Post-Modernism in a Nutshell

To put things in simple terms, Post-Modernism is Modernism, but with the prefix "Post"-which means after-in front of it. Not to be confused with Pre-Modernism or Modernism.

Post-Modernism vs. Modernism

Post-Modernism began in the 1870s as a reaction to Modernism. Since it is defined primarily as a response to another philosophy, it is sometimes difficult to clearly identify work as Post-Modern, because different designers have responded to Modernism in different ways.

Post-Modernism has influenced every aspect of creativity resulting in Post-Modern design; giving homes Post-Modern interiors, Post-Modern furnishings and Post Modern exteriors. Post-Modernism has influenced artists resulting in Post-Modern art, choreographers have been influenced by Post-Modernism resulting in Post-Modern dance, Post-Modernism has also inspired Post-Modern geography and an array of others.

Because Post-Modernism is essentially a response to the Modernist thought in the first part of the 20th century, some writers see it as continuation of Modernist thought and dislike the term Post-Modern, preferring to use Neo-Modernism or Critical Modernism.

Defining Post-Modernism.

The early 1970s saw a cultural shift in society. Society fragmented and individual expression became much more important. Questioning authority came to be seen as a positive trait, and society became a mixture of different values which often conflicted. Rather than conflict between different societies/countries as we saw in the early part of the 20th century, there was now friction within society. Not surprisingly this was a turbulent time.

The spirit of the individualist age was expressed through design. While modernists would follow a rational communicative need to complete a design (form out of function), the Post-Modernist would include some forms in the design because they 'feel' right. Post-Modern designers still considered function, but were not limited by it. This individuality meant that Post-Modern designers went off in countless directions, and as a result we can't identify a distinct Post-Modern style. Post-Modernism is not a fashion or a specific look, and this has contributed to its longevity with respect to other design movements.

In defining Post-Modernism we could simply say that it is not Modernism, but that is far from satisfactory. One way to look at this is to use a method employed by Charles Jencks [1] (a noted Post-Modernist architect and advocate of Post-Modernism). Jencks uses two columns of ideas and key words to contrast the Modernist and Post-Modernist philosophies. I have used his method but created my own list.

Modern Post-Modern
Straight Forward Ironic
Systematic Theology Personal Faith
Ford Motor Company Amazon/Google
Capitalism/Socialism Social Democrat
Respect for Authority Respect for Values

So if we translate this into the design world we find that Post-Modern design is characterized by:

  • Combining different images to create irony
  • Humor and sarcasm
  • A tendency to break established rules and conventions
  • A tendency to confront and surprise
  • Personal expression and style rather than following the forms of a recognized style

Development of Post-Modernism

During the 1970s there were indications that young designers were beginning to push the boundaries of the modernist thinking that was prevalent at that time. One example is an advertisement for the printer E Lutz & Company by Rosmarie Tissi (1964). This graphic is similar to work in the International style, but rather than align the images formally, using the grid structure of the images in this poster are jumbled in an apparently random way. The viewer is left to make sense of the images and fill in missing lines. This conscious subversion of a Modernist style is in the spirit of early Post-Modernism,


A graphic in the International Style by Jeff Ondeka (left) and Rosmarie Tissi's subversive treatment of this style (right).

This movement began to grow and by the 1970s graphic designers had broken away from the functionality and rules of the Modernist design and were presenting collage style graphics with images overlayed and jumbled. In this way designers were pushing the boundaries of design, putting more emphasis on eliciting a response form the viewer. New printing technologies opened up possibilities to designers at this time as well.


This exhibition poster by Wolfgang Weingart (1977) uses juxtaposed, jumbled images to give an impression to the viewer of the museum and its art.

The movement has grown, and with the emphasis on what 'looks right' rather than on what is 'done right', and the liberation provided by modern production technologies, Post-Modern design has flourished.


This poster for the D&AD-President's Lecture-John Warwicker (Thomas Jackson 2013) makes use of heavily deconstructed text, to the point where we get an impression of the lecture title but nothing more. The lecture is delivered by the founder of the Tomato advertising agency, and this is refenced in the poster. The impression is that the tomato is being thrown (or is it smoking?). In any case we conclude from this poster that the lecture will challenge established thinking.


In this brochure for the Barr Exhibits (Michael Manwaring 1984) we see the pastel shades frequently used in Post-Modern design. The viewer's eye is invited to complete the half hidden B in the center of the poster. This need for the viewer to complete forms in the design are a way of generating engagement and interest.

Not all contemporary design is Post-Modern, and there many Modernist designers still producing effective designs. There are also Post-Modernists who make the ocassional ironic homage to their Modernist roots, but Post-Modernism is very much the spirit of our age.

1. Charles Jencks Ed., The Post-Modern Reader, Wiley 2nd Ed (2011)
2. Phillip B. Meggs & Alston W. Purvis, Megg's History of Graphic design, Wiley 4th ed (2006)
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