The Calculated Creative

Postmodern Graphic Design

By breaking free from modernist conventions postmodern designers expanded graphic design possibilities. Their irreverent, playful and ironic aesthetic embraced complexity and historical reference.

Postmodernism is an artistic and cultural movement that emerged in the 1970s as a reaction against modernism.

Modernism, which dominated much of early 20th century art, design, and architecture, valued purity, minimalism, and functionality.

Postmodernists rejected these modernist ideals and instead embraced complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, and historical reference.

Graphic designers working in the postmodern vein drew eclectically from past graphic styles and vernacular sources to create exuberant, ornamental, and conceptual work.

Characteristics of Postmodern Graphic Design

Postmodern graphic design is characterized by:

  • Appropriation - Postmodern designers freely borrowed, mixed and altered past art and design styles, combining them in new ways. They pulled imagery and influence from Art Nouveau, Art Deco, punk, pop art and other eclectic sources.
  • Pastiche - Postmodern graphics often combined disparate styles and genres to create new hybrid forms. Mixing punk music visuals with Swiss modernist typography for example. Pastiche can be seen as a playful satire of creative originality.
  • Parody - Many postmodern graphics incorporated parody, ironically imitating and humorously exaggerating the visual rhetoric of past styles for comic and critical effect.
  • Eclecticism - Postmodern designers pulled influence widely from various historical eras and cultures with little regard for purity or consistency. Their work embraced bold juxtapositions.
  • Ornamentation - Postmodernism reacted against modernist austerity by embracing lavish ornamentation and decoration including typographic exaggerations.
  • Maximalism - Postmodern work often featured information-rich, visually dense and layered compositions, with eclectic typography and image collage.
  • Conceptualism - Postmodern graphic design valued ideas, concepts and communication over craftsmanship and aesthetics. Their work could have an "unfinished" look.

Key Figures

Postmodern graphic design emerged through the work of several pioneering designers:

  • April Greiman - Known for her radical typographic experimentation and multimedia, technology-influenced design. She created the postmodern brand identity for the Walker Art Center.
  • David Carson - His grunge typography and rule-breaking layouts for Ray Gun magazine came to define the postmodern punk aesthetic.
  • Tibor Kalman - Kalman's ironic, unconventional magazine and poster designs were quintessentially postmodern. He used modernist style against itself.
  • Wolfgang Weingart - His typography experiments like "My Way to Typography" incorporated letterpress distortions, inconsistencies and chaos. Major influence on postmodern style.
  • Paula Scher - Scher layered illustration and typography in her contextual, concept-driven identity systems for clients like The Public Theater.

Notable Examples

Notable examples that exemplify the postmodern aesthetic include:

  • Wolfgang Weingart's typography poster "My Way to Typography" (1970) incorporated letterpress printing artifacts and seemingly chaotic, overlapping typography.
  • April Greiman's poster design for the Walker Art Center (1984) merged photographic and architectural imagery in a radical, new typographic style.
  • Tibor Kalman's "Good History/Bad History" poster series (1989) used modernist stylistic devices ironically to make political statements.
  • David Carson revolutionized publication design with his grunge typography covers and layouts for Ray Gun magazine (1992-1996).
  • Paula Scher's eclectic, hand-drawn identity and environmental graphics for The Public Theater (1994) referenced vaudeville and Shakespearean theater.

The Takeaway

By breaking free from modernist conventions.

And questioning ideas of good taste.

Postmodern designers expanded graphic design possibilities.

Their irreverent, playful and ironic aesthetic embraced complexity and historical reference.

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