Observations on Design and Illustration #2: Design Definition & History

Design Pet Peeve #2: Sales Receipts. In the USA there is a standard chart-style label mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for inclusion on most food packages.  Similar charts are required or recommended in many other countries including Australia, New Zealand, India, Mexico, Canada, and the European Union.  In the USA, it’s a small black and white list titled “Nutrition Facts.  Are you familiar with it? The label was controversial at the time the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required it in 1994, but has since gone on to be considered one of the finest single design breakthroughs in the history of graphic design.  Why?  Because each label has more-or-less the same look, layout, size, shape, content, and placement no matter what product it explains.

Why can’t we do the same for other ubiquitous products in our world, like retail sales receipts?  Have you any idea how much time, labor, and money we could save when we do our income tax returns, keep track of our business expenses, or work on our household budgets if every receipt we got had the same sort of standardization as the Nutrition Facts labels?  Worldwide, millions, maybe billions of person-hours and Dollars/Rupees/Pesos/Euros/etc could be saved every year.

I realize that many companies that make POS (Point Of Sale) devices with receipt printing capabilities like to keep their software proprietary, but they are mostly programmable devices these days, and the Association for Retail Technology Standards (ARTS) and the National Retail Federation (NRT), to name just two regulatory organizations, have the membership, committees, responsibility, and, I would think, incentive, to standardize what all printed receipts look like.  If the retail industry won’t standardize the look of receipts, maybe the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will do for receipts what the FDA did for nutrition labeling.

What’s my point? Standardization of elements should be employed in designs that are widely or repetitively used.


Definition of Design.  From an abacus to a zoo, every object, building, system, or image used by humans is designed before it physically exists.  A design (noun) is the tangible form of a concept or idea; a decision made visible; a plan or pattern from which to work for the production of something. To design (verb) is to formulate or plan out; to communicate; to create something out of nothing.

These days, the majority of design work is done on computers.  Design development, however, can include any number of tools such as quick sketches (sometimes with materials as simple as pencils and napkins), 3-D mockups, models, simulations, and prototype or temporary versions.  In short, any media can be used to successfully develop, record, and communicate ideas.


A Brief Design History. Any discussion of the history of design can be as elusive as trying to catch one fish out of an entire school with one’s bare hands.  The fish are all around, but isolating and catching just one slithery creature can prove difficult.  Why is that?

Part of the challenge is that, for any given time period or product, the first question that comes to mind is: was it designed, invented, developed, or improved from an earlier form?  Did Galileo Galilei (Italian, 1564-1642), for example, design his famous telescope, invent it, or both; or was it more in the category of a development?

Another slippery point is that for every person who was credited with a design, did that person work independently, did other fish in the “school” have a hand in the end product, or have the vicissitudes of time blinded us to the name of the person who should have received credit?  Printing with movable type is one example.  Everyone knows that Johannes Gutenberg (Mainz, Germany, 1398-1468) is credited with developing the process in Europe at the end of the year 1450.  But did he?  A statement attributed to Ulrich Zell (also a Mainz printer, and contemporary of Gutenberg) in Johannes Koelhoff’s Cologne Chronicles (1499) attributes the first invention of movable type to Lourens Janszoon Coster of Haarlem, The Netherlands, in 1440; and that Gutenberg simply improved the technique.  Zell further states that Gutenberg stole Coster’s type and used them to print in 1442.  There are at least two other claimants to the invention as well: Procopius Waldfoghel (Avignon, France) and Panfilo Castaldi (Felte, Italy, 1398-1490).  Add to this the facts that: A) Gutenberg certainly did not design the press for his printing process, since by the mid-fifteenth century presses had been in existence for centuries for other purposes (cloth, grapes, woodcuts, etc.); and B) one Pi Sheng has been mentioned as the inventor of movable type in China in the eleventh century; and you can see how confounding fishing for answers can become.

H. C Forster. From Xylographs to Lead Molds, A.D. 1440-A.D. 1921. 1921. Cincinnati, The Rapid Electrotype Company.


Having plumbed the murky waters of design history, lets drop a hook anyway.


The long annals of design history quite possibly started when Neolithic people’s experimentation with -- and testing of -- the natural world evolved into critical selection, husbandry, and replication.

Lewis Mumford. The City in History. 1961.  NY, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


The ancient beginnings of many designs are lost to us, or pinned to the collective spirit of the time.  Many could more accurately be called developments.  Farming, pottery, boats, writing, maps, the bow, and the axled wheel are such “designs.”  The name of the enterprising individual who first used a wheel to turn a clay pot, for example, is unknown to us today, but the best estimate is that this first use was developed in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, around 3500 B.C.  Not long after the potter’s wheel, the technology was adapted for use in transportation.  The wheel has since spread to virtually every corner of the globe and been adapted for thousands of uses large and small.

Dick Teresi. Lost Discoveries.  2002. NY, Simon & Schuster.


As the centuries have passed, attributing specific ideas to individuals has become easier.  Still, many designs were actually more in the realm of developments or inventions rather than isolated “aha!” moments.  We tend to think of designs as buildings, chairs, coffee pots, or web sites.  The following are just a few thoughtful and creative people whose achievements illustrate the broader meaning of design as innovation.


Archimedes, mathematician, physicist, and inventor (Greek, 287-212 B. C.) is credited with designing a pump in the form of a screw mechanism turned inside a cylindrical sleeve for pumping water out of flooded ships.  The design is still used in the middle-east for irrigation.

J. G. Landels.  Engineering in the Ancient World. 1978. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.


Hero (Heron), mathematician (Alexandria [of Greek decent], A.D. 10-70) may have developed the first windmill used to operate a piston-pump powered organ.



Sultan Saladin, military leader, diplomat (ca. 1138-1193) is credited with the first design of the “bent entrance” in the wall of his Citadel at Cairo (1184) for the purpose of slowing the progress of an advancing enemy.  His design was the beginning of a technology that is being used to this day in various forms.

Sir E. Denison Ross, Editor. The Art of Egypt Through the Ages. 1931.  London, The Studio Ltd.


Unkai, sculptor (Japanese, 1148-1223) Developed a system of joining parts of his wooden sculptures “with double-pronged metal staples.”  Thus he was able to impart naturalism and sensitivity into his works by carving individual parts separately and joining them into whole sculptures afterword.

Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, et al. 1,000 Years, 1,000 People.1998. New York, Kodansha International.


Andrea Palladio, architect (Venetian, 1508-1580) is said to be the most influential figure in western architecture.  He designed, among numerous other decorative details, the perfectly proportioned curve-topped windows known today as Palladian windows.

Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, et al. 1,000 Years, 1,000 People.1998. New York, Kodansha International.


Joseph Wilson Swan, physicist and chemist (British, 1828-1914) invented the first incandescent light bulb, patented in 1878.

Ronald W. Clark. Works of Man. 1985. New York, Viking Press.

William Shockley, Jr. (1910-1989), John Bardeen (1908-1991), and Walter Brattain (1902-1987), were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (1956) for developing their germanium crystal transistor.

Arlo P. Cipolla and Derek Birdsall.  The Technology of Man.  1980.  New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


Tucker Viemeister, designer (American, 1948- ) co-founder of Smart Design where he helped design the OXO “GoodGrips” line of kitchen tools.

Personal communication


For next time: Design Considerations and the Process


Comments, anyone? To find out about my background and experience or send comments, go to www.mapsandwayfinding.com.


Dennis O’Brien