By the 1970s, many people believed the modern era was drawing to a close in art, design, politics, and literature. The cultural norms of Western society were scrutinized and the authority of traditional institutions was questioned. An era of pluralism emerged as people began to dispute the underlying tenets of modernism.
The continuing quest for equality by women and minorities contributed to a growing climate of cultural diversity, as did immigration, international travel, and global communications. Accepted viewpoints were challenged by those who sought to remedy bias, prejudice, and distortion in the historical record. The social, economic, and environmental awareness of the period caused many to believe the modern aesthetic was no longer relevant in an emerging postindustrial society. People in many fields–including architects, economists, feminists, and even theologians–embraced the term postmodernism to express a climate of cultural change. Maddeningly vague and overused, postmodernism became a byword in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
In design, postmodernism designated the work of architects and designers who were breaking with the international style so prevalent since the Bauhaus. Postmodernism sent shock waves through the design establishment as it challenged the order and clarity of modern design, particularly corporate design. (Some observers reject the term postmodern, arguing that it is merely a continuation of the modern movement. Late modernism and mannerism are preferred as alternative terms for late twentieth-century design.)
Design forms and terminology have political and social meaning, expressing attitudes and values of their time; postmodernism gained a strong foothold among the generation of designers who emerged in the 1970s. Perhaps the international style had been so thoroughly refined, explored, and accepted that a backlash was inevitable. Historical references, decoration, and the vernacular were disdained by modernists, while postmodern designers drew upon these resources to expand the range of design possibilities.
As the social activism of the late 1960s gave way to more self-absorbed, personal involvements during the 1970s, media pundits spoke of the Me Generation to convey the spirit of the decade. The intuitive and playful aspects of postmodern design reflect personal involvement. Postmodern designers place a form in space because it ‘feels’ right rather than to fulfill a rational communicative need. As radically different as a psychedelic poster and a visual-identity manual might be, both are corporate design, for or relating to a unified body of people with common values.
On the other hand, much postmodernist design is subjective and even eccentric; the designer becomes an artist performing before an audience with the bravura of a street musician, and the audience either responds or passes on. The umbrella term postmodernism does not tell the whole story, because while architecture may fit rather neatly into historical categories (Victorian, art nouveau, modern, and postmodern), graphic design is far too pluralistic and diverse to fit such a simplistic system.
Just three examples of graphic-design expressions having no parallel in architecture are World War I posters, the work of the Push Pin group, and the psychedelic poster. Graphic design, rapidly changing and ephemeral, was never dominated by the international style the way architecture was.