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Chapter 1. Design History

1.8 Post Modern

Alex Hass

By the early 1970s, the idealistic principles of Modernism were fading and felt flat and lifeless. Pluralism was again emerging as people craved variety as a reaction to the reductivist qualities that modernism espoused.

Punk

In the late 1970s in Britain, Australia, and parts of the United States, a youthful rebellious culture of anger and distain arose against the establishment. In many ways, the design language of Punk echoed the Dadaist style, though Punk was anchored with a pointed, political message against the tyranny of society and the disenfranchisement of youth. A use of aggressive collages, colours, and experimental photography were its hallmarks. These free-form, spontaneous design works incorporated pithy tag lines and seethed with anger in a way that Dada work never attempted to achieve. Punk actively moved away from the conformities of design, and was anti-patriotic and anti-establishment. Punk established the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos and stylized it with the angry anti-establishment mood of the mid 1970s, a time of political and social turbulence. DIY style was considered shocking and uncontrolled. However, the influence on design has been far reaching and subsequently widely emulated.

Jamie Reid, a pioneer of the Punk style, developed the visual signature look for the Sex Pistols and many other punk bands. His personal signature style was known for a collaged ‘ransom note’ typography that became a typographic style of its own. Reid cut letters out of newspapers and magazines, and collaged them together to be photographed. By doing this, he could see what he was creating as he went along, trying out different font styles and sizes and seeing the results instantly. Treating type as if it were a photograph also freed him from the restrictions of typesetting within a structured grid and allowed him to develop his ideas and concepts as he created. This unguided, process-free approach to design became a part of the Post Modern experimentation that was to come.

When Punk first exploded in the 1970s, it was deemed a youthful rebellion. In actuality, it was one of the many forms of visual expression that manifested as part of the Postmodernist movement that began as a reaction to the rigid restrictions of Modernism.

Early Post Modernism

Early Swiss Post Modern design was driven by the experimentations and teachings of Wolfgang Weingart who taught at the Basel School of design in Basel, Switzerland. Weingart was taught ITS by the masters of the style, Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann at the Basel School. But once he became an instructor there, he questioned the “value of the absolute cleanliness and order” (Meggs & Purvis, 2011, p. 465) of the style. He experimented vigorously with breaking all typographic and organizational rules to see what the effect on the audience would be. He invigorated typography with energy and in turn changed the viewer’s response to the visual information. Instead of a simple fast reading, the reader now faced dynamic complexity free of any rules or hierarchies. The viewer was now compelled to spend more time with a design piece to understand its message and parse the meaning of its symbolism.

One of his American students, April Greiman, brought this new design language back to California with her and heavily influenced the youth culture there. David Carson, a self-taught designer working in the surf magazine world, took the ideas of the style and adopted them to his own typographic experiments in the surfing magazines he designed. For Carson, Post Modern design reflected the free spirit of the surf community.

Post Modernism is actually an umbrella term for many visual styles that came about after the 1980s. They are unified by their reaction to Modernism’s guiding principles — particularly that of objectivity. A key feature of Post Modern design is the subjective bias and individual style of the designers that practise it. Additional defining stylistic characteristics can be summarized in the idea of ‘de-construction.’ The style often incorporates many different typefaces breaking every traditional rule of hierarchy and composition. Visual organization becomes more varied and complicated with the use of layers and overlapping. The use of image appropriation and culture jamming is a key feature. Dramatic layouts that do not conform to traditional compositions are another common characteristic. A traditional grid is not used to organize the layout of the elements, making composition look ‘free-style.’ Other organizational systems for the elements developed — axial, dilatational, modular, and transitional systems created a fresh way to organize the information. The combination of multiple geometric shapes layered with photographs created depth that worked well on the computer monitor — now a component of contemporary society.

Post Modernism is still in use today, though selectively. The chaos created by our technological advancements needs to be balanced with the ease of accessing information. The Apple brand is a good example of a contemporary design approach that feels fresh and current, while delivering massive amounts of information in a clean and simple way. The Post Modern methods of built-in visual difficulty are less welcome in our data-saturated culture.

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1.8 Post Modern by Alex Hass is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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