Russian Graphic Design: Drawing on Constructivism

December 18, 2014

There are few areas of design that are as riddled with visual cliches as the West’s approach to Russia. When offered a brief that has a Russian or Communist connection, many designers stick to the same script: a tight palette of red, black and white, and a general Constructivist look, with a triangle or at least a healthy bias towards the diagonal, and, above all, a couple of Cyrillic letters thrown in.

Whether you’re honing your craft at graphic design school or are already a seasoned professional, we’re here to break down the pitfalls that just about everyone falls into when it comes to Russian-themed design (and how to get out of the rut).

From Russia With… Threadbare Clichés

It is easy to see why Constructivism is such a popular choice for graphic designers. The images created in the early years of the Soviet Union are bold, instantly recognizable and still strikes a chord, even though the style has been around for almost a hundred years.

First appearing in Russia in 1919, Constructivism developed as a form of art devoted to social purposes, rejecting the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ that was so popular at the turn of the century.

The new movement developed a style that focused on a stripped-down palette of primary colors, the frequent use of photo-montage, and a preference for sharp angles and straight lines rather than curves. As you might expect for an art form that emphasized art’s social responsibilities, Constructivist artists such as Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Lyubov Popova used their skills to produce fantastic posters with a social message, such as this one, which promotes books: Constructivism is a seductive style to adopt, and many designers have fallen for it when covering briefs about twentieth century Russia, or even for anywhere beyond the old Iron Curtain.

But the Constructivist style has appeared on book jackets, film posters, album covers and posters for decades now, and it’s beginning to look a little tired. On one hand, by tapping into this imagery a designer will immediately alert their audience to the subject of their work, but these days the designer will also be revealing their own inability to think outside of the box – or rather, outside of the famous red triangle.

However, while the Constructivist style is something that should be played with or used with caution by modern designers, the terrible habit of throwing in the odd Cyrillic letter into a sentence in Roman script should be avoided at all costs.

While it might signal ‘Russia’ to some, it is like nails on a blackboard to those who can read Russian, as it very often makes no sense. Lazy designers often flip the letter R in Russia, color the word in a good Communist red and think their job is done…

… Except ‘Яussia’ spells the non-existent word Yaoossia if the Я is pronounced properly. There’s nothing guaranteed to set a Russian speaker’s teeth on edge faster than these misplaced bits of Cyrillic. Using strong Russian-themed fonts will have the same recognisability without the potential for irritation – usually, a simple art deco font will give you all the flavoring you need without looking completely hammy:

Luckily, there is a way for designers to expand their Russian visual arsenal without having to learn the language fluently.

While the vocabulary of Constructivism itself has become overused, the style of the fantastically over-the-top Socialist Realism posters has not yet been fully explored. Colorful, broadly painted, muscular workers staring off into the blissful Communist Future, solid women in headscarves, factories glowing in the sunrise: there is plenty more mileage to be found in these images from an artistic point of view (if you ignore the political idolatry behind it!)

Designers can also turn to other artists for inspiration. Russian twentieth century art is every bit as good and as moving as that of the rest of the world, but the Cold War has rather stifled its reputation in the West. Aristarkh Lentulov‘s Russian Cubism, with its brightly-colored onion domes, are beautiful and memorable images, or the flamboyant imagery of Leon Bakst, the designer who worked with the Ballet Russe.

Looking closely at traditional Russian folk art can also produce fantastic results. The beautiful miniature paintings found on the tiny black boxes from Palekh look ancient, but these paintings only developed in the twentieth century and are ripe for adaptation:

Graphic design is at its best when constantly moving forward – precisely the reason why people study graphic design in order to better themselves – and the current obsession with Constructivism and backwards-looking letters is keeping designers stuck on a loop.

Sticking to these tropes for Russian or Communist-themed design is like illustrating everything remotely American with pictures of Cowboys and Indians. Russia has a rich and complex visual history that is waiting to be explored by more intrepid and adventurous designers.