W.A. Dwiggins first used the term graphic design in the text “New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design,” published in August 1922 in a special section of the Boston Evening Transcript devoted to the graphic arts.
It was a hundred years ago this August. I waited in vain for the fireworks. As a discipline, design loves this kind of celebration. The festivities on the occasion of the Bauhaus’ 100th anniversary in 2019 included books, films, exhibitions, and conferences. In Dwiggins’ case, nothing. Why?
Designers missed the occasion because they believed that Dwiggins merely named something that already existed. There is a tendency within design to think that it has been around forever. When one considers that design has existed since the stone age, it is paradoxical to celebrate the «coining» of a name.
Naming is not just about labeling a pre-existing reality. It can be an act of disruption. When Dwiggins wrote that a new kind of printing called for a new design, he enunciated a break from the past. He was proposing a “new design.”
Dwiggins proposed Graphic Design as something new, not just a new designation.
Curiously, designers always say that Dwiggins “coined” the name. The verb underlines a personal, popular side. However, within the text, the usage was strategic. It proposed a new activity with a new name to modernize printing. The expression he created was was so apt that it would name a subject area for decades to come.