What is postmodern design: how the reigning style of the late 20th century works


Simply put, postmodern design is what came after modernist design, the prevailing aesthetic style of the early to mid-20th century. But this definition is exactly what makes postmodernism so complex: it can describe everything that came after modernism.

Collage image representing the postmodern design style
By OrangeCrush

Postmodernism can be a frustrating, nebulous term, and even designers whose work it describes often find it ill-fitting. And yet, it is a word that continues to pop up in design theory and criticism. It also reaches across disciplines, affecting everything from literature to philosophy to architecture. In fact, the term can be so broad that many designers might have already found themselves working in a postmodern style without realizing it. All the more reason why it is important to understand what exactly postmodern design is and how to take advantage of its principles with intention.

What is postmodernism

Postmodern design is an international art movement that reigned in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s and is characterized by a rejection of the formal structures established by modernism. Modernism was an earlier 20th-century movement that created a number of artistic standards that postmodernists chafed against, to the point of rejecting structure entirely. Because postmodernism positions itself as opposed to this kind of formal structure, it may come as no surprise that it also rejects any attempt to define it in a succinct way.

NYC tourism collage postcard design
By Knowy

In essence, the term was more common amongst theorists than actual artists, primarily as a way to group a number of diverse, eclectic art movements under one big umbrella. But with that said, works labeled as postmodern do share some traits in common.

Characteristics of postmodernist design

The best way to think about postmodern design is in philosophical terms. In this way, these are some of its most common characteristics…

  • Pluralism: Postmodernism rejects one object truth or way of approaching reality
  • Anti-formalism: Postmodernism rejects formal art instruction and theory
  • Nontraditional and mixed media: Collage, video, commercial plastics and interpretative dance all have a place in postmodern art
  • Deconstruction: Postmodernism breaks down the traditional concepts for how art creates meaning
  • Self-reference: Postmodernist art often calls attention to its own artifice, usually as a way of questioning the nature of “art”
  • Irony: Postmodernism mocks artistic conventions by incorporating kitsch and “bad” taste for humor

A brief history of postmodern design

Postmodernism’s relationship to modernism

Any history of postmodernism has to begin with modernism. Modernism arrived in the late 19th century when modern machinery heralded a new understanding of how society should function. In brief, the movement aimed to impose a new sense of order on this technological world, particularly in wake of the First World War, where the destructive power of modern machines was laid bare.

Cubist painting “L'Homme au Balcon” by Albert Gleizes
Cubism reexamined subjects by breaking them apart into cubes. “L’Homme au Balcon” by Albert Gleizes, via Wikimedia Commons

In the art world, painters and sculptors created order by reexamining subjects through nontraditional perspectives or breaking them down into subsequent parts, as in Surrealism and Cubism. In fact, like the movement that would succeed it, modernism came to describe a number of art movements occurring at once: Futurism, Dadaism, and Expressionism.

But as modernism expanded into the design and architectural world, it more often referred to formal precision and lack of ornament. This was encapsulated by a phrase popularized by modernist architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, “Less is more.” Later on, this would inspire architect Robert Venturi to give the postmodernists their own motto, when he quipped, “Less is a bore.”

 The Seagram building, modern architecture
Modernist design emphasized form following function, which resulted in a number of buildings that were nothing more than glass and steel boxes. The Seagram Building, completed in 1958. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Just to make matters more confusing, there is a distinction to be made between “modern art” and “modernism.” Many people use the phrase “modern art” in contrast to “classical art”—which is essentially most art before 1900. The term is also used interchangeably with “contemporary art.” Modernism, on the other hand, is a specific artistic movement, and this is largely what we’ll be referring to throughout this article.

The emergence of postmodern design

Although postmodernism is often framed in opposition to modernism, there were a number of precursors to the style lurking within the modernist movement. Conceptual art eschewed formal technique in favor of expressing ideas, as in Marcel Duchamp’s crude 1917 sculpture Fountain. The abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock emphasized the subjectivity of the artist. And by the 60s, Pop Art emphasized low-brow culture, collage and consumerist objects.

Postmodern architecture, The Ni Ban Khan building in Japan
The Ni Ban Khan, via Socks

Because modernism was a well-known term throughout the 20th century, critics of the style had been trying to coin the term “postmodernism” for almost that same length of time in order to claim that modernism had ended. Postmodernism as we know it didn’t really catch on as a dominant design movement until the 1970s, beginning with architecture. Because buildings have such an obvious practical function, they tended to be more strictly held to the modernist mandates of form following function than other design disciplines. To challenge this, buildings like the Neue Staatsgalerie in Germany celebrated mixed materials and anachronistic design features. The Ni Ban Khan in Japan embraced a collage of patterns and loud colors.

Graphic designers soon incorporated the principles of postmodernism into their own work by embracing technology. Computers in those early years were largely regarded as large calculators for business, and digital tools were considered a threat to the Swiss Style of typography, championed in the modernist age. April Greiman was one of the first designers to champion computer-made art in the 70s and 80s, including the errors that technology brings. Her designs are technicolor collages of layered images and typography, double exposures and glitches. Like a true postmodernist, she rejected the term “graphic designer” as being too limiting, preferring instead to be called a “transmedia artist.”

Paula Scher likewise became a champion of ‘new typography,’ with explosive, energetic letter arrangements that defied traditional left-to-right order. Her typography also rejected its role as a background player, and became the main feature of many of her pieces. Additionally, her work also incorporates pop art collages and vibrant color filters.

Memphis furniture designs collected into a living room
Memphis furniture via Wikimedia Commons

By the late 80s, Memphis Design emerged to join the postmodern family, creating impractical furniture out of cheap materials and jumbled patterns. In this case, impracticality was the point, even over comfort, and the premier furniture pieces made a mockery of snobbery by labeling themselves after luxury hotels.

The decline of postmodernism

For many, postmodern design, while jubilant and expressive, was also loud and unfeasible. Despite postmodernism’s noble intentions, its attitude of defiance is largely what made it difficult to sustain itself in the mainstream. Most historians identify the 90s as the decade when postmodernism went out of fashion. But postmodernism didn’t so much go away as become less dominant. True to its slippery nature, it has continued to appeal to architects and designers throughout the 21st century.

Postmodern architecture, The Stata Center at MIT
The Stata Center at MIT, completed in 2004

Postmodernism in the “modern” age

One of the great things about postmodern design is its contempt for constraints, and that includes time and place. While some historians have attempted to wrangle start and end dates onto the movement, the effort always fails. Just as it is nearly impossible to say when postmodernism began, it definitely is not ending anytime soon.

Postmodern design is also a morphing style that changes with the context of the designer and the design project. Contemporary trends like Y2K, Street art, Anti-design and Brutalism are keeping the postmodern design spirit alive and well in the 21st century.

Mixed media is a core feature of postmodern design, but these days graphic design is most often relegated to one medium: digital. That is, the industry relies on graphic design software to create shareable files, and it is impossible in most cases to reject that and create a product that still will be useful to clients. All the same, graphic designers get the idea of mixed media across by combining varied textures, exposures, illustration, and painting styles.

Along these same lines, collage and the juxtaposition of various out-of-place elements is also common in postmodern design. Some collages take the seamless approach, where the photo manipulator attempts to hide any evidence of collaging and making all the elements fit naturally in the composition. Postmodernism tends to go for the opposite approach, using messy cutouts and collage elements that obviously don’t belong in the same space, calling attention to the artificiality of the composition. This has the effect of emphasizing the tension created by these disparate pieces.

Typography is one design element that is full of rules about placement and sizing, with most typefaces set up using strict measurements such as the baseline and ascender height. All with good reason of course—the whole point is to create consistently legible phrases. Postmodern typography tends to trust the viewer to understand the meaning of a phrase through expressive arrangement and letterforms, even if legibility is made somewhat more difficult. Alternatively, designers can also mix anachronistic font styles for a postmodern effect.

In many ways, postmodernism is about attitude, and nowhere is that attitude more apparent nowadays than in the anti-design and brutalist movements of digital design. Like the rebel architects of the 70s, these designers disrupt the minimalist interfaces of “good” UX design with layouts that are complex, challenging, and discordant. The intention is to create memorability and novelty over conformity and ease.

Finally, one of postmodernism’s saving graces is its sense of humor. It mocks us for taking it (and art) too seriously, and it even pokes fun at its own eclectic extravagance. Humor is largely what allows postmodern design to be adventurous and daring without frustrating its audience with its bold challenges.

The postscript on postmodern design

Postmodern design is a varied and eclectic movement. It can be hard to get a grasp, both in terms of its exact goals and its exact manifestations. But, largely because of that, postmodernism is one of the more experimental styles around. It challenges viewers to reconsider the boundaries of form and function. It fits together the things we are taught to keep separate through daring collages, mixed materials, and anachronistic mashups. Sometimes, postmodernism can seem to describe almost anything. But, in the immortal words of Robert Venturi, there’s one thing postmodernist design definitely is not: boring.

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