Print design is a graphic medium engrained within our social zeitgeist, as much a part of our day to day life as air (or rain). It sets the backdrop to everything we do, surrounding us entirely, permeating casual and business life, the indoor realm as well as the streets we walk on, as often overtly as when construed with subtlety. And with this prevalence of form comes, perhaps, an occasional inability to truly value print design not only for it’s artfulness, but also for the manner in which graphic designers are able to tap into the mechanisms that propel societies of the past and present, in order to emulate, propagate and critique them.
Constructivism was an artistic movement that generated from 1920’s Russia, and whilst it was mainly applied to structural work, I believe that, from a historical standpoint, Constructivism has had a huge impact on print design. The impetus behind Constructivism being that any art or creation should be endowed with purpose. This ethos echoes through the entire history of print design, from the days of producing posters for propaganda to the modern day where coffee cups can be personalised, designed and printed to convey a brand’s identity.
However, the world that we live in operates, undeniably, on a consumerist principle. Essentially we are a society that is spurred ever onwards by the need for acquisition. Interestingly, where print design is almost always a fundamentally purposeful creation, the materialism that dictates it’s creation more often than not leads to the production of things that do not serve a purpose, and do not operate on a system of values.
Despite the fact it may appear that Constructivist and Consumerist ideologies sit at complete odds with one another they are, in certain ways, intrinsically linked, especially in modern society. It seems that even with the vast disparities that exist between them, there is an undeniable link where one naturally informs the other, and subsequently effects the ways in which print designers operate.
“Art as a Practice for Social Purposes.”
The Constructivist process bases it’s entire ethic on the fact that creations should be endowed with purpose. Art cannot merely be aesthetically beautiful but must be functional too. It is that essential aspect which makes print design, very often, completely aligned with Constructivism, especially in the modern day when it forms a huge part of advertising and creating products that pander to our consumerist needs.
However, there has, in the past, been some debate as to whether graphic design should have a value system; a moral compass by which to navigate. This is discussed in the manifesto First Thing’s First which was initially published in 1964, and followed up in 2000. They propagate the idea that graphic design should have values, and should use these values as a guide when choosing work, and products to create for, rejecting work for detrimental products like arms and cigarette companies. First Thing’s First rallied against consumerism, believing that graphic design was not a medium without values, but actually had societal responsibility.
As our world grows increasingly more consumerist, however, there is most definitely a decreasing emphasis on the need to implement a value system when working with print design. Yet one can still see the way constructivism plays a crucial role in the actualization of printed design. For example, specifically when it comes to banner printing in the modern day there is always, obviously, a purpose that dictates it’s creation. Not only are there, generally speaking, specific forms of events where they might be used; festivals, parties, conferences and so on, but there are also specific functionalities. They may be for outdoor or indoor use, and that in itself will determine the types of materials used in the creation of any particular banner. Both the event purpose, and the environment dictate that banners are designed and printed on materials in a way that suits their function, making them emblematic of the constructivist ideology.
Using print design to convey a social purpose is not, however, a new concept within constructivism. In fact, Russian artists Mayakovosky and Rodcenko, who operated during the 1920’s were dubbed ‘advertising constructors’ as they used their art to work towards a commercial agenda. Today graphic designers emulate this in their creations; from movie posters to political propaganda, they pander to their consumerist market. This inevitably creates and compounds the consumer’s need, which then comes full circle and results in the necessity for printed designs in a variety of forms.
It is not just the fundamental Contructivist mentality that is amplified in modern society, adapting to an age of consumerism, but also constructivist aesthetics continue to echo and be adopted by various companies today. Constructivist art made use of bright, geometric shapes, Ikea, a company notorious for the functionality of their products also have them printed with artistic, and vibrant designs, melding art and practicality effectively thrusting their printed products into the consumerist plane.
The Active Consumer
The result of print design being used in a constructivist fashion to create and emphasise social purpose means that the consumer becomes an active participant in relation to the product. Reacting to the print designs they are exposed to, compelling their buying. Print design is a Construcivist process, whatever the ultimate purpose, any printed product be it a poster, banner or brochure acts as a purposeful piece of art.
Brochure printing is a good example of this as designers are creating a cohesive piece that works on a visual and tactile level. Not only is each page carrying an aesthetic that reveals information, the entire thing becomes interactive. People may flick through it at their leisure, interacting with the product; the artwork, text, paper etc as they choose. The consumer is not latently viewing the art presented to them, instead they are active participants, endowing the printed design with cause that validates the consumerist perspective compelling buying through the simultaneous validation of the constructivist principle of purposeful creation.
Magazines are essentially a modern extension of brochure printing. They play toward the consumerist market through the use of constructivist principles. Fashion is one of the constructions perpetuated by these magazines propelling the want to purchase, which, again, plays into society, creating a medium with which the consumerist public may engage. It can be seen particularly clearly within fashion marketing that a key element feeding consumerism is people actively supporting specific brands, transforming the creations from being pure aesthetic into a form that necessitates an active engagement. Thus, graphic design used in magazines has evolved from being pure art into functional artistic representations and manifestations that are marketable devices.
Examples of this can be seen in the work of Neville Brody who brought about a rebirth of Constructivism in the 1980’s, producing work used in magazines but also using that work to comment on the social zeitgeist engaging anyone bearing witness to the prints not only on an artistic but a cultural level. The Designers Republic also engage the public in a similar Constructivist manner, perpetuating slogans like “Work Buy Consume Die” as part of their print design.
Yet, these mediums of printed design, pamphlets, magazines, leaflets etc do not merely propel a viewer into consumerist activity but transforms these into a pastiche or farce sometimes that makes comments relevant to society, or to culture, as can be seen in the work by young graphic designer Estera Lazowska, who takes modern cultural elements and through artistic manipulation provides marketable societal commentary.
Ultimately, print design is an expansive industry that derives much of its purpose from our consumer based culture. It is this culture which gives the designs and prints the functionality that innately intertwines it with the Constructivist ideology.
Abi Sehmi read English at King’s College London. She has since worked on a variety of projects focused on graphic design, writing and theatre, where her interest predominantly lies. For print design services please visit Vizability Printing where they specialise in print design work and brochure printing.