New movements and ideologies appear as an oppositional response to previous philosophies. Modernism in graphic design in the early 1900s can be characterized by the popularity of Bauhaus aesthetics and way of thinking: “form follows function”; later on embodied in typography of Jan Tschichold, followed by the Swiss graphic design movement of the ’50s. All of these stages of modernism acted in opposition to the preceding dominance of Victorian sensibilities towards ornamentation and tradition. Every stage of modernism came to its existence as something inevitable and not forced. As Marcel Proust writes, “In fashioning a work of art we are by no means free that we do not choose how we shall make it but that it pre-exists us and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature, that is to say to discover it.” Modernism came to be seen as a set of rules and grids making it easy to distinguish “right” from “wrong” design. At the time of its early origins it seemed to be the right step towards progress, bringing order to things and abolishing ornament. Early modernist designers discovered an alternative way to interpret beauty by promoting order and simplicity.
Adolf Loos’ notorious essay “Ornament and Crime” was published at the outset of the modernist movement, enforcing the Bauhaus thinking and in turn leaving behind the Arts and Crafts movement. Loos stated, “Shall every age have a style of its own and our age alone be denied one? By style they meant decoration. But I said, don’t weep! See, what makes our culture grand is its inability to produce a new form of decoration. We have overcome the ornament, we have won through the lack of ornamentation.” His obvious frustration with a disorganized sense of style at that time and culture’s dependence upon early traditions presents itself, as he asserted, “those who measure everything by the past impede the cultural development of nations and of humanity itself.” Such strongly worded view against tradition has eventually proven to be the motto of modernist designers, who believed lack of ornamentation was a sign of intelligence.
Just as early modernism opposed tradition, so did itself over time transform into a traditional set of rules, which ultimately began to be neglected in the ’80s and ’90s. Graphic design of the ’80s and ’90s can be highlighted by its experimentations with re-appropriation and deconstruction. In that time, designers were determined to not necessarily break from early modernist rules, but instead wished to create a new set of rules which accommodated recent technological and culture advances. In his review of Rick Poynor’s book on postmodernism, No More Rules, Jeff Keedy adds, “Not just rule breaking, or a discarding of rules, but an exploration, expansion, and redefinition of the boundaries of design as a dynamic self-organizing system of possibilities, instead of a top-down hierarchy of rules.” In his essay named “Modernism 8.0,” Keedy writes that modernism has gone through a number of versions, exemplified in Dan Friedman’s Radical Modernism of 1994, followed by Andrew Blauvelt’s “Complex Simplicity” and so on, until finally arriving at the current version, Modernism 8.0. Modernism was briefly interrupted by Postmodernism, which according to Rick Poynor “ended once its initial shock was absorbed.” There have been many debates over whether postmodernism was a movement of its own or just a branch of modernism. No matter how it can be categorized, it acted as a shock to a lot of designers at the time and as a result as Keedy put it, “They [postmodern ideas] were called ‘ugly’ and ‘chaos’ and ‘design for designers’ (whatever that means). The call to return to Modernism started almost immediately even though hardly anyone had actually abandoned it.” Today’s renovated Modernism is unlike its original oppositional stance, its existence is only sparked by the fail of appropriation of postmodern ideas, which evidently frightened numerous graphic designers. Following numerous revisions, modernism is currently re-interpreting itself.
Current design culture consists of a big mix of styles generated and fueled by the blog era. Kenneth FitzGerald comments that, “Design continues to be a busy but overly placid, pleasant surface. There are a few signs of what, if anything, lies below that surface. Our pond remains small and shallow.” In his essay titled “Buzz Kill,” FitzGerald states that “In the near absence of any regular critical review, buzz is the means by which design establishes value. Buzz makes taste. Ambitious designers recognize how the field operates and they shrewdly modulate the hum. If you want to have a career, you need to create your own buzz.” Designers today exist based on buzz others create about them. Partial reason for the current messy state of the field is the lack of criticism (or that no one cares enough to seek any). Criticism in fact being a “buzz kill” is something new generation of graphic designers are yet to get used to.
It seems that ever since the emergence of modernism in graphic design, designers are accustomed to limiting themselves, once with the grid and now with style; style in a purely external sense. Many designers of today’s generation fail to see many sides to graphic design and instead perceive it as a one-dimensional entity. Design is often either treated as a tool for communication (crudely put) or a shallow display of style that is reproduced and recycled on numerous occasions between designers. Today’s graphic design culture consists of a mix of styles, each desperately trying to stand out, with nothing of substance to offer in return. Beyond the aesthetic exterior core of visual style nothing seems to exist.
One of today’s more inspiring designers is Stefan Sagmeister. His work not only draws attention with often radical and almost grotesque imagery (his lecture poster for Cranbrook Academy of Art and AIGA Detroit) but also offers a distinct personal touch and wit beyond the visual surface. Writer Peter Hall credits Sagmeister with initiating a “…turning point for the design profession, away from aspirations of digital perfection toward a higher appreciation for a designer’s personal mark.” The same perspective applies to the work of Ed Fella, which also embody a sense of honesty and unpretentiousness. Based on personal observations and experience many graphic designers today fail to create this supplementary layer of complexity beyond the aesthetic exterior, because they limit themselves with the visual outlook from the very start of the project. They envision the final result before even starting the work. With this kind of approach all the attention is put onto an exterior aesthetic in a more technical sense. One edits the content to fit the visuals, when it should be the other way around. In order for design to achieve a form that embodies a true personal voice, the content must shape itself gradually and naturally over the course of work. There is nothing wrong with not having a preconceived plan, and letting the project take its own path.