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?



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