Modern and Postmodern Typography | Anna Powell Lecture

The session began  with Anna introducing Jan Tschichold who has claimed that he was one of the most powerful influences on 20th century typography. Expert in Calligraphy, Tschichold explored typography at an early age.

Tschichold emphasised on new typography and sans-serif typefaces which was was deemed a threat to the cultural heritage of Germany, which traditionally used Blackletter Typography and the Nazis seized much of his work before he was able to flee the country. He strongly believed in clarity of the message- readability and white space.

“Since its initial publication in Berlin in 1928, Jan Tschichold’s The New Typograph has been recognized as the definitive treatise on book and graphic design in the machine age. First published in English in 1995, with an excellent introduction by Robin Kinross, this new edition includes a foreword by Rich Hendel, who considers current thinking about Tschichold’s life and work”

If this interests you, it is available on Amazon.

Swiss International Style. 

The International Style is also known to be the “Swiss style”; this is because it is a graphic design style that developed in Switzerland in the 1950’s after the Second World War.  The Swiss style was built upon the ideals of De Stijl, Bauhaus and constructivists, emphasising cleanliness, readability and objectivity.  The movements influence and characteristics meant that the Swiss style could be identified through certain features, such as: Sans Serif type, e.g. Helvetica, use of grids, ranged left setting, narrow text columns and photography.

Swiss style emphasises on neatness, eye friendliness, readability and objectivity- very much like Tschichold’s .Its foundations go back to its strong reliance on elements of typography and universality. Its trick was that its simple method was universal enough to be understood by everyone.  The Olympics was a good example of a global institutional event Swiss style had helped because it used the simplest symbols and most universal colours.



The Helvetica design can be seen anywhere: print, web, news and the movies.  Since its release in 1957, Helvetica has steadily been one of the most popular typefaces and was very much a product of the Modernism period.  Helvetica captured the modernist preference for using clarity and simplicity to suggest greater ideas. The clean cut simple typeface means it can be a neutral platform in a wide variety of settings.

Helvetica was first called “Neue Hass Grotesk” but in 1960 was renamed to be more international friendly, Helvetica- the Latin name for Switzerland. There are in fact two versions of Helvetica, the first the original design created by Max Mideinger released by Linotype in 1957; and the second the Neue Helvetica in 1983 by D. Stempel AG (Linotype’s daughter company) which was a reworking of the original.  In addition Linotype released the Neue Helvetica Pro design in 2001 which is an open type version with expanded foreign language support, therefore not another type in itself.



What is Modernism? 

Modernism in its broadest definition is modern thought, character and practise in Art History.  The philosophical movement occurred in early 20th century which arose cultural trend and change from a wide scale and far-reaching transformation in society. Surrounded by industrialisation and world war; designers strived to bring order and meaning to their work and society. There was an established need for a new approach to mass consumption; therefore they tried to discover a new visual language in which was fitting for the “modern world”.

Modernism was a far reaching ideology applied more or less in all forms of creative expression. The general rule was that function should always dictate form. It acted as though a revolt against the values of realism which represented subject matter truthfully (realistically), portraying things very literate. The approach celebrated mankind’s intelligence, creativity and radical thinking.  This is because it introduced new movements within the Arts that affected these principles.

What is Postmodernism? 

Postmodernism is a late 20th century movement within the arts and the criticism from the departure of modernism.  The movement came about when graphic designers sought to challenge the constraints imposed by modernist ideology and principles.  Postmodernism includes sceptical interpretation from several of perspectives e.g. culture, art, philosophy and architecture therefore has been applied to a host of movements in each perspective against the tendencies of Modernism.

The postmodern style is often associated with collage, pastiche and irony formed during the pop movement influenced heavily by Andy Warhol. But also, Roland Barthes, his “Mythologies” had a profound influence on the starting of the movement, as his analysis of popular culture lead designers to question previous content, meaning and ideals modernists had already set, meaning they could explore other means of communication.

Post structuralism had a profound effect on postmodernism as it turned design into a complex discourse that needed to be decoded by the reader. Post structuralism was the response to structuralism in which argued that human culture may be understood by means of a structure. Post structuralists would critique structuralism in many different ways; and is closely related to postmodernism which was so interesting due to its rebellious response to modernism. Like post structuralism, postmodernism believed not everything needed meaning or structure, and if it did, can be expressed in a multitude of ways without restrictions.


From the 1960’s, there are multiple graphic design examples by non-designers.  This itself is very postmodern; self-taught form makers who effectively made things up as they went along. In the postmodern period, restrictive, rule bound thinking and totalising tendencies have been challenged by thinkers in many disciplines. Postmodern theorists have repeatedly the boundaries between high and low forms of culture pointing out the ease in which audiences move between cultural trends, from chart pop to classical music.

Deconstruction rejected the project of modern criticism, to uncover the meaning of literary work by studying the way its form and content communicate essential humanistic messages.  Deconstruction like critical strategies based on a range of different things, such as: feminism, semiotics, and anthropology; focusing not on the themes and imagery of its objects, but the linguistic systems that from the production of texts.

In terms of graphic design, Deconstructivism gave its name to one of the major typographic movements.  Designers began a more experimental approach to type in a non-spatial, non-linear process which abandoned the thoughts of a grid.  Type could be fragmented, the page no longer had to be read, but perceived.  Rather than read, readers were to feel the page.  David Carson sums up this ideal by saying “Don’t mistake legibility for communication”.

Wolfgang Weinhart

Wolfgang Weinhart, 1941, is an internationally known graphic designer and typographer. Although his work is categorised as Swiss typography, he grew into a postmodern style characterised by new wave or Swiss punk typography in which he was credited “the father” of. This typography is where designers sought to challenge the rules and constraints of the international typographic style.

Weinhart was a seminal figure in the development of the “new wave” with his typography, rebelling against the ordinary precepts of “readability”.  He made the point that type is an art form in itself and should not be uniformed and constricted especially by Swiss modernist typography.  Weinhart challenged the rules and constraints through his expressive experiments with letterforms, wide word spacing, and reversed type blocks. His work had unpredictability to designs, in terms of weight, contrast and random placement providing a dynamic alternative to the predictable corporate design based on the Swiss style.

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Overall I found this lecture rather interesting and resourceful. A lot of the topics I have briefly covered before, but it was interesting to broaden my knowledge and be introduced to new examples.

Thanks for reading!

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