First jobs are rarely glamorous, but mine was shelving books in the sub-basement of the University of Georgia’s Map and Government Information Library. Not the basement mind you, but the sub-basement. This gig, dull as it often was, exposed me to a vast range of printed material while earning my design degree.

To pass the long hours shelving in isolation, I would occasionally guess the publishing date of each book by its cover design before laying it to rest in the stacks. Being government documents, these were not splashy, cutting-edge layouts by any means, yet each held a record of decision-making.

The display font, color, print size, photography, graphical elements – a wealth of visual clues could inform my estimate.

Monotone photography with type set in Clarendon? Definitely from the 1960s.

ITC Avant Garde with repeating thick bands of color? Got to be 1970s.

Motter Tektura and neon rainbows? You guessed it.

Helvetica with a minimal, grid-based layout? Now that could get tricky. (Actual date of the Luminaire poster: 1970!)

Besides a lightly entertaining way to pass time, this exercise taught an important lesson:

Design is visual communication that is both in dialogue with and an echo of the era it was created in.

By learning these trends, I grew my ability to understand and speak these visual languages in my own design practice, as well as identify which styles have remained timeless through the decades.

Now as a visual designer at Phinney Bischoff, I’m inspired knowing that the work we create is together a unique representation of our clients’ identities, their positions in the wider market landscape, and a broad reflection of our time. I feel lucky to contribute to the ongoing design canon in some small incremental way, especially at an agency that has witnessed its own share of trends over 38 years in business.