Since the dawn of our species, humans have been devising plans to shape our environments and the everyday objects that we use, and aesthetic considerations have often been part of this planning. However, the work has been identified with specialized design professionals only in the last couple of centuries.
This is one of the oldest design occupations and may be said to have arrived, becoming distinct from art, soon after the invention of writing. The invention of the printing press with movable type set off an explosion of book production in 15th-century Europe and meant that one font, as opposed to one scribe's handwriting, could be duplicated exactly and be used in thousands of different books.
Printers focused mainly on practical concerns until late in the 19th century, when the Arts and Crafts movement, pioneered by William Morris, emphasized the artistry that could be achieved with printed books. Another great influence was the Bauhaus school, founded in 1919 by the German Walter Gropius. Although Gropius was an architect, the Bauhaus sought to refine the design of many consumer goods, giving them a streamlined modern look.
The fast pace of urban life in the 20th century demanded the development of efficient signage that employed streamlined fonts, glyphs (symbolic simplified images), color coding (for example, red stop signs), and eye-catching frames. Marketers of mass-produced goods discovered that logos and other graphic elements could be used in advertising and packaging to create a visual image of a brand in the minds of consumers. Each new visual medium that emerged—cinema, glossy magazines, television, computers—permitted new ways to view graphic designs. The last of these, computers, eventually allowed graphic designs to be created more easily than ever before and gave an enormous boost to public sophistication about graphics.
People have been making consumer products for millennia, but it was the Industrial Revolution that ended the era in which a single crafts worker was responsible for every stage of conception and production of a product. For mass-produced goods, a designer was needed to plan how the product would work, what it would look like, and what steps would create it.
Industrial design was primarily utilitarian and did not develop as an occupation until around the same time that modern graphic design emerged. Many of the same people were major influences, especially the Bauhaus school and its predecessor, the Deutscher Werkbund. The streamlined look that they championed was influenced by increasing vehicular speeds, by a reaction against busy Victorian ornamentation, and by the goal of concealing the inner mechanisms of products. The High Modernism design movement that dominated the middle of the 20th century exalted science and technology. Even when ornamentation returned, for example in the tail fins of 1950s automobiles, the look was inspired by jet airplanes.
The rise of electronic and digital products produced some awkward designs at first, but miniaturization, pioneered by the crowded nation of Japan, eventually permitted products that were very portable and personal, with inner workings small enough to be concealed within an attractive package. This trend gave us the Sony Walkman and the Apple iPhone.
Interior design has undergone many trends over the ages: the splendor and ornamentation of Roman times, the austerity of the Middle Ages, the ornate Baroque look, and the eclecticism of the early 19th century. However, over all these periods, various kinds of people were involved in creating the designs: architects, crafts workers such as upholsterers, and homemakers.
The work first became professionalized at the beginning of the 20th century. The American Elsie de Wolfe was a founder of the occupation; her 1905 design for the interior of a New York women's private social club was very influential. The term "designer" eventually became distinct from the earlier term "decorator" because the latter was associated with purveyors of furniture and other materials. Those workers had a commercial interest in what would be installed and a limited focus, whereas interior designers were considered to be impartial professionals with a broader and higher level of knowledge, capable of dealing with technical issues such as lighting and ventilation.
For most of history, landscape design was associated mainly with the planning of gardens on the estates of royalty and aristocrats. It gained its modern associations, as an element of landscape architecture, when the Industrial Revolution created a need for well-designed parks offering city-dwellers a respite from the sterile urban environment.
In 1863, Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York's Central Park, was the first professional to call himself a landscape architect. As the 19th century ended, he and several peers formed the American Society of Landscape Architects, and in the next century states passed laws imposing licensure requirement similar to those for architects. However, design remains a specific work task that is often assigned to unlicensed specialists working under the supervision of a landscape architect.