Happy New Era. Graphic Design in the 21st c.

  • Update:2012-05-16
  • Robert Appleton

In the past ten years, from 2002 – 2012, as in all previous decades, the most important developments in design have changed the paradigm or pattern of the past so significantly as to create a rift, or break with tradition.

And while the majority of events in the past decade of design have, of course, not been able to create this break, they have instead built towards it – by further refining existing concepts in modernism and postmodernism.

During the 92 years since The Bauhaus opened its doors in Weimar and helped to re-invent our entire visual, aural and conceptual vocabularies, some important innovations have emerged:

Semiotics explained the conceptual properties of signs and symbols – the essential vocabulary of design from the mid 1930's through the modern and postmodern periods until the 1980's, when the personal computer was released. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) in France and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1904) in the United States both described their ideas on this subject of words and pictures. Communication Design and Conceptual Art both were significantly changed by it.

After 1980, technology became a public design medium with the release of the Personal Computer. I moved to the United States in 1979 and experienced this revolution first hand through my high-tech clients such as Lotus, Interleaf in Boston and IBM in New York. The graphic representation of painting and illustration and the new 20th century arts of photography, film and television, were subsumed by technology. All design – image, text, motion, sound and information became collage elements in a technology which created the most massive development since the invention of the wheel allowed us to move goods and people around the globe.

Modernism gave way to postmodernism. And if we are to believe Nicolas Bourriaud, curator of the 2009 Tate Triennial, who introduced the terms Relational Aesthetics and Altermodern to the vocabulary of visual art, a new force has been present since the early 1990's and has begun to assimilate more clearly into design during the past 10 years.

Giving examples of this new aesthetic is easier when we look at its origins. Capitalism as Frederic Jameson wrote in 1984 in Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, has been in decline for some time. Concepts which have emerged to help replace or repair it's more obvious failures have come from the opposite side of the world. File Sharing, Crowd Funding, Internet Browsing, Googling – all these activities have one common thread which appears to come from a culture outside the home of capitalism – sharing. The power of Asian cultures which find their strength in sharing rather than individuation, seems to have been the model for these most recent innovations. From the collective activity of Zen monks to the massive artistic collaborations seen during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics we become aware of planning on a grand scale. And of course, the definition of design itself is “to plan.”

Some of the most effective design for me over the past decade has included Ruedi Baur’s experiments in signage; Niklaus Troxler’s poster work and his translation of (jazz) music into visual language;
Kenya Hara’s Muji and his collaborations with scientists, artists and technologists in haptic design (the sense of touch or vibration); Uwe Loesch’s amazing visual vocabulary translated into personal artistic statements; Keith Godard’s books of pure imagination, Majid Abbasi and Reza Abedini's dedication to Persian typography and its Islamic principles; April Grieman’s continuous and radical evolution as she mergesartist and designer as one; Nancy Skolos’ workwith her husband Tom Weddell on redefining space; Rick Valicenti's out-of-the-box imaginationand his expression of the zeitgeist of his age; Erik Adigard's revolutionary stance on internet communication through his work with M.A.D.; Garson Yu's sophisticated evolution of contemporary design vocabulary and global sensibility into moving image; Sabina Oberholzer and Renato Tagli's collaboration in spirituality as design language; Clotilde Olyff's sensibility in relating nature and technology; the history left to us by Massimo Vignelli and his Vignelli Center for Design Studies, the legacy of Wim Crouwel’s innovations in envisioning technology; the inheritance of Wolfgang Weingart’s typographic experimentation and Armin Hoffman’s body of visual intelligence – his articulation of a coherent design vocabulary, John Maeda’s work in technology, David Carson’s early excursions into improvisation, and Wang Xu's total expansion of western design thinking into something which enlarges our worldview as visual people and communicators. I include in this my own work on creating a Foundation for Design – the AGI Foundation – and in developing the relationship between sound (particularly as expressed in improvised music and sound related to John Cage) and visual and textual communications – our expanded 21st century design vocabularyexpressed in myVortex. Visual, Aural, Textual. One Language).

These are only a few of the works and people who I believe have changed the paradigm of our times. There are many more. My hope of course is that even greater talents will emerge in the next decade.

Robert Appleton, Toronto, January 10, 2012



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