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Graphic Information Design: Print History

The British Library holds a copy of the Buddhist text known commonly as the Diamond Sutra (a more accurate translation of the Sanskrit title might be, the Vajra Cutter Sutra). It is a short Mahayana sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom (prajna-paramita) genre, which teaches the practice of the avoidance of abiding in extremes of mental attachment. A copy found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century, is, in the words of the British Library “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.”

The first translation of the Diamond Sutra into Chinese was done sometime around the beginning of the fifth century by the venerated Kumarajiva. The Kumarajiva translation is the version that appears on the 868 CE Dunhuang scroll. The copy is a scroll, over 5 metres long, was purchased in 1907 by the archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein. Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in north-west China, in the walled-up Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, a monk guarded the caves which were known as the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.”

Diamond Sutra
Diamond Sutra

The colophon, at the inner end, reads: “Reverently made [caused to be] for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [11 May 868]”. This is about 587 years before the Gutenberg Bible and impressive to see a statement of open copyright.

The Phaistos Disc is a disk of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos, possibly dating to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC). It is about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols.

Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. In his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, Jared Diamond describes the disc as an example of a technological advancement made at the wrong time in history – movebable type. Diamond reasons that movable type was less efficient than simply scribing by hand in clay, perhaps explaining why the technology never developed further in the Minoan civilization.

He contrasts this with Gutenberg’s printing press, arguing that its further development was due to a large number of commercial backers, and to societal growth which nurtured cheaper access to the printed word. In his work on decipherment, Benjamin Schwartz also referred to the disc as “the first movable type”.

Diamond notes the absence of any subsequent rise in movable type in the Minoan culture, citing this as evidence of the enigmatic problem of necessity and invention. “An early clear incidence for the realization of the typographical principle is the notorious Phaistos Disc (ca. 1800-1600 BC). If the disc is, as assumed, a textual representation, we are really dealing with a “printed” text, which fulfills all definitional criteria of the typographical principle. The spiral sequencing of the graphematical units, the fact that they are impressed in a clay disc (blind printing!) and not imprinted are merely possible technological variants of textual representation. The decisive factor is that the material “types” are proven to be repeatedly instantiated on the clay disc.”

Phaistos Disc
Phaistos Disc

The disc was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete, and features 241 tokens, comprising 45 unique signs, which were apparently made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic “seals” into a disc of soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiraling towards the disc’s center. German linguist Herbert E. Brekle theorizes that the Phaistos Disc is an early document of movable type printing in his article The Typographical Principle in the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, an annual periodical publication covering the history of printing and the book.

Pliny the Elder wrote In his Natural History of a technique of printing on textiles that was particularly common in Egypt. According to Jeremy Norman, printed material is only represented by fabrics of the fourth century at the earliest.  In that age there were great textile centers such as Alexandria, Panopolis, Oxyrhynchus, Tinnis [Tennis] and Damietta.

The Chinese invention of paper and of woodblock printing is said to have produced the world’s first print culture. Apparently the curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and print scholar A. Hyatt Mayor noted, “it was the Chinese who really discovered the means of communication that was to dominate until our age”.  In China and Korea, the use of woodblock printing on paper and movable type is said to have preceded their use in Europe by several centuries. In the woodblock technique, ink is applied to letters carved upon a wooden board, which is then pressed onto paper. The American historian Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book ‘The Discoverers’, he suggested Korea as the most advanced nation in terms of printing:

The Discoverers

“Block printing made possible the flowering of Chinese culture in the Sung renaissance (960-1127), and the printed Confucian classics revived a Confucian literature. Before the end of the tenth century appeared the first of the great Chinese dynastic histories, a work of several hundred volumes which consumed seventy years. Meanwhile, by 983 the Buddhists had produced something even more spectacular, the Tripitaka, the whole Buddhist canon in 5,048 volumes totaling 130,000 pages, each printed from a separately carved block. The king of Korea received a set from the emperor of China, and when a Buddhist priest brought a set to Japan, there came into the Japanese language the word suri-hon for the printed book. Then other sects put their own scriptures into print.”

Jessica Rawson reports: “Evidence for printing in the seventh century comes from texts referring to the printing of Buddhist sutras and images on silk and paper.  The earliet extant speciment of printing is an eighth-century scroll of a dharani or invocation text, which is discovered in 1966 in the stone stupa in the Buddhist temple of Bulguk-sa, Kyongju, in southeast Korea. The scroll includes certain special forms of characters created and used when Empress Wu (680 – 704) was ruling China” [Page 121, Jessica Rawson, The British Museum Book of Chinese Art]

Its Buddhist text was printed on a mulberry paper scroll 8 cm wide and 630 cm long in the early Korean Kingdom of Unified Silla. Another version of the Dharani sutra, printed in Japan around AD 770, is also frequently cited as an example of early printing. One million copies of the sutra, along with other prayers, were ordered to be produced by Empress Shōtoku. As each copy was then stored in a tiny wooden pagoda, the copies are together known as the Hyakumantō Darani.

The earliest specimen of woodblock printing on paper, whereby individual sheets of paper were pressed into wooden blocks with the text and illustrations carved into them, was discovered in 1974 in an excavation of Xi’an (then called Chang’an, the capital of Tang China), Shaanxi, China. It is a dharani sutra printed on hemp paper and dated to 650 to 670 AD, during Tang Dynasty (618–907). Another printed document dating to the early half of the Chinese Tang Dynasty has also been found, the Snddharma pundarik sutra printed from 690 to 699.

A copy of the Buddhist Dharani Sutra called the Pure Light Dharani Sutra, discovered in a Silla Korean pagoda that was repaired in 751 AD, was undated but must have been created sometime before the reconstruction of the Shakyamuni Pagoda in 751 AD. The document is estimated to have been created no later than 704 AD.

Choi Junshik is said to suggest that the characters on the Pure Light Dharani Sutra were invented by Silla, noting the invention of characters by Silla throughout its existence.  Silla (57 BC – 935 AD) was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and one of the world’s longest sustained dynasties. Pan Jixing refutes this, stating that research has allegedly shown that the dharani sutra discovered in Korea was translated in China from Sanskrit in 701 and printed in 702 at Luoyang, which was the capital of China under Wu Zetian.

In the 11th century, longer scrolls and books were produced using movable type printing making books widely available during the Song dynasty (960–1279). The earliest woodblocks used for printing in Europe, in the fourteenth century, using exactly the same technique as Chinese woodblocks, lead some pioneering scholars of Asian subjects to hypothesize a connection: “the process of printing them must have been copied from ancient Chinese specimens, brought from that country by some early travelers, whose names have not been handed down to our times” (Robert Curzon, 1810-1873).

In volume 5 of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China writes “Robert Curzon, Baron de la Zouche (18 I 0-73), has said that the European and Chinese block books are so precisely alike, in almost every respect, that ‘we must suppose that the process of printing them must have been copied from ancient Chinese specimens, brought from that country by some early travellers, whose names have not .been handed down to our times’. Since all the technical processes are of Chinese rather than European tradition, it seems that the European block printers must not only have seen Chinese samples, but perhaps had been taught by missionaries or others who had learned these un-European methods from Chinese printers during their residence in China”. [Page 313, Science and Civilization in China, Joseph Needham]

European woodblock printing became widely available in Europe in about 1400.  It shows a clear progression from patterns to images, both printed on cloth, then to images printed on paper. Text and images printed together only appear some sixty years later, after metal movable type. The British Library Board state that the ‘Diamond Sutra’ is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book made in 868. It is composed of seven strips of yellow-stained paper printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll over 5m long. Joseph Needham writes about how the intricate artistic designs and fine lines of calligraphy found in the Diamond Sutra demonstrate the refinement which had been reached in woodblock printing at the time it had been produced.

The oldest known printed calendars in the world come from Tang China, printed in 877 and 882. The first known movable type system was invented in China by Bi Sheng out of ceramic between 1041 and 1048. Movable type is the system of printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document (usually individual letters or punctuation).

The invention of movable-type printing (huozi yinshua) by Bi Sheng contributed to the spread of literature, knowledge and thought. Song dynasty moveable types were made from clay, later from wood. The cheaper books became, the more widespread was literature of all kinds, and on this base, the first private libraries came up among the gentry. In the neighboring states, Non-Chinese peoples like the Khitan, Jurchen and Tanguts, that all had created their own script partially by imitating the style of Chinese characters, printed books written in native langues using their own scripts (Khitan script, Jurchen script, Tangut script).

Paper money and bills of change (jiaozi) were likewise printed with the new printing methods invented during the Northern Song period. One of the first books printed with moveable types is the Buddhist canon Dazangjing of 983. Many other books of literary or scientific content printed during the Song period are preserved until today. The character type of the Song period prints became prevalent for long centuries and is still used today (Songti type); it is based on the calligraphic styles of Ouyang Xun, Yan Zhengqing and Liu Gongquan.

In the 11th century, longer scrolls and books were produced using movable type printing making books widely available during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Metal movable type was first invented in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty (around 1230). This led to the printing of the Jikji, a Korean Buddhist document, in 1377— which in the ‘The British Library Guide to Printing: History and Technique’ is described as the world’s oldest extant movable metal print book.

The process is one where prints are created from a single original surface, technically refered to as the matrix. Common types of matrices include: plates of metal – usually copper or zinc for engraving or etching; stone, used for lithography; blocks of wood for woodcuts, linoleum for linocuts and fabric plates for screen-printing. In printmaking each piece is regarded not a copy but an original since it is not a reproduction of another work.

Each print is refered to as an impression. Painting or drawing create a unique original piece of artwork and is distinct from an impression created through the process of print making. Works printed from a single plate create an edition. In modern times each is usually signed and numbered to form a limited edition. Prints may also be published in book form, as in artist’s books. A single print could be the product of one or multiple techniques.

Block printing

Block printing – called tarsh in Arabic – was developed in Arabic Egypt during the 9th-10th centuries, and was used mostly for prayers and amulets. There is some evidence to suggest that the print blocks were made from a variety of different materials besides wood, including metals such as tin, lead and cast iron, as well as stone, glass and clay. However, the techniques employed are uncertain and they appear to have had very little influence outside of the Muslim world. Though Europe adopted woodblock printing from the Muslim world, initially for fabric, the technique of metal block printing remained unknown in Europe.

Block printing later went out of use in Islamic Central Asia after movable type printing was introduced from China. Block printing first came to Christian Europe as a method for printing on cloth, where it was common by 1300. Images printed on cloth for religious purposes could be quite large and elaborate, and when paper became relatively easily available, around 1400, the medium transferred very quickly to small woodcut religious images and playing cards printed on paper.

These prints were produced in very large numbers from about 1425 onwards. Around the mid-century, block-books, woodcut books with both text and images, usually carved in the same block, emerged as a cheaper alternative to manuscripts and books printed with movable type. These were all short heavily illustrated works, the bestsellers of the day, repeated in many different block-book versions: the Ars moriendi and the Biblia pauperum were the most common.

There is still some controversy among scholars as to whether their introduction preceded or, the majority view, followed the introduction of movable type, with the range of estimated dates being between about 1440–1460. As already mentioned, Joseph Needham wrote in his ‘Science and Civilization in China’ that Europeans were likely introduced to printing techniques.

In Europe, Woodcut is the oldest technique used for master prints.  It was developed about 1400, by using on paper existing techniques for printing on cloth. The increase in the market of cheap woodcuts in the middle of the century resulted in lower quality work emerging, and many popular prints were very primitive. Paper was needed for the printing process and this came to Europe via trade with the Arabs from China. Historians acknowledge that the paper came from China which played a significant role in the economic development.

Around 1475 Michael Wolgemut was a significant figure in producing advanced German woodcuts and about the same period Erhard Reuwich was the first to utilise cross-hatching which is a much more complicated technique to do than engraving or etching. These two figures were producing book-illustrations, as were various Italian artists who were also forging advances in this area there at the same period.

At the end of the century Albrecht Dürer had advanced the Western woodcut to a sophisticated artform and produced some of the finest examples ever produced.  Durer greatly improvved the status of the single-leaf woodcut print and made viable images being sold separately from books.

moveable type

Movable type is the system of printing and typography using movable pieces of metal type, made by casting from matrices struck by letterpunches. It is traditionally summarized that Johannes Gutenberg, of the German city of Mainz, developed European movable type printing technology around 1439 and in just over a decade, the European age of printing began.

However, the truth of the history is that there was a more complex evolutionary process spread over multiple locations. Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer experimented with Gutenberg in Mainz. Compared to woodblock printing, movable type page-setting was quicker and more robust mechanically. The metal type pieces were more durable and the lettering was more uniform, leading to typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type, and printing presses rapidly spread across Europe, leading up to the Renaissance, and later all around the world. Today, practically all movable type printing ultimately derives from Gutenberg’s movable type printing, which is often regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium.

Gutenberg is also credited with the introduction of an oil-based ink which was more durable than previously used water-based inks. Having worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skillful use of the knowledge of metals he had learned as a craftsman. Gutenberg was also the first to make his type from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, known as type metal, printer’s lead, or printer’s metal, which was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality printed books, and proved to be more suitable for printing than the clay, wooden or bronze types used in East Asia.

To create these lead types, Gutenberg used what some considered his most ingenious invention, a special matrix wherewith the moulding of new movable types with an unprecedented precision at short notice became feasible. Within a year of printing the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg also published the first coloured prints. The invention of the printing press revolutionized communication and book production leading to the spread of knowledge.

Rapidly, printing spread from Germany by emigrating German printers, but also by foreign apprentices returning home. A printing press was built in Venice in 1469, and by 1500 the city had 417 printers. In 1470 Johann Heynlin set up a printing press in Paris. In 1473 Kasper Straube published the Almanach cracoviense ad annum 1474 in Cracow. Dirk Martens set up a printing press in Aalst (Flanders) in 1473. In 1476 a printing press was set up in England by William Caxton. Francysk Skaryna is reputed to have printed the first book in Slavic language on August 6, 1517. The Italian Juan Pablos set up an imported press in Mexico City in 1539.

Sufficient to say that the technology was revolutionary and was traveling fast from culture to culture.  Suddently the power of the written word was becoming rapidly accessible to a vastly diversified audience – the voices of people could extend across space and across time where as previously such means was kept as a technology to a tiny number of people. Collective knowledge was now burdening its banks.

The Rev. Jose Glover brought the first printing press to England’s American colonies in 1638, but died on the voyage, so his widow, Elizabeth Harris Glover, established the printing house, which was run by Stephen Daye and became The Cambridge Press. The Gutenberg press was much more efficient than manual copying and still was largely unchanged over 300 years later.

The German printer Friedrich Koenig was the first to design a non-manpowered machine using the design of a steam engine. Koenig had moved to London in 1804 and patented it in 1810.  Printing methods based on Gutenberg’s printing press design spread rapidly throughout first Europe and then the rest of the world, replacing most block printing and making it the sole progenitor of modern movable type printing. For the first time in human history knowledge had become available for mass consumption via the printing press.

A printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring an image. The systems involved were first assembled in Germany by the goldsmith Johann Gutenberg in the mid-15th century.  The Gutenberg printing press was eventually to be superseded by the advent of offset printing. Offset printing is a printing technique in which the inked image is transferred (or “offset”) from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface.

After the advent of the means to reproduce content and images mechanically, the information age of human culture lifted off.  Technologies started multiplying and inventions to perpetuate knowledge transfer proliferated relatively rapidly.  To attempt to map out the details is well beyond the scope of this work, and indeed would require several lifetimes.  The aim of this article and series of articles is to highlight some of the major development points that have magnitudinally shifted how we engage with – and have access to – graphic information.


From the point at which the computer processor started to be utilized, there is a new perspective which we can start to take.  Suddenly the image became transitive – the page became interactive and changed the nature of the information which was held in the design.  The design defines the capacities, and the thinkers of Harold Innes and Marshal McLuhan became touchstone theorists for the evolving media of the modern centuries.  The two propagated the philosophy of communications theory and captured people’s imaginations with the axiom ‘The Medium is the Message’ which examines the affordances which each technology holds.

As the Internet grew the global system of interconnected computer networks which link billions of devices worldwide provided a framework which revolutionized communications and distribution networks – and arguably every facet of human existence. As a network of networks the internet reached a critical mass with the development of hypertext markup language – HTML for short.  This enabled generations to enter into designing landscapes and ecosystems of information which exponentially increase our abilities in terms of information building capabilities and interactive communities.

Thus this simplistic, rag-tag potted history put together here ends with the internet as a print medium, and most importantly of the development of the wiki as a design structure.  The wiki is a website which allows collaborative modification of its content and structure directly from the web browser. As a tangible and good example of a hypermodern print medium which has affected everyone’s life, Wikipedia manifests some of the clearest qualities which can be used to think through graphic information design.

Wikipedia has become a powerful use of the wiki information design structure which is a great example of the blinding capacities available to us. Wikipedia has been a regular source of information to help create this potted history, and is one of the single greatest knowledge assets available to humanity. Interwoven with many other great examples of information design on the World Wide Web such as electronic mail, smart phones and peer to peer networks, knowledge is now once again pressing at its banks and new paradigms are emerging.

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