When discussing visual design elements and principles, in connection with the topic of modernism, the first person who comes to mind is Adolf Loos. Loos, an Austrian and Czechoslovak architect, made great headway in modern European architecture with his ideas of progress relating to the reduction of the ornament and the distinction between organic and redundant adornment. He argued in one of his essays entitled “Ornament and Crime”, published in 1908, how ornamentation can cause design to be rendered obsolete. According to Loos, it was the ornament, and not the design that goes out of style.

Ornament and Crime. Poster by Adolf Loos for a lecture on 21th February 1913.

Before exploring further let us define “ornament” and “design”: The Oxford dictionary describes the ornament as: “A thing used or serving to make something look more attractive but usually having no practical purpose” and design as “The art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing something before it is made”. One thing is for certain, all designers from graphic to architectural must be creative thinkers. We need to find inventive and resourceful solutions to design.

Trends have always been with us and will continue to be with us. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a trend is to “veer in a new direction”, and in this way form part of modernism and its ongoing journey. But, before we continue, let us look at what modernism is. Effectively, modernism was a reductive movement – form was simplified to separate from pictographic representation. Modernism can be seen as a trend of thought that supports our ability to explore and expand upon our environment with the aid of new knowledge and technology. In embracing change, modernism rebelled against the already established traditions and confronted a new and emerging modern world.

So, modernism should be more about the creation of the new, improving on the old and in a sense, creating a new language to solve problems. It’s about innovation, creating what has not been created and thus, modernism looks to the future and to forward movement, with the past as our framework on which we create new ideas and not replicate existing ones.

Modernism responds to the industry, and what describes our industry today? Efficiency and rapidity. We are moving at such a speed that perhaps we find it difficult to adapt. Our new industry is founded on real-time and so it calls for immediate solutions. How can we achieve this? By creating simple, graphic answers at high levels of synthesis, that take less time to prepare and that uphold the heart of the desired concept. The message we wish to convey must be put across quickly and clearly with not a second wasted. How do we do that?

By eliminating the noise that interferes in the process of communication! Or as Loos put it “ornamentation”.

It may be much easier to look to the past for answers, where the problems we wish to unravel as designers have already found their solution, in place of looking to the future where new problems without defined answers exist. Is advancement really about replicating the past using new technology? Moreover, designing as a modernist is not about adding details to get the message across, as this may do the very opposite of what we intend, it’s about subtraction and the creation of a precise and comprehensible message.