Web Design Worldview (Part 2): Modernism Deconstructed

April 23rd, 2008 in Web Design Worldview

by: Matthew Griffin

In the , I introduced the what and why of worldview development in design. Now that we have a clear understanding of worldview and its elementary parts, we will move on to analyze three common worldviews. In this article we will be considering the modernist worldview—what it is, where it came from, and its practical consequences in design. The purpose of these critiques is to demystify the ideas we encounter every day in design. When we know how to extract worldview from high-sounding design philosophies, they lose their mystique. Our minds are then liberated to apply a holistic Christian worldview. After deconstructing modernism, we will move on to postmodernism, and then the common hybrid worldview.

What Is Modernism?

In its simplest form, modernism is a worldview that elevates human reason to the place of God. It proclaims objective truth in science alone and finds this truth immanent in every facet of existence. Sola physicum gloria, one might say. Modernism always starts with a materialistic explanation for humankind's origin. This is how it answers the first big worldview question—how did we get here? The answers to the second two questions (What went wrong? How do we fix it?) vary quite a bit from modernist to modernist. Fortunately, it's the answer to the first question that impacts this worldview the most. We will discuss that impact but first we need to take a look at the history of modernism—although I suppose "history of modernism" is somewhat of a contradiction.

The Origin of the Modernist Worldview

To understand modernism, we must start by looking back to the spirit of the 19th century. In the first half of the 19th century, the industrial revolution was mechanizing tasks that only humans had been able to perform up to that point. New scientific discoveries were rocking the foundation of our understanding of the world. Naturalism was on the rise. Rationalism was trouncing the ground that been cultivated by the renaissance and the romantic period. All these changes were the churning stew that became modernism. In 1845, the most influential writing of modern times cut the final chain holding modernism back and unleashed a flood on the world. I'm speaking, of course, of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Darwin proposed a feasible mechanism by which the origin of life could be explained without the need for an all-powerful God. The effect of Darwin's new theory rapidly spread to the major spheres of human life. Unified naturalistic philosophies were developed by philosophers such as Neitzsche and Rousseau. The core unit of civilization, the family, was reconsidered. Governments were realigned. In essence the whole world shifted gears. And, of course, design was was changed to match the modernist worldview.

Modernism Applied to Design

The modernist worldview inspired a number of important and lasting changes in design. Although principles of functional design had been developed in classical Greek and Roman cultures, the renaissance had focused almost exclusively on aesthetics. Modernism, with its mechanical view of he world, revived the definition of design as a functional discipline. Modernist graphic design movements began gradually stripping away the purely ornamental aspects of their designs to lay bare the functional essentials. Their perception of beauty was found in grids, in unity, and in mathematical symmetry. Piet Mondrian, possibly the greatest voice in early modernist design, once wrote that art would "disappear in proportion as life gains equilibrium". By this he meant that man's evolution would eventually render aesthetics obsolete.

  • Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1921, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 69 cm, Tate Gallery. London.

  • Black Square, 1915, Oil on Canvas, State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg

It's also interesting to note that the modernist worldview tended to have the same affect on design movements even when they developed in isolation. For example, the early Russian constructivist designers had no contact will their fellow modernists in the futurist and de Stijl movements, but similarities in their design styles are uncanny. That's not to say that worldview is the only factor in style development, but I think it illustrates that it can, in fact, affect it.

The height of modernist design occurred somewhere in the middle of its progression toward purity. As long as a vestige of transcendent beauty was left in modernist design movements, they did very well. But as they moved toward their ultimate conclusion in design, ironically, the design that was built on rationalism became less and less rational. I consider the point of modernist despair to be embodied in the work of Kasimir Malevich in which a pure black square on a white canvas is presented as the ultimate representation of design.

Today, there are very few pure modernist designers. But we still see the effect of their design philosophy everywhere we turn. Anytime we talk about grids, or symmetry, or white-space, or functional design we can thank the modernists for their contribution to our work. What the modernists taught us (unintentionally, I'm sure) is that there is real beauty in order. Their commitment to function and unity produced some very inspiring works. As Christians we have to be able to recognize these good qualities and separate them from the destructive worldview behind them. In the end, the problem with the modernist worldview is the same as the problem with most worldviews—you can't live it, not really. When you work it out thoroughly and apply it to every area of life, it doesn't work.

The Gaping Hole in Modernism

The modernist worldview ultimately fails because it denies basic aspects of humanity that have been embedded by God. A world in which utility, function, and unity are the only truths can be proposed in theory; but it doesn't work in reality. Humans were designed to enjoy and create beauty, to love and be loved, to appreciate diversity. When these integral parts of our being are written off as illusion, the utility and function that modernism elevates so high begins to break down. The transcendent concepts that modernism denies actually support the utility and function that it so loves (or prefers, I should say). This creates an irreparable break in the thought system of the modernist worldview.

Postmodernism to the Rescue

There was, of course, eventually a backlash against the utilitarian design of the modernists. It turns out, people don't like to live in concrete jungles and drab surroundings. In the wake of the revolt, postmodernism quickly moved in to fill the gap. It takes almost the exact opposite approach to design as modernism. Reviving the spirit of romanticism, it holds all truths as completely subjective—the product of individual taste. There is no overarching truth or meta-narrative. Postmodernism is the subject of the next part in this series.



Posted By: Joshua Clanton - Design for the WEB on 04/23/08

Quite an interesting read here. I do wonder, though, whether you are too closely identifying philosophical modernism with the modernist movement in design. For instance, I could quite easily see much modernist design being produced by someone with a neo-Pythagorean philosophy rather than a strictly "modernist" philosophy. Your thoughts?

Posted By: on 04/23/08

Joshua, thanks for the comments. In this series I'm really trying look at the way overarching systems of thought and basic premises filter into design. It's true that the flavors of "unity worship" are innumerable. Pythagorean philosophy may have a mystical twist that modernism lacks; but at its core, unity of natural law are its objects of adoration. I'm glad that you brought up that particular school of thought because it's a good example of how, throughout history (even in ancient times) we tended to absolutize either unity or diversity.

Posted By: Will Sherwood on 04/24/08

Very interesting read, especially considering that when I took modern literature 30 years ago, I hated it. It was too bleak, too heartless, too desperate. However when I took another modern lit. class recently I had a very different sense. Hmmm. Guess the years of experience made the difference. BTW, Wikipedia has a nice definition in their 2nd paragraph: It is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology or practical experimentation.[1] Modernism encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was 'holding back' progress, and replacing it with new, progressive and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end.

Posted By: E. I. Sanchez on 04/25/08

Matt, This is coming along rather nicely. Thanks for putting the effort to write it up and share it with us. It's like a mini-history class with a twist...

Posted By: JY on 04/25/08

I suppose designs for other ancient cultures such as China/Japan that haven't heard about the western God have been failing for thousands of years?

Posted By: on 04/25/08

JY, That's actually an interesting point which, of course, has been addressed many times over the centuries. As I mentioned in my article, God's common grace allows all of mankind to participate in creative acts. Words like "fail" really aren't adequate when taking into consideration a whole work of design or art. "Fail" is too one-dimensional to account for all the aspects of design. The only time I think it's appropriate to say that a design has failed is when every single one of those aspects has failed. In the end, though, the worldview that holds true will foster design that is excellent from every angle.

Posted By: JY on 04/25/08

Matthew, you have defined clearly what Worldview means to you(as well to other Christians), and your summary of Modernism is quite accurate too. However, your response to my comment did not answer the point I raised. If I understand you correctly(and I can see where you're going with the next few parts of the mini-serie): If one doesn't believe in God, then one's design will (in your words:) "XXX worldview ultimately fails because it denies basic aspects of humanity that have been embedded by God." This is of course from your POV as a Christian. My point is for none-believers, and people who were never introduced to Christianity, their designs are perfectly fine within their worldview. It seems to me you're imposing what you believe is right onto others. This is perfectly understandable since you're a Christian. Then why even bother to philosophize? This whole serie can simply be summed up by saying if you're not a believer you can't be a good designer. Isn't that your central point? In your response you said: "God's common grace allows all of mankind to participate in creative acts. " If the majority of those mankinda don't believe in God, what does that say about their creative acts? And lastly, can you give me some good examples of web designs that are within your Worldview?

Posted By: on 04/26/08

JY, thanks for all the questions. I'll be answering most of them in the upcoming articles so I don't want to repeat everything here. I think the next article on postmodernism will be most applicable to your view and your questions.

Posted By: on 04/29/08

Excellent post. Very informative. I think that much of the criticism this time around is because we bloggers are typically lazy and only read what we love or hate. I know you're not trying to devalue those who don't dance with God. Though, I'm afraid our simple pointing towards a "better way" implies inferiority. I think its what Paul meant when he said that our acts of godliness become signs of judgment to others.

Posted By: on 05/01/08

I'm sorry. I was thinking about it and I was convicted for not speaking up on the things I must disagree with. I disagree with some of this definition of Modernism because it sides with John McArthur's perspective that Modernism was exclusively a secularist movement. This implies that there was no such thing as Christian Modernism. The spiritual fatherlesness and lack of discipleship that still exists within the church probably speaks louder to that Modernism than anything. Whatever Christio-centric worldview that you propose, one must not beget the sins of the fathers. Unless we live lives of example and community, the wireless counterfeit of community will consume the void.

Posted By: LL on 05/03/08

Modernism suffered from a very religious problem: fundamentalism. The hairsplitting and dogma that whittled a broad ideal into "you're either in or you're out" thinking signalled the ultimate futility of modernism. Interestingly, religion can cycle through periods of exclusive (modernist-ish) and inclusive (postmodernism-ish) trends. You're right to parallel the two (though if you put a huge image of a cross behind your profile photo, you may generate fewer irritated comments down here).

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