Modernism and Postmodernism: A Web Designer’s Guide
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Modernism and Postmodernism: A Web Designer’s Guide

By Mainak Biswas December 17, 2014 - 3,508 views

There is much confusion over the terms “modernism” and “postmodernism”. We must remember that both of these terms are used in academic circles to refer to a certain period in recent history. Associated works of art, literature, science and even music can be broadly clustered around these two terms. Both modernism and postmodernism have had a lasting effect on computers & especially, web design.

When we study design professionally, it is often impossible to not come across the concepts of modernism and postmodernism. In this article, we shall take a look at both the terms and see what they mean & how they can help you understand the specific category of design. After all, design is a curious mixture of science and art.

It is common to come across these two terms in the fields of philosophy and psychology as well. Thus, both modernism and postmodernism have an influence on the way we design our websites. The guiding philosophy of any modernist or postmodern project needs to be to understand the context and place the design principle in a way that is closely related to these fundamental principles.

A brief history of modernism

At the turn of the 20th Century, things had begun to change considerably in almost all areas of academics and thought. Science began to progress rapidly and there was a focus on geometrical shapes & how classical and antique civilizations came to influence contemporary ideas. There was a specific revival of ancient Greek and Roman cultures & it began to be represented in architecture. For instance, neoclassical buildings began to spring up in cities like New York, London and Paris.

The word neoclassical suggests that it is a new way of representing what was essentially classical; and added to this, there was also a pride and optimism in the capability of science as something that can save human civilizations. All these ideas put together came to be known as modernism.

Modern era lasted from 1900s to almost the World War II. During this period, a great advancement in the field of science including computers took place. However, the loss of human lives during the World Wars led to a gradual disappointment with science and geometrical shapes that had come to dominate modern thought. What followed was postmodernism.

A brief history of postmodernism

Postmodernism was a reaction to modernism and it tried to question the grand metanarratives that had come to dominate modernism. For instance, people began to understand that one single school of thought cannot explain away everything that we might encounter in life. Existentialism or the belief that we are all fundamentally free and independent & we are responsible for our actions did not really strike a note with postmodernists who questioned its all-encompassing nature of explaining things.

Instead, they believed that there are smaller narratives which can be altered depending on the context. In fact, postmodernism was one of the reasons why cyber culture began to grow. The advent of Internet too helped a postmodern movement. It was now possible to read about news in Japan, follow musical trends in Brazil and effectively have a conference with “friends” from a mining town in South Africa.

This haphazard nature of Internet made it possible for postmodernism to survive and even question the validity of singular narratives. A simple example would be a movie like Kill Bill. Quentin Tarantino uses Japanese folklore, Western cowboy movie settings, jazz, classical music and even 60s pop in a curious mix of art, culture & movie making. Contemporary websites too have begun to follow postmodern ideas. Now, let us try and understand both modernism & postmodernism from the perspective of web design.

Geometric design and the Internet – vestiges of modernism

As mentioned earlier, adhering to a strict layout and a format is quite geometrical in nature. This tendency to fall back upon the known lines and patterns on a blank digital canvas is a sign of modernism. Most websites that are conservative in design often fall back upon modernist theories. While excessive use of formats and layouts can make your website look outdated, it is quite important to retain the importance of lines & geometrical principles.

Thus, we can say that modernism really has not left as far as web design is considered. In fact, it might be necessary for web designers to read up on modernism and the various design movements that were part of it. For instance, realism, expressionism, impressionism and even surrealism can be thought of as modern art movements. Incorporating these ideas into how you play with color and design will help you to remain true to modern ideas.

Is it all just about symmetry and lines?

Moreover, modernism is not all about symmetry and geometry. It is also about adopting scientific theory. In the case of web design, this only means that we need to focus on theoretical principles which are continuously updated, thanks to design researchers and strategists. On the other hand, sticking excessively to modern ideas might make our websites look dull and drab.

The freedom to question existing principles of design might be lost and that is never a good thing. Thus, web designers need to focus on modern design elements and yet be open to that which could occur later on; and that is being a little postmodern. In the next section, let us take a look at how postmodernism influences modern web design.

Finding comfort in chaos and divergent thinking – postmodernism in web design

As discussed earlier, postmodernism is the school of thought that is skeptical about metanarratives. That means, you are, usually, skeptical about any theory that claims to explain away all existing problems. For instance, HTML5 cannot explain away all the problems that we encounter in modern day web design. It does not solve all the problems of mobile and web app design.

Yes, it certainly is a huge improvement from previous versions but there are situations and exceptional cases that need the help of something else. For instance, a particular website might need PHP or JavaScript more than HTML5. It is the ability to look at all these tools as separate solutions and the ability to pick up whichever tool is right for that particular context that defines postmodernism.

Be more open-minded about which design theory you plan to use

Postmodernism encourages web designers to be more open minded and focus on different theories & methods that can help us to build better websites. Postmodernism does not reject modernism. It just asks you to be skeptical about theories that claim to be a solution for everything. All of those theories might have some good aspects to them. However, each of those theories might not be the right choice each time.

When you design a website, you need to be aware of the context in which it will be viewed. This means, you need to know the psychographics and demographics of the users & also of your clients who request for the website. You need to consider a multitude of factors and arrive at your own intuitive & objective answer.

This use of intuitive thinking is central to postmodernism as well. Sometimes, you have to trust your own guts than believing in what the theorists tell you. This professional intuitive thought comes from knowing your subject really well. Thus, to be an effective postmodern web designer, you need to know all your theories and also know how to intuitively use them in the right context.

Use your own intuition to understand which design works the best

Often, web designers do not go very deep into design theories. We believe that design theory is very important to design great websites. The choice of colors, the patterns and the way text appears on a screen are all very important for a website’s success.

It really does make sense in a way, to choose what works best for a situation and then using that method. Rather than, just replicating ideas that are well-accepted by everyone and because the proponents of those theories tell you that that particular style is all you need to solve all your problems (think modernism).

Thus, if you are looking for a successful method that will ensure that your website looks great, try not to be bogged down by all the theory. Yet, you need to know all the design theories in depth in order to make a suitable choice; and this practice is central to the philosophy of postmodernism.

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