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Postmodernism In Graphic Design Essays On Leadership

Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era

Mr. Keedy

This essay was based on lectures presented at FUSE 98, San Francisco, May 28, and The AIGA National Student Design Conference, CalArts, June 14, 1998. It was first published in 1998 in Emigre 47.

Any discussion of postmodernism must be preceded by at least a provisional definition of modernism. First there is modernism with a capital “M,” which designates a style and ideology and that is not restricted to a specific historical moment or geographical location. Modernist designers from the Bauhaus in Germany, the De Style in Holland, and Constructivism in Russia, share essentially the same Modernist ideology as designers like Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and Eric Spiekermann. Its primary tenet is that the articulation of form should always be derived from the programmatic dictates of the object being designed. In short, form follows function.

Modernism was for the most part formed in art schools, where the pedagogical strategies were developed that continue to this day in design schools. It is a formalist, rationalist, visual language that can be applied to a wide range of circumstances. All kinds of claims can and have been made in an effort to keep Modernism eternally relevant and new. The contradiction of being constant, yet always new, has great appeal for graphic designers, whose work is so ephemeral.

Then there is the modern, with a small “m.” It is often confused with Modernism with a big M, but being a modern designer simply means being dedicated to working in a way that is contemporary and innovative, regardless of what your particular stylistic or ideological bias may be. Modern designers who were not necessarily Modernist would include designers like Milton Glaser, Charles and Ray Eames, and Tadanori Yokoo.

With all the confusion in these early days of formulating theoretical paradigms, it is understandable why some designers have given up trying to connect their practice to contemporary theory. By the time postmodernism came along, many designers were quite happy to dismiss it as a trendy fad or irrelevant rambling, and be done with it. That is exactly why I think it is important to examine some of the connections between the postmodern condition and graphic design.

Although there has always been some confusion about what postmodernism is, the most obvious feature is that it is a reaction (not rejection), to the established forms of high Modernism. The second most prominent feature of postmodernism is the erasing of the boundaries between high culture and pop culture. But probably the most contested feature is that of “theoretical discourse,” where theory was no longer confined to philosophy, but incorporated history, social theory, political science, and many other areas of study, including design theory. Postmodernism is not a description of a style; it is the term for the era of late capitalism starting after the 1940’s and realized in the 1960’s with neo-colonialism, the green revolution, computerization and electronic information.

Postmodernism didn’t have much impact on graphic design until the middle of the 1980s. Initially, many designers thought it was just undisciplined self-indulgence. A hodgepodge of styles, with no unifying ideals or formal vocabularies, dreamed up by students in the new graduate programs. But in fact it was a new way of thinking about design, one that instigated a new way of designing. Designers began to realize that as mediators of culture, they could no longer hide behind the “problems” they were “solving.” One could describe this shift as a younger generation of designers simply indulging their egos and refusing to be transparent (like a crystal goblet). Or you could say they were acknowledging their unique position in the culture, one that could have any number of political or ideological agendas.

The vernacular, high and low culture, pop culture, nostalgia, parody, irony, pastiche, deconstruction, and the anti-aesthetic represent some of the ideas that have come out of the 80s and informed design practice and theory of the 90s. After the 80s designers may still choose to be anonymous, but they will never again be considered invisible. We are part of the message in the media. In the postmodern era we are not just mediators of information, but individuals who think creatively and visually about our culture.

Although Jan Tschichold has been celebrated as an early proponent of modernist asymmetric typography, designers have increasingly come to respect his earlier calligraphic and latter classical work. Tschichold’s body of work is an important precedent for today’s postmodern typography in that it represents diversity in ideology and style. It was one that ranged from craft-based calligraphy and machine-age modernism to neoclassicism.

Another important precursor to postmodernism was W. A. Dwiggins, a designer who translated traditional values and aesthetics into a modern sensibility. He was a tireless experimenter with form, who took inspiration for his work from eastern cultures, history, and new technology. Unlike Tschichold, Dwiggins never embraced the Modernist movement nor was he deified by it. However, he was absolutely committed to being a modern designer.

Although Dwiggins’s and Tschichold’s work seems to have little in common, there is a similarity in how their work was initially misrepresented. Tschichold was celebrated as a Modernist typographer, which downplayed his more substantial body of design and writing based on traditional and classical ideas. On the other hand, Dwiggins has always been represented as a traditional designer in spite of the innovative and experimental nature of most of his work.

It has only been in recent years that discussions of Tschichold and Dwiggins have expanded to include the full scope and plurality of their work. That is because the postmodern context has encouraged diversity and complexity, and given us a critical distance to assess Modernism and its ramifications. In the postmodern era, the line dividing modern and classical, good and bad, new and old, has, like so many lines in graphic design today, become very blurry, distressed and fractured.

In the late 80s, an anti-aesthetic impulse emerged in opposition to the canon of Modernist “good design.” It was a reaction to the narrow, formalist concerns of late Modernism. It staked a larger claim to the culture and expanded the expressive possibilities in design. The new aesthetic was impure, chaotic, irregular and crude. A point that was so successfully made, in terms of style, that pretty much everything was allowed in the professionalized field of graphic design, and from then on typography would include the chaotic and circuitous as options in its lexicon of styles. In fact, most of the formal mannerisms of the late 80s have continued to predominate throughout the 90s. But now it’s no longer an ideologically relevant, or even new style - now it’s just the most popular commercial style.

In 1989 I designed a typeface to use in my design work for experimental arts organizations like Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and CalArts. I called the typeface Bondage Bold. Rudy VanderLans saw it in some of my work and wanted to sell it through Emigre. After adding a regular weight, normalizing the spacing, cleaning up the drawings (with Zuzana Licko’s guidance), and changing the name to Keedy Sans, it was finally released on an unsuspecting public in 1991.

I designed Keedy Sans as a “user,” simply based on a vague idea of a typeface that I had not yet seen but wanted to use in my graphic design. Most typefaces are logically systematic; if you see a few letters you can pretty much guess what the rest of the font will look like. I wanted a typeface that would willfully contradict those expectations. It was a typically postmodern strategy for a work to call attention to the flaws and artifice of its own construction. But I never thought of it as being illegible, or even difficult to read. I have never been very interested in pushing the limits of legibility for its own sake. Absolute clarity, or extreme distortion, is too simplistic a goal, and it is ground that has already been well covered. I wanted to explore the complex possibilities that lie somewhere in between and attempt to do something original or at least unique.

At the time I had been using the American highway Gothic typeface in my design work that I cut and pasted from a highway signage manual. Another vernacular influence was the “f” from the Fiat logo. But I was not only quoting low vernacular sources; it was important that I mixed in high design sources as well. So I was thinking about Akzidenz-Grotesk Black, which was somewhat exotic in America, because I liked Wolfgang Weingart’s typography. Overall I wanted a typeface that was similar to Cooper Black, extremely bold with a strong idiosyncratic personality. I think it is a very postmodern typeface in that it included “high” and “low” vernacular quotation, and it is self-consciously crude and anti-aesthetic in reaction to the slickness of Modernism. The initial reaction to Keedy Sans was that it was too idiosyncratic, it was “ugly,” hard to read, and too weird to be very useful. It’s hard to imagine that kind of reaction to a type design today. I guess nobody really cares any more.

In 1993, Keedy Sans was still able to cause a bit of controversy among graphic designers, and it was starting to be a popular typeface for music and youth-oriented audiences. Its popularity slowly but consistently grew; by 1995 it was starting to look pretty legible and tame compared to other new typefaces on the market. Eventually even the big boys in the corporate world were no longer put off by my typographic antics, and Keedy Sans made its way into the mainstream world of corporate commercialism by 1997.

Eight years later, it is no longer considered an illegible, weird, deconstructed, or confrontational design. Now it’s just another decorative type style, one among many. Its willful contradictions are only what is expected in design today. I still think it is an interesting typeface; that’s why it’s a shame that now it signifies little more than the banality of novelty. Nowadays that seems to be all a designer can expect from their work.

Resisting mainstream pop banality is an outdated attitude that only a few designers of my generation worry about anymore. Now most graphic designers need results fast; formal and conceptual innovations only slow down commercial accessibility. It is hard for a generation raised in a supposedly “alternative” youth culture, which put every kid from Toledo to Tokyo in the same baggy pants and t-shirt, to believe that relevant forms of expression can even exist outside of pop culture. Today’s young designers don’t worry about selling out, or having to work for “the man,” a conceit almost no one can afford anymore. Now everyone wants to be “the man.” What is left of an avant-garde in graphic design isn’t about resistance, cultural critique, or experimenting with meaning. Now the avant-garde only consists of technological mastery: who is using the coolest bit of code or getting the most out of their HTML this week.

Resistance is not futile; resistance is a very successful advertising strategy. The advertising world co-opted our desire for resistance and has been refining it in pop culture since the 60s. After the 60s, advertising was never the same. It was the end of the men in the gray flannel suits. To this day ad agencies are full of middle-aged “creative directors” who talk and dress like twenty year-olds. They exploit an endless supply of new, cutting edge design talent to sell the same old stuff. By comparison, graphic designers were less successful at using resistance as a vehicle for changing attitudes in their profession in the 80s. That is because most designers did not want anything to challenge their continuity with a design canon they had so recently constructed. The only thing that the design establishment in the 80s was interested in resisting was new ideas.

That is why ultimately the strategies of resistance to Modernist dogma and the critique of the status quo, from the late 80s, only led to what is currently referred to as the ugly, grunge, layered, chaotic, postmodern design of the 90s. Only now there is little opposition and no resistance to what is an empty stylistic cliché. What I had hoped would be an ideological victory over the tyranny of style mongering, devolved into a one-style-fits-all commercial signifier for everything that is youth, alternative, sports, and entertainment-oriented. The “official style of the hip and cool” will probably be with us for some time, as it is easy to do and little has been done to establish any standard of quality.

There have never been as many books published on contemporary typography as in the past few years. Ironically, in spite of all these new type books, there has never been less of a consensus as to what is of interest or value in typography. Although these books are fun to look at, you would be hard pressed to find any significant discussion, criticism, debate, or even explanation in most of them. They include anything and everything except critical, informative, and qualitative analysis. This new cornucopia of type books is not the result of a sudden renaissance in typography, but the result of the publishing industry’s ability to recognize and develop a commercial market. They have no interest in “separating the wheat from the chaff,” so all this new work has just become “more grist for the publishing mill.”

One of the reasons Jan Tschichold went back to traditional center axis typography was because when it was done by less skilled designers, he thought it resulted in less offensive work than when the more demanding asymmetrical modernist typography was poorly done. Unlike traditional or Modernist typography, typography of the postmodern era has not up to this point been clearly articulated, much less canonized, making that type of qualitative judgment difficult at best. This situation has led some designers to simply dismissing it all as garbage.

Even though the current publishing craze may be helpful as self-promotion for a few designers and a design aid for the creatively challenged, it may have done more damage than good to the promotion of typography as a sophisticated or discriminating craft. Fortunately, on a much smaller scale, some critical and historical ideas are still being disseminated, in spite of the smaller financial rewards. Some design history, criticism and theory has managed to get published in recent years, but compared to the picture books, graphic designers aren’t buying it.

The practice of graphic design has from the beginning been intertwined with pop commercialism, but that does not mean that our values and ideals, or the lack of them, have to be dictated by the commercial marketplace. Just because thinking about design isn’t a popular activity doesn’t mean it isn’t an important one.

Graphic designers love new things, and new things love graphic designers - like fire loves wood. Graphic designers loved the new international corporate culture. But it was the advertising industry that ultimately won the partnership with multi-national corporations. Then graphic designers loved the new desktop publishing. But it took away a lot of our low end projects, gave us the additional responsibility of typesetting and pre-press, shortened our deadlines, and ultimately reduced our fees. Now graphic designers love the new Internet. But maybe this time we should stop and ask: “Does the Internet love graphic design?”

Perhaps the Internet will simply co-opt graphic design, incorporating it into its operating system. Maybe graphic design will cease to exist as a discreet practice and just become another set of options on the menu. Or is graphic design just a lubricant that keeps everything on the info highway moving - are we just greasing the wheels of capitalism with style and taste? If graphic designers play a major role in building the bridge to the twenty-first century, will they be recognized for their efforts? Do you remember typesetters?

Graphic design’s ephemeral nature has practically disqualified it from serious consideration as an important cultural practice. For most non-designers, historical graphic design is valued as nostalgic ephemera, while contemporary design is viewed as sometimes amusing, but mostly annoying, advertising. Graphic design is not generally accepted as having the cultural significance of other less ephemeral forms of design like architecture, industrial design, and even fashion. This is due largely to its short life-span and its disposable ubiquity. Will the even more ephemeral and ubiquitous media of film titles, television graphics, and the Internet create greater awareness and respect for graphic design, or will such familiarity only breed contempt?

New media is a practical embodiment of the theoretical paradigm established by poststructuralism. It was an idea about language, communication and meaning before it was ever a technology. But now it seems that the technology has eclipsed its raison d’etreand it exists outside of any theoretical critique. The often quoted clich is that the new media requires new rules and the old assumptions do not apply, even though somehow the old consumers do. Curiously, the new media has not yet developed a new theoretical paradigm, or even a new lexicon, to comprehend this ideological shift. Ironically, the new buzzword is a familiar old standby from grammar school art classes - it’s all a matter of “intuition.”

Although intuition is a satisfactory explanation for a five-year-old’s crayon abstractions, it’s a bit weak for describing the computer-graphic-multinational-imperialism that is reshaping our global culture. Intuition is a generic term for a perceptive insight that is arrived at without using a rational process. It is a way of saying “educated guess” without defining the education of the “guesser.” That one’s source of inspiration could be unknowable, or at least indescribable, after the death of the author, and at the end of history, is understandable in these postmodern times. But the unwillingness of graphic designers to recognize their indebtedness to history, education, and their peers is not. At this juncture in its history, graphic design practice needs a more rigorous and responsible discourse. Maybe we should leave “instincts” and “intuition” to our furry friends; then we could reinstate history, education and current practice as our center for critical reflection, discourse, and inspiration.

Theoretical and conceptual discourse in graphic design has always been a bit naive compared to older more established cultural practices. For example, all designers have been, and continue to be taught, the history of type design in terms of the five families of type: Oldstyle, Transitional, Modern, Egyptian, and Contemporary. This nineteenth century terminology devised by type founders is completely out of sync with period classifications used in the humanities. As such, it disconnects type design from our general cultural history. Given this type of foundation, it should come as no surprise that contemporary design discourse is also out of sync with that of architecture, literature, and art.

Graphic designers are caught up in a media stream that is very wide and fast, but not very deep. The only way to navigate in it is to go faster or slower than the stream. To go faster you must be at the forefront of technology and fashion, both of which are changing at an unprecedented rate. To go slower you need an understanding of context through history and theory. Graphic designers are predisposed to going faster or slower according to their experience and inclination, but mostly they are getting swept along in the currents of pop mediocrity.

How we communicate says a lot about who we are. Looking at much of today’s graphic design one would have to conclude that graphic designers are twelve-year-olds with an attention deficit disorder. Designers today are representing our present era as if they were using a kaleidoscope to do it. Or more precisely, a constantly mutating digital collage machine, filled with a bunch of old “sampled” parts from the past, and decorated with special effects. Ultimately what we are left with is a feeling of aggravated and ironic nostalgia. This electronic Deja-vu-doo is getting old, again.

Maybe now it is time to dive below all the hype and sound bites of the advertising industries media stream, where graphic designers can have the autonomy to set their own course, even if it means swimming against the current now and then. Postmodernism isn’t a style; it’s an idea about the time we are living in, a time that is full of complexities, contradictions, and possibilities. It is an unwieldy and troublesome paradigm. However, I still think it is preferable to the reassuring limitations of Modernism.

Unfortunately most graphic designers are currently not up to the challenge. A few postmodern ideas like deconstruction, multiculturalism, complexity, pastiche, and critical theory could be useful to graphic designers if they could get beyond thinking about their work in terms of formal categories, technology, and media.

In the postmodern era, as information architects, media directors, design consultants, editor/authors, and design entrepreneurs, we have been chasing after the new and the next to sustain excitement and assert our growing relevance in the world. But inevitably the cutting edge will get dull, and the next wave will be like all the previous waves, and even the new media will become the old media. Then the only thing left will be the graphic design, and what and why we think about it.


A Tribute To W.A.Dwiggins: On the Hundredth Anniversary of his Birth, privately printed for friends of Hermann Puterschein, at The Inkwell Press, New York, 1980.
Jan Tschichold: a Life in Typography, Ruari McLean, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1997.
The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, David Harvey, Blackwell, Cambridge MA and Oxford UK, 1990.
The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Thomas Frank, The University of Chicago press, Chicago and London, 1997.
From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media, Silvio Gaggi, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1997.
Hyper Text: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, George P. Landow, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1992.
Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History, Robin Kinross, Hyphen Press, London, 1992.
The Origins of Graphic Design in America, 1870-1920, Ellen Mazur Thomas, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997.
Graphic Design: Reproduction & Representation Since 1800, Paul Jobling and David Crowley, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1996.
Design Without Boundaries: Visual Communication in Transition, Rick Poynor, Booth-Clibborn Editions, London, 1998.
Design Discourse: History, Theory, Criticism, Victor Margolin, The University of Chicago press, Chicago and London, 1989.
Design Culture: An Anthology of Writing from the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, Steven Heller and Marie Finamore, Allworth Press, New York, 1997.
Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and DK Holland, Allworth Press, New York, 1994.
Looking Closer 2: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and DK Holland, Allworth Press, New York, 1997.

Mr. Keedy is a designer, writer, type designer, and educator who lives in Los Angeles.

The International Typographic Style

After World War II, designers in Switzerland and Germany codified Modernist graphic design into a cohesive movement called Swiss Design, or the International Typographic Style. These designers sought a neutral and objective approach that emphasized rational planning and de-emphasized the subjective, or individual, expression. They constructed modular grids of horizontal and vertical lines and used them as a structure to regularize and align the elements in their designs. These designers preferred photography (another technical advance that drove the development of graphic design) as a source for imagery because of its machine-made precision and its ability to make an unbiased record of the subject. They created asymmetrical layouts, and they embraced the prewar designers’ preference for sans-serif typefaces. The elemental forms of the style possessed harmony and clarity, and adherents considered these forms to be an appropriate expression of the postwar scientific and technological age.

Josef Müller-Brockmann was a leading designer, educator, and writer who helped define this style. His poster, publication, and advertising designs are paradigms of the movement. In a long series of Zürich concert posters, Müller-Brockmann used colour, an arrangement of elemental geometric forms, and type to express the structural and rhythmic qualities of music. A 1955 poster for a concert featuring music by Igor Stravinsky, Wolfgang Fortner, and Alban Berg demonstrates these properties, along with Müller-Brockmann’s belief that using one typeface in two sizes (display and text) makes the message clear and accessible to the audience.

The programmatic uniformity of this movement would be widely adopted by designers working in the area of visual identity systems during the second half of the 20th century. Multinational corporations soon adopted the tenets of the International Typographic Style: namely, the standardized use of trademarks, colours, and typefaces; the use of consistent grid formats for signs and publications; the preference for the contemporary ambience of sans-serif types; and the banishment of ornament.

Postwar graphic design in the United States

While designers in Europe were forging the International Typographic Style into a cohesive movement, American designers were synthesizing concepts from modern art into highly individualistic and expressive visual statements. From the 1940s through the 1960s, New York City was a major centre for innovation in design as well as the fine arts.

During the 1940s, Paul Rand emerged as an American designer with a personal and innovative approach to modern design. Rand understood the vitality and symbolic power of colour and shape in the work of artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Pablo Picasso. In a 1947 poster promoting New York subway advertising, for example, Rand created a design from elemental geometric forms and colours that can be read as both an abstracted figure as well as a target, conveying the concept that one can “hit the bull’s-eye,” or reach potential audiences for plays, stores, and other goods and services by advertising in the subway. An ordinary message is rendered extraordinary through the power of visual forms and symbols. Rand’s work spanned a range of graphic media including advertising, book jackets, children’s books, corporate literature (such as annual reports), packaging, posters, trademarks, and typefaces.

In the 1950s Rand began to spend more of his time on corporate image projects, and he designed what would become ubiquitous trademarks and visual identities for major corporations including IBM, Westinghouse, the ABC television network, and UPS. Many other prominent designers—including Saul Bass (whose many visual identity programs included logos for AT&T), Lester Beall, and the partnership of Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff—focused their practices upon corporate design, as multinational corporations understood the need for consistent graphic standards in their facilities and communications throughout the world.

Bradbury Thompson, a prominent magazine art director, designed a publication called Westvaco Inspirations for a major paper manufacturer from 1938 until the early 1960s. His playful and innovative approach to type and imagery is shown in the design of a spread from Westvaco Inspirations 210 (1958). Here, Thompson responded to the geometric forms of African masks in the Ben Somoroff photograph in the spread by “drawing” a masklike face out of letters spelling “Westvaco.” Thompson’s complex layouts combined art with coloured shapes and unusual typographic arrangements. He explored printing techniques by separating the four plates used to print full-colour images—cyan (a warm blue), magenta, yellow, and black—and having them printed in different positions on the page. He also had engravings from old books enlarged and overprinted in unexpected colours. These experiments were very influential, as they showed a generation of designers new possibilities.

Magazines placed more emphasis upon graphic design during the postwar period. Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 until 1958, pioneered a new approach to magazine design. He created a flowing perceptual experience for the reader who paged through his magazines by varying sizes of type and imagery, alternating complex pages with simple layouts containing large areas of white space, and creating an overall sense of rhythmic movement. The beauty of Brodovitch’s designs was enhanced by the impressive team of collaborators at Bazaar, which included photographer Richard Avedon.

The postwar period has been called a “golden age” of magazine design, when art directors including Henry Wolf (at Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar) and Otto Storch (at McCall’s) extended Brodovitch’s imaginative approach to page layout in large-format magazines. Storch believed concept, text, type, and image should be inseparable in editorial design, and he applied this belief to the editorial pages of McCall’s.

The emergence of television began to alter the roles of print media and graphic design, while also creating new opportunities for designers to work on television commercials and on-air graphics. “Motion graphics” are kinetic graphic designs for film titles and television that occur in the fourth dimension—time. A variety of animated film techniques were applied to motion-picture titling in the 1950s by Saul Bass and, in Canada, by Norman McLaren of the Canadian National Film Board. For example, Bass’s titles for Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder reduce a prone figure to disjointed parts, which move onto the screen in carefully orchestrated sequences that conclude with their positioning to form the figure; the lettering of the film’s title appears as part of the sequence.

Vernacular imagery and popular culture inspired a generation of American designer/illustrators who began their careers after World War II, including the 1954 founders of the Push Pin Studio in New York. Their work combined a fascination with the graphic simplicity and directness of comic books with a sophisticated understanding of modern art, especially of Surrealism and Cubism. The Push Pin artists’ unabashedly eclectic interest in art and design history led them to incorporate influences ranging from Persian rugs to children’s art and decorative Victorian typefaces. In their work, a graphic vibrancy supported a strong conceptual approach to the visual message.

Several major directions emerged in American graphic design in the 1960s. Political and social upheavals of the decade were accompanied by a resurgence of poster art addressing the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, environmentalism, and the Vietnam War. Placing ads on radio and television was beyond the economic means of most private citizens, independent art groups, and social-activist organizations; however, they could afford to print and distribute flyers and posters, and they could even sell their posters to public sympathizers to raise money for their causes.

As popular music became increasingly culturally significant, graphics for the recording industry emerged as a locus of design creativity. One Push Pin Studio founder, Milton Glaser, captured the imagination of a generation with his stylized curvilinear drawing, bold flat colour, and original concepts. Glaser’s poster (1967) for folk-rock musician Bob Dylan is one of many music graphics from the 1960s that achieved an iconic presence not unlike that of Flagg’s I Want You poster from World War I. Over the course of the second half of the century, Glaser steadily expanded his interests to include magazine design, restaurant and retail store interiors, and visual identity systems.

The 1960s also saw the rapid decline of hand- and machine-set metal type as they were replaced by display-and-keyboard phototype systems. Since it is very inexpensive to produce new typefaces for photographic typesetting, the widespread use of phototype systems set off a spate of new designs and reissues of long-unavailable typefaces, such as decorative Victorian wood types. American Herb Lubalin is notable among the designers who embraced the new flexibility phototype made possible for designers. Type could be set in any size, the spaces between letters and lines could be compressed, and letters could be expanded, condensed, touched, overlapped, or slanted. Lubalin’s ability to make powerful visual communications solely with type is seen in a 1968 announcement for an antiwar poster contest sponsored by Avant Garde magazine. The magazine’s logo, placed in the dot of the exclamation point, uses ligatures (two or more letters combined into one form) and alternate characters to form a tightly compressed image. This logo was developed into a typeface named Avant Garde, one of the most successful and widely used fonts of the phototype period.

A creative revolution in advertising writing and design also occurred during this period. Advertising agencies approached marketing objectives through the use of witty headlines, simple layouts, and clever visual images. Copywriters and art directors, working as collaborative creative teams, sought a synergy between word and image. The Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency played an influential role in the history of graphic design by creating advertisements that spoke intelligently to consumers and avoided the hyperbole of the typical “hard sell.”

One of the many advertising designers who launched his career at Doyle Dane Bernbach was George Lois, whose works were engagingly simple and direct. Lois went on to design over 90 covers for Esquire magazine in the 1960s. He used powerful photographs and photomontages, usually by Carl Fischer, to make succinct editorial statements about the United States. These designs acted as independent visual/verbal statements about such topics as assassinations and civil rights.

Postwar graphic design in Japan

During the 1960s and ’70s, American graphics from the New York area, as well as European graphics from the International Typographic Style, influenced designers around the world.

In postwar Japan, for example, when the country emerged as a major industrial power, graphic design evolved into a major profession serving the needs of industry and cultural institutions. European Constructivism and Western design exerted an important influence on Japanese design, but these lessons were assimilated with traditional Japanese art theory. For example, the Japanese tradition of family crests inspired many Japanese designers’ approach to trademark design. Similarly, symmetrical composition, central placement of iconic forms, harmonious colour palettes, and meticulous craftsmanship—all characteristics of much of Japanese art—were often elements of Japanese graphics.

The first generation of graphic designers to emerge after the war was led by Kamekura Yusaku, whose importance to the emerging graphic-design community led to the affectionate nickname “Boss.” Kamekura’s poster proposal (1967) for the Japanese World Expo ’70 in Ōsaka, for example, displays his ability to combine 20th-century Modernist formal experiments with a traditional Japanese sense of harmony.

In counterpoint to the formalist tendencies found in much Japanese graphic design, some Japanese designers drew upon other sources of inspiration to arrive at individual approaches to visual-communications problems. Iconography from diverse mass media—including comic books (manga), popular science-fiction movies, and newspaper photographs—provided a rich vocabulary for Yokoo Tadanori, whose work beginning in the 1960s inspired a new generation of Japanese designers. In his early posters and magazine covers he utilized a variety of contemporary techniques; for example, he used crisp line drawings to contain photomechanical screens of colour. He worked in a Pop-artidiom, but he used revered Japanese imagery as source material, rather than the contemporary imagery usually found in Pop art. In his poster publicizing four Noh theatre productions (1969), for example, he placed iconic images on a luminous gold-and-blue field, combining traditional imagery with a contemporary sense of whimsy. Over time, montage effects became increasingly important to Yokoo as he built his designs from photographic and graphic elements filled with dramatic luminosity.

A very different vision emerged in the work of Satō Kōichi, who from the 1970s created an otherworldly, metaphysical design statement. He used softly glowing blends of colour, richly coloured and modulated calligraphy, and stylized illustrations to create poetic visual statements that ranged from contemplative quietude to celebratory exuberance. For example, in his poster (1988) for a musical play—which was itself adapted from a nursery rhyme about soap bubbles—Satō combined an astronomical sky chart and a handprint glowing with a lavender-and-blue aura to evoke a feeling of ephemeral atmospheric space. Such designs achieve a rare level of visual poetry.

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