The influence of modernism prevails in the design of information visualizations, despite criticisms that it may have the effect of suppressing culture.
By Amanda Horton
Trends in graphic design are constantly shifting, with new takes on historical approaches being rehashed all the time. Cycles can be traced from modernism to postmodernism and back again, and yet despite these cycles and shifting trends modernism appears to remain pervasive. Even those not familiar with the history of modernism are likely to recognize the name and its visual characteristics. Modernism was a shift in design that began in Europe in the early 1900s. It stripped design of ornament and worked towards an entirely new design practice with the goal of communicating to wide, even global audiences, through its economy of form, in short, it promoted minimalism. Then in the 1970s postmodernists rejected the ideologies of modernism, and instead made arguments for complex designs that even contradicted and pushed back against the ideas of modernism. While new trends in design are everywhere, characteristics of modernism can still largely be seen prevalently in the design of infographics or data visualization, identity systems for international corporations, and wayfinding systems.
The philosophies and approaches to modernist graphic design are often associated with the instructors at the Bauhaus, along with the work done by Jan Tschichold for the New Typography movement, both of which have had a powerful and lasting impact on the “rules” of design. The visual characteristics of modernism include the use of grids, sans serif type, economized or simplified graphics, which often prioritize geometric forms over organic ones, as well as a preference for whitespace and asymmetrical layouts. But today the philosophies, ideals, and methods of modernism have been criticized for their suppression of culture and diversity. Information visualization aims to make information accessible and clearly understood by broad audiences. Despite shifts in philosophies and practices, is modernism the answer for visually communicating with culturally diverse audiences? Will concerns about equitable practices in design lead to a shift away from modernist theories and practices, or will these practices continue in perpetuity? This article will consider modernist historical influences on trends in design, shifting perspectives and current criticism of those historical perspectives, and the role of aesthetics vs. ideology along with the current cultural climate to examine the perceived pervasiveness of modernist principles and their influence on various design practices.
Roots of Modernism
When it comes to modernism in graphic design, the historical precedents most often cited as having been the most influential for establishing modernist principles are the Bauhaus and the New Typography. The “Bauhaus’s approach to design was truly modernist, scientific, and reductionist in its intention. It was modernist in its tendency toward abstraction, scientific in that it embraced Gestalt psychology, and reductionist in its attempt to get rid of the vestiges of Victorian design taste and to build a new sensitivity based on the basic language of form.” (Kim, 2006) Individuals associated with this new exploration of form in graphic design at the Bauhaus would later emigrate to America where they would help influence the practice of modernist design.
The New Typography movement, spearheaded by designer Jan Tschichold, was also a leader in modern graphic design. Tschichold was inspired by and even worked with members of the Bauhaus, and their design aesthetics are very similar. The ideas that Tschichold proposed in his publication The New Typography outlined his principles for typographic design, many of which aligned with the Bauhaus. These principles also included a desire for clarity, suggesting that to best achieve this would be to remove all unnecessary and decorative ornament. Sans serif typefaces also became prevalent in the work that was put out by modernist designers, because serifs were viewed as ornamental. Whitespace became a key element of modern design.
One of the primary goals identified by these modernists was to create a universal approach to design. The premise of universal design was that decoration was culture-specific and that by removing all ornament and decoration the designer could cross language and cultural boundaries and the resulting design would be better understood by audiences. It is easy to see why modernism was and is the preferred practice for visual communication for any design that intends to communicate to culturally diverse audiences. Modernism and its principles were described as a “Universal” design practice for communicating visually to global audiences.
Two historical examples of modernist design principles in action were the information graphics created by Otto Neurath and his team for the ISOTYPE, or International Typographic Picture Education (see figure 1), and the graphics designed by Otl Aicher for the 1974 Munich Olympic games, including the logo and pictograms (see figure 2). The abstraction and reductionist philosophies of modernism led to the use of economized forms and a preference for geometric shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles, which became characteristic of their work. Additionally, the number of weights and sizes of typefaces were reduced in designs to maintain clarity. These ideas coupled with the insistence on simplicity and clarity through the removal of all ornamental details led visual communicators such as Neurath and Aicher to develop systems for information design that were simplified to the smallest details, which these designers argued allowed the message to be clearly and prominently displayed for diverse audiences, which was the goal of both the infographics designed by ISOTYPE and the Olympic Graphics.
Or is it…
In 1910 architect Adolf Loos gave a lecture and subsequently published a paper on “Ornament and Crime”, this paper and its condemnation of ornament, is often cited as one of the founding ideologies of modernism, in which ornament is equated with primitivism and criminals. Loos points to tattoos as ornaments found on what he saw as “primitive” peoples as well as on prisoners and criminals as part of his proof of his claims. This paper, which became foundational to the creation of the modernist movement, clearly stated racist and imperialist ideals that linked ornament to culture and called for a complete rejection of all ornament in architecture and design. Today many theorists and historians cite this suppression of culture as fundamental to modernism. Around this same point in history, there was a rise in interest in Eugenics which led to some forced sterilization programs for disabled people, people of color, and those of low economic status. According to Daylanne English, author of Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance “Eugenics, the science of breeding better human beings, saturated U.S. culture during the 1920s. It seeped into politics. It permeated social science and medicine. It shaped public policy and aesthetic theory… It affected popular culture. Eugenic thinking was so pervasive in the modern era that it attained the status of common sense” (2004) while English is making an argument for the connection of Eugenics to modern literature, here the connection to popular culture, aesthetics, and design could be linked through writings such as that of Adolf Loos. In an opinion piece for the UX Collective author, Ronke Babjide states that “Adolf Loos was a child of his time. Fascism, race theory, and supremacy weren’t limited to Nazi Germany. There was a prevalent mindset in certain circles around Europe that supported the idea. The belief was that European cultures are superior to others. To be civilized meant you had to be exactly like them. The civilized “New Man” had simple, minimalist tastes.” (2022) In her book Decolonizing Design (2023), Dori Tunstall, the first Black dean of faculty of design, reminds us that “The Bauhaus’s “universal man” for whom they were designing was the working white man” and that “Design practices that draw their origin stories from the modernist project thus perpetuate the biases of the supremacy of white bodies and cultural values.” (p. 58)
The Dominance of Modernism
Today, many designers and design educators who actively embrace diversity and cultural differences are pushing back against the dominance of modernism in design history, theory, and practice. There are calls to “throw the Bauhaus under the bus” (Silas Munro and Ramon Tejada) and focus on education and design history “Beyond the Bauhaus” (AIGA Design Educators Community). And yet many of the “Rules” of visual design today are often still very much in line with modernist principles. Trends come and go and yet modernism refuses to die, we still see an astounding amount of modern design. Why is modernism so pervasive? This is a hard question to answer but interrogating where we see modernist design most frequently is perhaps a place to start. Global international companies seem to still lean heavily on modern design of their logos and identity systems, as well as infographics and wayfinding systems, and the thing that all of these have in common is the need to communicate across language and cultural barriers. Were the modernists right after all? Or is modernism just “safe” and big corporations are simply afraid to take risks? Design is thought to be progressive, but what if it is not as progressive as we think? The graphic design profession is still largely white, with white men (mostly) in leadership roles. How does this translate to how design is practiced? Or is this simply a case of aesthetics over theory/ideology?
In many of the world’s most recognized logos, one can observe that the characteristics of modern design are still in play, scanning articles such as “World’s Most Famous Logos and The Stories Behind Them” as well as “37 Of The World’s Most Famous Logos and What You Can Learn From Them”, reveals a litany of logos from international corporations that could mostly be described as modern. In an article from AIGA Eye on Design, Jarrett Fuller points out that “In the last few years, it seems every big company, from Warner Brothers to PetCo to Mastercard to Sam’s Club has jumped on the bandwagon, stripping their brand down to basic parts, cohering around a homogenized, minimal aesthetic that can sell anything from dog food to data, credit cards to car rides.“ (2021) Additionally, publications such as Information Graphics edited by Sandra Rendgen, and published by Taschen published in 2012 reveal an overwhelming influence of modernism on information graphics that is still practiced today.
In his article, “Graphic Designers Have Always Loved Minimalism. But At What Cost?” Jarrett Fuller reminds us that design is a pendulum. Jan Tschichold, the founder of the New Typography movement, later rejected the constraints of his own movement, he came to see these rules as too restrictive and dogmatic, which was something he associated with the Nazis who had harassed him for his progressive ideas and forced him out of Germany. This was a connection he wished to avoid. However, Massimo Vignelli, one of the champions for modernist design well into the 21st century argued that modernism was an ethical practice and that “Modernism was a commitment against greed, commercialization, exploitation, vulgarization, cheapness. Modernism was and still is the search for truth, the search for integrity, the search for cultural stimulation and enrichment of the mind. Modernism was never a style, but an attitude.” (1991, p. 51). It is probably safe to say that he would have denied any allegations that ideals of modernism were in any way connected to those of Eugenics or were responsible for diminishing the value of culture in design, he even called postmodernism a fad. And yet most likely we will see the pendulum swing back towards postmodernism, only to return at some point back to modernism once again.
The Future Trend Cycle
But in attempting to understand trends in design we must also acknowledge the role that algorithms will play in future trends. Algorithms used on social media function to feed viewers content that is similar to the content they have seen, and liked, before. In terms of design, this has the potential to create an oeuvre that is homogenous, leading users to see and believe that certain trends are bigger than they really are, or to feed into trends making them bigger than they would otherwise be. Perhaps this is the real reason modern/minimalism is so prevalent today, the already prevalent use of these algorithms.
How many people know the history of modernism and its connections to racist and cultural imperialism? In truth probably not many. Today most people do not associate the term Universal Design with modernism, in fact, Universal Design has become the popular terminology for the practice of design for accessible audiences and for providing equitable design solutions, not stripping design of culture. The continued use of modernist design practices could be more about aesthetics than ideology. I for one am drawn to the aesthetics of modernism, though not at the expense of homogeneity. Modernism is also easy to learn and easy to execute; if you know “the rules” they can be applied in almost a formulaic or standardized approach. Perhaps this is the real reason that modernism continues to prevail, not ideology, but because of its ease of use.
Ultimately each designer has to make design decisions thoughtfully and carefully, as we have seen even Jan Tschichold, founder of the New Typography movement, later rejected the ideals of the movement when he began to see them as too rigid. With current criticisms of modernism, it is important to consider why we continue to use this approach to information visualization. Is it because it truly is what the modernists thought it was, a movement that could strip design of culture and therefore effectively communicate beyond cultural boundaries? Or is it homogenizing? By using modernist principles of design, are we truly communicating beyond culture, or are we suppressing it? One thing to keep in mind when making decisions about design is that diversity and culture are usually what audiences find most intriguing. It can be difficult to thoughtfully incorporate cultural elements into design, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile to pursue.
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Babajide, Ronke. “How Minimalism Is Rooted in Fascism.” Medium | UX Collective, July 21, 2022. https://uxdesign.cc/how-minimalism-is-rooted-in-fascism-7204b15482a8.
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Lokmanoglu, Zeynep. “37 of the World’s Most Famous Logos and What You Can Learn from Them.” 99designs (blog), July 3, 2023. https://99designs.com/blog/logo-branding/worlds-most-famous-logos/.
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Sudjic, Deyan. “Modernism: The Idea That Just Won’t Go Away.” The Guardian, September 23, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/jan/29/architecture.modernism.
Tschichold, Jan. The New Typography: A Handbook for Modern Designers. University of California Press, 2006.
TypeRoom. “Letterform Archive Presents It’s Time to Throw the Bauhaus Under the Bus Workshop – TypeRoom.” September 16, 2019. https://www.typeroom.eu/content/letterform-archive-presents-it-s-time-throw-bauhaus-under-bus-workshop.
Vignelli, Massimo. “Long Live Modernism.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 9, no. 2 (1991).
Amanda Horton (email@example.com) teaches graphic design history, theory, and criticism classes and is director of the Design History minor at University of Central Oklahoma. She has worked with the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum to develop online curriculum through the Smithsonian’s online Learning Lab and is the host of the Incomplet Design History podcast.