Graphic design concerns the way in which images, typography and layout express ideas and information. Graphic designers create art to promote or develop goods, services and ideas. They can also design art and layouts for textiles, websites, advertisements, books and other media. Design historian Philip Meggs has said the essence of graphic design ‘is to give order to information, form to ideas, expression and feeling to artifacts that document human experience’.1
New Zealand’s first graphic designers were known as commercial artists. They received general training at art schools such as Canterbury College School of Art (founded in 1882), Wellington’s School of Design (1886) and Auckland’s Elam School of Art (1889).
In 1962 the Wellington School of Design, now part of Wellington Polytechnic, began offering the first three-year full-time diploma in design, including graphic design. Around the same time, commercial studios specialising in visual communication design started to appear, providing graduate work opportunities. The diploma became a degree programme in 1992 after Massey University absorbed Wellington Polytechnic. From the 1980s private providers such as Auckland’s Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design began offering tertiary graphic design qualifications. In 2013 there were 30 graphic design courses in New Zealand.
The Designers’ Institute Black Pin is awarded to a member who makes a lasting and valuable contribution to the profession. In 2013 the winner was Grenville Main, a graphic designer who took the Wellington firm BNA from a graphic design team to a strategic consultancy across many media.
The Designers’ Institute of New Zealand was formed in 1991 by the merger of the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers (formed in 1960) and the New Zealand Associaiton of Interior Designers (1968). The institute works to represent and increase the public profile of the design profession. It lobbies the government on behalf of its members and provides input into regulation affecting designers.
In the mid-1970s the National Graphic Design Awards (renamed Best New Zealand Design Awards in 1988) were established to recognise New Zealand’s best graphic design. In 1992 the awards were extended to include other design disciplines. The best entries in each category are awarded a Gold Pin. The very best projects in each discipline receive a Purple Pin.
New Zealand graphic design has developed at a distance from the rest of the art world, but not in isolation. The work of commercial illustrators and visual artists has followed international trends since local printed materials were first created. This is even more the case in the electronic age, where increasingly diverse global influences arrive quickly. Nonetheless, there is a distinct, local dialect to New Zealand graphic design that reveals the influence of landscape and climate and a strong indigenous visual culture.
The first printed graphics in New Zealand reflected European design styles of the late 19th century: heavy Victorian ornamentation and the flowing floral patterns of art nouveau. Symmetrical layout and use of type on cloth banners were typical of the period. So were decorative borders, curved type and realistic scenes with almost no close-up depictions. By 1900 art nouveau was the dominant art and graphic style. Sources for its style were the arts and crafts movement, Japanese woodblock design and pre-Raphaelite painting.
A funeral tribute for leading designer Stanley Davis noted his passing as ‘a loss to the whole country. He was remarkable for his keen cheerful zest in his tasks … He had an untiring eagerness to put distinctiveness into ordinary things.’1
While modernism (including cubism, futurism and constructivism) swept through European art and design in the 1920s and 1930s, New Zealand graphic design remained largely pictorial. There were some examples of local abstract or symbolic design, but most work was drawn or painted in naturalistic or realistic styles, with lettering set around the image.
Two of the leading exponents were Leonard Mitchell and Stanley Davis, both of whom significantly influenced New Zealand graphic design.
Most graphic design in 1930s New Zealand was a jumble of typefaces and images that commanded attention with quantity rather than quality. Clifton Firth turned this on its head. A follower of new European typography, he used type dramatically with black and white photography to create distinctive images.
The radical development towards abstraction in European art had some effect in New Zealand, even on Railways Studios posters in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of these clearly reflect the spirit of modernity, well before painters Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston began experimenting with abstraction. However, the dominant style was art deco, which had replaced art nouveau as the major international decorative style. Streamlined, geometric designs expressed the power and scale of modern technology; sleek, towering ships and speeding trains were quintessential art deco images.
Drawn in an understated, cartoon-like manner, the 1950s graphic style was playful and humorous. The posters and brochures created for Tasman Empire Airways Limited (or TEAL) by Bill Haythornthwaite’s Auckland studio illustrate the style and are a high point of New Zealand graphic design. This agency’s output, particularly the work of Haythornthwaite, Linwood Lipanovic and Arthur Thompson, exemplified international trends in post-war design, including the graphic style.
Bill Haythornthwaite graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts in the early 1930s. After the Second World War he founded W. Haythorn-Thwaite, which became a national advertising agency. One of the company’s best-known designs was the maroro (flying fish) logo for TEAL, Air New Zealand’s predecessor. The maroro was deemed an appropriate emblem because it was strongly associated with long-distance Māori sea voyages.
The counter-culture of the 1960s affected New Zealand along with the rest of the western world. English pop designers and US look leaders such as New York’s Push Pin Studios set the pace across the globe. Murray Grimsdale’s poster for Annie Bonza clothes (1969) showed the influence of British pop designers who had reworked art nouveau to their own ends.
One of the furthest-reaching revolutions was in the look of the educational publication the School Journal in the mid-1960s, under the leadership of art editor Jill McDonald from 1959 to 1965. McDonald had trained as an architect, and her technical design expertise underpinned the seemingly relaxed, folksy style of much of her work.
During the 1960s the international typographic style began dominating global graphic trends. Originating in Switzerland, it was marked by the use of sans serif typefaces (especially Helvetica), arranged with a straight left margin and ragged right edge. Its minimalist ethic sought to get rid of redundant design elements. The influence of the style was evident in the approaches of leading locals such as Stan Mauger, Bret de Thier and Max Hailstone.
During the 1970s full-colour printing remained expensive. Designers had to be cunning in their use of tints and overlays, and employed photographic techniques such as posterisation, where tonal variations were made more abrupt.
Graphic identity took on full importance in this decade, and smaller companies also realised the importance of a logo to back their brand. Examples from the 1970s include the New Zealand Railways logo, designed by Barry Ellis; the New Zealand Post logo, designed by Earl Hingston; and probably the most iconic logo of the decade – the 1974 Commonwealth Games logo, designed by Colin Simon.
Graphic design in late-20th-century New Zealand was marked by a return to adornment and decoration, and to borrowing from the past. Postmodernism first emerged internationally in the 1970s. The style celebrated expression and personal intuition, where the modernists had focused on formula and structure and refused historical references.
Knowledge of typefaces and typography in New Zealand has increased greatly since the arrival of desktop computers. In the early years of the 21st century three internationally recognised Kiwi designers began exploring typographic design in distinctive ways.
In the 1980s few designers had the skills to use the new computer-based production technology; in the 2010s computer mastery was a prerequisite for design work. In the decades between, Macintosh released the Apple computer; desktop printers were developed that could print 1200 dots per inch; and computer applications for page layout, design and image manipulation became standard for designers. Computers replaced many of the skilled trades in graphics and enabled one person to fill many roles.
In 2013 the Tauranga design company Right Aligned used the following-the-sun business model to provide PowerPoint presentations and graphic-design and web-design services to international clients. This meant taking over the workflow from their European colleagues in the morning and handing it back to them in the evening, providing a 24-hour service to clients.
Since 2000 internet-based communication has dominated information exchange, and online media came to represent the leading edge of graphic design. Initially web layout relied on basic HTML coding and was controlled by programmers and their technical abilities rather than aesthetics. In the 2000s designers could dictate the look, aided by the creation of web fonts (which allow designers to use fonts that are not installed on the viewer’s computer) and high-speed internet which allows fast downloading of graphic material.
The core principles of good graphic design, such as strongly structured layout and effective typography, remain at play in the dominant media form. The work of Timothy Kelleher and Matthew Arnold at Sons & Co demonstrates a new level of simplicity and sophistication, all presented online to an immediate global audience.
Smythe, Michael. New Zealand by design: a history of New Zealand product design. Auckland: Godwit, 2011.
Thompson, Hamish. Paste up: a century of New Zealand poster art. Auckland: Godwit, 2003.