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A Matter of Taste: Graphic Design in 19th-Century England

Who decides what makes “good” design? According to Associate Professor Jamie Horrocks, Victorian design reformers thought they did.

Image of black letterpress printing blocks in a brown box.
Photo by Katya Wolf via Pedels

In 19th-century Victorian England, letterpress printers broke away from the boring norm of plain printed pages and opted to create unique and colorful designs representative of their content. But soon enough, design reformers began to see this colorful practice as a danger to the beauty and aesthetic of proper design. In standardizing this practice, they believed England would be more competitive against more standardized French, German, and American goods. Associate Professor Jamie Horrocks (Victorian Studies) discussed this movement the Humanities Center Colloquium on March 14, 2024, titled “Manufacturing the Victorian Page: Graphic Design Before Graphic Design.”

John Southward, an accomplished Victorian printer in the 1880s, lamented on the fact that printers didn’t know or learn what makes a good design. Rather, according to Horrocks, “They produced skilled work, but they had a rule of thumb of a ‘know good work when you see it’ that is extremely difficult to explain and extremely difficult to teach to young printers.”

As design reformers attempted to turn away from the practice of “knowing good work when you see it,” they worked to standardize what they believed to be “good” print. Horrocks shared principles from different design reformers that eventually created a more standard set of rules for printing. These included harmony and contrast, flatness and repetition, and conventionalized form. Horrocks said, “By instructing manufacturers in the tenants of good design, reformers believed that manufacturers could turn out products that consumers would actually want to buy.” But reformers also knew that the public would not buy goods if they couldn’t recognize the new, “better” design principles as something to strive for.

Horrocks said, “The Great Exhibition was the most prominent of many, many exhibitions that were put together by design reformers. This became a series of Victorian attempts to reform British tastes and to reeducate everybody involved in the production and consumption of designed industrial commodities.” The design reformers even developed a “scientific” color wheel that showed which colors went with each other in the most harmonious manner. Attempts went as far as to create games like “Tessellated Passtimes,” where children would build designs based on industrial design principles to teach them the “proper” aesthetics.

Because of the momentous nature of this reeducation, people pushed back. Edmund Potter, the most successful Calico printer in the 19th century, believed that “if it doesn’t meet the taste of the consumer, the producer will suffer.”

Although the design reform movement didn’t have the intended effect of fully adjusting the way people designed products, it did inspire designers of different mediums. Particularly, the designers of the Penny Black postage stamp. Horrocks is currently researching how the Victorian design reform movement influenced the design of textiles after the creation of the Jacquard machine.

Want to hear more lectures about interesting research in the humanities? Visit the Humanities Center Colloquiums on Thursdays at 3 p.m.