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Modernism and Postmodernism in Graphic Design

Throughout the 19th century artists and painters had a very conservative mindset when it came to the presentation of art. The images and art forms that were made during this time were composed of a certain artistic mold which reflected conservative moral values, virtuosity, righteousness, nobility, sacrifice, and Christianity [1] . Most artists during this time period conformed to the common artistic mold, which is clearly seen in the works of that century. The 20th century however, saw a new period of design known as modernism, which would eventually lead to postmodernism after World War II.

Unlike the artworks of the 19th century, the modernist and postmodernist periods were composed of very revolutionary and transformed images. The ideas and opinions behind the images became more open-minded and hence the images themselves were more flexible and avant-garde [2] . The period of modernism saw the partial abandonment of conservative traditions. Modern artists looked ahead to the future and not to the past, they supported freedom of expression and equality.

The years between World War I and World War II allowed modernism to expand dramatically. Propaganda and war posters are perfect examples of modernism [3] . Not only did modern artists provide social awareness; they also actively supported political revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution. The Russian revolution provided and excellent opportunity for modern artists to experiment with new expression methods. The posters and propaganda of this revolution in particular were very abstract and futuristic, almost industrial; all of which fitted the Soviet ideology [4] . A very important historical piece of modernism is its emergence in Germany. Typography in German graphic design was very important, Bauhaus for example used very specific typography and rules but more importantly analyzed the specific roles of items to transmit information. It is interesting that modernism was also seen in German graphic design as some critics believe that World War II effectively drew an end to the true spirit of modernism [5] .

Keeping in mind the social and political background of modernism, the actual graphical aspects of modernist design make sense. Modernist images were generally very symmetrical and alignment was very important. Images were structured and simplified; fonts were arranged in very specific manners to complement the images themselves. Fonts were generally simple such as sans serif or sometimes looked almost hand drawn. Also popular in modernist graphic designs were the use of rules and empty space as components of the work’s structure. The famous Uncle Sam and Britons recruitment poster of World War I are simplified images, with very basic font. In both posters the images and fonts are arranged according to a grid, and as such they are very leveled and aligned. An interesting point in both posters is the font is different for the word you, it is bolded and outlined providing more emphasis on the importance of the person reading it. These are only brief descriptions of many similar works of the modernist time period [6] .

Following World War II and what some consider the end of modernism a new form of graphic design materialized this is known as postmodernism. This period time started sometime in the 1950s and continues today. Some consider postmodernism to be a movement against modernism. While modernism was more pure, rational and truthful postmodernism was more chaotic and stylized, it no longer had such deep meaning behind the designs. Postmodernism uses symbols, images, and typography as simple stylistic devices. Unlike the structural and simple modernist designs, postmodernist design is obsessed with style and creativity, basically looks. Graphic design was now being presented in popular media in the same methods as fashion; it was up-to-date, advanced, and tasteful [7] . This time period included the Cuban Revolution and of course the Vietnam War, both of which allowed artist to create interesting works of graphic design.

The technical aspects of postmodernist graphic designs were very different from those of modernist design despite having some similarities. Postmodernist design included collages, photography, some hand-drawn images, and in general more chaotic and improvised arrangements. The postmodernism period also witnessed the dawn of a new age. The development of the computer and continuing ingenuity in technology presented new opportunities and new methods for graphic design. Technological developments, particularly in communications also brought forth the possibilities of mass media and culture. Graphic designers were now able to apply their craft to Television, Radio, Print, Mass Marketing, Advertising, and eventually the Internet.

A particular aspect of mass media and culture where the differences and similarities between modernist and postmodernist graphic design can be seen is Music, more specifically the artwork of the album covers. The following examples are fine illustrations of the different design types. The modernist designed album cover is Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album Elvis Presley, while the postmodernist designed album cover is the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.

Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley 1956

Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album was released in March on 1956; to this day it remains one of the greatest and most iconic album covers of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine [8] . Several artists have borrowed and mimicked the album cover, including The Clash which used it for their 1979 album London Calling which coincidently is also on Rolling Stone’s greatest album cover list. It is amazing how iconic the album cover is despite its shear simplicity, a simple photograph with the title Elvis Presley in very basic font and colors. Following the modernist ‘guidelines’ the title is arranged in a right angle, and the font is completely legible.

The artist’s intent was clear simplicity, legibility, and yet enough color and contrast to peak interest. Having the font in color and the background photo in black in white directs the viewers immediately to reading the title and then the image. The artwork also has a more personal and playful aura due to the particular choice of the colorful and humorous font. This may have been aimed to give the public a feeling of trust and personal acquaintance with Elvis. Another album cover that seems to be very similar to this is the Thelonius Monk 1965 album cover, it shares the simplicity of font and the photo as the background. The qualities of this album cover are clearly modernistic, extremely different when compared to the following sample of postmodern graphic design.

Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St 1972

Similar to Elvis Presley’s debut album, Exile on Main St, is #5 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Album Covers [9] . Released in 1972 the designer of the cover John Van Hamersveld [10] , best described the attitudes of the time “The general tone of the time was one of anarchy -- drug dealers and freaks and crazy people left over from the Sixties, all defiant and distorted.” This album cover perfectly captured that feeling, the unique background and the title looking like it was a last minute thought perfectly capture the whole basis of postmodernism. The background itself has an interesting story, though it may look like a collage of photos it is actually a single photo of a poster that Hamersveld found in a tattoo parlor off route 66. Unlike the Elvis Presley album cover this one plainly shows little or no structure, it is more chaotic.

An analysis of Elvis Presley’s debut album cover and the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St album cover, presents dramatic differences not only in the graphic design but also the historical tone of the time. The modernist design of Elvis’ album cover is simple, clear, and direct; the postmodernist design of the Rolling Stones’ album cover is chaotic, stylish, eye-catching, and rebellious. Yet both albums are designed for one thing to attract the viewers, listeners, and fans alike. In the end it is obvious that both modernism and postmodernism are still important to this day. Thought they may be very different at times, the ultimately share a goal, to be artistic and creative.

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