Postmodernism (‘Po Mo’) in Graphic Design

by in Design on 11th Apr 2011 · Comments

Postmodernism is a movement away from the viewpoint of modernism. The term ‘postmodernism’ was first used around the 1870s. As a generalization, postmodernism is a style and concept characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies, and of drawing attention to conventions.

Postmodernism ('Po Mo') in Graphic Design


Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in the human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person.

Postmodern art is a term used to describe an art movement, which was thought to be in contradiction to some aspect of modernism, or to have emerged or developed in its aftermath.

In this post I talk about how the definition of postmodern (AKA 'po mo') art applies to graphic design; the use of post modern techniques in art and design, how copyright is misunderstood and how it's okay to copy ... sometimes.

Po Mo Versus Design

Commercial design is similar to post modernist art in that it draws heavily on influences of previous works. To say that designers stand on the shoulders of giants may be an over statement, however it's important to recognise that a good design is one that acknowledges and relies on industry trends and historical groundwork. Just as we can't communicate verbally without words and syntax, we can't communicate visually without shapes, colours and symbols. Post modernist art took a beating when it was emerging; the public didn't understand why artists were defacing the Mona Lisa or how someone can spill paint on the ground in a drunken haze and sell it for a million dollars to a foreign government. For the most part, today, the public appreciate post modern art for what it is.

Po Mo Versus Design

Marcel Duchamp is the grand-daddy of Dada and a huge influence on Po Mo. His work often uses found objects. This work uses Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa as a play on the rumour that it is a self portrait; he makes the addition of the iconic Leo moustache and titles it LHOOQ which when pronounced in French means something vulgar, you'll have to look that up yourself.

Marcel Duchamp

The infamous Jackson Pollock is a big name in Po Mo. The American artist struggled with alcoholism and the industry of art. Eventually he became successful with his signature style of spilling paint onto an unstretched canvas lain on the floor. When Blue Poles was sold to the Australian Government the public was outraged that tax payer money was spend on a painters drop sheet. Now, however, it's a treasured art work.

It's Okay to Copy(right?)

When it comes to graphic design, however, we still have a sense that taking someone else’s work, as an element or influence in ours, is wrong. Of course it is illegal to breach copyright; it's unethical to steal the work of others and pass it off as your own.

Personal anecdote: A friend of mine related to me that his office decided to support emergent designers by having students compete on the brief for their new logo. The design put forward by a foreign student was successful and implemented. Only a week or so later they received correspondence from a legal department with regards to the new logo. The student had plagiarised the work and pocketed the money before returning home.

It is obviously not my intent to suggest that you should incorporate the Nike 'Swoosh' into your next design, but we shouldn't avoid allowing our creativity to be inspired by the world around us. It's been suggested that to avoid copyright infringement you can use other peoples’ work if you modify it by 10% (or 15% or 40% depending who you hear the story from). This may sound reasonable at first; give it some thought. If I wanted to use Mickey Mouse as my logo, if this were true, I could if I didn't draw his right hand. This is not the case and this should be fairly clear to any designer.

The problem however could come from the client. There are always going to be a few unethical (or uninformed) businessmen out there and some have no problem with trying to gain successful branding through coat tail riding. These businessmen have material designed like anyone else; is it the designers' responsibility to inform them of a breach of law or ethics? I'm reminded of a product that was related to me; a sweet, colourful icy beverage that is sold only locally.

The business owner wanted to name the product with the Scottish prefix of a surname that denotes the bearer is the son of the man with that original surname. Somewhere between registering the business name, applying for a Trade Mark and getting POS material printed someone finally told him McFreezys might not be the right brand name for him.

Po Mo Designs of Note

An effective example of the historical influence in design is the poster. This has been the case since the humble bill post first came on the scene. The French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec took influence from Japanese designs for his prints. These are still some of the most iconic and successful images of commercial art.

Po Mo designs of Note

A more recent example is the cover of the self titled album from Franz Ferdinand. The band named for the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in Sarajevo precipitated events leading to World War I, uses as an influence the wartime propaganda poster. These propaganda posters have become an icon in much subversive German artwork and design. German band Kraftwork's album Die Mensch Maschine was inspired by Russian artist El Lissitzky whose works are in the Suprematism movement.

A nightclub/biergarten in Dresden's Neustadt called Katy's Garage use the wreath from the GDR National Emblem and an image of Mickey Mouse as a logo for one of their weekly theme nights. The juxtaposition of a successful, playful & colourful western character surrounded in a wreath element of rye representing pride in the farmers of East Germany is a good example of using popular images in design and getting away with it. The wreath of course wasn't used here for the first time, it's a Greco-Roman graphic device.

National Emblem

An interesting aside: When a merchant or sailor was arriving at port in an ancient Roman city they would have seen signage that rivalled today’s. They used mosaic rather than glossy UV protected plastic way-signage. They would have seen penises made from coloured tiles embedded into the walkway coquettishly pointing them in the direction of the red-light district. These days we can see a Po Mo remembrance of this design as the trendy signage on toilet doors in nightclubs.

Interesting Aside

How Po Mo is Used

The application of the post modern method is found everywhere. Around the internet you may have seen a vintage style advertisement for Skype by Design Agency Moma São Paulo of a woman using a computer from the future. This is a fun way to remind people that the technology we're using is actually really amazing. Take the Youtube logo, an old style television with a cathode ray tube representing a medium sent over Wi-Fi to an LCD 42 inch flat screen streaming video from across the world of a Japanese cat jumping into a box.

How Po Mo is Used

Logos are a common place to find references to the past. Often because the logo itself is the original logo from 1912 or very similar to it. A trademark and patent law firm in Australia had an old logo up until the late nineties depicting a light globe. The obvious intention was to symbolise the idea of invention as the bulk of their work was trademarking new inventions. This was probably a little stale and they likely had a different balance of work as copyright and corporate branding had heated up; so they had a new logo produced. The logo now depicts a stylised eagle, the southern cross and the national colours. The references here help to identify the company, with a localising symbol and the historical connotations of a coat of arms.

Post modern tools help to construct identity in a logo. A more famous Australian logo that uses a similar approach to locate itself is Commbank. Their strong yellow and black architectural foundation of a logo is actually a stylised southern cross. (The southern cross is the constellation used in the Australian and New Zealand flags).

Logos

Conclusion

Post modernism is an abundant resource for inspiration for graphic design. The most obvious is by referencing images from history but most importantly by applying the modus operandi. Using the post modernist method in design you can create effective posters and graphic design that incorporate all the strong elements that have been tested by time rather than using limited personal knowledge to guess at the best result. You can use influences to create unique and effective interface metaphors for graphic user interfaces online and on portable devices. Use the juxtaposition of historical symbols to express deeper layers of meaning and to relate to your client’s audience.

This can help you deliver more sophisticated designs to your current clients or give you an edge in winning new clients when pitching on graphic design contests or for freelance work. The post modernist designer isn't a criminal of copyright law, they're making an homage to the greats and recognize that effective design has been being done for millennial and has certain qualities the will outlast us all.

If you've come across any strong examples of the post modern technique being used in a contemporary design please post a comment and link.

Chris Eichberger is a freelance graphic designer from Australia listed in DesignCrowd's Graphic Design Australia directory.