What is Contemporary Design?
This essay discusses what contemporary design is and how it has been defined beginning with its historical context and evolution. It looks at the visual characteristics of the work of contemporary designers and how design has changed over the past fifty years. Comparisons are drawn between the work of David Carson and Massimo Vignelli; identifying how their different histories and socioeconomic, political and technological cultures influenced their work. Finally this essay offers independent conclusions on the question posed by the essay title; What is contemporary design?
1450 AD saw the introduction of a revolutionary milestone in the area of print; the invention of modular type. This advancement allowed documents and books to be arranged and compiled into page spreads and printed at greater speeds than previously. The technique for this type of print was designed by a jewellery maker named Johann Gutenburg. His knowledge of metals enabled him to choose metals that allowed him to create letterforms which would be used in the presses. In just five years, Gutenburg and his brother-in-law Peter Schoeffler had produced and made available the printed version of the Bible, known as the Gutenburg Bible. During the proceeding 50 year period printers were established all over Europe utilising the modular technology.
An additional breakthrough in the historical evolution of graphic design was the invention of lithography in 1796 by Alois Senefeilder. He desired to invent an alternative process to the expensive metal engraving technique used for producing images. Lithography is a process that depends on the mutual repulsion of grease and water, and when applied by skilled craftsman can produce striking images. This process allowed a designer to produce one piece of artwork and replicate it multiple times utilising this much more affordable process. It was Jules Cheret’s further breakthrough that added to the technique when he created a three stone lithographic process using transparent inks, in red, yellow and blue, not dissimilar to modern day magenta, yellow and cyan. This process enabled colour designs to be replicated from the same artwork. Cheret was amongst the first to use images of pretty young women to enhance the sales of retail products which is common place in the 21st century.
‘…marketing experts soon discovered the persuasive technique of showing products being enjoyed by beautiful people in beautiful settings. Pretty women soon smiled out of billboards selling everything imaginable.’ (Meggs, 2010 p. 2)
In 1905 a young Lucian Bernhard from Berlin took graphic communication one step further by simplifying the content of the page; he stumbled upon this whilst entering a poster competition for Priester Matches. It was a judge named Ernst Growald a lithographer that saw its potential and its forward looking style that has since been referred to as;
‘…the simplification and reduction of naturalism into a visual language of shape and sign.’ (Meggs, 2006 p. 270).
The early 20th century saw the skills of graphic artists and designers utilised for not only advertising and packaging design but for political encouragement. Posters were used frequently during the first and second world wars for recruitment and patriotism.
Modern art and design had hold of it artists and designers until the late 1950’s when we begin to see the leaks of rejection from the art world opting for a new style;
‘ The most significant of the often loosely defined movements of early contemporary art included pop art, characterized by commonplace imagery placed in new aesthetic contexts, as in the work of such figures as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; the optical shimmerings of the international op art movement in the paintings of Bridget Riley, Richard Anusziewicz, and others’ (Reference.com 2010)
These out bursts of popular art and optical art influenced the graphic design scene.
‘Graphic artists had greater opportunity for self-expression, created more personal images and pioneered individual styles and techniques.’ (Meggs, 2006 p. 424).
The boundaries became blurred between fine art and visual communication.
The last quarter of the century saw advances in computer technology transform graphic design; no longer were designers needed for layouts and typesetters for specialised display typesetting equipment; these skilled workers needed to adapt to current technological advancements and trends. In addition, the computer was becoming more readily accessible to all and could be increasingly found in homes as well as offices. The rapid development of the internet in the 1990’s completely transformed the way people worked and communicated, and software increasingly dictated the artwork produced by graphic designers.
The late 1990’s saw the mainstream use of weblogs empower the budding writer and keen diarist. Soon video, audio and interactive tools were added and ‘blog’ popularity grew as a form of publishing. This online presence is still growing and including social networking. Within this environment businesses capitalise on web traffic and create areas where placed advertisements attract customers. Web presence and advertising created what has been referred to as the ‘dot com boom’ which intern has increased the amount of space designers have to work with. Quentin Newark, in his address at the D and AD conference suggested in his lecture ‘What’s been said,’ that blogs are your personal self online and a type of personal branding (Newark, 200? Video lecture). He also proposed in his lecture that in the future logo’s and pictures will eventually move and digital formats will dominate bringing an end to print and the Pantone books will be eradicated.
In order to understand the visual characteristics of the work of contemporary designers it is important to initially understand and appreciate their historical context. Artists from a variety of disciplines rebelled against more traditional ideology concerning what art was. They argued that;
‘…art can be anything you want it to be and it can be made and displayed anywhere – in the city street, in a field or in a wood, as well as in a studio or a gallery. Contemporary artists make videos, Installation Art and Performance Art and take photographs.’ (Barnes, 2003 p. 4)
The French artist Marcel Duchamp broke from the traditional idea of art by creating a series of pieces which he referred to as ‘Ready-made’ art. These pieces enhanced the evolution of contemporary art and design. Duchamp took a bicycle wheel, and turned it upside down and encouraged his viewers to interact with the art by spinning the wheel. In a second piece which he called ‘Fountain’ he displayed an upside down urinal.
‘He was making the point that art is what an artist says it is and something that will make the viewer completely reconsider its meaning’. (Barnes, 2003 p.4)
Contemporary designers are not restricted to achieve work by using the tools which have been created for them such as software programs or art boards. They have freedom of concept, form, colour, light, texture, scale, materials and media. Land artists, conceptual artists and video artist have all been defined as movements in the contemporary art era. Influences and traits can be seen in contemporary designers work which allows designers to think outside of the box. American, Sol Le Witt developed a form of art whereby the idea behind the work was as important, if not more so, than the work itself (Barnes, 2003). Sol Le Witt defined his art form in 1967:
‘In conceptual Art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. All planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art’ (Barnes 2003 p.9)
In the last fifty years graphic design has progressed from the modernist era of the first half of the twentieth century through the to the ‘global age of information’ (Meggs 2006). During the mid twentieth century a design movement emerged out of Switzerland and Germany that is commonly referred to as Swiss Design or more appropriately the International Typographic Style. The overt clarity within this asymmetrical mathematically constructed design style won proponents across the world; it remained a major force over two decades and its influence could still be clearly observed throughout the 1990s. Information was presented in a clear and factual manner and supporters of the movement suggested that the sans- serif typography expressed an attitude and ‘spirit of a more progressive age’ (Meggs 2006 p.356).
The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen graphic design irrevocably changed by the growth of the internet and digital computer hardware and software. Computer aided design afforded designers greater control over the design and production process. In addition digital technology with its opportunities for manipulating colour, form, space, light and imagery have provided unprecedented levels of potential. The rapid development of the World Wide Web and the internet in the late twentieth century has motivated a revolution in the way people communicate affecting all aspects of society and culture most specifically corporate communication for a mass audience. According to Meggs (2006) we are now experiencing an age of decentralized design which has led to pluralism and diversity in design.
Contemporary designer David Carson was originally born in Texas in 1952 but moved with his family to New York at the age of four. Despite travelling extensively he always maintained New York as his base of operations as well as owning two studios in Del Mar, California and another in Zurich. Carsons’ first actual contact with graphic design was made in 1980 at the University of Arizona on a two week graphics course. Later in 1983, whilst working towards a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology Carson when went to Switzerland. Whilst there, he attended a three-week workshop in graphic design as part of his degree. This is where he met his first great influence, who also happened to be the teacher of this course, Hans-Rudolph Lutz. Carson initially began work as a sociology teacher and professional surfer in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980’s he art directed various music, skateboarding and surfing magazines. As art director of surfing magazines and more famously style magazine Ray Gun (1992-5), Carson came to worldwide attention in the 1990’s becoming renowned for his inventive graphics.
His layouts featured distortions or mixes of ‘vernacular’ typefaces and fractured imagery, rendering them almost illegible. Carson’s designs were heavily based around the extreme sports of skate boarding, surfing and body boarding which naturally appealed to a younger generation. Carson’s theme within the ‘end of print’ questioned the role of type in the rise of the digital design age, following on from California New Wave and coinciding with experiments at the Cranbrook Academy of Art (Blackwell 2000). In the late 1990s he shifted from ‘surf subculture’ to corporate work for Nike, Levis, and Citibank.
In contrast to Carson’s University education in sociology Italian born Massimo Vignelli studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano and later at the Università di Architettura, Venice. Vignelli spent three years in America between 1957 and 1960 as part of an architectural fellowship, and later returned to New York in 1966 to start the New York branch of a new company, Unimark International, which quickly became, both in scope and in sheer number of personnel, one of the largest design firms in the world. The company designed many of the world’s most recognizable corporate identities, including that of American Airlines; Vignelli also designed the iconic signage for the New York City Subway system during this period. In 1971, Vignelli founded Vignelli Associates with his wife, Lella.
Both of these typographers have had extraordinary success within their area of work but with two completely different styles and ways of working. Carson’s radical approach to typography and his innocence allowed him to develop a new style for a new look generation emerging out of the rebellious eighties. In contrast Vignelli’s work had structure and flow. He shows compassion for the reader in his pieces which are legible, clear and easy to read, but still timeless in design. Although completely different in style both designers and design styles continue to be greatly influential within the world of contemporary design. Vignelli’s designs, styles, layouts and structures are well suited for the delivery of information such as his designs for the underground system in New York. Carson’s designs in contrast are eye-catching pieces of typography enhanced with images which invoke a curiosity to try and decode and decipher its messages. Both deliver the message, but at different rates of discernment.
Learners’ specialist pathways are influenced today by both historical and contemporary design and practice. A careful study of historical practitioners will of course enhance and influence practice, but contemporary mass media also influences and establishes styles and practices. 21st century multimedia bombard individuals with subliminal and superliminal messages that influence a learner’s growth and development. Referring back to Duchamp’s aspect and outlook on art in any of its forms, will reveal the freedom of the artist or designer to produce visual and audio masterpieces which reflect their inspirations, thoughts, ambitions, desires and motives. Learners are faced with challenges of software advancements and the ability to learn fast enough to master the software before new advancements are released and the process starts again. The necessity for personal and skills development is essential in the contemporary era of design; prior to the computer age design had a hands on approach, drawing, cutting slicing etc; referring to his own experience Vignelli said.
The office of the Castiglioni Architects in Milano was the first place, where at the age of 16, I went to work as a draftsman. They were active in the whole field of Design and Architecture following the Adolph Loos dictum that an Architect should be able to design everything “from the spoon to
the city.” (Vignelli 2010 p. 12)
The contemporary designers output has been narrowed to print and web, compared to earlier designers who embarked on product and interior design and in some cases architecture. However the contemporary designers applications and media has increased and contemporary graphic designers are required to be highly skilled and we rounded and informed with regards to new technological advancements and social and political themes.
Perhaps contemporary design cannot and neither should be defined. One of its signatures is that it does not adhere to type, form or shape neither is this form of art constrained by any hard or fast rules. To define contemporary design would be to impose boundaries and order on the artistic process rather than drawing attention to the near limitless opportunities that technological advances present. The only limits appear to be those imposed by the designers themselves. Contemporary graphic design is stylistic eclecticism, open and independent yet socially and politically aware and connected. Contemporary design is fluid, constantly evolving and adapting to change it draws inspiration from the past, present and future and influences how we experience our world today.
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Research File and Appendices
contemporary art, the art of the late 20th cent. and early 21st cent., both an outgrowth and a rejection of modern art. As the force and vigor of abstract expressionism diminished, new artistic movements and styles arose during the 1960s and 70s to challenge and displace modernism in painting, sculpture, and other media. Improvisational and Dada-like styles employed in the early 1960s and thereafter by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had widespread influence, as did the styles of many other artists. The most significant of the often loosely defined movements of early contemporary art included pop art, characterized by commonplace imagery placed in new aesthetic contexts, as in the work of such figures as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; the optical shimmerings of the international op art movement in the paintings of Bridget Riley, Richard Anusziewicz, and others; the cool abstract images of color-field painting in the work of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella (with his shaped-canvas innovations); the lofty intellectual intentions and stark abstraction of conceptual art by Sol LeWitt and others; the hard-edged hyperreality of photorealism in works by Richard Estes and others; the spontaneity and multimedia components of happenings; and the monumentality and environmental consciousness of land art by artists such as Robert Smithson. One of the most long-lived of these movements was the abstract development known as minimalism, which emphasized the least discernible variation of technique in painting, sculpture, and other media.