Laurence King Publishing recently released two “mini format” editions of books originally published ten years ago: “American Modernism” by R. Roger Remington and “No More Rules” by Rick Poynor. The two books pair well because they make clear how, and why, approaches to graphic design, particularly in America, developed between 1920 at the end of the twentieth century. There are countless lessons to be learned in both titles, but perhaps the most important one is found in Remington’s book, which makes clear that graphic design is a new field—one that has proliferated to support commercial and creative endeavors, magazines, countless books and blogs, and a growing branch of academia.
Remington points out that William Addison Dwiggins coined the term graphic design in 1922, and he credits Leon Friend’s 1936 book “Graphic Design” as “the earliest comprehensive description” of the field. By the 1950s, Yale had started a graphic design program. It wasn’t until 1993 that Paul Rand famously distilled the essence of this profession: “To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.”
Remington cites this quotation as the bedrock of modernist design, making clear that the roots of American modernism were not so much about an aesthetic but rather a philosophy. The book is full of examples and informative text that chart how this philosophy manifested the “syntax of modernism” in geometric forms and graphic concision inspired by the precision of the machine age. The designers that helped shape graphic design in the United States borrowed heavily from Europe, and in many cases were immigrants, like Fortunato Depero and Alexey Brodovitch. Soon, the visual bits and pieces cribbed from the Italian Futurists and Russian Constructivists were fused together in America during an era when designers, thanks to layout pads and photography, were able to “draw” an entire page, becoming the leads at ad agencies. In the post-war era, with branding and corporate identity more important than ever, graphic designers were at the helm when it came to communicating ideas to the public, whether to sell product or for more civic-minded purposes like transit maps.
Modernism claimed to ignore the past, but the past cannot be ignored. Poynor drives home this point in his introduction to “No More Rules,” establishing the relationship between postmodernism and its precursor: “Where postmodernism differs, above all, is in its loss of faith in the progressive ideals that sustained the modernists, who inherited the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s belief in the possibility of continuous human progress through reason and science.” The distress and confusion of postmodern design signaled an embrace of reality and its uncertainty. The work that best represents this era was heightened by desktop publishing and the proliferation of computers and the internet. David Carson is one of the best-known designers to challenge the classical rules of design, but there were plenty of others, as Poynor’s history outlines. In 1984, “French Fries” by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer, “a fiction of great visual complexity in which dozens of typefaces, images and shapes, and hundreds of screen tints build up to form densely layered compositions of immense energy … challenged readers to explore the act of reading: to break with the usual linear pattern, very the pace, look back at earlier passages or skip ahead.”
Projects like this might have prefigured how we now read text and view visuals, but in looking at these two books today, a great deal of the work in “No More Rules” comes off as dated. This is not to say that the content isn’t valuable—it is, both in terms of the text and the illustrative material. But both these books are surveys of eras. It so happens that today’s interest in retro chic has resurrected modernist elements originally used for propaganda posters and applied them to concert posters. In his conclusion, Poynor suggests that the inevitable result of the radical and subversive graphic design of postmodernism was to regress, or at least dip back into the well of modernism, though such a move “runs the risk of tumbling into the abyss of postmodern pastiche.”
Perhaps that is where we are, in some shape-shifting mediascape where everything reminds us of something else and nothing is unique. Modernism rejected the flourishes and ornaments of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements; postmodernism shattered modernism. Now what?
Neither of these books answers that question, but they do equip readers with more than enough scholarship and insight with which the designers of tomorrow can get their bearings on the past. As Poynor points out, the commercial role of graphic design is undisputed. He asks, however, important questions about how design can do more than help sell product, which seems to be the next true step forward for a field that is not yet 100 years old.