This article is now available to millions of readers. They won’t all read it, but here it is, available to them instantly. Even 10 years ago that type of world-wide instant availability was unheard of. Writing in and of itself did the same thing thousands of years ago- spreading information and making it more widely available- that the internet has done now. The written word conveys information far beyond the physical presence of the individual that set down the words. Technology allows it to travel even farther. Originally devised for materialistic needs, writing has evolved from strokes in clay tablets for counting grain to its use today to own and relate ideas and property. Though the artistry, letterforms, mediums and means of transportation of have changed over the millennia, the basic functionality mankind demands from writing and graphics remains the same.
Detailed historical accounts with dates, locations and theories are available extensively, including A History of Graphic Design by Phillip B. Meggs, from which much of the technical information for this article has been found. Such an in-depth account isn’t necessary here, but some choice tidbits of history are required to illustrate the origin of this now second-nature form of communication.
As a hunter-gatherer society living in small groups, oral tradition was sufficient. Anything that needed to be known- culturally or for survival- could be passed down directly, person to person. Excluding the occasional cave painting by a particularly forward-thinking individual; mass accumulations of knowledge for the sake of a great whole were not necessary or conceived of. That need arose with the advent of agriculture.
Farming and the ability to store food long term allowed people to stay in one area. Staying usually meant an ever-increasing population that needed to be supported with more food. Then arose the questions of how to track that food. What can be eaten and what needs to be stored as seed? Which individuals or families paid their tithes in grain? How are war winnings divided? At this point in Sumeria a basic counting system, based on the number of human fingers, developed and was recorded on clay tablets. Also needed was a way to easily identify the contents of numerous clay pots. Tags with simple drawings were devised, also in clay. Here we see early graphic design emerging as images representing physical things and, later, ideas.
It was soon realized that more than grain counts and jar contents could be recorded using this method of communication. The writing itself was done on clay tablets with a sharpened reed stylus. The clay was baked to harden for durability. 300 years after th first primitive uses, the curving thin lines changed into a sharper, faster, more accurate form of writing- still with pictures and lines- using a wedge-shaped stylus pushed directly into the clay much like a stamp. These images could be simple and represent exactly what they were, or could be more abstract. A sun could literally be the sun, but it could also mean light, day, god, etc. This ability to set down more complicated ideas meant information could be passed beyond the physical location or lifespan of the one imparting knowledge of ideas. Now writing began to include land contracts, marriage contracts, and began being used for the arts- poetry and epics.
As a society, writing allowed better communication with other places to obtain a wider range of information or better access to resources. Ideas moved faster, measurements started to be standardized, laws set in stone (literally) and histories of great events recorded. Writing was very much a resource of the rich and educated because of its complexity. With hundreds of symbols, each with a myriad of meanings, it took years to learn and scribes could be in a school for decades before achieving full competence. Standard trades were still taught person-to-person, and the oral tradition was still very strong for a long time to come.
With the expanding web of information available with writing, people began to see the world get a bit smaller. The internet has achieved the same thing in modern times on an even larger scale. Not available to just the upper echelon, the internet as a technical highway allows ideas and information, through the written word and graphics, to spread in seconds. Even with all the new technology we’re still spreading the same types of information. Ideas, arts, accounts of property and ownership, directions to accomplish tasks and histories of events. Only now, instead of recording a great and epic battle we’re recording the history of our afternoon and what we ate for lunch on Facebook.
Despite the huge disparity of scale and advance of technology, many techniques developed early on are still used today. It took a few hundred years of trial and error, but eventually the Greeks decided that writing left to right, top to bottom was the most effective and standardized the practice. Before then, hieroglyphics, cuneiform and others read very differently. Not directly influenced by the Greeks, Asian writing still reads quite differently. The Phoenician alphabet, adopted by the Greeks about 1000 B.C., included symbols that represented sounds instead of ideas. The Greeks changed some of the characters to vowels and altered the alphabet further to meld well with Greek. We still use this same alphabet today with some alterations.
In Egyptian, Phoenician and Greek writing, as well as many others, we see great care taken in spacing, size, and kerning. Examples of text carved in stone show that the words were planned before they were carved and spaced to fit the stone. The great care and artistry taken by the stone carvers, even to the extent of the carver altering letters to be more artistic, like modern typography, shows that writing had certainly developed past a utilitarian means to track property. Today we still value both aspect of writing- the beauty and the utility- and use it fully in its applications. One need only look to modern logos, T-shirt design, websites, and even street signs to see evidence of the great variety of ways we use language.
The ‘how’ of how we use language though, was developed long before websites and billboards, and we still use it much the same way. Even in Pompeii there is evidence of street signs painted in bright colors for shop advertisements and malicious graffiti. The illuminated manuscripts of the dark ages could certainly be seen as the early models of web pages- a perfect balance of word and art to tell a story or impart information and lead you onward into the tome. Typographical hierarchy, then called Diminuendo, is very evident in each page; starting with a large first letter, the writing gets smaller and draws the reader in and graphic elements and colors pull the eye to detailed illustrations of everything from Genesis to Revelation.
Today we use writing or graphics for almost all communication. More than ever, every aspect of our lives and knowledge is recorded for some future reader. Arguably the most materialistic use of writing, contracts and money are still some of the most common example. The first widely available printed media was money, in China, around 900 A.D.. Today money is still printed and one of the most common examples of the written word and printed graphics. Despite hundreds of years of evolution and huge leaps in technological advancement, writing is still used to communicate the same things: Ownership, ideas, and knowledge. What about 300, 500, 1,000 years from now? With the vast amounts of useless knowledge available on the web will anthropologists and archeologist sift through it and find a society worth researching? Or will they think us vain time-wasters and a stagnant society that obsessed over the trivial and squandered our lives? What do your written words say about you?