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    On modernism in graphic design

    By Sondre_M
    Jan 3, '13 5:44 PM EST

    [I will write a proper introduction of this blog shorty, but first, a subject that has peaked my interest spurred me to get this down in writing]


    Most areas of design bleed into each other, in the movements and -isms, philosophies and collectives. Graphic design, at least lately, have lost some of its connection to the rest of the design realm. I started an education in graphic and multimedia design in 2007, which was, looking back, maybe not the best years in graphic design. Webdesign had just gotten out of it web 2.0 gloss, but design was still all over the place, with vector swooshes, cute characters and a very distinct style to everything.

    Now, I stumbled upon a blog post that - granted, is a few years ago, concerning a quote from legendary graphic designer Vignelli, on typefaces, and how there are only twelve worth using

    The response from the writer and many of the commentators are of course outraged. Just as widespread are the misconceptions about modernism, and the confusion between modernism and minimalism. It's not about just using helvetica in black, white and red within a strict grid. It's about designing things that will stand the test of time, not be outdated tomorrow and is sustainable. 

    After Obama was elected president, there came a surge in typographic logos using the gotham typeface. There is even a tumblr for it: – it seemed contemporary at the time, and was washed out to be just as generic as Helvetica in a year.

    Now, and I don't know where this has come from, you divide your logo into four (either letters of simple forms) and put them into each block made by an X form. And hey, there is a tumblr for that too

    Now, all this seem very cool, very fresh, and very "contemporary" (all things that you might want to be identified with), but what we should take from the ideals of modernism is a sustainable mindset, that it isn't about the latest fad, or beeing "on trend". Certainly not now, when trends change faster and faster. It's not just about the only 12 typefaces, but asking yourself, do you need something else? Do you need something new? Or do you choose new for news sake, loosing sight of following good design principles and form to align with "now"? 

    By following the trends right now, you are wasting both a good amount of money, time, talent, paper etc. if you find in two years time your brand is generic and outdated – and you have to redesign your whole project. 

    I will write much more on the general subject of graphic design relating to other design subjects on this blog, for now, I will point you to Vignelli's Canon online here: - and say that, at least in my eyes, its not about the fonts, or the grids, or the color – but what you should take away from this is that graphic design, like architecture, should be made to stand the test of time, to be timeless and useful, follow form, function, aesthetics and imagination - but not be a use-and-throw-away trendy quick-consuming thing. 


    • Thayer-D

      You make some great points about trendiness.   As much as you would like to create a 'sustainable mindset' from the ideals of modernism, as long as we have youth, we will have the persuit of everything "very cool, very fresh, and very "contemporary".  That's not a bad thing, it keeps old timers on their toes and is inevitable as the younger generation looks to carve out thier own niche, as much as the herd mentality permits.  Modernism in graphic design is beautiful if well done, unfortunatley one of the legacies of modernism in architectureis to produce drawings that are more graphic than architectonic.  

      There's also something inherently contradictory about sustainable modernist ideals in that to be stainable, one must look at history to see what actually has sustained itself.  Becasue of modernism's revolutionary stance towards history, this becomes somewhat problematic.  One of modernism's founding tenants was to abolish history and replace it with a modern aesthetic predicated on function, technology, and universality.  I'm sceptical of any overarching philosophy given the heterogenety of our modern world, but If you are truly looking at "following good design principles" beyond trends and fads, why align yourself with anyone historical 'ism' that has a distinct ideology and aesthetic, to say nothing about iconography?

      This isn't to say that your intent isn't a valid one.  Many people look to something more enduring than a fad, especially as they age, so I look forward to reading what you find.

      Jan 4, 13 6:56 am  · 

      Of course, and thats one of the reasons I find design history is so important in design education (something the school where I studied sadly omitted, and I've had to research myself). I'm certainly not feeling like you should follow everything modernism preached, nor the post-modernism, nor – as you said, follow and of the -isms. What I'm thinking, and trying to hint at is the point of listening. Not follow old modernist designers every word and whim, but to listen, study and understand. What it came from, why it came and why it (if it) failed. 

      I do agree that for a sustainable, healthy and enjoyable life you have to look to history, to see what keeps, what stays relevant and what outdates quickly. If you look at urban design, you can see the failure of modernism, but in the context of history you can also see where it came from. So, modernism is definitely not the save-all of any design principle. But, maybe especially in graphic design, they did make some bloody good points ;)

      Jan 4, 13 10:25 am  · 

      I agree that in graphic design, modernism for lack of another moniker is where it's at.  I also like your declaration that there is a confusion with modernism and minimalism, although the connection was much more apparent in the early modernist phase.  Maybe that has to do with modernism's embrace of abstraction and how it tends to be a reductive approach that promotes less over more.  The thing about abstraction is that it can be banal without a context from which the act of abstraction is apparent although there are plenty of abstract designs that veer on the frenetic.

      Looking forward to your explorations!

      Jan 4, 13 11:04 am  · 

      Your conclusion seems to be most relevant to logo design and visual identity rather than all aspects of graphic design. I agree with your insights in this context because logos have a long lifespan relative to other graphic works, and because brands exist to build and sustain trust and so are well served by a timeless presentation (regardless of whether the truth is something else. The irony of those emblematic X logos for example ;-)

      In most graphic design projects there is a message to be communicated. Effective communication requires common ground which is usually found in popular culture, which will inevitably include visual trends. Currency is another important trait of many graphic projects which also benefits from the use of trends. Maybe this why graphic design has departed from other design disciplines?

      Jan 4, 13 6:14 pm  · 

      True, and thank you for some valuable insight. You are right that there are difference in graphic design disciplines, where some value trends more than others. I'll stress again that I don't think modernism is the save-all, nor a visual style. Especially web-design has for a long time been cluttered and unorganized, trend-fucking over using good design sense. But, that is a post for another time ;) Again, thank you for some valuable feedback, I'll give it some thought ;)

      Jan 5, 13 9:33 am  · 

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About this Blog

A blog about design and architecture, and the points where they overlap. How they inspire each other, and can inspire each other. Often based around graphic design, but also around architecture, service/interactive design and industrial design

Authored by:

  • Sondre_M

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