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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Theory > Postmodernism

As the ideas of Modernism began to be questioned, new theoretical positions were developed, particularly in the field of architecture. These reappraisals of Modernist thinking have become influential in all areas of design, and although they are varied and often contradictory, they have tended to be grouped under the title Postmodernism. The characteristics of Postmodernism pertinent to design are outlined in this section of the site, but to appreciate the full extent of this perspective you are advised to refer to the bibliography in the Theory - Overview section, and to browse some of the many texts available on the subject in your university library.

At a philosophical level, Modernist design methods assumed that objects could have a priori significance – in other words that they could have a predetermined meaning that is in existence prior to the user experiencing the object. This implies that the meaning of the object is constant, predetermined, and independent of its situation. This position allows for the possibility of an absolute and universal meaning to be attached to an artefact, with the act of consumption being a passive reception of given meaning.

The cultural turn implicit in Postmodernism challenges the assumption that the object of study can be an autonomous entity – it is said that an object is not able to speak for itself, but is in fact 'spoken for' by its social and political context. The values associated with the object are determined by the position from which the object is viewed and aesthetic appeal is regarded not as a universal value, outside of history, but rather as an ever-changing quality relative to the circumstance within which the object is consumed. In consequence, the true nature of things is to be found in social processes and structures that surround them, rather than in an intrinsic, immutable quality of the things themselves.

This view challenges the authority of the designer’s decision making. Rather than there being one ideal aesthetic solution to a design brief, there is an acknowledgment that different solutions exist for different circumstances. Instead of being based on an absolute judgement, the aesthetic preference of both the designer and the consumer is a socially determined. Their taste judgements are founded on a complex set of factors including their class, educational background, and location. In other words, there is no ‘correct’ form for an object, but a number of different possible forms, with their legitimacy being dependent on the historical conditions of their reception.

The Consumer

As part of this change in outlook, theorists have begun to regard consumption as a key determinant in the formation of meaning. Once basic needs have been met, the primary motivation for consumption activity, whether conscious or unconscious, is the establishment of social status. This should not be interpreted simply as a hierarchical strategy – or a game of ‘one-upmanship’ – but as a means of sustaining personal identity and confirming membership of a social group. The characteristics of the objects we consume serve as codes that can be read and interpreted by the outside world as indications of our ‘lifestyle’. The car we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and even the kettles and lemon squeezers we use, have become important components in the construction, and expression, of our lifestyle. Where previously people thought of themselves as being defined by their occupational roles, we are now encouraged to define our selves by our consumption choices.

An important shift from the Modernist viewpoint is the acknowledgement that the codes and meanings that are associated with objects – and that allow us to use material possessions in this way – are not fixed, but are a floating quality that can be manipulated and utilised by the designer and the consumer alike. Some objects may acquire several different meanings in their lifetime, according to how they are used and displayed. For instance, for a student to own and display a 1970’s airline bag is more likely to be an ironic statement about how cool they are, than an indication that they are a seasoned air traveller. The meaning of the bag is dramatically changed by the context within which it is viewed.

Market segmentation

As a result of these changes, the role of the designer has altered. The quest for the perfect functional solution to a problem, combined with a universal aesthetic appeal, has given way to the need to infuse products with the aesthetic codes required to appeal to a particular section of the market. As we saw earlier in this module, since the 1950s the developed world has experienced a surplus of consumer products. Most consumer products are now reliable enough, and cheap enough, to satisfy the requirements of even the most demanding user. Now, the challenge for the consumer is navigating the myriad of products available in order to find a purchase that is for ‘them’ – that fits their lifestyle and says the right things about them. The challenge for the designer is through the understanding and manipulation of aesthetic codes, to ensure that their client’s products will appeal to a targeted section of the market. Consequently, designers are increasingly required to work with trend forecasters and brand development consultants who have an intimate understanding of what motivates consumption.

Whilst as a design student you are unlikely to have access to the research resources available to a professional designer, you can use some simple techniques to carry out your own market analysis. Go to Assignment 2 to download a design brief that outlines these techniques, and allows you to put some of these ideas into action.

To see how these changes in theoretical standpoint are reflected in the British design industries follow the link to Flexible Production 1970-1990.