Part 4 – Research Point: Modernist Typography

The opening chapter of the book ‘Type & Typography’ by Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam, includes the following statement:

“These theories form the basis of what is known as structuralism. The belief that meaning could be constructed by the transmitter of language was a natural extension of Saussure’s analysis. Through speech and writing, the architect of meaning was the author.

Saussure’s ideas, and those of his structuralist followers, influenced the development of modernism and have been embraced by practitioners of architecture, industrial design, graphic design and type design. What appealed to modernist thinkers was the belief that authors or designers could transmit fixed meanings through constructed forms.”

I didn’t understand a word of that, so I decided to use this as a basis for some research. I specifically wanted to find out:

  1. What is structuralism?
  2. What is modernism?
  3. How did structuralism influence modernism?
  4. How did modernism influence type design?

What is Structuralism?

Ferdinand de Saussure developed structural linguistic theory in the early 20th century. This theory put forward the idea of the ‘signifier’ – the sound or written letters that represent something, and the ‘signified’, the thing being represented. Meaning does not come simply from the ‘sign’ but in its relationship with other signs. Meaning is generated from the collective groupings of signs, i.e. it is the structure of language that conveys meaning.


the word branch on its own is ambiguous

‘Your local branch’ makes it clearer that we are not talking about a tree..

‘Your local branch of Sainbury’s’ – clearer still..

‘Your order will be delivered to your local branch of Sainsbury’s’ – now the meaning is clear.

Similarly, superfluous or unnecessary words will confuse or detract from the meaning.

‘Structuralism’ became the belief that meaning was constructed by the author, i.e. the graphic designer had control of the meaning of the message and could communicate a fixed meaning through a constructed form.

What is Modernism?

Modernism is a general and loosely applied term that encompasses various overlapping art movements from approximately 1905 to 1960. It broadly reflects two general art movement trends:

  • the abstract and non-geometrical style of expressionism, dadaism and surrealism
  • the more functional, geometrical styles of cubism, futurism, purism, suprematism, constructivism, de stijl and Bauhaus.

A Brief History of Moderism

1890 – 1905 Art Nouveau

Towards the end of the 19th Century, a number of artists and designers felt that Industrialisation had left the urban world without beauty. The Art Nouveau style emerged in response. Often used in relation with entertainment and the arts, the style was ornate and decorative. Modernist art movements emerged in response to this overly ornate style by simplifying their designs.

1905 – Sachplakat (Germany)

The move towards modernism began partly as a result of Art Nouveau simply starting to go out of fashion,  other industries wanting to use more deliberate design to communicate with their consumers and the impact of WW1.

In 1905, Lucian Bernhard developed a very simplified advertising poster design for matches that removed all non-essential elements and left simply the company name and the image of two matches. The focus was on the product and on the clarity of the message. This simplified style of communication became known as ‘Sachplakat’ (“Object Poster”).

Continuing this trend in 1914 and the outbreak of WW1, posters were designed to be simple with very clear messages.

1916 – Dada

The Dada movement was started in Switzerland by a group of artists that used art as a protest against the war. The Dada style was surreal and ridiculous and challenged how Europeans could claim to be rational and enlightened when so many of them were being slaughtered in the war.

1908 – 1912 – Cubism

Picasso and Braque work together to develop a new art style called cubism which reduced and abstracted a subject to a series of geometric ‘cubes’. Gradually the cubist influences made their way into graphic design with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire creating poems where the visual structure of the text was designed to complement the words.

Designers who incorporated the stylistic elements of cubism and other related art movements into their work were known as modernists because of the way they integrated modern art into their work. Initially, there was not much call for these new styles of working but one of the first outlets for modernist designers was the London Underground.

1909 – Futurism

A group of Italian poets, musicians and painters got together, called themselves ‘Futurists’ and called for Italian society to move any from its classical history. The Futurists were interested in influencing wider society and so developed experimental typography and graphic design.

1920 – Purism

Towards the end of WW1, the style of Purism emerged which aimed to harmonise the past and the future. Purism saw the emergence of the ‘machine aesthetic’ – a style that is influenced by the smooth, polished shapes of machines and an admiration for industrialised society.

1920 – Art Deco

Art Deco was a general term used for designs of geometric abstraction which played on the styles of cubism, futurism and purism into a fashionable style used for general consumer goods.

1917 – De Stijl

A Dutch art movement that brought together artists and architects to develop a style of reductive goemetric abstraction influenced by the concept of universal harmony and the machine aesthetic. The general belief was that limited elements could represent abstract ideas.

1915 – Supramatism (Russia)

In 1915, Kasimir Malevich developed a style of art which he called ‘Supramatism’  because it represented ‘the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art’. The style is a form of reductive geometric abstraction influenced by cubism and the machine aesthetic.

1921 – Constructivism (Russia)

Constructavism developed along side the growth of communism and featured a rejection of self-expression combined with a commitment to industrial materials. Works were created to serve a practical purpose and included practical goods such as propaganda posters. Graphic designers became more important. Photomontage became an important technique for constructavists.

This research needs to be completed

How did structuralism influence modernism?

How did modernism influence type design?



Assignment 3

Produce a poster (297mm x 420mm) that celebrates a colour of your choice. Work only with your chosen colour, its complementary colour and black and white. You can
include text, collages, illustrations and photographs. Use black and white to help establish a range of tints and shades with your chosen colour.

Defining a Theme for the Poster

For this assignment, I chose to celebrate the colour green. Green makes me think of  being away on holiday and I am always at my most content when outdoors enjoying nature.

I started by doing some analysis of what the colour green meant to me:

I also investigated what the colour green might mean to others and asked some friends to share what they thought of when they thought of green – with some interesting and quite varied results!

  •  Countryside, food (vegetables), fertility, plenty, lusciousness, verdant, earthy, success, calmness, restive, nature working as it should – health, vitality, balance.


  • Grass, vegetation, school uniforms – hassle and stress, responsibility.


  • Pestilence, farms, money, ecology, ‘eat-your-greens – nagging, brocolli, sea-sickness, nausea, spring, envy, the Green Party – preaching.


I decided that I would explore creating a poster that celebrated the colour green in the context of the countryside, possibly combining green rolling hills with wild hedgerow plants. I am very inspired by the work of Angie Lewin who makes beautiful prints of stylised wild plants and flowers, often in the context of the landscape where the plants can be found.

Thumbnail Sketches

I continued my research by looking at illustrations of landscapes and wild flowers on Pinterest and collected ideas here.

I then began trying out some ideas for the poster using thumbnail sketches. (I worked on this while on holiday where I had limited access to coloured pens!)

Reviewing the Ideas

I reviewed my ideas for the poster designs with my husband and decided on three to take forward.


Poster Version 1

In this poster, my aim was to combine rolling hills, disappearing into the distance, with hedgerow plants in the foreground. I decided to do this as an illustration using Adobe Illustrator.

I started by seeking out and photographing different hedgrow plants to get some ideas for plant shapes:

I studied the shapes of the plants and began to sketch simple shapes that I could replicate in Illustrator:

For some of my more complex shapes, I sketched the plant out first on paper…


..and then drew over them in Illustrator using the pen tool to create a black outline of the plants:


For other simpler plant shapes, I drew them directly in Illustrator:

I then created the poster in Illustrator and started by creating swatches for the different shades of green I wanted to use. I started with quite a bright ‘grass’ green and used Illustrator’s Colour Guide to create a range of tints and shades for this colour (5 steps for each). I used Adobe Colour to help me identify a complementary colour for the base colour of green.

I began creating the ‘rolling hills’ background for the poster using the pencil tool to create the hill shapes. I used a gradient fill to colour the hills and tried to give a sense of distance by using lighter colours for the more distant hills. I made the nearest hill a dark green and then placed the leaves and flowers I had drawn in the foreground, colouring them with a mid-green so that they clearly stood out against the dark hill behind.

I experimented a lot with the different tints and shades and tried some different methods of creating the background:


In my final poster, I felt that the sky needed some additional interest, so I added a sun which I based on the way the sun was represented in old Japanese prints.

Poster Version 2

In this poster, I decided to do something different from my original thumbnail sketch as I wanted to try something a bit more abstract.

I started by creating a textured background for the poster. I used a roller to paint black ink onto sheets of A4 paper which I scanned into digital files.

I then used Photoshop to layer some of these images onto a light green background, changing the opacity and blend modes to give a green-grey textured background.

Next, I picked some leaves and grasses from the side of a nearby road and pressed them under heavy books for several days to make them flat. I then painted them with black ink and made prints, which I scanned in as digital files.

I used the ‘trace’ function in Illustrator to create vector images from the scans. I recoloured the plants and grasses  using the same colour palette as for Poster 1 and then arranged a selection of the plants onto the poster background. I coloured the clover flowers the complimentary shade of dark pink.

Finally, I added a verse from the poem ‘Meet me in the Green Glen’ by John Clare.

Poster Version 3

In this version of the poster, I wanted to revisit the idea of rolling hills with hedgerow plants in the foreground, but this time incorporating text into the image. I also wanted to give the poster a more ‘hand-painted’ feel.

I started by sketching some ideas for the layout of the poster and then recreated the design in Illustrator.

I used the same colour palette that I used in the other two posters.

I used dry brushes to give the outlines of the hills a more hand-painted feel and also to add some variation  in the tones of the colours of the hills.

I reused the images of the hedgerow plants that I had created for poster 1.

Finally, I added text along paths that followed the contours of the hills. The text is the first verse of the poem ‘Meet me in the Green Glen’ by John Clare.

Final Selected Poster

I reviewed the final posters again with my husband and we decided on Poster 3 as the final selected poster for this assignment. We felt it was the most visually interesting and the ‘hand-painted’ shading effect gave a good sense of depth to the image. The variations in tints and shades has the effect of making this poster feel quite ‘colourful’ even though the colour palette is actually quite limited.

Thoughts on this Assignment

I enjoyed working on this assignment as it really gave me an opportunity to experiment with Adobe Illustrator. The posters themselves took a long time to complete as I was having to learn a lot of new skills along the way.

In terms of creating the posters, I actually found one of the hardest tasks was deciding on the background for the posters, especially for poster 2 which I required a lot of trial and error before I decided on a background. Finding a background that was visually interesting, gave enough contrast to distinguish it from the other elements in the poster, but wasn’t too distracting, was quite difficult!

I also found it very difficult on all the posters to know where to place the dark pink complementary colour. The pink immediately demands attention. I tried a number of approaches, making the sky pink on Poster 1, making the text pink, trying to make green and pink gradients, none of which worked. In the end I opted to use just a very small amount of pink in all the posters by making the clover flower heads pink, as this was their natural colour. In the first poster, I positioned them in a diagonal across the poster, opposite to the sun and while flowers of the cow parsley, hopefully to draw the eye across and down the poster.

In Poster 2, I wanted the plant silhouettes to be more dominant than the poem, so I positioned them in the top left diagonal of the poster and the text at the bottom right. The clover flowers draw the eye across from the plant silhouettes down to the verse.

In Poster 3, the verse is the most important element. The pink clover flowers are just small points of visual interest which the viewer will see after they have read the text.