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Story: Graphic design

New Zealand’s first graphic designers were commercial artists, trained in art schools. The importance of graphic design increased during the 20th century. In the 2000s designers often worked on online projects – but the principles of design remained the same.

Story by Hamish Thompson
Main image: Karma Cola design, winner in the 2013 Best New Zealand Design Awards

Story Summary

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Graphic designers produce art to promote goods, services and ideas. They create layouts for advertisements, websites, books and other media. New Zealand design has always been influenced by international trends. It also has distinctive New Zealand aspects.

The first graphic designers were commercial artists, who received general training in art schools. In 1962 the first three-year full-time design diploma (including graphic design) was offered, at the Wellington School of Design. It became a degree programme in 1992. By 2013 there were 30 graphic design courses taught around the country.

The Designers’ Institute of New Zealand was set up in 1991. Annual design awards have been held since the mid-1970s.

Art nouveau to art deco

The first printed graphics in New Zealand featured heavy ornamentation and the flowing floral patterns of art nouveau. Art nouveau was dominant by 1900.

In the 1920s and 1930s New Zealand design was mostly pictorial and realistic. Leonard Mitchell, Stanley Davis and Clifton Firth were leading designers. Abstract European art had some impact on New Zealand design, but art deco was the most important style.

1950s to 1970s

The 1950s graphic style was playful and humorous. Auckland agency W. Haythorn-Thwaite produced posters and brochures for TEAL, the national airline, in this style.

The 1960s counter-culture was also expressed through design. One example was the School Journal under art editor Jill McDonald.

In the 1970s graphic identity became very important to businesses. They wanted logos and design for their brands. Many logos were created, including for New Zealand Railways, New Zealand Post and the 1974 Commonwealth Games.

1980s onwards

In the late 20th century postmodernism borrowed from past styles. With the arrival of computers, people became more aware of typefaces. New Zealand designers who used type in interesting ways included Catherine Griffiths, Sarah Maxey and font designer Kris Sowersby.

At first web design was controlled by programmers. With new, specialised design technology, designers took control of the look of websites.

How to cite this page:

Hamish Thompson, 'Graphic design', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/graphic-design (accessed 22 April 2018)

Story by Hamish Thompson, published 22 Oct 2014