Modernism: Design History & Modern Design

Design history is one of my favorite topics. To me, it is one of the very few things that can broaden your perspective on almost any area of life. Modernism is my main interest in design history, and it merits attention, since it is a style that we see displayed in most designs. One of modernism’s most basic tenets is that design should aim to be universal, meaning that it should be applicable to a wide range of people regardless of who they are, when they were born, where they come from, etc. Did you know, however, that without functionalism, modernism would suffer greatly on a conceptual level?


Functionalism in Modern Design


Functionalism is the idea that when creating a design, the functional qualities should come first, and aesthetic appeal should come second. Although this idea seems straightforward, understanding the history of this idea is important to an understanding of modernism and modern design.

The idea of putting function first has helped to produce some of the designs that define modernism. It has created works that have been deconstructed to their basic forms and organic structures while still serving the needs of mankind, and ultimately being aesthetically pleasing. The individual ideas of Max Bill, Mies van der Rohe, Paul Rand, and George Nelson—some of modernism’s key contributors—have strongly expressed functionalism’s role in the movement. Their different practices have come together to collectively show functionalism’s connection to a key focus of modernism: universalism.


Communication and Design


Rand believed that design had to serve the purpose of communication. He once said, “it is not good design if it does not co-operate as an instrument in the service of communication.” If graphic design is supposed to communicate a message, what use does a design have if it does not function as a line of communication? It has no value without the connection to its function. It is no longer considered a design. Even if a design were aesthetically pleasing, Rand would say it has lost its value if it did not serve a function.

Taking that into consideration, judging and creating a design now adds a new perspective: form vs. function. This alone has become the standing factor in differentiating a successful design from an unsuccessful design. It has pushed design to find an aesthetic solution to unsolved problems.


Final Thoughts


Summing up the history of modernism in a blog would deny its value, but I encourage others to expose themselves to the history of design. It is a big contributor in building your own foundation as a designer.