Graphic Design Theory: Initial Manifestos

Karen Armstrong’s Graphic Design Theory starts off with an analysis of the Avant-Garde movements at the beginning of the twentieth century that set the course that graphic design would follow. The initial entries are manifestos that spoke to the changing influences in the modern world and redefined an artist’s place in it, Manifesto of Futurism by F.T. Marinetti (1909)¹ and Who We Are: Manifesto of the Constructivist Group by Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, & Aleksei Gan (1922)². They are both written in verse form, which is harder to understand than a regular prose essay in some ways while easier in others.

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Marinetti is obviously fascinated by the machinery and speed of the industrial age. His Futurist Manifesto reads like a call to arms, to take advantage of man’s great technological achievements in aggressive action.

We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.

The innovations of Marinetti’s day unleashed tremendous power in the world and he wished to use the new opportunities for revolutionary purposes. He was a nationalistic fascist so his tone can be off-putting.

We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene… We will destroy the museums, libraries, academics of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

Marinetti is clearly an unlikeable figure but his embrace of the industrial age and the printing press to spread powerful—incendiary in his case—messages to the masses have served as a model for all who wish to influence the populace since. His poems would not be printed in typical form but manipulated in order to “…spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements…” These early typographic experiments have been a lasting influence in the design field ever since.

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The Futurist embrace of technological advancement is something that resonates in the design profession today, although not without trepidation. Just as the steam engine and electricity were changing the way artists communicated in Marinetti’s day the computer and internet have completely transformed the way designers work today. There is trepidation today that with the prevalent use of information technology among experienced designers that essential techniques and prowess are being lost in the emerging generation of designers, that’s where I am. Although I’m sure this concern is well founded it seems clear that with so many designers enthusiastically embracing current technology, the path forward will be new and extraordinary—even if it is not the direction older designers would choose.

Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Who We Are seeks to change the aims of artists from expressing their own vision to serving the society as a whole, whatever its needs. Artistic talents must be used constructively for the benefit of society. Rodchenko liked to refer to himself and his coworkers as lab workers, engineers, constructors, and even wore a simple jumpsuit to portray himself as another simple worker in the cause. These ideas were wrapped up in Soviet revolutionary fever.

The first working group of CONSTRUCTIVISTS… announced:
THE COMMUNIST EXPRESSION OF MATERIAL CONSTRUCTIONS
and
IRRECONCILABLE WAR AGAINST ART.

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The idea of using aesthetics and creative talent in order to benefit society is a common theme in design discourse even today. Although revolutionary fever is not what it was for Rodchenko and his cohorts today, the use of design to effect change in our world is certainly a common aim in the field. The way in which we can do this is not well defined and is messy because it depends on clients and conflicting social aims. The idea of social responsibility has been present throughout the pages of design history.

  1. Marinetti, M.T. “Manifesto of Futurism.” Graphic Design Theory (2009): 20–21.
  2. Rodchenko, Aleksandr. “Who We Are: Manifesto of the Constructivist Group.” Graphic Design Theory (2009): 22–24.

Update (March 6, 2017)

Artsy.net reached out to me about this post. They have some interesting Marinetti work at their site. It would be worth a visit.