Modernism in Graphic Design

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Modernism is most commonly recognized as a nuance of cultural transitions that were rooted in the evolution of Western society.  The term encompasses a series of reforming movements that specifically asserted their positions through art, music, architecture, literature and other applied arts.  The core concept behind modernism was the devotion to progress and the goal of finding the element holding society back.  While some tend to divide the 20th century movements into two categories recognizing them as Modernism and Postmodernism, others see them as aspects of the same cultural revolution.  In respect to the growth of graphic design, it is very clear that the medium has continued to develop and still evolves at an increasing rate.  Modernism has driven graphic design to a pinnacle point in today’s society where it is an integral part of art, photography, media and advertising and the dividing lines between the mediums are vague.

In his work, Becoming a Graphic Designer : A Guide to Careers in Design, Steven Heller points out that while graphic design was a seemingly unnoticed medium before the launch of the internet, since the expansion of the world wide web it has become an integral part of daily life and marketing.  Dually he recognizes that what was originally identified as graphic design is virtually unrecognizable to the craft dominating the market today.  He says, “Graphic design is a slippery term and not entirely applicable in the current design environment.  Arguably, commercial art is more to the point but less sophisticated than other enigmatic nomenclature (Heller, p239).”  This is a significant take on graphic design because it taps into how influential the different shifts in the world of mediums like art and architecture have been on the nature of typography and the way graphic production has evolved over the years.

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Heller initially focuses on the 1930’s during which time he says, “graphic designers who were also involved in package and product design, as well as those who engaged in industrial design, called themselves ‘designers for industry.’  At that pivotal time of the Machine Age, a new breed of cross-disciplinary, independent design firm emerged that took responsibility for the conception and production of entire projects rather than specialized aspects of the whole (Heller, p240).”  Heller notes that this was the practice of major corporations still established today like, Dupont Chemical companies, and Ford Motors, which is how graphic design established its initial relationship with capitalism.  From this point on, advancements in typography were rampant.

Early modernist typographers explored layout, scale, and space.  They also assessed the democratizing benefits of mass production along with the combination of art in science to redefine graphic design.  Consistency and minimalism, they found, were key components to exemplifying confidence in a design and producing works that would become more accessible.  “During WWII, and in the decades that followed, these ideas coalesced into a coherent design manifesto with a new design device at its core—the grid (Roberts, p.1).”  Whether the modernist pioneers sought out to develop the concept of the grid or not, the fact remains it was through their explorations of typography that the grid was formed.

A grid subdivides a page vertically and horizontally into margins, lines of type, columns, and spaces between blocks of type and images.  At the most basic form, the components of a grid are determined by ease of reading when interpreting information.  A trend in modern graphic design involves making the grid visible.  In most occasions a grid is made visible only through its direct use in a design, but many designers are exposing the grid and its beauty. As Roberts is keen to point out “Once visible, the precision of the grid acts as evidence of design credibility, and its purity of form has a mystical draw (Roberts, p2).”  Dutch designer Wim Crouwel, during the 1950’s and 60’s, often used exposed grids in his layouts, as shown below:

The major contrast between grids as they are known today compared to grids of the past has to do with increased flexibility and mathematical dexterity.  Each grid construction starts with the consideration of format and then ends with the baseline grids.  Usually with these basic grids lines can be subdivided into units as small as two points.  The ushering in of technology has made clarity and precision much more cohesive allowing designers to work with much smaller parts of a layout and still create a fluid looking design as shown below with this comparison.

This example of Swiss designer Karl Gerstners’s 1962 grid for periodical Capital is commonly recognized as an almost perfect grid in the graphic design community. His unit was 10pt, both horizontally and vertically, and the type area was a square of 58 units, providing him with inter-column spaces and grids of two, three, four, five and six columns and fields.  Innovations like Gerstner’s grid was one of many contributions to the graphic community inspired by the pioneering work of early typographers like Jan Tschichold.

Tschichold, the son of a highly acclaimed sign writer, was trained in the craft of calligraphy.  This training set him apart from other recognized typographers of his era, due to the fact that most typographers were formerly trained in architecture or the fine arts.  This also explains why Tschichold rarely ever worked with handmade paper or custom fonts, despite the fact that many other typographers did.  Tschichold was more known for using stock fonts.  Tschichold converted to Modernist design principles around 1923 after visiting the very first ever Weimar Bauhaus exhibition.  From this point on he was leading advocate for Modernist design.  This was most notably exemplified in his 1925 magazine supplement, his 1927 personal exhibition, and his highly acclaimed work Die neue Typographie.  A manifesto of modern design, Tschichold’s publication served as the blueprint for modernism in graphic design.  All fonts were condemned except sans-serif, non-centered design was favored for title pages, standardized paper size was advocated for all prints, and he established a thorough explanation of the most effective use of different sizes and weight of type to best convey information. Following the great success of Die neue Typographie, Tischichold published a series of manuals on the practical principles of Modernist typography, which was very influential among typographic workers.  His books remained classic and very influential in the world of graphic design, but he loosened he beliefs on the subject around 1932 and moved back towards Classicism in print design, viewing his great work to be too extreme.  It was during this time in his life that he often referred to Modernist design as being authoritarian and inherently fascistic.  But, it was when he oversaw the redesigning of over 500 paperback books for Penguin Books, that he would leave another lasting mark on the culture of graphic design.  Dually, Tschichold’s contribution was inspired by the pioneering efforts of Edward Johnson.

Johnson, a type designer and calligrapher, wrote as book in 1906 titled “Writing and Illuminating and lettering.”  His work caused what many historians look upon as a type of renaissance for calligraphy.  To this day his book is considered one of the most influential works on calligraphy ever published.  On top of making a major contribution to graphic design culture, Johns also invented several font types, such as Hamlet-Type, Imprint-Antiqua, and Johnston Sans Serif, which are still used to this day in designs.  Many typographers believe that the origin of what today is viewed as an experimental and constantly fluctuating stage of graphic design can be traced back to the initial attempts to contradict the restrictiveness of modern design.  They mark 1950 as the beginning of post modern typography.  This was an era when notable figures like Herman Zapf designed Palatino (1948) and Optima (1952) type faces.  These fonts had a modern touch while at the same time they maintained an even mixture of serif and sans-serif.  A true pioneer of graphic design Zapf’s list of original typefaces reads as such: AldusT (1954), AureliaT (1983), EdisonT (1978), KompaktT (1954), MarconiT (1976), Medici ScriptT (1971), MeliorT (1952), Noris ScriptT (1976), OptimaT (1958), OptimaT nova (2002), OrionT (1974), PalatinoT (1950), SaphirT (1953), SistinaT (1950), VarioT (1982), VentureT (1969), Linotype Zapf EssentialsT (2002), ZapfinoT (1998), Zapfino ExtraT (2003), ITC Zapf Chancery (1979) ITC Zapf International (1976), ITC Zapf Book (1976), Zapf Renaissance AntiquaT (1984-1987), ITC Zapf Dingbats(1978).  All of these established contributions to typography ultimate created the tools utilized and the science of a graphic layout, basically giving credit to the typographic pioneers for forming the original technique of graphic design.  To measure the way modernist art influenced graphic design is a far more complex task.

            During the first half of the nineteenth century, Europe and America endured multiple revolutions which made globally popular ideologies and doctrine now identified as romanticism, which emphasized an appreciation for individual subjective experience, revolutionary/ radical extensions of expression, and the supremacy of nature as the key subject of art.  The Romantic era is largely recognized as the period from 1850-1920 C.E. when there was great change and emancipation in Western Europe.  The strict laws and restraint designed to maintain balance in classical era were largely rebelled against during this era.  The bulk of this movement gained strength during the Industrial Revolution in response to the aristocratic nature of the enlightenment period and the overly scientific rationalization used in art and literature.  Strong emotion was emphasized as the core source of aesthetics and the artistic experience.  The label ‘romantic’ comes from the use of romantic and medieval elements in the art.  Painters like John Constable, and poets like Wordsworth and Colderidge gained much acclaim for being representatives of this movement.  Remnants of the romantic culture which they established can largely be seen reflected by western society today.

It is undeniable that the Romantic poets might very well have taken themselves too seriously, as can be said of most poets and artists, but their influence on the development of graphic design can be seen in the construction of virtually every font type.  Their approach towards poetry was the driving force for art, architecture, and music of the era.  These characters who were expected to confront all of the political, religious and social turmoil of their era and attempt to calm or provide solutions for societal conflicts, add underlying value to text developed in their name.  These poets held their own grandiose ideologies pertaining to society, but their views have still found their place in company with the praised sacred remnants of past generations.  More importantly their ideals are an integral part of the history and development of many typographic fonts.  The poet to Wordsworth was a social animal who communicated with other individuals, but whose uniqueness lied in his ability to feel.  Poets like Shelley, Wordsworth and Colderidge credit themselves for being able to reveal the truth behind beauty.

This attitude is one which has been adopted by many graphic designers and developers of typography and it’s at the heart of the creative progress of the craft.   They feel that their uniquely sensitive imaginations are invaluable to society ad a product of intuitive perceptions as opposed to emotional dysfunction.  These poets are also very opinionated in their beliefs.  “To the extent that any country is a melting pot, its culture is indebted to the traditions that are brought in by its

immigrants, whether European, Asian, African or whatever. (Remington, p410)”

Shelley was a devout atheist, who at the same time promoted the prophetic idea that poets served a greater purpose than could be assessed in their single lifetime, citing that poets are responsible for the moral and emotional edification of the human race.  The Romantic poets felt it was the poet’s social duty to make a substantial contribution to society through their prophetic observations, even if these observations were not initially appreciated.  This can be credited for the many occasions in which poets take political stances and try to have an influence on the politics of their society, or make some form of social commentary that is desperately needed at the time.  This is often done in more than one way by passionate poets, but usually through very intuitive metaphors.  Their writings created a mental picture that while were reflected in art had no real physical representation in society.  As Drucker puts it,

There has to be a way to take seriously early twentieth-century visual forms of response to modern life that were not exclusively concerned with either transcending it in favor of a universal language of abstraction or with radical political negation. When the map of visual modernism is redrawn with these works supplementing the familiar coordinates of abstraction and the avant-garde, the topography of modern art will be radically reconfigured to include works whose visual form is specific to twentieth-century modernism, but which draw on visual traditions outside of the fine arts. (Drucker, 38)

By merging art with science and technology typographers have been able to develop eye catching images that are commercially relevant to everyday life. Ducker goes on to say, “If American art of the early twentieth century remains beneath notice in the minds of many art historians, then graphic design has the status of a dangerous interloper (Ducker, 39).” The problem that graphic design poses in bidding for serious critical attention is simply in the fact that it’s not considered art. Historians are very reluctant to remake the discipline of art history into the field of visual studies in this modern period, but as Ducker points out it is only an arrogant tactic not to give the medium of graphic design the artistic recognition it deserves, in light of the way it has managed to integrate itself into commercial society.  Ducker says,

Contemporary artists are increasingly producing works that mimic fashion photography, derive from television, or otherwise struggle to compete with the production values of the entertainment industries. This is hardly news. But the theoretical discussion of fine art as a cultural practice is still largely dependent on outmoded ideas that “art” defines itself in critical opposition to mass culture. Clearly there is a problem here. (Drucker, p34)

The problem that Drucker alludes to is recognized in the nature of graphic design’s relationship with popular culture.  While a particular ad may advertise a beer or a bottle of Coca cola, the imagery used in that ad, as well as the dialogue are most certainly modern images, making them a representation of culture and eventually a relic of time passed.  One could argue that the direct connection graphic design shares with capitalism, eliminates it from discussion as a credible genre of modern art.  This is despite the fact that the history of graphic desing has tended to progress along with the changing trends in art. Modern graphic design of the early 20th century, much like the fine art of the same period, was a reaction against the decadence of typography and design of the late 19th century. Modern typography was characterized by the use of the sans-serif and serif typeface, fonts used in our days too because serif type is easier to read for its property of “drawing your eye” from character to character.

The complexities come into play when graphic design clashes with the respective artistic movement of each changing era.  “The early twentieth-century art movements—futurism, dadaism, surrealism, constructivism, suprematism, and expressionism—also had an influence on the development of the grid (Roberts, p1).”   Along with these artistic influence was the great pursuance of capitalism with the ushering in of the Industrial Revolution.  This moment in time marked the beginning of capital based economies and mass production.  Graphic design was born for the sake of feeding this need for capitalism, but still not recognized by the title.  The job of graphic design was to communicate diverse messages to an ever growing literate population.  “ The rise in print output was phenomenal—posters, leaflets, and advertising of all kinds, newspapers, timetables, and all manner of information-based design. Suddenly designs competed for attention. Images, initially in the form of engravings and then as photographs, had to be incorporated along with an ever-expanding array of display typefaces (Roberts, p1).”  Artists united in the task of representing a new industrial age that produced designs recognizing the speed of travel and accounted for faster communication.   Type was used at conflicting angles, and curves to exemplify the power of the word.  The general veritcsal and horizontal nature of type was ignored to make way for different abstract forms,; and, for the first time space was used as a typographic tool to enhance layouts.  Modernism in graphic design was revolutionary in connecting art with industry, as Roberts puts it, “The ethos that underpins this work was the antithesis of the rational and logical approach implicit in the grid. But in drawing such a resolute line under the past, it opened the door to de Stijl, the Bauhaus, and typographers like Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold, who called for some order to be imposed on what seemed like fractured chaos (Roberts, p1).”  The modernist movement in graphic design was defined through the complete opposition of basic form and it’s almost inevitable need for classic structure.  Despite parallels that the transcending history of graphic design shares with changes in the art world art historians are still reluctant to give graphic design its due.

The history and critical discussion of modern art that developed with European innovations in abstraction and the avant-garde at its core has never been able to find a place in its arguments for those visual works that figured their engagement with modern life through representational imagery or an enthusiastic dialogue with the mass media. Yet, such work is irrefutably modern in its visual forms and requires a theoretical discussion that considers the relation between fine art and mass culture in its vernacular, popular, and commercial manifestations. (Drucker, p37)

The continuous change in art, photography, and commerce over the past hundred years has been contagious in relation to developments in graphic design.  Modernism’s tradition to continuously contest the defining lines between art and advertisement, or art and photography, has in the current era made the understanding of a terms like ‘graphic design’ very difficult to attain.

An issue that is largely proclaimed as part of the reason for photography’s decline in credibility is the ushering in of the digital era.  Now that photographs can be digitally enhanced it has created an era where photography is not easily as trusted.  Many critics feel photography has become just as fictional as painting.  This modern shift in the way photography received parallels the way Andy Warhol influenced the perception of painting in the name of modern progress.  Andy Warhol made a habit of painting franchise objects, like picture of Campbell’s soup cans and Coca cola bottles.  He argued that the American economic structure had allowed these objects to become iconic throughout the world.  A Coca cola that the president drinks is no different from one drunk by a homeless man on the street.  This places the coca cola at a symbolic level of familiarity that is uncontestable by most celebrities.  Warhol’s Coca cola can could just as easily be photo-shopped, or uploaded onto Adobe InDesign and placed on a graphic grid.  Some freelance typographer could write a slogan alongside the image and it could be published in a coupon booklet, printed out onto a canvas, or posted onto a billboard.  No matter the chosen method, it would not lose its lucrative commercial appeal, the only thing that would be up for question is whether the graphic is art or just ad.

Warhol’s artistic statement was noted and universally understood, but time has shown that the public rather see their human icons in photographs than in paintings.  This can be seen in the popularity of celebrity magazines, Play Boy, Time, and National Geographic.  Though it has become virtually assumed that photographs are touched up, paintings have a tradition of exaggerating images and making them larger than life. Most often conducted for the purpose of advertisements or enhancing the mystique of fashion magazines, fashion photography has developed as a respected aesthetic in its own right. “Both König and Kracauer reveal some important connections between women, fashion, and photography in Weimar mass culture. Fashion photography as well as advertisement photography bare testimony to a rather paradoxical cultural reality in which sociological, technological, and aesthetic aspects are hard to detach from one another (Geneva, 2).” The decline in fashion photography that Lehrman speaks of comes from a golden age in the aesthetic which is most commonly considered to be in the 1940’s and 50’s.  Lehrman argues that,

What made Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue emblems of visual sophistication during the ’40s and ’50s was their visionary art directors, Alexey Brodowich and Alexander Liberman, respectively. Both used only exceptional photographers and then set their photographs off to maximum effect with a generous use of white space. Their goal was to turn the fashion magazine into a luscious exotic escape. (Lehrman, 7)

The same sophistication that Lehrman claims revolutionized the western view of where photography could take fashion has found itself in decline in the modern era with enticing draw of commerce associated with tabloid press and paparazzi photography.  Despite the decline, the role of graphic design still maintains its importance, whether it be through dictating the fashion magazine layouts, designing the logos for the products being sold, digitally enhancing the pictures in the frame. In other areas–classical, Precolumbian, and Chinese, for example–the fine arts, the decorative arts, and other aspects of visual culture interpenetrate in a way that makes such distinctions difficult to sustain. But the apparent threat to fine art’s privileged status posed by modern visual culture, or such fields as graphic design, hits a nerve–perhaps because from the outset modern art’s identity was grounded in a turn away from the industrial modes of production associated with these other art forms.  (Ducker, p37)

In his book, “Printing History and Other History” G. Thomas Tanselle acknowledges the works of Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, the authors of L’Apparition du livre published in1958, for the contribution to the study of print and photographs and their impact on society.  Tanselle says the authors find that, “the geography of the printing industry, the economics of the publishing business, the systems of magazine distribution, the demographics of reading, and the effects of book design on the reading process are primary elements in social and intellectual history (Tanselle, 1995).”  This places the influence of print on society in the position of being something intangible without a clear understanding of the specific sociology and history from which each publication stems.  Tanselle further goes on to say, “history is a subject about which everyone seems to have a heated opinion, including the determination to ignore it. Fashions in the way history is approached are a product of history itself, with one set of attitudes toward the past, and the place of the past in the present, succeeding another (Tanselle, 1995).”  Here Tanselle recognizes that history has an influence on the present; likewise, how driven a collected society is to uncover the truth within that history is entirely dependant on how their culture views the remnants of the past.  Remnants refers to, but not solely, historical artifacts.  Tanselle argues that it is through objects that history is recorded and relayed to the public when he says, “Thus one may say that the study of human history is largely the study of physical objects, for the double reason that they both reflect and stimulate thought (Tanselle, 1995).” Within this understanding, fashion magazines are considered artifacts as well, but Tanselle points out that these artifacts would be of no values if they didn’t have some form of text to create the image of a direct line of communication between the writer and the reader.  It is through print that the past gains relevance; and, it is through print that a scope of history is formed.

            Tanselle argues that, “one can bring to one’s current surroundings a sense of the distant past, developed through learning the so-called facts about the occurrences that took place there over the centuries. But even if one has never been exposed to this information, or has no interest in acquiring it, one’s memory is constantly at work (Tanselle, 1995).”  This is a core concept inherent in the understanding of reader response and how literary works are interpreted by their readership.  The collective reader response essentially is the public opinion of a published work.

Reader response theory assesses the importance of the interaction between a reader and text.  It disagrees that there is a solitary, fixed meaning integral to every literary work, but preposes that an individual creates his or her own meaning through a “transaction” with the text based on individual associations. Since everyl reader brings a unique compilation of their own, concerns, knowledge, life, emotions and experiences, to their reading, each interpretation is subjective and authentic to that reader. Scholar Louise Rosenblatt’s is commonly recognized for the 1938 publication Literature as Exploration. It was her position that close readings of literature should practice impassiveness in the study of texts; she felt an interpretation of text should reject all forms of personal interpretation by the reader (Rosenblatt’s, 1938). Nan Johnson is a professor at the University of British Columbia.  In his essay Reader-Response and the’ Pathos’Principle, he asses reader response theory and its cognitive use.  He argues that meaning in reader response is subjective and based entirely on the reader’s intuitive perception of what he is reading (Johnson, 1988).  He feels this emphasizes an importance on the experience of the reader, claiming that one’s experiences will determine their response to a particular literary work.  The core argument Johnson has which he argues is compatible with all of the views of reader response theorists is that a reader’s response is subjective to their individual, emotional, and psychological foundation.  Johnson also points out the level of interaction coherent with reader interpretation, stating that we interact with the work, making it part of our own psychic economy and making ourselves part of the literary work as we interpret it (Johnson, 1988).  Commonsense would pose that since readers embody text so intimately that the most acclaimed publications would be those that are most compatible with the reader.  The toned skill of modern graphic designers to predict reader response is largely due to their study of the works of Johnson and Rosenblatt.

In sum, the evolution of graphic design has matured the way information is received through graphic imagery, the way we perceive the surrounding world, and the way we view ourselves in relation to society.  Modernism in graphic design is the driving force perpetuating progress in the medium, as designers redefine art and media through advertising.  The craft of graphic design is more finely tuned today than it was in the 1950’s while at the same time new-wave techniques utilizing traditional fonts and grids keep typographic history alive and relative today.  Designers now study and have a good grasp on reader response and are able to garner more exposure and desired reactions to their layouts; and, the innovation of the internet has allowed for the more creative and lesser known designers to grow viral with their graphics and earn much deserved profit and recognition.  The modern era of graphic design is the making the most dynamic influence on the media and culture than any other aesthetic in history and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

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Ganeva, Mila.Fashion Photography and Women’s Modernity in Weimar Germany: The Case of YvaNWSA Journal – Volume 15, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 1-25 – Article

Heller, Steven, and Teresa Fernandes. Becoming a Graphic Designer : A Guide to Careers in Design. Danbury: NetLibrary, Incorporated, 1999.

Johnson, Nan. “Reader-Response and the Pathos Principle.” Rhetoric Review 6 (1988):  152-166.

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