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No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism

I was never told about nor taught or explained what postmodernism meant, entailed or encompassed. My design education began at the tail end of postmodernism’s boom yet I was highly influenced by it — as many young designers were — and its most visible exponents like Brody, Carson, Fella and Keedy without having any real understanding of it. I have picked up nuggets of information here and there about what postmodernism means and have come to conclusions similar to those of better-versed writers like Judith Williamson who is quoted in the book saying “the term is too vague to be useful in anything other than a stylistic sense”. So, admittedly, in confusion I have remained about postmodernism — until now. I think.

Poynor’s No More Rules is the most comprehensive collection of graphic design work under the rubric of postmodernism yet. This alone is an accomplishment and provides a valuable tool for students, professionals, historians and any other confused lad such as myself to better understand this much talked-about ism. The book’s strength, in my opinion, lies in its division: Origins, Deconstruction, Appropriation, Techno, Authorship and Opposition. Instead of the expected timeline, this structure allows for a more thorough back-and-forth of influencers and influencees, as they relate across the evolution of postmodernism in its different guises. “Techno” naturally follows a time-based structure as it relates to the rise of the computer and how that affected design from 1984 onward. “Opposition” serves as a conclusion that, again, jumps through time and reflects the constant critique of postmodernism regardless of the decade.

Upon reading the introduction and the initial chapter I am surprisingly amused, and relieved, at the amount of confusion and ambiguity the term creates amongst critics, writers and professionals alike. No More Rules does not establish an authoritative and final definition of postmodernism — which is not a fault — nor a bullet-pointed list of what a designer needs to do to be postmodern. Rather it presents it as a constantly mutating form of expression — invariably defined by its technological, cultural, social or political context — in hopes of its understanding as a persistently evolving way of thinking, doing or, more precisely, undoing.

The book is laden with work from some of Europe’s and United States’ most influential designers of the 1960s up until the 1990s — most of whom are still practicing today in a non-postmodernistic way, showing the propensity of postmodernism to become a stylistic stepping stone, even among its more arduous practitioners. If one were to not read the book (which I assume is common) the work itself is able to asses the essence of postmodernism in all its various incarnations from punk to grunge to techno. Flipping through the pages is a trip down memory lane — albeit a distorted, deconstructed, at times unintelligible, fragmented one — and a reminder of the visual richness that postmodernism can produce.

No More Rules serves its purpose: it establishes the intrinsic relationship between postmodernism and graphic design. It does so in a digestible, intelligent manner without the usual — and convoluted — pretenses of postmodernist writing or design (although the cover leaves much to be desired for). Poynor’s undertaking brings clarity to a confusing subject; one which designers, writers and critics enjoy reinterpreting to fit their argument — at least (and last) now, there is a standard. And finally, I can claim to understand postmodernism as it relates to graphic design. I think.


Book Information
No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism by Rick Poynor
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (October 2003)
ISBN: 0300100345

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ARCHIVE ID 1870 FILED UNDER Book Reviews
PUBLISHED ON Mar.15.2004 BY Armin
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Andrew’s comment is:

I was not as enamored as Armin with No More Rules. While I agree that it serves quite nicely as a neat compendium of graphic work between 1980 and 2000, it lacks a depth of theoretical investigation and visual playfulness that disappoints me. There certainly is value in writing for the designer that lacks any previous exposure to the field and needs a simple introduction to postmodern thought, but it strikes me that this isn't the venue for such a cursory glimpse. Here we have the first book of its kind to treat postmodernism as a serious and worthy graphic time period to unpack, and yet it doesn't include reference to many of the theorists most responsible for its philosophical framework.

But more than the writing, which on the whole was the typically clean and clever accomplishment that I expect from Mr. Poynor, this book took no graphic risks! Yes, the relationship between postmodernism and graphic design was discussed, but why couldn't it have been shown? There was an opportunity here to play with the in-between texture of the philosophy under consideration and instead we got obvious layouts and standard text/image relationships. It would have been easy to destroy the essay with clichéd "ruptures" and "fragments" but I was hoping for something closer to Derrida's Glas, where the interactions between text, image, author and reader blended and blurred slightly...playing with traditional limits in book publishing. There is not an easy graphic solution to this essay, and it would need very careful art direction, but aside from Mr. Kidd’s cover (really brilliant: logo as text) the book as it stands is visually sleepy.

On Mar.16.2004 at 10:51 AM
rebecca gimenez’s comment is:

I don't think a non-postmodern text calls for a postmodern design approach, even if it is about postmodernism. I do like the cover though. Funny. Love that break.

On Mar.16.2004 at 01:41 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Andrew, I see what you are saying but I think letting the work speak for itself is a better approach than trying to impose a postmodern "look" on the reader. Because then any book with a theme would have to look it. So, Heller's book on Cuban graphics would have to look Cuban; Plazm's XXX book, would have to be, um, well, sexy.

I probably wouldn't read a 200+ page book (which is what I ultimately want to do with a text/history book) if it looked like leftovers from Cranbrook.

On Mar.16.2004 at 01:45 PM
Eric Heiman’s comment is:

While one can have quibbles with the design of No More Rules, I found Poynor's prose to be very evenhanded on what has become a highly debated period in graphic design, often in language that is all but inpenetrable to most readers. Poynor did seem to lose a little steam in the concluding chapter, but it was refreshing to read about this epoch free of the polemic so characteristic of its champions such as Jeff Keedy, Andrew Blauvelt, Elliot Earls, et al. These thinkers, as smart and talented as they were/are, always seemed to be pushing an agenda in their writings that clouded their arguments. It will be interesting to see what Lorraine Wild and Sam Potts have to say about this book in the latest Emigre, a publication that has been the stomping ground and champion of most of the aforementioned authors/designers.

On Apr.07.2004 at 08:04 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Eric, just today, on the subway ride home, I finished reading Emigre 66, consequently finishing with Lorraine's essay as it is the last (even though the temptation to jump from essay to essay is there, I did read it in order). Sam's critique is good, very, very specific (as he's been known to do from time to time) and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Lorraine's was much, much more opinionated and I would say more personal too. It was interesting to read her comments about the book coming from her perspective as an active participant of those years. Her point is clear all along through her essay — she makes sure that we understand that postmodernism was not born solely from theory but by a miyriad of other cultural, emotional, intangible influences. After the third, fourth or fifth time she mentioned it I think I finally got it. I enjoyed both reviews and I will probably revisit No More Rules again with both Sam and Lorraine's comments in mind.

In the next month we'll probably do some sort of review about Emigre 66. It is the best of the past three, in my opinion.

On Apr.07.2004 at 08:20 PM