20th Century Design Movements

History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.

(Cicero, Pro Publio Sestio)

20th Century Design

Just as artists through the ages have been influenced by earlier artists, past styles and the characteristics of past eras, designers and visual communicators can also look to design history for inspiration.We will look into significant eras in design history as well as particular design styles that can be used as inspiration for your own work.

Understanding aspects of the history of design also assists us when analysing the work of others both in a historical and contemporary context.

20th Century Design Movements | Timeline

1850-1914: Arts & Crafts Movement

1880-1910: Art Nouveau

1897-1905: Vienna Secession


1907-1935: Deutscher Werkbund

1909-1930: Futurism

1916-1923: Dada

1917-1935: Constructivism

1917-1931: De Stijl

1919-1933: Bauhaus

1920-1980: International Style

1920-1939: Art Deco

Post Modernism

1945-present: Contemporary

1958-1972: Pop

1965-present: Post Modern Design

1981-1988: Memphis

Social Contexts

In completing some of your Outcomes, you may be required to develop an understanding of the social context of the design era you are analysing or describing. Importantly, significant economic and political factors have had major influences on the designs produced.

Social Factors

Social changes can have a significant impact on all parts of the community. In many ways the messages and implications of social change can be seen in the visual communications produced in such times. One era that can easily demonstrate how social change can affect the designs of the time was the 1960s.

The 1960s were a decade of political and social upheaval in Australia. Young people challenged the traditional values of their parents’ generation and actively opposed the decisions of the government.

Women demanded equal rights and others called for racial equality and a new consideration for the environment. There were demonstrations against the Vietnam War, conscription and the atom bomb. Many of these protests were part of wider social movements taking place in other Western countries. Advances in communications technology meant that ideas from all over the world were now more accessible.

Towards the end of the decade, many adopted an alternative ‘hippie’ lifestyle. Among other elements, the hippie movement included a rebellious style of dress, a reverence for nature, Eastern spiritual philosophy and experimentation with drugs like marijuana and LSD.

Designers can also influence trends in society. Fashion trends, interior design and industrial design can influence and dictate what we might buy. If a style is successful the design style continues to evolve. In contemporary society, there appears to be an acceptance of imagery that promotes sustainability. The world has become far more environmentally aware and as a consequence this can affect the type of visual communication design produced.

Cultural Factors

Visual communicators must be aware of cultural sensitivities when designing their work. Many designs today, although transmitted worldwide through the internet, can be offensive or taboo in some countries, so a designer needs to carefully consider his/her audience. If a piece of visual communication is specifically designed for a cultural group in mind, then the designer will utilise images that will appeal to this group.

In developing an understanding of cultural influences it is useful to look at Australian society post war and how we have changed culturally and how this may have impacted on our visual communication designs.

One of the most significant changes to have taken place in Australian society at the end of

World War II was its drift towards American rather than British culture. As the American way of life was projected further into Australia via popular culture, it affected the way Australians spent their money, entertained, dressed and socialised. Eventually, British cultural legacies would give way to new American ideals. America emerged from World War II as the dominant global economic power and was well placed to export its cultural products to the world, including Australia.

At the same time, Australians in the 1960s were more affluent than ever before and communications and transport technology were advancing rapidly, enabling an easier transmission of American products and ideas into Australian society. American concepts like consumerism and material aspirations also fitted well with Australia’s suburban lifestyle. As migrants arrived in Australia over the decades, they introduced new stories, traditions and perspectives to Australian culture. Australia became far more multicultural. As Indigenous peoples were finally acknowledged as the original owners of the land, the role of Indigenous values in the construction of a true Australian identity had become apparent.

Economic and Political Influences

The beginning of the twentieth century was fraught with radical political, social, cultural and economic changes. It was a revolutionary time. It was a time of major scientific and technological advances. Life was being forever changed by the invention of the automobile, aeroplane, motion pictures, radio and weapons (tanks, machine guns, chemical and biological warfare). Art Deco was a reaction to the rigours of World War I and was an attempt to develop a more positive and contemporary society.

Indeed the subject matter of a lot of Art Deco posters were designed to celebrate society’s progress in technology. The world wars had a significant impact on graphic design. Poster design during

World War 1 was highly influenced by political views and national pride. Propaganda was used to spread a message to the audience, as the war was the main focus of society.

The poster design sample in Figure 3.29 demonstrates the designer’s attempt to influence the audience by draping a woman in a flag and using provocative language to send a message to the viewers. The period between the world wars saw a society in disarray and economies in ruin.


   Bauhaus design arose from these circumstances. Industrial design and the need for products meant advertising began to proliferate. During the world wars, however, the development of manufacturing was sometimes restricted so design changed to react to this. Note the inference in the example in Figure 3.30 where society was encouraged to save fuel, save manufacturing resources, and so on. After World War II, there was an economic boom and product development was prolific. Consequently, advertising of products was significant and gave rise to magazine advertising of all types of products.



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