Manifestos, Movements, and the Avant-Garde

The readings in this section look at the design movements of early 20th century. Exploring issues of form and function, these designers aimed to supplant previous conventions and build new world orders. Consider how political and economic power can be expressed through graphic design and how mass communication can influence society.

A manifesto is a declaration of intent — often the intent to bring radical change to the world. Throughout history, many art movements have written manifestos, and it’s always a sign that things have gotten real.

OBELISK – Art Manifestos Defining new realities

Italian Futurism and Russian Constructivism

These two movements have left an indelible mark on the lineage of our communication design field by influencing other movements at the time and afterward. The work of these artists/designers can still feel relevant today. The political turmoil, societal shifts, and radical ideologies they experienced are mirrored in our lives today, abet with a different set of challenges. While we are unlikely to share many of the beliefs and ideologies that initially inspired these artists/designers, the distinct graphic style (clear lines, abstracted shapes, bold palettes, and photomontages) have become part of our visual vocabulary.

As we take a deeper look into these two movements, consider the politics, technology, social challenges of the time, and the urgency and passion from which these movements grew.

Take a moment to look at this collection of images from MOMA and Guggenheim Museum exhibitions, Artstor collections, and Graphic Design History videos on LinkedIn Learning to get a sense of the visual approach and style of these two movements.

The Futurist Manifesto and Movement

Marinetti, along with a group of young Italian artists, declared their ambitions in opposition to the traditional values dominating Italian art and culture at the time and focused on the dynamism, speed, energy, and power of the machine and the vitality, change, and restlessness of modern life.

Key ideas:

  • Motion, movement, technology, speed, dynamism, unification of culture, industrialization, war, violence, machismo, extreme, destruction of the past, revolution.
  • Political leanings, initially fascism, anti-feminist, anti-democratic, but years later rejected those ideas to focus more on technological advancement, specifically aviation.

Watch the videos below to learn more about the key ideas that define Futurism and its lasting visual influence. Does anything in this movement’s visual or ideological aspects inspire or repulse you? Why?

NOTE: In the following video, watch from 29:38 to 31:33

Italian Futurists – Graphic Design History (Watch from 29:38 to 31:33)
Futurism in 9 minutes from Curious Muse
A sound /concrete poem written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Constructivism

The Russian Revolution of 1917 offered hope for a new society where workers would replace the aristocracy as the ruling class. The Constructivists, led by Aleksandr Rodchenko, envisioned a new form of art that would replace traditional painting and sculpture with new forms of mass-produced graphics and engineered objects for the common citizen.

Key Ideas:

  • Geometry, clear lines, abstracted shapes, photomontage, san serif fonts, bold primary palettes
  • Rejected decorative stylization in favor of the industrial assemblage of materials.
  • Applied these ideals to architecture, urban space, clothing, theatre, graphics, and social activism.
  • Political leanings, initially Communism, artists/designers later emigrated to the USA.

Watch the videos below to learn more about the key ideas that define the Russian Constructivist / Avant-Garde movement and the lasting influence we see in visual design. Does anything in the visual or ideological aspects of this movement inspire or repulse you? Why?

Russian Avant-Garde – MOMA

NOTE: In the video below, watch from 24:42 to 29:19

The Soviet Revolution – Graphic Design History (Watch from 24:42 to 29:19)

Influence on Contemporary Design

Futurism, Constructivism, and the avant-garde, in general, had a profound impact on the evolution of graphic design, advertising, fashion, industrial design, architecture, theater, and more. Born from the political and societal influences of the time, we can see how the concepts of universality, authorship, and social responsibility are present in Futurist and Constructivist manifestos and, most importantly, WHY!

You can start to see how some of the graphic styles of these two movements that we’ve explored still linger in the design we see today. And you might also explore how the manifesto has and continues to be a tool for designers to express their ideas.

Check out this site dedicated to Design Manifestos.

Questions

  • What common views do these Futurist and Constructivist artists/designers share, and where might they disagree?
  • Which elements in the manifestos remain relevant in the present, and which are problematic? 
  • In what ways can political and economic power be expressed through visual design?
  • How do mass communication technologies influence society?

NOTE: A City Tech ID is needed to access some online resources. Additional openly licensed resources will be added as they become available.

Manifestos

Use Hypothesis to annotate as you read the texts. See Using Hypothesis for details.

  1. F.T. Marinetti: Manifesto of Futurism (1909), design manifestos .org
  2. Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Who We Are: Manifesto of the Constructivist Group (1922)” in Armstrong, Helen. Graphic Design Theory: Readings From the Field, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009: 22-24, 52, ProQuest Ebook Central
  3. El Lissitzky, “Our Book (1926)” in Armstrong, Helen. Graphic Design Theory: Readings From the Field, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009: 25-31, ProQuest Ebook Central
  4. El Lissitzky: The Topology of Typography, design manifestos .org

Other Readings

Use Hypothesis to annotate as you read the texts. See Using Hypothesis for details.

  1. How the Imagery of the Russian Revolution Married Ideology, Politics + Progressive Graphic Design by Emily Gosling, Eye on Design. May 1st, 2017
  2. Arp, Hans, and El Lissitzky, eds. The Isms of Art. Zurich: Eugen Rentsch, 1925.
  3. Helfand, Jessica. “De Stijl, New Media, and the Lessons of Geometry.” Screen: Essays on Graph. 1997.
  4. Shopping Phantasmagoria, MoMA magazine, Katie Farris, Dec 17, 2020 (interesting essay/poem related to Constructivism and Consumerism)