The Influence Of The New York School Style On Graphic Design

During the 1940s to 1950s, a loose and small organization was born in New York City, there were many vanguard artists in this organization. At the core area of the New York school art movement, there are artists such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Roscoe, who are associated with abstract expressionism, the mission of this New York school art movement was helping to create a unique American avant-garde art.

These representative artists often draw inspiration from surrealism and contemporary avant-garde art movements, especially action painting, abstract expressionism, impromptu, and interactions with friends in the New York City art world. They also shared inspiration with New York School painters. From the 1950s to 1970s, as a really important period of graphic design history in America, there were many graphic designers and artists that produced vast amazing posters, book covers, film titles, etc. Paul Rand, Saul Bass, and Bradbury Thompson, the three most popular graphic designers in that period, were all from New York City. Since the New York school art movement conveyed a uniquely American avant-garde and created stylistically diverse paintings that reflected a desire to embrace spontaneity and individual expression, more and more graphic designers like Paul Rand and Saul Bass derived the core value of New York school to use in their design works. All their works emphasized the presentation of information. As the paintings of the early New York School, especially the abstract expression, they potentially influenced the development of graphic design from the 1950s to 1970s.

Robert Motherwell is considered one of the great American Abstract Expressionist painters. His respected talent not only reflected in his gorgeous, expressive paintings and showing bold black shapes against fields of color, but also made Motherwell one of the leading writers, theorists, and advocates of the New York School art movement. In 1940, Motherwell moved to New York City to study and discover at Columbia University. Motherwell started making paintings. During that period, he realized was that Americans could paint like angels but that there were no creative and innovation principles around so that every artist who liked modern art was copying it3. He was trying to break this rule which existed for a few decades. In 1948, he started to work with his famous Elegy to the Spanish Republic theme, which he continued to develop and create throughout his life. Motherwell uses his Elegies to the Spanish Republic as a 'lamentation or funeral song' after the Spanish Civil War. His recurring subject was vertical long circle and rectangles, repeated in different sizes and degrees of compression and distortion.

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 57 was made in 1957, finished in 1960. There are a lot of Motherwell's artworks looked like this, and that are about the same subject. It's a series that he occupied most of his life. When you look at this artwork, it's easy to see those forms hanging suspended oval forms and the horizontal rectangular shapes that don't ever touch the bottom. The painterly quality around the edges of the forms, makes it hard to tell whether the white paint is in front of the black paint. There is something about the shapes, the way they were painted, and the black and white that suggested for Motherwell, something about fascism, the Spanish Republic, and Franco. All issues relating to the Spanish Civil War and loss of democracy. This is a good example to show us how Motherwell uses an abstract language to embody his humanist feelings, his deep sense of loss and mourning and elegy. It's hard to know what these forms meant to him, but it's not hard to feel a brooding sense of entrapment when people standing in front of this artwork. In the first artwork of this series, there was an original poem which was from great Spanish poet Lorca, At five in the afternoon. But without the poem, most people could not understand the meaning of this artwork, so Motherwell needed to find an idiom, a visual language that can convey it that is solemn enough. The visual language was the most important part Motherwell developed.

Jazzways yearbook cover was designed by Paul Rand (1914-1996) who is the idol of American graphic design. Rand most creatively applied European avant-garde art movements such as Cubism and Constructivism to graphic design in the United States. His philosophy, as expressed in his work, suggests that visual language should integrate form and function5. Rand shows how to use color to limit simplicity, balance, and draw the audience's eyes into the view and make you want to read more. In addition, the cut photos make us more interested than the complete picture can do. Simple is not the goal. This is a by-product of good ideas and modest expectations.

In the design of the Jazzway’s yearbook cover, Rand uses color, symbolic forms, colleges and dynamic movements, all of which show his creativity. Rand contrasts colors, layouts, patterns, textures, geometric shapes, and depth and space in jazz. These colors and patterns accentuate the extremely flat red background, which enhances the viewing of the entire picture. The main geometric shape in the picture is the triangle, which attracts the attention of the audience. Rand uses repetitive thin lines in the triangle to attract attention by the weight of the thin lines and the prominent white triangle background. The triangle becomes the center of the audience's vision. In addition, personalization, the dynamic shape of the triangle, the use of glasses, and the ability to play the instrument make the triangle different from other inanimate shapes. This life-creating graphic design method was created by Rand, who conveyed the concept of the magazine to his readers in his unique and novel way. In his advertising work, his ads look very simple, but more compelling. Rand brings ideas and wisdom to advertising. His ads are conceptually sharp and visually clever, and every detail is eye-catching. He often divides the design into two parts; the quality that attracts attention and the smaller quality that requires closer attention. Rand has the ability to simplify shapes, colors and spaces into the most compelling forms, and surprisingly most of his work remains the same in contemporary times. His visual stimuli, problem-solving graphic design methods have attracted loyal admirers throughout his life, and he still has influence today.

The Man with the Golden Arm was designed by Saul Bass (1920-1996) who is the greatest graphic designer and artist in the United States. Bass also was a pioneer of the New York School movement. Between 1954 and 1995, he not only brought graphic design to the attention of Hollywood and to the forefront of the sixties art movements but revolutionized the way we watch films. 8 Bass used to design and draw the organic graphics to let people know the main idea for the project that they are looking at. In addition, he likes to put real photos and graphics together to give audiences an immersive feeling. In the design of The man with the Golden Arm one sheet, Bass uses many heavy dark colors around this art. Bass contrasts layouts, patterns, textures, geometric shapes, and depth and space in the organic arms and the title of this movie. He was very good at showing the story which extremely related to the film, behind the artwork. The main geometric shape in the picture is the organic rectangle, which attracts the attention of the audience. There was a very avant-garde design theory that no one thought about it before; to put the picture and flat colored shape together and it give some single-colors on the top. The theory behind this thinking is that Bass wanted to emphasize the moments in this movie, which is a good way to explain the brief story within the small space. In addition, it's easy to see that every character was facing to the title of the movie and the arms. This is an excellent design decision that Bass made for this artwork. It does not only catch people's eyes in the middle of the space but also highlight the story of this movie.

In conclusion, the pioneering artists of the New York School, led by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, influenced many art and design students through their thinking and technique of expression. During that period, rapid business development has made designers more and more valued, poster design, book design, movie title design, etc. At that time in New York, some artists became designers because of a large number of commercial needs and brought many New York school ideas and methods into the design industry. From my previous analysis, it is not difficult to find out that Robert Motherwell, Paul Rand, and Saul Bass have many similarities in their works, they were good at using some abstract heavy color geometric graphics to express their ideas and strong visual contrast makes the work become attractive, so the audience is more willing to pay attention to these works. However, most viewers have a lot of deviations from the understanding of some abstract geometric figures, especially those for the commercial field. As a result, in the designs of Paul Rand and Saul Bass, you can see some texts on the works and some interesting typography derived from the texts. Therefore, the paintings of the early New York School, especially abstract expressionism, potentially influenced the development of graphic design from the 1950s to 1970s.


  1. Herskovic Marika,’ New York School abstract expressionists (New York School Press, 2000).
  2. Philip B. Meggs, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), p.257.
  3. Fineberg, Johnathan. Art since 1940: Strategies of Being: Third Edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 323.
  4. The Museum of Modern Art, (MoMA Highlights, MoMA Highlights New York: The. Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999) p. 244.
  5. Philip B. Meggs, Meggs' history of graphic design, Hoboken, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2016)
  6. Paul Rand, A designer's art, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. p.12 Iconofgraphics. 'Paul Rand,' Iconofgraphics. Accessed on April 25, 2019.
  7. Simon Arms. Saul Bass: The Evolution of an Artist. 2014.
  8. Philip B. Meggs, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012)
  9. Bass Jennifer, Saul Bass: a life in film & design (Laurence King 2011). P.32 10
09 March 2021
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