Modernism within a Design and Design Cultural Context


As technology advanced, there emerged a breakthrough for modernism towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century. Western society started to develop new ways aimed at shaping the culture of human beings and improving the constructed surrounding. Modernism refers a trend of views affirming the power humans have in making, improving, and reshaping their environment, facilitated by scientific know-how, technological capacity, and practical experimentation. Broadly speaking modernism demonstrate a set of progressive culture in fart, music, and other socioeconomic sectors that came in the early 20th century. Modernism hence is the work of artists, philosophers, designers, and social activists who changed and presented rebellion against the previous years’ traditions and confronted new socioeconomic and political factors that emerged in the modern world (Greenhalgh n.d., pp. 8–9). This paper discusses modernism within the context of design and design culture.

Modernism and Design

Even though design did not possess a common currency till almost the middle of the 20th century, the view of instilling products and portraits with aesthetics and working behaviours to attract consumers and meet the requirements set by users is historically long. This is a history closely associated with advancement in modern societal settings and culture. In the modern sense, design advanced due to the expansion of consumer products and democratization of preferences (Sparke 2007, p. 12). For decades that followed, handmade furnishings, porcelains, metals, dresses, and artefacts were enjoyed by upper-class members as they acted as comfort providers, indicators of propriety, social glues, symbols of status and fashion-ability.

However, design involving the visual and theoretical elements of mass production of goods made products attractive to a vast market and accorded meaning to the lives of individuals. Europeans and Americans experienced industrialization which created new levels of social mobility and enhanced access to products thereby concealing class differences. This context reinforced design and taste. The design formed the models used to cater for, sustain, and expand new mass markets hence as it demonstrated the links for advertisement, marketing, and vending. Visual elaboration improved the attractiveness of goods and technology formed the basis for consumer preferences (Economou n.d., pp. 16–17).

Modernism involved several innovative fields like design, art, architecture, and literature, among others. The advancement of machines brought such a power which made designers to strategically re-evaluate practices and the outcomes were revolutionary and are evident in the influences it has on current designs. The new technology offered the possibility for mass production hence made machines a vital factor for modernism. The influence that modernity brought had great impacts across various areas thus making modernism amongst the most important movements in the 20th century. Particularly, the development of modernized industrialized societies and the fast growth of urbanization and the World wars are amongst the factors which shaped modernism (Sparke 2007, p. 13).

Further about the mid-20th century, modernism had been incorporated into popular culture and its realities drove its innovations. Modernism was evident in designs such as commercials and logos. Modernism tried to re-think science, art, cultural settings, ethical perceptions, and other social areas. Hence, it attempted to seek new or hidden meanings in the experiences of human beings and had to deal with embracing new ideologies. From the initial beginnings as economic circumstances, modernism enhanced the ability of designers to re-assess their works, adaptation of works to their consumers, and demands of consumers. Modernism has been stressed by the appropriate socio-technological reforms like the consumption habits, societal disintegration, transformation of values and principles, and the fall of ideologies. Modernism requires that consumption happens in the market and disregards that which occurs outside the market (BOUAGINA & TRIKI 2014, p. 102).

Design disciplines usually try to create a comprehensive definition of design in relation to its cultural identity. Since the sociocultural traits are always changing, the definition must begin from the social culture during different social periods. It is usually believed that modern design started in industrial revolution, the Enlightment’s art and craft, and handicrafts. Design can thus be divided in the view of social development into 4 stages; design of industrial revolution, the growth of modern designs at the end of the Second World War, the consumer/commodity economic design, and internet trend current modern design (Liu & Zhao 2017, p. 490).

The design products before industrial revolution were handmade and hence were meant for the royal families. During that period, the societal culture in existence was elitism and aristocratic where the citizens were not allowed to speak or spend (Liu & Zhao 2017, p. 490). Industrial revolution transformed the situation as production was mechanized, products became reasonably priced, and consumers’ purchasing power grew. Critics at the period complained of categorization that existed in the society and saw the significance of design in the social context (BOUAGINA & TRIKI 2014, pp. 102–103). They saw the presence of societal design activities as a leveler to societal classes. Between the first and the second World Wars, modern design within the social demand experienced rapid advancement in new technology and new social schemes. The social reality led to the abandonment of elite culture. The modern design aimed at addressing social interests in democracy, elitism, and idealism aimed at changing the public life (Dolfsma 2004, p. 355).

Design during commodity culture preceding World War II, commodity aesthetics came into light as design sought to examine the relationship between people and goods, industrial capital and products as commodities. In this context, commodity goes beyond the particular product to include social relation, and designers now focus on the set of behaviors that lead to the design. The responsibility of designers is to check the cultural, aesthetical, and the symbolic value of a design product. The design is an innovative element making science and technology increasingly human and is a vital aspect in economic and cultural relation. It thus is a two-face feature; a common social characteristic driven by economic interests for production of valuable products around the market, and on the other hand, design culture needs to rid of market logic and become a social organization, signs of social class identification, and communication mechanism (Liu & Zhao 2017, p. 491).

Design culture in the modern society has been called network culture because current consumer goods regarding design of products in the internet has evolved into virtual objects. Product of design is over and beyond physicality but can also be digitized products in the virtual world. The impact of network culture on design has been great as visualization has led to emergence of new contents. Design has become a strategic problem resolution scheme driving innovations, creates business success, and improves human life through the inventions, systems, services, and experiences. Design culture has bridged the difference existing between goods in existence and what can be made. It uses innovation to solve difficulties and bring solutions aimed at creating products, systems, or services or making them better (Liu & Zhao 2017, p. 493).

The central focus of design is provision of an optimistic view where problems are taken as opportunities. It acts as a link between creativity, technology, enterprise, research, and consumers to offer new value and create competitiveness within the socioeconomic and ecological spheres. From the current situation of modernism, the role of design is to change the world without limiting itself to a specific activity but a combination of complex behaviors. Designers position human beings at the center of their processes so that they gain a deeper comprehension of consumer needs empathically and apply practical user-centered solutions to design of goods, structures, services, as well as experiences aimed at bettering the quality of human life. Social and cultural influences shape design and it can also be an enhanced social culture. Design can thus be described as the ultimate manifestation of the sociocultural values that human beings embrace (Dolfsma 2004, p. 356).


Visual and material cultures as well as their consumption have been an area of interests for sociologists and researchers. This is because this is a period when sociopolitical and commercial dominance has progressively been given to consumers in the liberal democratic structures and the capitalist market. Various positions have been given about consumption and design owing to its broadness. The first position surmises that consumption is a passive activity dominated by production. The second views consumption as empowering and resistant at times while the third view sees it as an expression having its own modern logic. Consumption and design have been found to be linked as the former is viewed as a network and emergency of activities involving patterns of artifacts and social norms and actions (Sparke 2007, p. 21).

Modernism has clearly defined the rights and duties of consumption as goods can be differentiated and bought at choice or sometimes as credit. Anyone can buy choose to buy any commodity they want and this is a right given to consumers. Society defines what kind of design of products they want and against any unreasonable restrictions whereby they will engage in revolutions aimed at increasing the society’s productivity. Design has established a culture of its own that is involved in the conflict relations expressed within the societal setting. Design and society in modernism have been attached. Design and design culture are useful tools for shaping the social setting. Other countries like China have also been trying to embrace the western design within the context of sociocultural changes (Julier n.d., p. 69).  Consumers in modernism are emotional beings focused on realizing pleasant experiences therefore informing the design and becomes the foundation for design culture.