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27 Characteristics of Modern Design

Modern design is design based on the principles of modernism such as form follows function and less is more. This should not be confused with design from the modern-era that was produced according to many philosophies, techniques and styles. The following are the basic characteristics of modern design.


The belief that there is a universal set of rules that all designers should follow.

Form Follows Function

Form follows function is the principle that designs be optimized for functionality as opposed to the creative expression of the designer.


Modern design embraces internationalism whereby designs are the same for all countries as opposed to being crafted to reflect the local culture.


Modern design was the dominant design of the 20th century industrial order. Likewise, modernism can be viewed as the philosophy of industrialization.

Risk Aversion

Modern design is driven by corporate, government and institutional entities that are risk adverse such that a primary motivation is often to avoid criticism.

Less Is More

The principle or ideology of minimalism whereby removing things is viewed as a virtue. This supported the industrial order by continually reducing cost and improving profits.

Science & Technology

Modern design aligns with science and technology as opposed to culture and nature. For example, colors may be selected for scientific or pseudoscientific reasons as opposed to colors that reflect the local culture or nature.

Attractiveness Principle

The principle that you can't make a design visually appealing for everyone because individuals have different perceptions of attractiveness. Modern design doesn't try to visually impress but instead takes the conservative route of trying to be visually inoffensive. This is useful to the industrial system whereby a firm may require a look and feel that is somewhat acceptable to several billion consumers.

Ornament & Crime

A 1913 essay by modern architect Adolf Loos that suggests that decorating things is wasteful because it causes them to quickly go out of style and loose their value. The essay also compares decorative design to tattooing and implies it is a primitive and criminal instinct. This had a great influence on modernist thinking with modern design and architecture largely rejecting decoration and ornamentation.

Design to the Edges

Design to the edges is the principle that designs be useful for as many people as possible including people with disabilities or special needs.


The principle that designs be scalable such that they can be manufactured, marketed and delivered to very large markets.

Industrial Materials

The use of the most practical material for a design including considerations such as cost and mechanical properties. This usually results in the selection of industrial materials such as plastic, concrete and steel.


Dematerialization is the process of making things lighter, smaller and less material intensive including the possibility of removing materials altogether with virtual things. This is a common feature of modern design based on the principle of less is more.

Open Concept

Another extension of less is more whereby interiors are left without dividing walls. This is made possible by industrial materials that allow supporting elements in a building to be relatively small.

Human Factors

The design of things at human scale and consideration of human factors such as color perceptions.

Principle of Least Effort

The principle that it is always a good thing to make things more productive, convenient and comfortable for the customer or user.

Principle of Least Astonishment

The principle that user interfaces work the way that people expect such that there is nothing to learn.

Truth to Materials

The principle that the true nature of materials not be concealed. In the context of modern architecture and design this means that industrial materials such as concrete, plastic and foam are considered attractive without need of color or natural materials as a veneer.

Functional Color

Colors are never used to decorate but are selected for their function such as visual contrast or brightness. Black and white are commonly selected as they are highly functional colors. For example, black maximizes absorption of light and white maximizes reflection.


The principle that visual elements look like they belong together as a whole.


The principle of visual balance often achieved with symmetry.


Modernism views science and technology as a force that is destined to reorder the world according to rational and universal principles.

Mechanical Forms

Most modern design uses mechanical geometrical forms, particularly rectilinear forms such as grids. These are considered more orderly than organic shapes such as a free flowing line.


The development of design standards at the level of a society, industry, organization and team that reduces design to the application of rules.


Breaking things into modules based on function.


Modern design sees nothing wrong with relentless repetition and this may be favored as a symbol of order. For example, a block of 30 large apartment buildings all filled with apartments that are mostly identical.


The pattern of a repetition. According to the principle of less is more this should be as simple as possible. For example, the skin of an office building composed of 1,456 identical sheets of architectural glass such that the rhythm of the design is composed of a single note repeated with no variation.


Postmodern design has replaced modern design as the dominate design philosophy in areas such as architecture, interior design and fashion design. The time period whereby modern design fell out of dominance varies by design domain. Modern design arguably remains dominant in the design of products and user interfaces.
It is common to mistake brave new forms of design as modern, these are usually postmodern as modern design produces results that are familiar and unremarkable by design such as a product that is a white box with no decoration or organic feel to it.
As the dominant form of design of cities, architecture, infrastructure, transportation and landscapes for many decades, modern design has literally transformed the surface of the planet.
With its formulaic approach, modern design may be useful to individuals with limited design experience or ability. It may be oppressive to designers with vast talents such that they are able to break the rules to produce superior results.
Overview: Modern Design
Design based on the principles of modernism such as form follows function and less is more.
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Design Philosophy

This is the complete list of articles we have written about design philosophy.
Abstract Design
Emotional Design
Less Is A Bore
Less Is More
Modeless Design
Modern Design
Modular Design
More Is More
New Complexity
Passive Design
Transition Design
Worse Is Better
More ...
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Dormer, Peter, and Nick Couldry. The meanings of modern design: Towards the twenty-first century. Vol. 500235708. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
Crowley, David, and Jane Pavitt. "Cold War modern: design 1945-1970." (2008).
Sparke, Penny. An introduction to design and culture: 1900 to the present. Routledge, 2013.

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