Design Contrarianism and Combinationism

Brian Sekelsky


Over time,

broad cultural movements like modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism replace one another. Philosophers and theorists disagree about the time periods that encapsulated each movement and some even disagree about the existence of certain movements. I continually question the utility in naming cultural movements; however, I think that being cognisant of these cultural movements can help to inform designers, and I believe that it’s essential for designers to reject the ideas of their predecessors.

Where modern design is defined by objective truths and conventions like functional typography and grids, postmodern design is about breakinging those conventions. When thinking about modernist-postmodernist dissenting opinions, the Architecture critic and modernist, Peter Blake comes to mind: In his 1964 book, “God’s Own Junkyard,” he called novelty buildings like the Big Duck building, in Long Island, “the flood of ugliness engulfing America”. Eight years later, architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi thoroughly discussed the importance of that same Big Duck in their 1972 book “Learning from Las Vegas.”


architects and designers embraced traditional design principles like ornamentation. In the documentary Beyond Utopia, a woman is interviewed about Michael Graves’ Portland building, where she works every day. She says, “I have a headache every morning, and I’ve talked to some other people, they say they have to take aspirin every morning.”

Maybe this woman isn’t a fan of postmodern design or maybe it’s the fault of the building. Maybe Graves’ design failed to account for user experience with its lack of adequate natural lighting and “drab interior.”

Following postmodernism, most scholars agree that a new cultural movement began sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s. Many point to 9/11 as the crucial turning point while others credit Moyo Okediji, who defined metamodernism as an: “extension of and challenge to modernism and postmodernism” in his 1999 book, “Transatlantic Dialogue: Contemporary Art in and Out of Africa”. In 2011, Luke Turner published the Metamodernist Manifesto. In it he says: “We must liberate ourselves from the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child.” The new generation had found postmodernism to be inadequate for the post-9/11 world.
Postmodernists rejected modernist convention, encouraged rugged individualism, and employed irony and cynicism in their methods. But as the world continued to develop, communities became more diverse, the internet and smartphones became more pervasive, and as a result, accessibility, human computer interaction, and user experience became more relevant. Where postmodernists attach themselves to  proto-modern ideas like ornamentation, metamodernists latch onto contemporary ideas like functionality. Similarly, they are both borrowing ideas from their predecessor’s predecessor.

Millennials grew up surrounded by irony and postmodernism, with popular tv shows like South Park and The Office. I postulate that, because of this, irony became the default language for millennials. Every generation has a desire to experiment and reject the ideas of their predecessors. The meta-modern generation is hyper-aware of irony but they effortlessly oscillate between irony and sincerity, some theorists have called this “the new sincerity.” It is another one of the tenants of metamodern design.

“To give an analogy, if modernism was the absolute belief in the building of Babel, and postmodernism was the realisation that it cannot be built, metamodernism can be thought of as the engagement in building it with the knowledge that it is a flawed or unachievable task.” - Jack Clarke, Role of the Graphic Designer in a Metamodern Structure of Feeling.


designers create design fictions. “Design fictions are a mix of science, design and fiction. The term describes an emerging area of design that uses storytelling as an experimental device to question the world around us. Using a combination of concepts, objects and visuals, design fictions are propositions for how things could be done differently.” - Dunne & Raby, United Micro Kingdoms.

Metamodernists want to facilitate positive changes in their world. Creating design fictions is a method used to present somewhat unrealistic yet sincere ideas about how to improve society through design. Having grown up surrounded in more diverse communities than their predecessors, metamodernists also believe in accessibility and inclusivity. This is one of the reasons that human-computer interaction and user experience have become such popular industries — they use countless ideas from modernism and functional design. Grid layouts, clear and contrasting type, and meaningful iconography help make the internet, software, and phone apps more inclusive of disabled people as well as people from different language and cultural backgrounds.
While design used to be an exclusive industry, it is now more accessible than ever. With tutorials on Youtube and access to free software, anyone can call themselves a designer. Metamodernists embrace this. Not only by being inclusive, but also by embracing “ugly” or “brutalist” design in a truly genuine way. Metamodern design employs both irony and sincerity in its approach.

The world is constantly changing; because of this, designers must consider rejecting the ideas of their predecessors in favor of new concepts that better fit those changes. Eventually metamodernism, like modernism and postmodernism, will become outdated. These cultural moments inevitably go out of style, but designers must be cognisant of societal changes and work to properly address the needs of an ever changing society.