Prompot: Write an essay on emerging themes in graphic design discourse and create a printed object to demonstrate and illustrate the themes – creating a typographic artifact in the form of a broadsheet.

Let’s go back in time, back to the 1900’s. So many things going on in the world in terms of design, yet a small part of the world is talking about modernism and postmodernism in graphic design–overlapping and creating a dialogue.

Postmodernism was not a rejection to modernism, rather it was a response, a reaction, not only in terms of style but also altering the way we think of and the way we design. The design that emerged during this period was more interesting, less predictable and chaotic. Although they are similar in ways, their inspiration and purpose are different. The two create a dialogue and in some cases designers took a little bit of something from the modernists and a little bit from the postmodernists. Postmodern designers reacted by experimentation.

Hughes-Stanton a British painter during the late 1800’s “sees it not as a rejection of modern design, but as a logical step in its development” (Poynor 19).

Although the explanation of modernism is going to be brief, it’s necessary to understand before we move on to postmodernism. Modernism really began during the Enlightenment era where they believed in “the possibility of continuous human progress through reason and science” (Poynor 11). One of the most famous line modernists live by is “form follows function” a driving factor for most of their designs. It was about creating editorial systems–designs that adhered to strict, structured grid systems. There was a lot of emphasis on negative space as well as the importance of sans-serif type like Helvetica, Franklin Gothic and Futura with images being symmetrical. Modernists looked at the future instead of the past and their designs were more focused on the high culture.

Now that we’ve gotten a brief introduction to what modernism is, let’s move on to postmodernism. Consider postmodernism as a parasite, as Poynor put it–feeding and living off of modernism: learning from it, altering it and thereby expanding it. During the 1980’s it was becoming more common for people to see the word postmodern being used, although there were many designers who would “reject the term vehemently” (Poynor 10).

Some key postmodernist ideas: leveling out the ground between high and low culture, accepting the world as it is, proconsumer, looking at the past, creating chaotic designs and making it possible and open to interpretation. Work that was being created during the postmodern period was being characterized as “fragmentation, impurity of form, depthlessness, indeterminacy, intertextuality, pluralism, eclecticism and a return to the vernacular” (Poynor 12). It’s as though designers were looking at modernism with a critical lense and analysing and changing it for what they considered better.

In some ways, postmodernism stayed grounded in modernism, I mean it really is. When the two are being compared they share similarities–postmodernism either adds to it or takes away what wasn’t “working out”. Imagine modernism as a sphere the size of a golf ball. Now imagine the golf ball being encapsulated by a football, which is resembling postmodernism and almost breaking free of this really constricting atmosphere. All of this to make a point that postmodernism is inclusive to modernism.

After following the “rules” in design created in the modernism movement, postmodern designers reacted and wanted to create their own take. “They disregarded the clean, ordered design sensibility of modern designers and took a more subjective approach. New-wave typography, the Memphis and San-Francisco Schools, and retro and vernacular design reflect this design philosophy.” Where elements are placed intuitively on the page with no underlying grid.

Take 8vo as an example of how postmodernism doesn’t actually reject modernism–a small London based design firm that was formed in 1985 by Simon Johnston, Mark Holt and Hamish Muir–influenced by European modern typography, Basel and Swiss School. 8vo was a “typographic magazine of intense seriousness and overt graphic sophistication” (Thrift) where they created 8 issues that were constantly evolving over time. The firm started off by modifying the Swiss International Style, just like they had learned in design school. Their first issue was “the height of restraint. Cool and clean, printed in black, red, grey” (Holt and Muir 104) it followed many of the modern typography elements. Throughout all of their issues they stuck to sans serif type, which was influenced by Basel.

As time progressed they were SLOWLY becoming less and less restraining when it came to design but still relating it back to the content. With issues 2 and 3 they were still considered “reserved”. The 3rd issue “marked a significance in change in approach to the design of Octavo” (Holt and Muir 105) with text that was now running horizontally instead of vertically. However with the 5th and 6th issues of the journal “[was] a more radical departure–the need to experiment with the design became paramount” (Holt and Muir 166). With each new issue they were responding to typesetting technology and pushing themselves to experiment to find and test the limits. The 5th issue gets rid of the grid completely and has type that is now running at an angle, moving towards postmodernism.

With Postmodernism they eliminated the grid, no more intersecting lines as guides to design. With modernism it was about being systematic and snapping to the grid but when you remove it it becomes more intuitive and you’re now snapping out of the grid. Snapping out of the grid–much like postmodernism itself–changes the way you look at a sheet that has an unlimited range of possibilities with the idea of improvised arrangements. One could argue that you can snap out of the grid if you had a grid...but it would be harder to ignore. 8vo’s 5th issue was moving towards a more intuitive design practice by eliminating the grid and letting their imagination run wild.

The 6th issue went back to the grid, however this time it was a flexible grid, which relates it back to postmodernism as flexible and modernism being the grid. It was designed to have 3 drastically different articles that allowed for a “radical” layout. At the same time it was also pushing the boundaries of readability (a postmodernist approach).

For the 7th issue they experimented more with the grid, there were two grids: one in yellow and one in cyan. Where the images would sit on the yellow grid but placed at an angle and the secondary information would live.

Although it looks like the typical post modern design, it still incorporates aspects of modernism such as the grid and the sans serif type. Although they haven’t been labeled as modernists or postmodernists, I believe that they exhibited both, which furthers my argument that postmodernism was grounded in modernism–kind of a blur in between the two. Although 8vo’s work at first sight seems to be postmodernist it uses some fundamental modernist elements–they generally used a grid system and “sans serif typography...and their open celebration of of modernism was definitely in stark contrast to the post-modern excess and the no rules” (Noble 523). They were also “referring back to historical design influences” (Noble 517) which is driven by postmodernism.

Erasing the boundaries between high and low culture. What does that mean? It creates a balance between high culture, which emerged from Modernism and low culture, which is seen from day to day life and easier to understand. Where high culture can’t be understood by the mass public and low culture is. With this, it has changed the way people approach graphic design. It’s making it easier to be embedded with society and for more people to understand–reaching a wider audience. 8vo has tried to level out the field and one specific example is their Hacienda 7 poster that was created in 1989. Hacienda was a club in Manchester and they found this to be the perfect opportunity to “try a new approach and produce something that no one would expect from 8vo”. They created a poster that were placed on the streets of Manchester that would reach a wide range of people. The design was simple, layered but anyone can understand it.

Postmodernism cannot exist without modernism, it’s what built it up, it reacted to it and tweaked some things here and there but just in the case of 8vo they were both incorporated into their designs at the same time. This just means that postmodernism wasn’t rejecting it because if it was it wouldn’t be borrowing from it. Designs from the postmodern period was being influenced by modernism–they were creating a conversation.

Work Cited

Thrift, Julia. “Eye Magazine.” Eye Magazine | Feature | 8vo: Type and Structure, Aug. 2000 www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/8vo-type-and-structure.

Poyner, Rick. No More Rules. Laurence King Publishing, 2013.

Holt, Mark, and Hamish Muir. 8vo: On the Outside. Lars Müller, 2005.

Poynor, Rick. “Eye Magazine.” Eye Magazine | Review | Is Anybody out There Reading?, www.eyemagazine.com/review/article/is-anybody-out-there-reading.

Heller, Steven. “Octavo: Eight Historic Issues.” Print Magazine, 12 Mar. 2018, www.printmag.com/daily-heller/octavo-eight-historic-issues-unit-editions/.