Visual Communication - from centuries past and their evolution today

A semi-detailed writeup on the documented origins of visual communication, its evolution and impact on how we communicate today.

Visual communication is said to be the language of visual perception and visual expression [Behind The Filter]. I agree. To communicate an idea or process to people outside our mind, we tend to paint a picture of what we see in our mind’s eye, either with descriptive words, rough sketches or something basic like drawing on sand — it’s all a form of communication through expression. This expression also comes in the form of signs, typography, animation, graphics, industrial design and other forms of illustration.

Thinking of visual communication today, words like illustrations, photography, models, graphic design, typography, art, animation etc. comes to mind but there was a time when none of these mediums existed in the ways we know them today or perhaps they did in their own variations albeit without the technological advancements afforded to us today. Which begs the question — before visual communication — how did our ancestors express ideas and thoughts?

Let’s look at the words separately — for the visual in visual communication to exist, they must be something to communicate, that could be a detailed process or figments of the communicator’s imagination — for that imagination to come to life in a way that is understandable and felt — visuals come to play. What is visual? It’s sight. It’s putting meaning into symbols. It’s telling a story. Before technology, we know stories existed, for stories to exist, they must be language, we also know that processes and structures existed, so how were these structures communicated and understood?

You know how they say history always repeats itself and even the cycle of life? I see this in the history of visual communication. Dating back to 25,000BCE, Cave Paintings were some of the earliest documented forms of visual communication — we are informed of this by the Cave Painting depiction of a Bison found in the Altamira Cave in Spain, which is reported to be the first cave of such discoveries. This dates back to over 12,000 years ago.

An image of a Cave Painted Bison — found in the Altamira Cave in Spain
Cave Paintings — Bison— Found Altamira Cave in Spain

Fast forward from that, we are transported to Ancient Mesopotamia’s Writing system, where visual communication is depicted using pictures to mean words and influencing how the people communicated. The writing systems are said to have and used text based on pictures.

Image of the Mesopotamian writing system circa 3500 BC, shows how text based on pictures or icons were used
Mesopotamia writing system circa 3500 BC

I find the Mesopotamia writing system interesting because in our digital spaces today, we sometimes remove words and replace them with icons to reduce noise and enhance understanding via visual cues. Commonly known in digital spaces as Material Icons.

Digital Material icons used in our designs today
Digital Material Icons today

An interesting correlation I noticed with the Mesopotamian writing system is how symbolism is also used in the Nsibidi writing system of the Igbo people of Nigeria.

Nsibidi Writing System

Curious if this is a reach, but I like to think systems like these also inform the Tribal Marks used in different cultures across Nigeria. Each Ethnic group with its own meanings of course. For example, the Edo people have a tribal marking system called Iwu which some say was used to denote citizenship circa 1440 but I digress. I find these symbols to be equivalent to Branding in Design, people recognise their cultural crafts based on the styles/carvings used.


Now, in 3200 BC, Hieroglyphics were another form of ancient writing system, used by the Egyptians. The symbols used were influenced by nature or in some cases, representations of daily life. Hieroglyphics initially had roughly 800 symbols but as the years progressed, the number increased. Which is kind of similar to our design systems today, as designs evolve, our systems evolve with them. I see this as an ancient type of UX, digital products growing with user needs.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics — circa 3200 BCE

Imago Mundi

Maps, the oldest map ever created is reported to be the Babylonian map called Imago Mundi to show visual representations of what countries looked like. Now, an interesting correlation I’ve been drawing is that, these Maps were created using clay tablets — makes you wonder if that’s where companies got the inspiration to name some smart devices, Tablets which can also be used to draw using software like Procreate and the likes.

Michelangelo and the High Renaissance Movement

To avoid this getting any longer, remember the cave painting of the Bison I mentioned earlier? Well, in 1512, Michelangelo completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — evolving from Cave Paintings of Bisons to painting scenes from the Bible in the ceilings of Chapels, no longer branded Cave Paintings but ‘High Renaissance’ Movement in Italian states. I find this cycle of life fascinating.

Michelangelo’s Ceiling painting at the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s Ceiling painting — Sistine Chapel

Ancient Visual Communication in Today’s Digital Spaces

To give a quick rundown of how earlier forms of visual communication influenced our digital sphere today, let’s look at Graphic design as we know it today. In 1475, Illuminated Manuscripts were created, which are basically handwritten text with images, they first appeared in the 6th century and gained traction in the 15th, and were used for churches to depict messages and stories in the Bible, they are said to also be visual guides for Church services or to support daily devotion of Monks, Nuns and the likes.

Illuminated Manuscript used to give instruction and teachings to Nuns and the likes. Used from the 6th Century
Illuminated Manuscripts, 1475

An illustrated manuscript and its use sounds familiar right? ell, fast forward to 1609, one of the first poster advertisements promoting America was advertised, in England. Followed by the creation of the first known Magazine in 1663, which was from Germany at the time and called Erbauliche Monaths Unterredungen and was intended for Academic audiences. Well, until the Arabs came up with the word Magazine in 1773, which means Warehouse which also means ‘a book with useful information for travellers’. Thankfully, in our world today Magazines are everywhere and they service more people than travellers or Academics. This, I think trickled down and influenced illustrations like Uncle Sam, and Logo design like Coca-Cola which dates back to 1885, the Coca-Cola logo being one of the most prominent.

Coca-Cola logo by Frank Mason Robinson — 1885
Coca-Cola logo in 1885 by Frank Mason Robinson

Petroglyphs and the Enigma Cipher Machine

Another interesting and last evolvement of visual communication I’ll be detailing here is Petroglyphs (rock carvings), I found out that Petroglyphs were coded symbols only understood by the people who made them. Now, I might be reaching here but this reminded me of the Enigma Machine, used as a cipher device to communicate during World War II, the ciphers could only be understood by Nazi Germans who communicated with it securely because no one else understood it, thus giving them an edge during the war, until the code was broken by Alan Turing of England. This cycle of life, again, I find fascinating.

An image of a rock carving known as Petroglyphs. Unknown meaning but has been around since 1300 to 16380s AD
Petroglyphs circa 1300 and 1680s AD

I’ll stop here for now. This article is really me trying to make sense of what visual communication is and how we have evolved or perhaps returned, with more advantage. I luckily stumbled upon a wealth of information and drew some correlations, although some might be a reach but they’re interesting to think about.


— in Today’s visual communication we use visual cues to minimise text and content overload, back in the day only symbols were used to communicate, the petroglyphs (rock carvings) for example used coded symbols that only people who made them could understand. Now visual cues are almost a global language that we all understand e.g. a thermostat symbolises temperature etc. — how did we even get here? —

First ever Medium post done and dusted -woop woop-. Thank you for reading.




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A growing UX designer with love for inclusive digital experiences, colours, writers, and photography.