Web Design Worldview (Part 3): Postmodernism and Design

April 30th, 2008 in Web Design Worldview

by: Matthew Griffin

Postmodernism is a dominant force in the world of design. Alongside , it's the most influential worldview affecting design today. As such, it deserves serious consideration by designers of all disciplines. Since this blog is specific to web design, however, I will try to cast my points in that direction. Postmodernism can be a difficult worldview to nail down. The label "post-modern" has been applied liberally to many different philosophies and design movements. This article will attempt to analyze a pure postmodern worldview and its effect when applied to design. In the conclusion of the article, I will present a brief assessment of postmodernism as it compares with a Christian worldview; but the bulk of my presentation of Christian worldview in design will appear in the last two articles of this series.

What Is Postmodernism?

In the previous part of this series we explored modernism and the effect of its utilitarian approach to design. Postmodernism is a reactionary philosophy to modernism. It surged naturally to fill the the void modernism left. But paradoxically, it grew out of modernism in many ways. Modernism had proposed a system of thought that ruled out the existence of an overarching truth other than a blind natural law. Instead of denying this proposition, postmodernism said, "Fine. If the foundation of truth is a blind natural process, then our sense of reality can't be trusted." In short, postmodernism demolished the lower story of objective truth and presented a completely relativistic view of reality. In the view of postmodernism, reality is whatever is real to the individual. You can see now why I refer to it as a reactionary worldview. It was a defense against modernism's attack on beauty, spirituality, and transcendence. By making everything subjective, postmodernism kept these areas out of modernism's reach. For the most part, modernism declared a truce which has forced many cultures into a broken hybrid worldview where modernism and postmodernism work in a kind of dysfunctional symbiotic relationship. I will discuss the hybrid worldview in the next article, but for now, let's move on to the history of postmodernism.

Where Did It Come from?

As a worldview, postmodernism is relatively new; although the spirit of postmodernism is anything but new. Many of its characteristics can be traced back to the romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and beyond. Romanticism was a reaction to the The Enlightenment the way postmodernism was a reaction to modernism. Postmodernism elevates the individual experience to the place of God. In many ways, it's a modern mysticism; placing ultimate value on indescribable, unexplainable, and untouchable experience. It answers the three worldview questions (How did we get here? What went wrong? How can we change it?) by proposing that we came from an unknowable, possible spiritual, force. We messed up when we tried to impose an overarching truth (or metanarrative) on humanity. And we can fix it by throwing off all preconceived concepts of objective truth.

For all practical purposes, postmodernism is agnosticism. I'm sure there are some who will argue that point; but when postmodernism is thoroughly worked out, agnosticism is the only place to go. Unfortunately, I've conversed with quite a few Christian designers who have embraced postmodernism. Most of the time, they are doing it for the right reason—they want to protect spirituality from the onslaught of materialistic naturalism. But they unwittingly put themselves in a situation where they have no reason or right to proclaim truth. Christianity is not modernist and it's not postmodernist; it's in it's own category—a category of wonderful Biblical balance and cohesion, a category of reality.

What Happens When Postmodernism Is Applied to Design?

Postmodernism brought diversity to a world of design that was drowning in unity. In the 1980s and up to the present we see a return to ornamental design and a gradual waning of the mathematical design of modernism.  Recently, marketers and advertising guides have even begun to talk about people like they're people, instead of utility maximizers. These are good changes that should be recognized by Christians. Unfortunately, the final destination of postmodernism doesn't look so rosy.

What happens when you take objective truth out of design? Eventually, it becomes a chaotic, uncommunicative, immoral mass. We've already seen this effect in fine art and in some areas of graphic design. A great example of a harbinger of postmodernism in graphic design is the Dada movement. Although, at the time, it would have been grouped in with the modernist movements, Dadaism was actually a precursor to postmodernism. Referred to by many as anti-art, it followed the modernist worldview out to its logical conclusion and discovered meaninglessness. But in the long run, this nihilistic view of design couldn't be sustained and it was traded in for its next of kin—relativism. Relativism was much more sustainable worldview. This is where we get most of our indiscernible and inscrutable art and design. In the postmodern worldview it's much more important that the artist or designer express his/her subjective feeling than that a work communicate truth to an audience.

  • Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.

Why Postmodernism Will Fail in Web Design

The reason for the inevitable failure of pure postmodernism in web design is pretty obvious. Our vocation is built around effective communication—remove that, and you're left with nothing. Postmodernism denies the existence of a knowable overarching truth. If this is true, communcation is just an illusion. Postmodernism's chaotic diversity needs to be balanced out the same way modernism's rigid unity needed to be balanced out. Later, I will explain how Christianity provides a system in which both the unity of modernism and the diversity of postmodernism may reside without contradiction. But first, we need to discuss the hybrid worldview. The hybrid worldview takes the best of modernism and the best of postmodernism, mashes them up, and pretends like the two worldviews don't contradict each other—truly fascinating.



Posted By: on 04/30/08

Very well done. As a pomo, I was inextricably drawn to the dada movement in art school. I think that some of my best work back then was inspired by it. Unfortunately, Modernism and Postmodernism are both just repackaged Greek philosophy. We even use the langage of the Bronze age: Skeptics, Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics. Western Christianity ignorantly co-opted much of this early in it's life. Early church fathers adopted ancient stoicism and gave root to bitterness with the Jews and established a cross-centurial anti-semitism. Its so bad that most Jews aren't even truly Jewish anymore. They're just as Westernized as the rest of our world. I know this may sound ethnocentric, but unless one approaches the Bible from a Hebraic perspective (in which it was written), one is destined to consistently repeat the cyclical misgivings of our forefathers.

Posted By: on 04/30/08

M.joshua, I agree. The marriage of Christianity with outside philosophies has been a plague to truth since the beginning. The damage of these marriages is especially pronounced with neo-platonism and aritotelian philosophies. Thanks for the comment.

Posted By: Joshua Clanton - Design for the WEB on 04/30/08

Pretty good overview, Matthew. One thing that might be interesting to note is the post-modernism is sometimes divided up into "left wing" and "right wing." What you've described is the "left wing" version. The "right wing" version tends to attempt a recovery of a philosophical/theological/artistic tradition that it sees as extremely important to rationality and a complete understanding of reality.

Posted By: on 04/30/08

Joshua, you may be right. But I prefer not taint it with the name postmodern. If I understand you correctly, how about just calling it orthodoxy.

Posted By: randy motz on 05/02/08

Matt, I enjoyed your discussion on post modernism. Matt, get with it...the truth is relative and what may be true for you, may not necessarily be true for me. Just kidding of course. Good article. God Bless Randy

Posted By: on 05/02/08

I'm not sure if comments from a father-in-law should be allowed. I'll have to think about it :) Thanks for stopping by, Randy.

Posted By: Joshua Clanton on 05/07/08

Matthew: Because there are many different varieties of it that don't necessarily involve Christian orthodoxy at all. For instance, the same pattern is found in Judaism and Hinduism.

Posted By: Clayton S on 06/11/09

You state that theists who embrace Postmodernism have no right to proclaim truth, while insinuating that theists have every right to claim truth. I agree that Theists who adopt Postmodernism are contradicting themselves to the furthest degree but Theism (mainly Judaism and Christianity) are the two most contradictory ideas on this planet. For example, If god is a Tri-Omni being then it would be impossible to have free will, yet the doctrine you live by states we all have it. I know this must be really hard to understand for all you God fearing people but if god (shouldn't be capitalized) knows the future then obviously our paths are predetermined and we lose the capabilities of free will. That is just one of hundreds of arguments against creation by a tri-omni god. Show me a VALID argument against evolution and agnosticism.

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 06/11/09

Clayton, thanks for the comment. I think the Christianity you are arguing against is the street or folk Christianity that you might encounter talking to nominal American evangelicals. The issues you brought up have been dealt with extensively in the last 2000 by some of the greatest minds the world has ever known. Don't think you're the first. Jonathan Edward's "Freedom of the Will" or Martin Luther's "Bondage of the Will" are two good places to start on your particular objection. As for VALID arguments against agnosticism or evolution, I would refer you to the recent debate between atheist Richard Dawkins and Christian John Lennox. Both men are tenured professors as Oxford University with advanced degrees in multiple fields. I think John Lennox wins the debate soundly. But more importantly, I think this would acquaint you with the issues and arguments that are raised on both sides.

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