Sample Art Paper on Modernist and Postmodernist Graphic Design

Modernist and Postmodernist Graphic Design


During the course of the 19th century, artists and painters adopted a significantly conservative attitude towards art presentation. Images as well as art forms that developed during this era were composed of particular artistic caliber that was referenced to conservative values; nobility, religion and virtuosity. On the other hand, the 20th century saw a new representation of design known as ‘Modernism’ which others labeled postmodernism, following  the Second World War. This period was especially distinct because artists started to become more expressive and created a new direction that did not conform to the past principles. According to Armstrong (2009), modern artists had a proactive look into the future that supported freedom of expression and equality rather than the limiting past. However, despite the difference between the artistic interpretations during this time, there is a number of impressions seen in contemporary art that resulted from earlier modernist design practice and theory. This paper is centered on showing the relationship between the two phenomena, with particular references to the graphic design field.


At the onset, it is significant to note that at the center of the graphic design profession is the principle of visual communication. Without the consideration of era, the basic principle guiding any graphic designer is the ability to organize symbols, images or words in a manner that communicates a visual image to the intended audience. According to Ayiter (2007), a graphic designer has the obligation to organize and communicate a message in a manner that establishes the nature of a product or an impression, so as to set the appropriate stage to pass across its virtues; consequently, to announce and publicize information in the most efficient way. In the 19th century, a number of conservative value factors including religion, nobility, and virtuosity guided graphic designers. This then meant that graphic designers were limited in matters of expressing their messages; however, in the 20th century the artists become more driven by freedom allowing them better express their message.

According to Poynor (2003), the 20thcentury graphic designers focused majorly on breaking the high order culture, and introducing pop culture that became popular in the 1980s. Initially, the new form of graphic design was viewed as an assortment of styles that was dreamed up by student designers; however, in fact it was a fresh way of creating designs (Müller-Brockmann 1968). Though there were differences in how graphic designers communicated their message in the two eras, there has been significant influence that earlier modernists have on graphic design. Graphic designers such as Milton Glaser, Charles and Ray Eames, and Tadanori Yokoo who are not necessarily identified as modernist have greatly influenced the graphic designs scene today. Oropallo (2011), states that some artist though conforming to the principles of high culture, developed pieces of art that went beyond simplicity and are seen in today’s art galleries.

The Essence of New Graphic Design

Today’s designers are expressive in nature; unlike, traditional designers they conform to pop culture not high culture. A look at today’s graphic designs highlights art and clarity contrary to the traditional principle used before of arranging everything on a center axis. Modern artists unlike their traditional counterparts aim to offer social awareness in their art pieces and simultaneously provide an abstract and futuristic perception in the message they present to their audience. Francisco and Moreno (2009) asserts that the Russian revolution was significantly influenced by the propaganda broadcasted  by modern artists. However, the information presented emphasizes a significant difference from the traditional principles of traditional designers; a number of modernist artists from the 1920s held traits that can be seen in today’s contemporary graphic design (Labuz 2001). Below are two artists that have significantly influenced contemporary graphic design based on style.

Jan Tschichold

Jan Tschichold is considered one of the proponent modernist asymmetric typographies, whose work remains significant throughout the ages. Designers involved in contemporary graphic design have come to appreciate Tschichold’s earlier calligraphic and classical lettering; consequently, highlighting the diversity of his ideology and style in an era that was characterized by simplicity and clarity (Doubleday, 2006). Le, and Purvis (2007), states that Tschichold’s work seemed to range from craft-based calligraphy that was highly representative of the earlier modernist design practice, and part of the era’s theory; however, in the same piece he could switch to machine-age modernist style, a feature that is evident in today’s graphic designs. For the purpose of this study, it should be noted that several academics such as Poynor (2003), do not celebrate Tschichold as a modernist typographer or graphic designer, this has never been the case in real life. The work by Tschichold has always been considered contemporary in nature but this is a misinterpretation

  1. A. Dwiggins

Other than the connection represented by Tschichold where images, fonts or letterings were mixed in an intricate leveled manner, contemporary graphic design also highlights translation of value as presented by W. A. Dwiggins. Dwiggins was once characterized by Kennett (2015), as tireless experimenter who took most off his inspiration from eastern European cultures, history and technology; consequently, leading to translation of traditional ethics and aesthetics into a more modern setting than his counterparts at the time. Contrasting Tschichold, Dwiggins did not at any point of his career embrace a modernist approach to his work nor did he describe it as such. Nonetheless, he was committed to using modern styles in expressing his message.

Recent studies such as that of Francisco and Moreno (2009) that highlights the discussion of Tschichold and Dwiggins indicates that contemporary art includes a full scope and plurality in graphic design. The complexities adopted by the artists highlighted above, has provided the critical distance that has for a while been used to access modernism as well as its consequences.  During the postmodern era, the principles separating modern from classical; good from bad; new from old; has become undefined and fractured considering the fact that early artists such as Tschichold, and Dwiggins made the choice to mix up their masterpieces with experimental features. Based on the above facts, it can be argued that the two mentioned authors ditched their personality behind the regulation the high culture indicating a new impression, the subjects, the creativity, or the product is what the best minds are all striving to achieve their objectives as graphic designers and in the process becoming what is known as contemporary designers.

Paul Rand (1914–1996), a student of Parsons School of Design, was a keen learner of the two mentioned artists. During the period after World War 2, he became one of the most well-known and successful contemporary graphic designers of recent years, because he integrated skills learnt from both Tschichold and Dwiggins (Labuz, 2001).Tibor Kalman (1949–1999), who was a famous American graphic designer shared the same view about the two artists when he once described Dwiggins as one of the few designers whose work was legendary, considering the diversity of culture and technology a factor that is well embraced in contemporary designs (Le & Purvis, (2007). It should be noted that the current era is filled with technological breakthroughs, and graphic designers are obligated to adapt to conditions, a factor that Dwiggins is remembered well for.

The other way modernist design practice and theory influenced contemporary graphic design is through art pieces. As earlier indicated, the style used during the modernist times by traditional graphic designers was simple in nature. The images used were basic, and in most cases  were ignored; letters used were almost always hand drawn, in other words the center of the poster was the key starting point for designers. Contemporary graphic design; however, did not use such principles; the font is in most cases is calligraphic or styled in a way with simplicity being realized by italicizing words. Images have always been the center of attraction, considering the extensive use of color in order for the artist to pass the message as arrangements have always been placed in a leveled manner.

The two styles highlighted presented contrasting pieces; nonetheless, Poynor (2003) state that the essence of contemporary art is actually adoptive not a novel in style. In his explanation, he identifies two particular pieces, namely the well known ‘Uncle Sam’ as well as the Briton recruitment posters, which have simplified images  arranged in a ‘grid’ format in a manner that they were leveled. The interesting part of the posters was the fact that they both used a different font for the word ‘You’, which was bolded as well as outlined in order to provide a sense of emphasis on the significance of the individual reading it (Hicks, 2006). Meggs and Purvis (2016) assert that there are only limited descriptions of several other similar pieces in the modernist era. It is from such text that it can be argued how the ices in contemporary graphic design have their origins from the modernist artist.

Based on the above, it is evident that modernist theories and practices have influenced contemporary design through particular artists as well as art pieces. Nonetheless, this inspiration is basically placed on the abandonment of high culture that brought in a significant amount of regulation, and introduced the freedom of a graphic designer to express him or herself; consequently, achieving their professional primary objective.


Art like any natural phenomena has been going through a process of evolution. After the Second World War, a period thought of as the end of the postmodern era saw the start of novel form of graphic design become more chaotic and stylized. This ideology was derived from the fact that before this era artist conformed to a simple form of conveying their message to the masses. The graphic designs in the past were characterized by simple images or n some instance a lack of with the center of posters being the major point. Additionally, the fonts used were simplistic in nature considering the audience had time to read and comprehend what the artist was passing across. However, this was not the case in the postmodernism era that saw the increased use of colorful images; different calligraphic wording that took a grid arrangement format and  looked not to conform to any of the prior principles. Though dissimilar in nature, there are a number of academics who have asserted that contemporary graphic design gets its essence from the modernist design practice and theory from two set ups. The first being adoption of style from artists such as Jan Tschichold and W. A. Dwiggins who presented masterpieces that did not conform to high culture regulation,  and related more to pop culture. Tschichold work embraced different use of font in addition to stylistic writing, while Dwiggins adoption of different Eastern European culture and technology allowed him to be experimental developing imagery graphic art that was dissimilar to others. The second influence was based on particular art forms such as the ‘Uncle Sam’ and Britons recruitment posts that adopted a grid arraignment, different font and complex imagery. A number of contemporary designers use the features from both the modernist designs artist, highlighting the link between modernist and postmodernist art.


Reference list

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