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Modernism in Graphic Design

what is

Mo d e r n i sm?

Modernism is a term used for an art movement that is the offspring of modernity; the social and environmental change that took place between 1750 and 1960 in Europe. Modernism has ideals which look to the future and not to the past. This is known as ‘anti-historicism’. Modern artists’ main focus was to produce art that was focused on function and not appearance. The simple terminology used for this is ‘form follows function’. The Industrial Revolution, early 20th century art movements including cubism and futurism and the urbanisation of populations are cited as some of the influences of modernism. Other modernist ideals include ‘internationalism’ and ‘truth to materials’. Internationalism refers to the idea that art should be universally recognised on an international basis. Truth to materials refers to the notion that materials used should be truthfully represented; no material should represent another. For example, a wooden chair would not be disguised as a steel chair. If a steel chair is wanting to be represented, steel should be the material used.

B a u haus

The Bauhaus was a German school of art and design founded by German architect, Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus was a pioneer for design and set new principles which are still existent in art and design today. Modernism is believed to have played a huge part in the way work was produced in the Bauhaus and even in the way the building was constructed. Instead of a fancy, over-decorated building, the Bauhaus was simple and served its purpose; the large windows on the front of the building allowed sunlight to flow in in order for the artists to have sufficient lighting. Originally, the Bauhaus operated from 1919 to 1933, when it was shut down by Nazis who believed the school was run on communist principles. The Bauhaus has had a profound effect on many different art disciplines such as architecture graphic design and typography. Artists who have studied at the Bauhaus include Herbert Bayer and Johannes Itten. Wassily Kandinsky taught basic design principles at the school for 11 years from 1922 until the school closed down. The typography of the Bauhaus sign on the building was designed by Herbert

Mo d e r n i s m in Graphic Design

Modernist graphic design is a concept that follows the idea of “form follows function�. This simply means that instead of being over-complicated like post-modernism, designs are simple and serve the purpose of producing design solutions without over-decoration. In modernist graphic design, colours are often limited and the use of geometric shapes are significant. Many graphic designers today refer back to early modernist principles. Milton Glaser created this poster for Bob Dylan in 1966. The poster embodies Dylan’s psychedelic, rock music with use of colour and shape. Looking at the poster now, the style of design is still relevant today. Modernism in graphic design has the ability to remain visually and culturally relevant over different eras. Work produced in the Bauhaus between 1919 and 1933 is still relevant today.

Mo d e r n i s m


Modernism is very much still existent in current graphic design. Graphic design such as infographics incorporate the use of symbols which can be viewed as modernist. These designs are by designers Cristina Couceiro and Paul Tebbot. Couceiro’s work often includes the use of photography with geometric shapes. Tebbot’s work is more illustration based. Both are effective in terms of being concise and conveying the principles of modernism; bold colours and simply illustrations. It could be argued that Couceiro’s work is post-modernist because of the way in which she collages images, but the style is reflective of work produced by Jan Tschihold and Josef Müller-Brockmann.

a histor y of

Mo d e r n i s m Jan Tschichold, El Lizzitsky and Paul Rand are significant artists within the modernist graphic design movement. Lizzitsky’s work was being produced around 1917, and is very different to Tschichold and Rand’s. Tschichold began producing modern graphic design from around 1923, not very far off from Lizzitsky. The elements of both of their work are similar, the line detail and use of colour, particularly the colour red, but Lizzitsky had a more abstract approach to typography. Lizzitsky was Russian and therefore his typography is not readable by many, but Tschichold produced work in German. Even though neither were in English, the word formation of Tschichold’s work is more understandable. Both artists are considered to have influenced the movement called ‘Swiss Style’ or ‘International Typographic Style’, a style of graphic design that is heavily based on grid layouts, clarity and typography. The style includes minimal, structured design. Paul Rand was a modernist graphic designer who produced a lot of corporate branding. His early work such as this IBM poster, is simple yet effective and concise.

Saul Bass. Saul Bass was a graphic designer and filmmaker. He is renowned for his film posters and motion picture titles. Bass’s career spanned 40 years and his most iconic work included film posters he produced for Alfred Hitchcock. He also produced film posters for Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder. Bass’s work has a screen printed style. Bass is also renown for his corporate identity work for big American companies such as AT&T and United Airlines. Bass’s style of graphic design is key to understanding modernist principles; there is no over-decoration in his work. His film posters creatively and concisely capture the message, plot and theme of the films. His posters are created in a screen print style, with the use of bold colours.



Herbert Bayer was an Austrian graphic designer. Bayer was also a practitioner of painting, photography, art direction and architecture. Bayer enrolled to study at the Bauhaus in 1921. This is where he initially became aware of modernism. Bayer was a key member of the Bauhaus, and is recognised as the living member of the Bauhaus. As well as studying at the Bauhaus, Bayer worked as an art director for German Vogue. Bayer’s artwork is influenced by El Lizzitsky and Kandinsky. Bayer moved to New York in 1938 where he began a reputable career in the area of graphic arts. His move to New York from Berlin was instigated by the Nazi’s bid to eliminate art. Bayer’s artwork is often minimalistic and inclusive of geometric shapes and bright colours.

Müller Brockmann Josef

Josef Müller-Brockmann is today considered one of the key modernist graphic designers. MüllerBrockmann is part of the International Typographic Style also known as the Swiss Style. The art movement was developed in the 1950s, its objectives include objectivity, legibility and cleanliness. His work is inspirational to graphic designers because of his simplistic Swiss Style. Müller-Brockmann’s design style of the 1950s is a good example of the modernist ideal of internationalism. His aim was to create posters that achieved mass communication whilst crossing the language barriers. Müller-Brockmann emphasises the use of grid systems, he wrote the book ‘Grid Systems In Graphic Design’, a guide to grid systems which shows graphic designers how to effectively create and utilise grid systems. MüllerBrockmann’s most used and preferred typeface throughout his work is Akzidenz-Grotesk, an early sans-serif typeface created in 1896.

Broadcasting Tower


West Riding House


Modernism In Graphic Design  

modernism in graphic design