What Comes After Form?

There was a time when every other design book or magazine had to mention «form» on its title. When did speaking about form in graphic design begin to feel so dated?

It’s not that form has vanished, but designers no longer consider it an overarching problem. It’s taught at school using old Bauhaus or Swiss Style exercises but no longer actively discussed — a phase students must go through on the path to better and more contemporary concerns.

When did this demotion happen? And why?

“Form” has a distinct mid-twentieth century tinge — something from the late forties to the late seventies. Its fade-out would be an interesting question to the design historian.

But design history is distinctly uninterested in the history of its central ideas. Designers tend to see design itself as an ahistorical constant, which always existed. “Form” goes the same way.

Some rare design historians have tried to historicize the idea of form in design. Richard Hollis has a thoughtful little essay on the history of ornament as an idea (“Ornament as Information”) that began with the acknowledgment that:

“ornament is no longer taken seriously by designers. It is little used. Ornament has been in conflict with the practice and attitudes of designers from the beginning of the twentieth century. Form was to take the place of ornament.”

Form had a beginning. Hollis didn’t dwell on it, but it also had an end and, therefore, a history. But if form came after ornament as the central paradigm of design, what came after form?


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