996–2005. ephemeralstates.com

influential-designers-designsPhotograph of assorted Emigre issues courtesy of Kenneth FitzGerald


Adam Ladd on Malcolm Grear Designers’ Presbyterian Church USA Logo (1985)

“One of the early inspirations for me in design (namely identity design) was Malcolm Grear. His portfolio is filled with marks that achieve both depth and simplicity. A strong example of this is the logo design for the Presbyterian Church. It takes a more-is-more approach with eight separate elements carrying their own meaning, but needing to work together with the others to form the whole. Somehow it’s still quite simple and functional.”

— Adam Ladd is a graphic and type designer. ladd-design.com

MGD PCUSA influential designers and designsDesigns courtesy of Malcolm Grear Designers


Rich Barrett on the Maturation of Comic Books

“In the 1980s, there were a lot of advancements due to improvements in color printing and paper quality, early experimentation in digital art and new formats—notably the graphic novel. In addition to Watchmen and the crossovers from that era, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns changed the landscape. Comics began to look contemporary, with the type of grunge design that was happening in other media such as film, music videos and magazines (think David Carson’s Ray Gun, the music video Smells Like Teen Spirit or Nine Inch Nails’ Closer). Dave McKean’s covers for Sandman were photographic and collage-like, appealing to a whole new audience that might have previously considered comics too childish.”

— Rich Barrett is an illustrator who writes about comic books, most recently for Mental Floss. richbarrett.com

Images courtesy of DC Entertainment 



Willi Kunz’s New York–Paris Poster (1986) for Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture

For decades, Swiss-born Willi Kunz has used type and image to create evocative and memorable designs. His New York–Paris poster is a case study in economy of means, of less is more, with black and white photographs juxtaposed over—and behind—a blue circle representing the planet earth. willikunz.com

Image courtesy of Willi Kunz


Cranbrook Academy of Art Poster Promoting the Graduate Design Program, Designed by Katherine McCoy (1989)

McCoy’s poster blends image and text into an intertwined composition, with two-dimensional typography overlapping three-dimensional elements. As a definitive piece of postmodern graphic design, it’s as enticing to look at today as it was in 1989.

Collection Cranbrook Art Museum, gift of Katherine and Michael McCoy, © Katherine McCoy


April Greiman’s The Modern Poster, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1988)

Greiman was an early adopter of computer technology, including the Apple Macintosh, embracing digital media when others shied away from it. Greiman pioneered what would become known as the California New Wave of design and typography. She used pixels to digitally paint and draw, incorporating imaginative textures, graphics and shapes with type and image. Part of design’s past, present and future, she continues to practice design through Made in Space, where she leads a multidisciplinary consultancy.

The Modern Poster, Exhibition Poster, MoMA, New York, © 1988 April Greiman


Anne Jordan on Skolos-Wedell

“No design retrospective of the past 33 years would be complete without Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell. Skolos-Wedell was one of the first studios to truly embrace digital tools, combining graphic design with photography in surreal and unexpected ways. Their innovative poster designs push the boundaries of type and image, and celebrate the infinite possibilities of form-making. In addition to their groundbreaking design work, Skolos and Wedell influenced a generation of designers by teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. They continue to share their inventive collage process and contagious enthusiasm for design with students today.”

—Anne Jordan is a graphic designer. annatype.com

Editor’s Note: Nancy Skolos is one of seven Regional Design Awards judges this year. Enter today to boost your work, get discovered and get the recognition you deserve.

Image courtesy of SKOLOS-WEDELL


1990s

Cover for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990) by Chip Kidd, Published by Alfred A. Knopf.

As an in-house designer for Knopf—which he still is to this day—Kidd created an iconic and memorable cover for Crichton’s book, a story that was later adapted for the big screen. The T-Rex that Kidd rendered has been used as part of the movie’s logo since Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, and it will appear again in the 2018 movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It seems that some dinosaurs—or dinosaur logos—will never die. chipkidd.com


Image courtesy of Chip Kidd


Donald Partyka on Dance Ink Magazine

“I had just graduated from art school and discovered Dance Ink. I was working for a small two-color publication, and was amazed to see what pre-Pentagram J. Abbott Miller and his studio Design/Writing/Research with Ellen Lupton were doing with two colors. It made me push the limits of publication design in my own work.”

— Donald Partyka is the creative director of Americas Quarterly and he teaches typography at the City College of New York. donaldpartyka.com

influential designDance Ink photograph courtesy of Donald Partyka


Ray Gun Magazine Designs by David Carson

Carson’s work for Ray Gun took place during the height of the alternative rock scene, a time when alternative graphic design began to spring up. Ray Gun was as electrifying, emotional and energetic as the music covered within its pages. The father of grunge typography continues to design—and surf—on a routine basis. davidcarsondesign.com

work by influential designer David CarsonRay Gun image courtesy of David Carson


Briar Levit on the Importance of Björk’s Post Album Art

“Björk’s Post (designed by Me Company, 1995) was seminal for me both in musical and graphic awakening. I was raised a solid classic/prog rock-lover, but in my teens was developing my own tastes. Here was this artist—a solo female one at that—and this album she’d made was totally of my generation! I remember kneeling in front of the stereo, staring at the cover. From the saturated pinks, purples and oranges in the photography, to the international mailer robe that wraps Björk’s body, to the feminine yet bold and energetic 3D computer-rendered typography and flora on the back of the CD—I was in awe of that album cover (still am). It’s the classic story of not even knowing I could have a career in graphic design at the time. But I do distinctly remember simply wanting to align myself with this aesthetic, whatever that meant. This was a gateway to graphic design, and it would only be another year before I figured out that I could do it myself.”

— Briar Levit is an educator, designer, and filmmaker who made the documentary Graphic Means. briarlevit.com

 Björk’s Post book and other design ephemera photographed by Briar Levit


James D. Nesbitt on James Victore’s Self-Published Racism Poster (1993)

“I met James Victore at the exact time I was about to give up on design. His work is raw, biting and, above all, truthful. It turns clichés on their heads and adds a barb so damn sharp it’ll leave a scar. His work is proof that the power is in the message, not how you kern your typography.”

— James D. Nesbitt is a graphic designer. @jamesdnesbitt

Image courtesy of James Victore


Nina Stössinger on Type for the Web

“In the early days of the web, extended reading on low-resolution screens seemed impracticable. Then came Verdana & Georgia (1996), typefaces designed specifically for screen text by Matthew Carter for Microsoft. One a wide, open humanist sans serif—Verdana—the other a sturdy transitional serif with a cursive italic—Georgia. These are screen-native fonts designed from the pixel grid up, and each feature of their design thoughtfully accommodates low resolutions, resulting in refreshing readability. Carefully hinted and widely distributed, they rightfully went on to transform and dominate typography on the web and beyond.”

— Nina Stössinger is a senior typeface designer at Frere-Jones Type. ninastoessinger.com

Microsoft’s Verdana by Matthew Carter 


Clint Schultz on House Industries, and Remembering Rich Roat (1965–2017)

“House has always had an amazing portfolio of work, and their wide range of designs and typefaces have influenced and inspired my work in film. As far as my own design career is concerned, there is not a more important foundry or design firm. On top of all their other design accolades, it turns out that they are actally really great people. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Andy, Rich and many of the talented people at House. Rich had such a wealth of knowledge about the industry, and he always had a great answer or design experience to draw from. We would also talk about my film career, or Rich’s bicycling, and we definitely talked about everything House was doing. Rich always made me feel like I was part of the inner circle of House, and his knowledge, influence and sensibility will be missed.”

— Clint Schultz is a feature film graphic designer.

House Industries influential design by influential designersFlyer fonts package design courtesy of House Industries


Wally Krantz on Why the FedEx Logo Continues to Resonate

“Several times a year I’ll receive a text or email telling me a story about someone seeing the arrow for the first time. Two weeks ago, I received a text from a colleague’s friend who teaches art to fourth grade students: ‘I showed one of my classes the FedEx logo today. I can’t express how fulfilling it is to watch their minds being blown. They’re so genuine. I may not teach them art, I may not influence them to be kinder or more helpful citizens, I may not affect their life in any meaningful way, shape or form, but from now on they can never unsee that arrow.’ We found a way to engage both designers and non-designers, and that’s why the FedEx logo has stayed a part of the conversation.”

—Wally Krantz is executive creative director at Landor and was one of the designers on the Landor team that created the FedEx logo and visual identity system in 1994. @wkrantz

FedEx logo courtesy of Landor 


Paula Scher’s The Diva Is Dismissed (1994) Poster

Paula Scher’s The Diva Is Dismissed (1994) posterfor The Public Theater in New York used explosive typography and striking colors for an unorthodox design approach. The work resonates as much today as it did then, thanks to Scher’s command of composition.

Image courtesy of Paula Scher


The French Paper Company Swatch Book Poster Series (1999)

The Charles S. Anderson Design Company created the French Paper Company Swatch Book Poster Series (1999) to promote French’s paper line using a distinct graphic personality. Grainy, colorful, layered and tactile, the posters are a coveted item for collectors—and not easy to come by. Anderson’s work for French Paper Company coincided with this magazine’s debut. “HOW began publishing in 1985, the same year that I started working with my friends at the French Paper Company. It seems fitting that you selected some of our earlier French Paper promotions for the final paper issue of HOW. We’re honored to be included,” Anderson says. csadesign.com

image courtesy of Charles S. Anderson Design Company


Stefan Sagmeister’s Poster for an AIGA Detroit Lecture (1999)

Stefan Sagmeister’s poster for an AIGA Detroit lecture (1999) tried “to visualize the pain that seems to accompany most of our design projects.” His intern Martin cut the type into his skin, and according to Sagmeister, “Yes, it did hurt real bad.” sagmeisterwalsh.com

Stefan Sagmeister creative direction, Tom Schierlitz photography, image courtesy of Sagmeister & Walsh 


LIGHT/YEARS

Pentagram’s Michael Bierut and Nicole Trice created an all-typographic poster with the look and feel of a photogram for the Architectural League’s Beaux Arts Ball (1999).

Poster image courtesy of Michael Bierut

Click to the next page to see the most influential designs of the 2000s and 2010s.

One thought on “The Most Influential Designs of the Past 33 Years

  1. Michael Ward

    Regarding the FedEx logo, I “unsee” the arrow after enough time has passed and I forget it’s even there. I don’t think it has anything to do with it’s enduring aesthetic.

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