Modernism and Graphic Design

From what I know, graphic design has been around since writing has been around. There has always been some kind of organization of image and text. For the most part, historically, text has been organized in a horizontal or vertical manner. 

However, the term “graphic design” has not been around since the invention of writing. It has only been around since 1922….less than a century. So it is a fairly new form. This was something I didn’t know. I just it assumed it had been around since the beginning of civilization.

Graphic design is really a product of Modernism. According to A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs, it was coined in 1922 by William Addison Dwiggins, a book designer, in 1922. He basically used the term to describe his activities. A graphic designer is someone who brings structural order and visual form to printed communications. 

Of course, today it is not just limited to print. Basically where ever one sees text and image, someone or some people have organized the visuals. The internet, television, film, computer graphics, clothing, and of course printed matter can be included in the definition of graphic design.

Graphic design as a product of modernism

 Visually, if you look at visual communication before 1900 and after 1900, there will be a noticeable difference. Modern graphic design’s roots can be found in Modern Art. 

In a sense, Modernism was a reductive movement. Form was simplified as a way to break from pictorial representation. 

Why this break? The beginning of the 20th century was fraught with radical political, social, cultural and economic changes. It was a revolutionary time. It was a time of radical scientific and technological advances. Life was being forever changed by the invention of the automobie, airplane, motion pictures, radio, high tech weapons (tanks, machine guns, chemical and biological warfare). WW1 shook Europe off of its foundations. New ways of thinking were needed. Marxist theory was the basis of some of there political, social and economic changes. There was a rise of radical political revolutions that spawned the rise of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Communist Russia. The visual artist felt that the traditions of the past did not represent the time they were living in. Pictorial representation could not capture the changes of the times. Something new was needed. This may be too simplistic but it will do for now.

Movements in early 20th century modernism: Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, De Stijl, Suprematism and Constructivism. 

Expressionism and Fauvism didn’t have much influence on graphic design. I suppose it was considered too primal or subjective. The other movements do seem to have some kind of analytical structure even if some of it looked crude or primitive. There was some kind of intellectual basis….a method to the madness.

Cubism + Futurism = modern graphic design

Influence of cubism, or maybe specifically Synthetic Cubism, seems to come from a structural design of the picture plane. The grid. There is also the use of reducing pictorial space and figures to hard-edged geometric forms.

Juan Gris seemed to use the apparatus as a way to find a medium between art based on perception and art based on the relationships between geometric planes. 


Gris's "Portrait of Picasso", 1912

Gris's "Portrait of Picasso", 1912



Fernand Leger’s paintings reduced his subject matter to compositions of made up of colorful shapes. He also fragments his subjects and uses letterforms to form stylistic representations of his visual experience. 


Leger's "The City", 1919

Leger's "The City", 1919



The influence of Futurism (or more specifically Futurist poetry): it’s influence seems to be in how type is used. If you don’t know much about Futurism, it begins with Filippo Marinetti’s, the Manifesto of Futurism that was published in 1909. Marinetti was an Italian poet. Futurism was established as a revolutionary movement in which the arts voiced their opposition against traditional institutions that shaped European culture. The Futurists had an enthusiasm for war, machines, speed and modern life. They detested museums, libraries, moralism and feminism.  The art that came out of this movement focused on speed, energy and dynamic/violent movements. The poets and writers of this movement rejected traditional grammar and syntax. Harmony was not important. Words and text were used freely AS description….not as a way to describe. Type can be in itself an expressive visual form. 


Filippo Marinetti, "Montage + Vallate + Strade x Joffre", 1915

Filippo Marinetti, "Montage + Vallate + Strade x Joffre", 1915

















This was just the beginning and these two movements really start to influence the successive movements such as Dada and Surrealism. Then huge noticable changes seem to infiltrate into graphic communications, leading to modern graphic design.

More to come.


One Response to Modernism and Graphic Design

  1. […] Modernism and Graphic Design « Rebecca Eilering Creative Studios […]

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