Natasia Designs
Graphic and website design based out of Edmonton, AB.


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Three Ways to get a taste of Design History

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Three ways to get a taste of design history

After going to the Graphic Means movie screening hosted by the GDC AB North Chapter for Edmonton Design Week, I was motivated to learn more about the history of design without the easily accessible resources of a post-secondary institute. 

Prior to checking out the Graphic Means movie, I vaguely knew about paste-up, letraset, letterpress printing and so on. The design history I really knew went way back to hieroglyphics and cuneiform writing all the way up to letterpress printing, and it feels like it ended there. The truth is, so much happened in design history after that point that really changed the way we work today. The Graphic Means movie screening really made me feel like a fraud as a designer. Designers pre-Adobe Creative Suite are the real designers of our time. The amount of hard work, patience, attention to detail and dedication that went into each and every piece is truly fascinating. To still be creative and ground-breaking with so many limitations on what you can do is unbelievable and truly inspiring.

Although we can’t easily go back in time, pre-digital age, knowing the history is still so important. Like any line of work, it’s best to excel in both theory and in practice, and design, history is a huge part of the theory component. Knowing design history provides context to both the work we are doing and the modern working tools we use (like Photoshop’s “Quick Mask” mode being red for rubylith), it keeps you inspired, and it definitely makes you appreciate the Adobe Creative Suite. 

Here’s a quick guide for things you can do right now to get your taste of design history:

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1. Watch a Movie

Movies are great for visually absorbing info. If you’re not into the full movie thing, you can always take a look through some TED Talk videos by design pioneers, or check out the videos available on about design history. In the meantime, here are a few movies for you designerds.

Graphic Means

Although screenings of the Graphic Means Movie are only limited to certain cities or locations with screening rights at the moment, check out if there’s a screening going to an area you’re travelling, or maybe even apply for a screening request. Otherwise, the film should be available in January 2018 and you can even vote to get it onto Netflix here.


Ah, a classic. This documentary about the popular typeface, Helvetica, is sure to tickle your designer nerd bones. Bonus, you can snag it from the Edmonton Public Library here.

Eames: The Architect and the Painter

The husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames are some of America's most important designers. It’s the first film dedicated to these creative geniuses and their work. Also available at the Edmonton Public Library!

Design is One: Lella and Massimo Vignelli

They are two of the world's most influential designers. Lella and Massimo Vignelli's work covers such a broad spectrum that one could say they are known by everyone, even by those who don't know their names. Get it from the Library here.

Additional Films:

A few other ones to look out for in the near future:


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2. Read a Book or Article

Need something more tangible? When you Google “Graphic Design History” the articles are endless. The books are a little harder to get your hands on but here are a few I recommend:

Graphic Art and Design by The Canadian Encyclopedia

This is an in-depth article about Graphic Design in Canada. It always seems so hard to find information on Canadian design, but this article seems to sum it up quite well. Read it here.

Graphic Design History by Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish

If you’re more into books, this is a great one to have on your coffee table. Organized chronologically, the book demonstrates the connection to the current practices of graphic arts, visual expression, and design with its engaging narrative and special features. Get the book here.

A History of Design From the Victorian Era to the Present by Ann Ferebee

This book covers a few more forms of design from architecture to industrial design, but it’s great to see how they all come together to get us where we are today. Get the book from the library here.

40 Crucial Lessons From The Most Famous Graphic Designers in History by Mary Stribley

This article essentially sums up some of the most well-known designers of our time and what theories or ideas have been pulled in inspired by them. Read the article here.


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3. Get Hands-On

If you really want to get hands-on with design history, I recommend trying some workshops that explore more traditional printing methods, lettering and bookbinding. They are bound (bookbinding pun, HA!) to fuel your creativity and give your eyes a digital screen break.

Screen-Printing and Letterpress Workshops at SNAP

The Society of North American Print Artists has a ton of workshops on traditional printing techniques. Try taking one of the silkscreening classes, or check out one of their smaller letterpress and hand-printing events to get a feel for that type of workflow. Learn more here.

Modern Calligraphy Workshops by Justine Ma

Go way back in design and typography history to just pen and ink writing. Justine is a local calligrapher with a graphic design background that offers workshops. Find out about her next workshops here.

Get Your Hands on Some Old Books

Travel through design history by touching some of the oldest books printed. The Bruce Peel Special Collections Library has all kinds of design books, or books with really interesting design from different eras. Their super knowledgeable staff make it a breeze to browse. Learn more here.

Traditional Calligraphy Workshops by the Edmonton Calligraphic Society

The Edmonton Calligraphic Society offers regular classes and workshops throughout the year, taught by both local calligraphers and out-of-town guest instructors. These classes focus on more traditional calligraphy. Learn more here.

More Resources

A few other places to check out events, workshops and more hands on learning:


Now get learning!

I hope this inspires you to get learning. Please let me know in the comments if there’s anything I may have missed. I’d love to hear about it!

*Photos from Unsplash.