Chapter 2 - The Medium is the Message; The Birth of Communication Design in Egypt

Table of Contents:

The "Spotted Horses" mural, painted by woman artists inside France's Pech Merle cave dated 23 millennium BC is a fine example of the prehistoric graphic design. According to the analysis of Pennsylvania State University archaeologist Dean Snow many of the artists working in that cave were women. Until recently, most scientists assumed the prehistoric handprints on the rockwalls around such images belong to man. National Geographic
What is Graphic Design?

The word '''Graphics''' is rooted in the ancient Greek word of Graphikos or γραφικός which means: able to draw or paint. It is equivalent to gráph(ein) implying to draw or to write. Today Graphic Design may be defined as the art of creating visual statements by artistic compositions of images and/or writings. To do this, a Graphic Designer uses various elements that are related to creation of signs , charts , logos , graphs , drawings, line art, symbols , geometric designs, photographic collages and so on in an artistic paradigm.

Graphic design is perhaps the most potent manifestation of human culture. It exhibits cultural aspirations, historical memories of struggles and triumphs , spiritual beliefs, socio-economical modes of life, moral and ethical judgments and so on and so forth. In no other phenomena but the Graphic Design the truth of Marshall McLuhan statement in his , Understanding Media , is so evident that:
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology

This implies that independent of its content or visible messages, a visual design has its own intrinsic impacts on viewers' perceptions, which stems from the interrelationships among the socio-cultural factors, which create a unique message unrelated to its content. In fact, the visual design recreate its content, and by virtue of determining the overall form of a written message it determines the ways in which that message will be perceived and thus would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical consequences, to the point of actually altering the ways in which we experience the world. It is interesting to note that McLuhan co-authored a book, 'The Medium is the Massage' by Quentin Fiore, a graphic designer that gave the book a pertinent graphic treatment, combining modernist typography with collage and various images. The authors tried to show that how the medium is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of man's personal life. In particular how the medium forces people to reconsider and reevaluate practically every thought and every institution they formerly took for granted. Thus, graphic design changes the world and, of course, a changing world alters the graphic design -- both the message and the interpretation of that message. This is why the graphic design needs to be analyzed in the wider context of the social relationships.


What is Communication Design?

Today Communication Design is an interdisciplinary practice that involves, aesthetically trained craftsmanship , intellectual curiosity, technical dexterity, and creative talent. It is concerned with the analysis, organization and methods of presentation of visual solutions to communication problems. According to cognitive neurologists the way our brain works is trough seeing multiple images of our surroundings at once. Like all other comprehension processes, our brain armed with a "blueprint" of a concept, provided to it by cultural and biological environment, tries to decipher various observed signs. These signs are transmitted by the eyes in their persistent search for clues in a process of “visual inspection” of the world. The process continues until the brain would find a replica that would satisfy the main characteristics of the aforementioned blueprint. This convinces the brain that it has arrived at a moment of understanding. The visual communication tries to emulate and enhance this process in an efficient and timely manner, so that, upon seeing a visual design, many of observers arrive at the same moment of understanding.

Morteza Momayez, Mythological  Antic I, 1961

Based on this theoretical paradigm, the term Visual Communication in the modern world has expanded markedly to incorporate activities at large exhibitions, socio-political signage projects, corporate logos, scientific expositions, social engineering, fashion design, street art and so on, as well as the traditional demarcation of graphic design encompassing; typography , posters, magazine layouts, book covers, and advertisement. Furthermore, with the advent of the worldwide web and internet, there has been another rapid expansion of the field in the digital universe of blogs, and websites. As Dietmar Winkler, the former director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, has argued; design theory cannot be separated from evolving contemporary and future professional practices. An analysis of design issues must be in the context of a theory that incorporates the historical realities of design practices.

Morteza Momayez,9th Shiraz Festival of Arts, 1975

Most people agree that the images such as as those of twine towers in New York on September 11, 2001, or that of the brief student uprising in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, with a lone protester standing defiantly in front of a line of menacing green Chinese tanks have  been etched in our minds for the rest our lives. This is not only because these are highly emotional images, but because we have reflected on the philosophical, cultural , political, social, and economical significance of such images with words. According to studies cited by educational psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University people only remember ten percent of what they hear, thirty percent of what they read, but about eighty percent of what they see and do. In other words, words are easily forgotten, but pictures stay in our minds. In today's world, because of integration of the visual media and computers, through phenomena such as YouTube, and Facebook words and pictures have integrated to create a formidable and ubiquitous mode of communication.

The great documentary photographer, Lewis Hine, who often used words to accompany his photographs once said, "If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't need to lug a camera." It is beyond question that words and pictures are different modes of communication. But each possess a language that some can interpret better than others.  As photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim writes;

"Photography is the only 'language' understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures." On the other hand, photography philosopher John Berger admits that "photographs supply information without having a language of their own. Photographs quote rather than translate from reality." Sol Worth, an expert of visual communication wrote of a compromise between the two points. "Pictures are not a language in the verbal sense. Pictures have no lexicon nor syntax in a formal grammarian's sense. But they do have form, structure, convention and rules."

However, some of these ideas are being challenged today. In fact, the semiotic approach to visual communication stresses the idea that images are a collection of signs, which are linked together according to some grammatical rules. Both the visual communicator and the viewer need to understand this grammar so that they would be able to communicate various layers of meanings. In such a paradigm the role of observer cannot be a detached and indifferent one. On the contrary, the observer must engage in visual communication and participate fully in the realization of meanings. On the other side, the role of the designer is not just to offer a visual message about a particular issue but rather to identify and call out issues and concerns that confronts the viewers' humanity and integrity.

Morteza Momayez, Mythological Antic, V 1961


Why do we need to know about history of visual communication?

In the modern era there has been an anticipation throughout the world that various art universities would introduce communication design history as an independent academic discipline. Today, communication design courses, except for a few places such as the Jan Van Eyck Akademie in the Netherlands; which offers some post graduate theory and criticism of art and design, are being neglected in most art schools throughout the world.

Guity Novin, Celebrating People's Uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen , Jordan, and Algeria, 2011

In contrast to visual communication design, the history of art in general was established in the early 20th century as a full-fledged academic discipline and as a subject for study with a broad appeal to general public. Although  from time to time some analytical research dealing with various dimensions of communication design history has been presented at academic conferences and some articles incorporating historical analysis  have appeared in publications such as Design Issues and Journal of Design History; one cannot escape from the fact that the amount of research on visual communication is still very scant, particularly  in comparison  to the numerous books produced by scholars working in the fields of art, architecture, or film. This is not surprising since although the history of graphic design, as these notes attempt to show, goes to the prehistorical time, and incorporates a wide range of activities, its academic recognition is relatively a new phenomenon.

Guity Novin, Poster and Catalog for First Tehran International  Film Festival, April 16-25, 1972.

But, why do we need to study the history of visual communication design? One may argue that such a study would be essential for a philosophical grounding of the practitioners, and would allow them to approach their projects with a richer socio-ethical perspective, make it possible for them to arrive at a more informed decisions, and would allow for incorporation of various critically important human dimensions. In short, the inspiration of an informed designer would result in a more authentic creation that would communicate human values, avoid insensitivity to the state of human drama, and would minimize the occurrence  of avoidable mistakes. As Andrew Blauvelt, editor of the three “critical histories” issues of Visible Language, has argued:
The notion of design as a field of study without practical application is unlikely and undesirable. After all, it is the practice of graphic design — no matter how wanting or limiting — that provides the basis for a theory of graphic design. [. . .] The calls for graphic design to be a liberal art — a quest for academic legitimacy — need to be supplanted by strategies which foster “critical making,” teaching when, how, and why to question things.

Guity Novin, Negin Magazine Cover, 1971

Guity Novin, Negin Magazine Cover, 1972

The evolution, success, and usefulness of contemporary design-practices, including the professionalism of the field, as Deitmar Winkler argues are tightly linked to the thorough grounding of design practitioners in the understanding of human factors, namely the knowledge of the complex interrelationships between psychological and social behaviors of individuals and groups, their ethnic histories and social organizational systems, and the cultural values, which are expressed through their religions, laws, music, literature, etiquettes, customs, languages, metaphors and artifacts, and which either hinder or facilitate interpersonal and intercultural communication. A history of graphic design cannot ignore those human factors, but unfortunately,  almost all the extant histories always do ignore these factors. Not only the present state of design education, as Winkler contends, is still vocational – technical and not intellectually mature – a direct continuation of the Bauhaus-spawned design guild training and anti-intellectualism, but more so is its history, which is really a vocational and technical history.
What is wrong with the the existing historical treatments of visual communication?

Unfortunately, the  existing literature on the history of graphic design  does not deal with the history of cultural   interpretations, instead they usually present a sideshow parade of “great” historical moments. However, as  Umberto Eco has argued  "A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection -not an invitation for hypnosis." I believe that a socio-cultural history of visual design  goes a long way to satisfy Eco's profound demand, and can achieve this goal by starting from a historical understanding of the social grammar of visual communication.  As  Susan Midalia has argued visual images, like all representations, " are never innocent or neutral reflections of reality... they re-present for us, that is, they offer not a mirror of the world but an interpretation of it. "  Kress and Hodge have presented  the following outline of a Social Semiotic theory of communication:
We see communication essentially as a process, not as a disembodied set of meanings or texts. Meaning is produced and reproduced under specific social conditions, through specific material forms and agencies. It exists in relation to concrete subjects and objects, and is inexplicable except in terms of this set of relationships. Society is typically constituted by structures and relations of power, exercised or resisted; it is characterized by conflict as well as cohesion, so that the structures of meaning at all levels, from dominant ideological forms to local acts of meaning will show traces of contradiction, ambiguity, polysemy in various proportions, by various means. So for us, texts and contexts, agents and objects of meaning, social structures and forces and their complex interrelationships together constitute the minimal and irreducible object of semiotic analysis (1988:viii).

This paradigm has constituted the foundation of the approach taken by Kress and van Leeuwen in their works on the grammar of visual communication. Such insights are of critical importance for a historical analysis of the ways that ideology is projected through different visual and verbal modes. In this regard, Baldwin's suggestion that design history should adopt  a “history-less history,” which reflects on history as a series of causal relationships with special emphasis on the systems of production and consumption of design is a valuable suggestion. A history characterized  by a long  canonical list of heroic white- male designers, with its emphasis on facts, and dates is not an informative history of socio-political, and cultural  values and practitioners of visual communication find this kind of history totally off-putting and irrelevant  to their studio practices.

Guity Novin, Rumi, Poster, 1982

In general, we must admit that visual communication in the modern world is evermore prevalent, both as a material economic necessity and as a wellspring of philosophical inquiry. With this in mind, it should be noted that with the surge of digital technology there has been a paradigm shift in visual communication and dissemination of information. The fusion of media platforms, such as; Ipod, interactive TV, and social networks have made such communications not only instantaneous in real time, but also ubiquitous. The new technology is changing the usual vocabulary, and creating new meanings, new concepts, and new realities. In this context, we need to reflect on Mitchell's argument that; "Visual culture is not limited to the study of images or media, but extends to everyday practices of seeing and showing, especially those that we take to be immediate and unmediated." In fact, visual culture is a defining characteristic of the postmodern consumers, and this is, of course, important because in today's world the traditional role of mass media has diminished drastically, and they are now consumers that produce through their own websites, blogs, and social networks most of the news, opinion pieces and commentaries with the aid of visual communication. In such a world, what Grazia Neri has written, in  Ethics and Photography, is equally poignant with respect to any other mode of visual design. She has argued;
"Each of us reacts to the picture on the basis of our own sensitivity, culture, intelligence, mood and passion. What is more, the interpretation of one and the same photograph will be different at different times. A photograph produced today will offer a different impact tomorrow. Even the place where the photograph is seen can dictate our reactions. A photograph published in a gossip weekly cannot have, a priori, the same impact as a photograph on display in a museum or of another printed in a sophisticated book. The environment where the photograph appears may determine our reading of it."
This is true, of course, of a propaganda poster in the Stalin Russia, a Street Art graffiti in New York, a Rock Painting in Australia, an Aztec codex, or an African pottery -- we need to interpret these visual communications in their socio-cultural contexts. 

Guity Novin, Logos, Poster, 2009


Towards an Understanding of the Grammar of Visual Design
Kress and van Leeuwen in their book, The Grammar of Visual Design  have tried to produce a ‘grammar of visual design’ with the aim to present a socially-based theory of visual representation.  They employ an analogy with language, noting that others working in visual semiotics before them have tended to concentrate on what could be described as the ‘lexis’ rather than the ‘grammar’ of images. Those concentrated on the lexis have focused on the isolated meaning projected by the individuals, scenes and objects portrayed within images. Whereas a concentration on grammar would be concerned with the connected meanings.

In this context "grammar" is not a set of rules for the correct use of language but rather a set of socially constructed resources for the assemblage of meaning.  Kress and Van Leeuwen  believe that visual design, like language and all semiotic modes, is a social  construct, and thus they try to decipher what is encoded  in images in order to arrive at coherent, meaningful, and focused messages, in much the same way that discourse analysts examine how words are combined into clauses, sentences and whole texts.  In fact, both culture and ideology are  important in both the verbal and visual grammars, a point which Kress and van Leeuwen highlight in quoting Halliday’s assertion that;
“grammar goes beyond formal rules of correctness. It is a means of representing patterns of experience … It enables human beings to present a mental picture of reality, to make sense of their experience of what goes on around them and inside them. 

Thus a historian of visual design, instead of focusing on the designers, must concentrate on understanding of the visual culture. In such an inquiry, the researcher would focus on the socio-economical  effects of design and on day-to-day impact of the visual communication on culture and  on political power structure.  Unfortunately, in many art schools, the history of visual communication remains essentially an dispensable or inconsequential ancillary to the design studio. Although the history courses are offered to enrich the information set of graphic designers, they are mostly seen as irrelevant, due to their lack of any socio-cultural vision and analytical depth. In fact, many of the instructors of the history of graphic design courses are not qualified researchers. They have been assigned to their tasks because the school administrators, in their infallible judgments , have inferred from the fact that somebody is already a visual art practitioner, therefore must be able to teach the history of his/her practice. Even in many of the European, and American art schools the visual design history is often taught by part-time instructors on hourly contracts, and many graphic designers see no relevance in design history for the practical side of their profession. Moreover, many instructors themselves are unaware of the socio-cultural significance of their tasks, and quite frequently undermine the importance of having a historical background as a prerequisite for studio works. For instance, Louis Danziger, has described his design history teaching, as neither academic nor scholarly , but something which is primarily concerned with helping students to enhance their performance as designers. He has asserted that practitioners cannot be good historians because their experience “inevitably introduces biases,” and they “cannot be objective.”

Guity Novin, Charles Mingus Poster, 2009


The Conflict Between Advertising and  Graphic Art

In modern times, advertising is the most prominent conduit for the creation of graphic design. The transmission of commercial messages are enormously sophisticated and articulated through various studies incorporating such dimensions as psychological, demographic , economical, and ethnological issues, among others. Such communications are in relation to multinational corporations, global mass-media networks and a host of the alphabetic soups of international entities, such as the IMF, OECD, APAC, OPEC, EU, NAFTA, NATO and so on. The medium and the message both transcend frontiers and cultural divides. However, as John Berger in Ways of Seeing has argued:
... although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing. . . when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art . . .Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective fact, it includes consciousness.)
It is clear that advertising tries to introduce new assumptions about the world that are in conflict with its reality. According to Berger:
We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach-though not necessarily within arm’s reach. To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it.
publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.
Advertising in modern times have become more and more centralized, globalized, generalized and, therefore, standardized — like the economic forces that produce it, and the products it deals with. Graphic design, on the other hand, as practiced by artists, continues to be created and to structure itself in a humanistic manner , which is in direct correlation  with the specific social fabrics of different societies around the world. It is this humanism that provides the possibility for the development of graphic communications across the world in the future. In summary, there is a fundamental difference between commercial advertising and graphic art in today's world.

Guity Novin, Life, 2011

he rich variety and presence of multimodal texts, as Sharon Goodman reminds us, are now a familiar feature in newspapers that contain photographs, diagrams and changes of typeface, and even in company letterheads that are carefully designed, with their choice of graphics and color of the paper to craft the company’s image. We now take it for granted that an electronic text, such as a page on the web, will use more than one of the language modes. In fact, in today's market place graphic designers are doing much more than the visual engineering of most printed matter, as they are engaged in a host of related activities that in part include; strategy and consulting, information and experience design, branding and broadcast design, and road- signage systems. Visual communicators are expected not only to acquire a certain classic set of skills including; drawing, photography, composition and typography -- the design and structural characteristics of letterforms, but also an ability to work with software programs such as Photoshops, Gimps, and so on. In doing all these tasks, it should not be forgotten that a graphic designer is an artist, and as an artist can act as a social critic, a historian, or a creator of pure beautyso long as he/she is honest and believes in the integrity of his/her creation; and businesses that respect the artistic integrity of their graphic designers are those that  will thrive in the longer run.   


The Birth of Graphic Design

As a manifestation of human culture, the Graphic Design has played a primordial role in the history of man as a social being. Many hundreds of graphic designs of animals by the primitive people in the Chauvet Cave, in the south of France,which were drawn more than 30,000 B.C., the image of "Spotted Horses" ; painted by woman artists inside France's Pech Merle cave dated 23,000 BC, as well as similar designs in the Lascaux cave of France that were drawn more than 14,000 B.C. , the Altamira cave paintings of bison between 9000 to 17000 BC, the designs of the primitive hunters in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in India that were drawn more than 7,000 B.C. , the Aboriginal Rock Art, in the Kakadu National Park of Australia, and many other rock or cave paintings in other parts of the world are apt testaments to the very long history of 
graphic design,  a history that is shared among humanity.

The image of a bison in Altamira Cave, Spain.

Image of a horse in the Chauvet cave.
Drawing of a horse in the Lascaux cave.

A rock drawing in Bhimbetka India.

 Aboriginal Rock Art, Ubirr Art Site, Kakadu National Park, Australia

A battle image on Tassili rocks of Ajjer (Algeria),


A good example of this art is observable on the paintings of Altamira, which are located in the deep recesses of caves in the mountains of Northern Spain, far out of the reach of the destructive forces of wind and water. As a result these paintings have been preserved rather intact from 9,000-17,000 B.C. In addition to these murals, Altamira is the only site of cave paintings in which tools, hearths and food remains also have been found. These signs shed light on the habitat, and living conditions of these prehistoric artists . Unlike the other similar caves in Europe and elsewhere, the Altamira caves show no signs of soot deposits, which perhaps suggest that the people at Altamira had slightly more advanced lighting technology emitting less smoke and soot than the torches and fat lamps which Paleolithic people are given credit for.

The Altamiran artists primarily focused on bison, which was a main economic resource for them. Not only as a source of food, but also other useful commodities like skin, bones and fur. These prehistoric artists used natural earth pigments like ochre and zinc oxides, some of the images are painted with three colors. This is a significant artistic achievement, particularly when taken into consideration the masterly execution of the animal's anatomy, and their accurate physical proportions.

In Tassili-n-Ajjer in Algeria, one of the most famous of North African sites of rock painting, various images depict a historical evolution. This historical documentation of mankind evolution is something that graphic design has always done, and will do so in future. Tassili paintings depict at least four distinct chronological periods, which are: an archaic tradition depicting wild animals whose antiquity is unknown but certainly goes back well before 4500 B.C.; a so-called bovidian tradition, which corresponds to the arrival of cattle in North Africa between 4500 and 4000 B.C.; a "horse" tradition, which corresponds to the appearance of horses in the North African archaeological record from about 2000 B.C. onward; and a "camel" tradition, which emerges around the time of Christ when these animals first appear in North Africa.

This history together with the history of writing which was emerged in 3000-4000 B.C. are at the foundation of the visual communication design.
The Inception of Visual Communications in Ancient Egypt

Wooden ushabti box and ushabtis of Pinedjem I. 

There is no doubt that ancient Egyptians were the originator of what is today defined as 'visual communication design'. The Egyptian language of antiquity used the same word, sekh, to signify writing, drawing, and painting, and from the very beginning of her history, Egypt used written message in combination with images to convey various socio-cultural values that were at the roots of her system of beliefs. More than five thousand years ago, the graphic designers of Egypt were working on a strict greed system that established conventional codes of representation in sculpture, painting, and relief. By and large, Egyptian scribes used the same conventions in the standardization of hieroglyphic signs in their system of writing. This is why the ancient Egyptian graphic design and hieroglyphs are closely correlated. For instance, the hieroglyphic ideogram for "man," is the figure of a seated man, which also appears frequently in sculptures and paintings.

The composition of the Egyptian designs are well balanced, harmonious, and adhere to certain minimalism principles. The artists abstract from play of light and shadow, and minimalize the illusion of space and atmosphere in outdoor scenes. The images are sharpened by clear outlines, and the complexity of interrelationships among spatial forms are simplified. The artists use flat areas of color to enhance order and clarity, and compose figurative scenes in horizontal registers. The figures were portrayed emotionless since artists wanted to avoid the transient aspect of life, as they were interested in eternal features and immortality.

The Gods Osiris and Atum, from the Tomb of Nefertari, New Kingdom (wall painting), Egyptian 19th Dynasty (c.1297-1185 BC) / Valley of the Queens, Thebes
Egyptian gods are depicted wearing headdresses with a solar disk. Ostrich feathers, and animal horns. Usually the deities hold an ankh and a scepter. When in human form, the gods are shown wearing a false beard with a curved tip.

The Visual Communications and the Egyptian System of Beliefs

“Greetings to you, Osiris, Lord of Eternity
King of the Two Lands, Chief of both banks…
Youth, King, who took the White Crown for himself…
Who makes himself young again a million times…
What he loves is that every face looks up to him…
Shining youth, who is in the primordial water, born on the first of the year…
From the outflow of his limbs both lands drink.
Of him it is arranged that the corn springs forth from the water
In which he is situated….

In the Egyptian system of beliefs Gods, such as Atum and Osiris, as well as many others, played the key roles in the management of universe and all its affairs. Not only they symbolized all natural phenomena but also abstract concepts such as truth, justice, kinship, and love.

Geb, the earth god is reclining beneath Nut, the sky goddess, while Shu, the air god, is preventing her from falling, and two ram-headed Heh deities, are supporting Shu's arms, Detail from the Greenfield Papyrus, from the Book of the Dead of Nesitanebtashru, c. 950 BC.

In a dialogue between Atum and Osiris in the Book of the Dead, Atum states that he will eventually destroy the world, submerging gods, men and Egypt back into Nun, the primal waters, which were all that existed at the beginning of time. In this nonexistence, Atum and Osiris will survive in the form of serpents.

Atum’s myth merged with that of the great sun god Ra, giving rise to the deity Atum-Ra. In the beginning there was only Nun, a primordial mass of unstructured water, Atum-Ra, lived in Nun. After a period of time he rose from the splendor of the Sun. Atum-Ra was the father of the gods, creating the first divine couple, Tefnut and Shu, the first female and male gods. He created these two children out of dust and his own spittle; Tefnut, was the Goddess of Moisture, and Shu was the god of Air and together with their father they formed a trinity. Tefnut and Shu, gave birth to Geb, the earth God, who married Nut, the Goddess of sky, and with her fathered four children; Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.

Judgement before Osiris, from the papyrus of the scribe Hunefer, from the book of the dead of Hunefer, 19th Dynasty. 1285 BC, painted papyrus, British Museum, London

Osiris was the ruler of the underworld. The oldest and simplest hieroglyphic form of his name is written by a "throne" and an "eye." He was the eldest offspring of Geb, the god of Earth and Nut, the goddess of sky. He married Isis, who the Book of the Dead describes as "She who gives birth to heaven and earth, knows the orphan, knows the widow, seeks justice for the poor, and shelter for the weak". Osiris and his wife Isis became the king and the queen of Egypt when his father, Geb, retired. Osiris promulgated just and fine laws for his people who were considered privileged among the mankind. Osiris then asked Isis to assume the throne of Egypt and himself traveled afar to spread his laws around the world.

When Osiris returned, Seth, his jealous brother, plotted to murder him in order to usurp his throne. Seth gave a royal banquet and offered his guests, including Osiris, a prize in the form of a magnificent coffin, which was specially built to fit Osiris’ body. The winer was supposed to be the one who best fitted in the coffin, and when Osiris tried it, Seth shut the lid and threw the coffin in the Nile river. Seth assumed the kingship, and the grieving Isis went out to look for Osiris' body, where she found it in Byblos. She brought the corpse back to Egypt, and through her powerful magic brought him back to life for a while to conceive a son, Horus, who was to avenge his father's death. Seth found the Osiris body, tore it apart into pieces, and threw them back into the Nile. Isis stubbornly searched for him and found every pieces of his body and reassembled it by papyrus bands into a mummy. Osiris then transformed to an akh, and traveled to the underworld to become king and judge of the dead.

Meanwhile Seth continued his cruel rule. Isis was hidden with her baby Horus in the marshes. When Isis went to buy food in the villages Seth's spies found where she was hiding. Seth disguised as a snake and went into her hiding place. He found Horus alone and being a snake bit and poisoned the child. The poor mother brought the baby to the villagers and asked for their help to no avail. she cried out in despair. Nephtys, her sister, advised her to stop the Sun Boat of Ra and ask him for help. Isis, who was aware of Ra's secret name, used it to stop his boat. Ra through his messenger, Thoth assured her of the safety of Horus by promising that the Sun Boat would stop untill Horus was recovered. Ra kept his promises and Horus was cured. Horus grew to become a hero, and when he was ready, Isis gave him great Magic to use against Seth. Horus found Seth and challenged him for the throne. They fought for many days, until Seth gave up, and was castrated. Horus did not kill him, lest he be just as wicked as him. A fight broke up among the Gods who supported Horus and the Gods who supported Seth. But realizing that their quarrel would disturb Ma'at, or the balance of life,they asked the wise Neith for for his arbitration. Neith ruled that Horus was the rightful heir to the throne. Thus, Horus cast Seth into Darkness, where he lives to this day, still scheming to overthrow Horus.

Judgement before Osiris (detail),
This is the weighing of the heart scene. Anubis conducts the weighing on the scale of Maat, against the feather of truth. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart is lighter than the feather, it is the sign of his innocence and Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, it is the sign of his wickedness and his heart will be eaten by the waiting chimeric devouring creature Ammit, which is composed of the deadly crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus.

Every king of Egypt was identified with Horus during his life and with Osiris after his death, and Egyptians performed rituals and made offerings to gain the favor of these gods who are featured prominently in their art.

Canonical Proportions in Egyptian Design

(From L. to R.) Hesire Seqqara of the Third Dynasty, a nobleman of the Sixth Dynasty, and Mererurka Seqqqara of the Sixth Dynasty.
Note that these three figures are depicted on a grid of 19 squares in height. The canonical ratio of 18/11 shows 18 square from the hairline and 11 square from the navel.

Whether carving statues or painting figures, the Egyptian graphic designers used a grid system in order to adhere to a canon of aesthetics, which determined some strict ratios. As Iversen has pointed out, the Egyptians frequently referred to their works of art as being 'true', which means they wanted to represent the natural proportions, and perhaps even the true dimensions of the objects. Grids were used to control the proportions of two-dimensional relief sculpture and to line up the sides, back, and front of sculpture. The evidence of grids is often found in unfinished relief sculpture or in paintings where a layer of paint has peeled off to reveal the traces of grids. These traces have provided the data to study how Egyptian artists worked.

Grids are first appeared in 2125–1991 BC during the Eleventh Dynasty and remained in force until the end of the 26th Dynasty in the New Kingdom. The Egyptian artists first drew horizontal and vertical grid-lines on the surface of the wall they intended to paint, or on a rock they intended to carve. The grid canonically determined the aesthetic proportions of the figures, which was 18 units to the hairline, or 19 units to the top of the head. The height of the figure was usually measured to the hairline rather than the top of the head, perhaps because the head often were concealed by a crown or head piece. Various parts of body was placed on precise segments of grid lines. For instance, the connection of the neck and shoulders was placed at the row sixteenth, the elbow at the row ninth with width of six squares. The width of female figures was only between four and five squares. The face is two squares high, the shoulders are aligned at sixteen squares from the base of the figure, the elbows align at twelve from the base, and the knees at six. The grid system thus allowed artists to create striking compositions of harmony and consistency that are scalable to colossal statues or tiny figures in hieroglyphic scripts.

Vertical Perspectives with Multiple Viewpoints

Nebamun hunting in the marshes, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun, C. 1350 BC.

Nakht hunting birds in the marsh:  Nakht is shown both on the left and the right (his family is also shown twice). On the left he holds a boomerang, on the right he hunts with a spear - the spear was never painted in (most probably because Nakht had died), Tomb of Nakht - Scribe of the Granaries (reign of Tuthmosis IV)

Egyptian art's perspective was complex and geared towards enhancing the harmony of a composition, while providing the most complete information. In their figurative paintings artists realizing the fact that they are representing a three dimensional geometric body in a restricted two dimensional surface, opted to add other visual dimensions to achieve their orderly aesthetics ideals while conveying a "true" message. They typically used size as one of their dimensions in order to indicates the hierarchical importance of characters. For instance, kings are often depicted much larger than his subjects. In general, this resulted in a vertical perspective . Other dimensions were employed through multiple points of view, that would allow the human figures to be represented from the angle of view where they are best defined. Thus, heads are defined in profile with protruding nose and lips. The eyes in profile are depicted from the front view, looking at the viewers. The shoulders are seen from the front, their torsos and hips are depicted in three-quarter view point which allow the legs and arms to be seen in profile with legs extended when the figure is walking.

Distance of a figure, with respect to the viewer, is either presented by the overlapping of the bodies or by placing of the more distant figures above the ones in the foreground. However, the prominent dignitaries rarely overlap one another. Husbands and wives are depicted in a close distance from each other so that only their arms may overlap. The important peoples' bodies had to be represented complete and according to the canons. However, the lower ranking individuals, servants and slaves were often depicted as overlapping. The artists used such occasions to introduce some rhythmic repetitive patterns with these overlapping bodies so as to enhance the aesthetics of their works.

Queen Nefertari bringing an offering to Goddesses Hathor and Selkis, Tomb of Queen Nefertari, wife of Rameses IInd. Thebes.

In representing objects and landscapes the artists used the same multiple points of view technique. For instance, in the image Queen Nefertari bringing an offering to Goddesses Hathor and Selkis, we can see the goddesses are sitting in profile. The table-leg in front of them is represented from front viewpoint, the tabletop is viewed directly from above. The offerings on the tabletop are arranged vertically, so that each item can be identified by the viewer.

Egyptians paid particular attention to represent various modes of production at various stages of the of work, in farming, wine making and so on. In many of their tombs, such as tomb of nakht, various scenes of daily works such as ploughing, digging, sowing, stages of the harvest: the measuring and winnowing of the grain , the reaping and pressing of the grain into baskets and so on are depicted.

Various Stages in the Production of Grains. The Mortuary Chapel of Menna, superintendent of the estates of the king and of Amen, at the middle of the 18th dynasty, Thebes.

In the top row from left to right, a slave is kissing the foot of the overseer, the lands are measured by means of a rope, from which the knobs, that assured the correctness of the measurement, have been struck out by the avenger, in order that Menna may never again count his acres. In the second row, Menna's chariot and servants await to carry him to his fields, the quantity of his grain is recorded by the scribes; Menna stands under a canopy while servants bring him drink. In the third row, Menna sits under a canopy, outside of which is a tree with birds-nests built in it.

Mortuary Chapel of Menna, superintendent of the estates of the king and of Amen, at the middle of the 18th dynasty, Thebes.

In the top row from left to right, a boy walks along driving an animal, and carrying a small kid. Menna waits under a canopy to watch the arrival of a transportation boat. A servant receives the traders as they come ashore, and two sailors are punished with lashes for their wrong doings. In the second row, scenes of winnowing and threshing are illustrated.

Sennedjem and his wife harvesting grain, from the tomb Sennedjems at Deir el Medina.
Production of wine - two laborers pick the grapes, the juices are then squeezed out of them by men on the left - while a man is filling jars from a tap

The Egyptians believed that the pleasures of life including the times of prosperity could be made permanent by depicting scenes like; A feast for Nebamum, Nebamun hunting in the marshes, Sennedjem and his wife harvesting grain, Nakht and his wife sit before offerings, and so on. In these paintings the humanity rejoice, the family and friendship is glad, the nature and water resound; and the fields are jubilant. Overall, scenes of life, hunting and farming in the Nile marshes and the abundant wildlife supported by that environment symbolized rejuvenation and eternal life. As images like; Nakht hunting birds in the marsh, or Nebamun hunting in the marshes reveals, The geese, of several different species are depicted, and the colours are natural and subtle. Egyptian artists studied carefully the wildlife of their surroundings and paid utmost attention to detail in depicting the birds, fish, cattle, crocodiles, wildcats, butterflies and so on.

The Egyptian nobles were fond of elaborate parties and feasts as their main form of entertainment. Listening to music, watching dances, being served with foods, and friendly chats in an orderly and civilized manner were the main features of these parties. Both men and women were invited, and dining couches and small tables were provided for the guests, who regaled themselves with dishes of fowl, game, fish, bread, and wine. Women wore elegant dresses, and they paid particular attention to style and design of their dress, jewelery and furniture.

Nebamun’s cattle, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, around 1350 BC

A feast for Nebamum, bottom half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, C. 1350 BC

A feast for Nebamum, top half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, C. 1350 BC

A feast for Nebamum, top half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, C. 1350 BC

Senejem and His Wife, Tomb of Nakht

Nakht and his wife sit before offerings, Tomb of Nakht - Scribe of the Granaries (reign of Tuthmosis IV)

These female musicians are sensually painted in such a striking detail. The graceful nude lute-player dances to the accompaniment  of a  beautiful  harpist   and an elegant  flute player.  Her body is seen in  front-view while her head is turned in profile to speak to her friend.

The tomb of Nakht; his wife tenderly holds a bird in her hand.

The tomb of Nakht, a nude young girl leaning to offer perfume  to three female dignitaries.

Birds are being caught in nets and plucked. The filled net is a complex of wings and colors

Detail from the joint Book of the dead of Herihor and Queen Nodjmet.
They both make obeisance towards offerings and a Weighting of the Heart
scene, and Osiris seated beyond. Removed from the Deir el-Bahari royal
cache before 1881. British Museum.

Go to the next chapter; Chapter 3 - A Symbiotic Relationship : Books


  1.  ''The Cave of Lascaux'', by Mario Ruspoli, Harry N. Abrams (May 1, 19
  2. Chauvet, Jean-Marie; Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire (1996). ''Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave''. Paul G. Bahn (Foreword), Jean Clottes (Epilogue). New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0810932326
  3. 87), ISBN 0810912678, ISBN 978-0810912670
  4.  Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, publisher;World Heritage Site.
  5. ''The Encyclopedia Britannica'': Aboriginal Rock Art, Ubirr Art Site, Kakadu National Park, Australia,
  6. Berger, John. (1987) Ways of Seeing, Penguin: Harmondsworth
  7. Bernard, Pierre ( 1997) The Social Role of the Graphic Designer, Essays on Design I: AGI’s Designers of Influence, London
  8. Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "African Rock Art: Tassili-n-Ajjer (?8000 B.C.–?) ". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2000)
  9. Hadingham, Evan, Secrets of the Ice Age: The World of the Cave Artists, (Walker and Company: New York, 1979)
  10. Ucko, Peter J. and Rosenfeld, Andrew, Paleolithic Cave Art, (McGraw-Hill Book Company: New York, 1967.)
  11. Visible Language, special issues: “New Perspectives: Critical Histories of Graphic Design,” Andrew Blauvelt, guest ed. 28:3 (1994), 28:4 (1994), 29:1 (1995).
  12. Kress, G. and Hodg R., Social Semiotics, Polity; illustrated edition edition, 1988
  13. Andrew Blauvelt, “Designer Finds History, Publishes Book,” Design Observer (2010).
  14.  Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy 1917-1946 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 
  15. P. Yenawine (1997) Thoughts on visual literacy, in J Flood, SB Heath, and D Lapp (Eds) Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts.
  16. Deborah Rothschild, Ellen Lupton and Darra Goldstein, Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age: Selections from the Merrill C. Berman Collection (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998),
  17. Midalia, Susan (1999) “Textualising Gender” in Interpretations, 32(1), 27-32.
  18. Goodman, S., 1996, “Visual English” in Goodman, S. and Graddol, D. (eds), Redesigning English: new text, new identities, Routledge, London. 
  19. Martha Scotford, Cipe Pineles: A Life of Design (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999).
  20. Michel Wlassikoff, The Story of Graphic Design in France (Corte Madera: Gingko Press, 2005),
  21. Stanislaus von Moos, Mara Campana and Giampiero Bosoni, Max Huber (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2006), 
  22. Richard Hollis, Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2006),
  23. Kerry William Purcell, Josef Müller-Brockmann (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2006), 
  24. R. Roger Remington and Robert S.P. Fripp, Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2007), The New Design Observer
  25. Laetitia Wolff, Massin (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2007), 
  26. Steven Heller, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2008).
  27.  Rick Poynor, Out of the Studio: Graphic Design History and Visual Studies, 2001.10.11
  28. Mitchell, “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture” in The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2nd ed. 2002)
  29. Block Editorial Board and Sally Stafford, The Block Reader in Visual Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1996)
  30. John A. Walker and Sarah Chaplin, Visual Culture: An Introduction (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)
  31. Malcolm Barnard, Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)
  32. James Elkins, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (New York and London: Routledge, 2003).
  33. Andrew Blauvelt, “Notes in the Margin,” Eye 6:22 (1996): 57.
  34. Gunnar Swanson, “Graphic Design Education as a Liberal Art: Design and Knowledge in the University and the ‘Real World’” in The Education of a Graphic Designer, Steven Heller ed. (New York: Allworth Press, 2005)
  35. Guy Julier and Viviana Narotzky, “The Redundancy of Design History” (Leeds Metropolitan University, 1998).
  36. Jonathan Baldwin, “Abandoning History,” A Word in Your Ear (2005). Baldwin delivered a paper on this theme at New Views: Repositioning Graphic Design History (London College of Communication, 27-29 October 2005).
  37. Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design (New York: John Wiley, 3rd ed. 1998, 4th ed. 2005).
  38. Prasad Boradkar, “From Form to Context: Teaching a Different Type of Design History” in The Education of a Graphic Designer, 
  39. Victor Margolin, “Narrative Problems of Graphic Design History,” Visible Language 28:3 (1994): 233-43.
  40. 19. Robin Kinross, “Design History: No Critical Dimension,” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 11:1 (1993): 7.
  41. Malcolm Barnard, Design and Visual Culture: An Introduction (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1998).
  42. Malcolm Barnard, Graphic Design as Communication (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
  43.  Nicholas Mirzoeff ed., The Visual Culture Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2nd ed. 2002).
  44. Martin Jay, “Introduction to Show and Tell,” Journal of Visual Culture, “The Current State of Visual Studies” 4:2 (2005).
  45. Margaret Dikovitskaya, Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2005): 1.
  46. Martin Jay (interview) in Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn, 206.
  47.  Rick Poynor, Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2007) 
  48. Rick Poynor, Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).
  49. Martin Jay, “That Visual Turn: The Advent of Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 1:1 (2002): 87-92.
  50. Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999): 6.
  51.  Guy Julier, “From Visual Culture to Design Culture,” Design Issues 22:1 (2006): 76..
  52.  Irit Rogoff, “Studying Visual Culture” in The Visual Culture Reader, 27.
  53.  Dikovitskaya, Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn, 4.
  54. Roxane Jubert, Typography and Graphic Design: From Antiquity to the Present (Paris: Flammarion, English ed. 2006)
  55. Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
  56. Grazia Neri, Ethics and  Photography, The Digital Journalist,
  57. Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish, Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008)
  58. Patrick Cramsie, The Story of Graphic Design (New York: Abrams, 2010).
  59. Alice Twemlow and Lorraine Wild, “A New Graphic Design History?” Design Observer (2007)
  60. Denise Gonzales Crisp and Rick Poynor, “A Critical View of Graphic Design History,” Design Observer (2008).
  61. Jonathan Harris, The New Art History: A Critical Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).
  62. Andrew Blauvelt, “Modernism in the Fly-Over Zone,” Design Observer (2007).
  63. Gayatri Spivak quoted by Rogoff, The Visual Culture Reader, 26.
  64. Rogoff, The Visual Culture Reader, 33.
  65. Johanna Drucker, “Who’s Afraid of Visual Culture,” Art Journal 58:4 (1999): 36-47.
  66. Mirzoeff (interview) in Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn, 232.
  67. Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture (1999), 14.
  68. Mitchell (interview) in Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn, 256.
  69. Mitchell, 2002, Showing seeing: A critique of visual culture. Journal of Visual Culture, page 70
  70. Mirzoeff and Mitchell in Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn, 227-31, 243, 255-7. 
  71. Hodge, Susie, Ancient Egyptian Art, Heinemann/Raintree, 2006 Iversen,
  72. Erik, Canon and Proportion in Egyptian Art, Aris & Phillips Ltd, 1975
  73. Robins, Gay, The art of ancient Egypt, Harvard University Press, 2008

Creative Commons License 
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.