In the second of our two-part series, discover the key moments that rocked the design world from 1960 to the present day.
We pick up the story at the end of the 1950s, when the Mid-Century Modern movement was bringing stylish and functional furniture, products, and branding into everyday homes. Nonetheless, change was in the air.
Defined by alternative and experimental forms of design, the period between 1960 and 2020 is the postmodern era, with individualism taking center-stage after the conformist decades of the early 20th century.
Below, we delve into graphic design’s illustrious past, marking the movements, individuals, and creations that have defined design over the last half-century. And, catch up on the first installment of Design Through the Decades.
1960s – 2020: Postmodernism and the Digital Age
In the aftermath of two World Wars, modernist designers reacted with an optimistic and utopian manifesto, aiming to create an ideal world through design that prioritized simplicity and functionality.
Postmodernism is less well-understood as a movement. However, in simple terms, it was all about shattering the utopian ideals cherished by modernists. Complexity and contradiction were at the heart of postmodernist design, with a wide range of styles emerging from it between the 1970s and 1990s—from dystopia to punk, psychedelia to grunge.
The excess and exuberance of postmodernism couldn’t last forever, and although it still has a significant influence on design today, its anarchic spirit has been replaced with consumer interest in pop culture and technology. The 1990s onwards represents the digital age, which has had a hugely transformative effect on graphic design and the design industry as a whole.
While we now engage with design on screens as much (or more) as print, the last half of the 20th century has paved the way for digital design as we know it. Read on to discover how, as well as the movements and styles that shaped the look of recent decades.
1960s: Modernism Tests its Limits
After the tasteful moderation of the 1950s, consumers were ready for something radically different. The Swinging 60s was the decade of exaggeration in design and fashion—short hemlines, Op Art (optical illusion art), and vibrant colors. It was also an era of social and cultural upheaval with the women’s liberation and Civil Rights movements, Rock and Roll and the Summer of Love.
In graphic design, there was a definitive split in stylistic approaches. In Europe, the International Typographic Style (also known as the Swiss Style) was favored for editorial and poster design, emphasizing orderly grids and sans serif typography. Alongside this, German designer Dieter Rams was spearheading the Functionalist movement in industrial design. His products for Braun represented a quietly useful aesthetic, mirroring the Swiss Style approach in graphics.
Over in New York, and at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were combining commercial design and art, developing the Pop Art movement. Food packaging, celebrities, and cartoon strips were all potential subjects for pop artists, with the lines blurring between art and graphic design.
1970s: The Experimental Decade
Although sometimes recalled as the decade that taste forgot, the 1970s actually represented some of the most inventive and experimental years for graphic design.
With anti-establishment culture on the rise, influenced by the burgeoning music scene, this decade saw graphic design and music intertwine. Disco, folk, and rock fostered their own design style “tribes,” with Rolling Stone magazine championing experimental-type and rock-infused graphics. Meanwhile, the punk movement in Britain spawned its own sub-culture of anarchic poster and album cover design that incorporated newspaper collage, neon, and hand-scrawled typography.
In commercial design, photography was increasingly favored over illustration during the 1970s, and larger-than-life typefaces with earthy colors and cartoonish curves were widely popular.
The 1970s also saw the continued evolution of corporate branding, with many of today’s mega-brands formulating logo designs over this period. Some of the best-known corporate identities were created by American graphic designer Paul Rand, who continued to champion modernist approaches to brand design. In the spirit of the experimental, eye-popping era, he reimagined the logo he had created for IBM in bold blue stripes.
1980s: The “Designer’s Decade”
While the 1970s was a decade of social freedom and multiple cultural and social movements, the 1980s can arguably be summed up in just one word: money.
Consumerism was booming, and excess was in vogue. Often recalled as the “Designer’s Decade,” the 1980s were all about maximalism across the design board. It wasn’t enough for products, furniture, and graphics to be functional, they had to make a style statement.
The Memphis Group, established in Italy in the early 1980s, was influential in shaping the theatricality of 1980s design. Forget authenticity and subtlety. Vivid colors, graphic shapes, and a celebration of falsity linked Memphis Style furniture and other designs with New Wave culture, which was bold, brash, and exciting.
While the 1980s is recognizable today by its celebration of excess, there were also different design movements that left a lasting impact on graphic design. Neo noir, a revival of film noir, was a consistent thread throughout 1980s cinema. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, was the first major neo noir movie to enrapture 1980s audiences. It ushered in a new aesthetic for designers, blending moody 1940s references with neon type and dramatic, cinematic illustrations.
1990s: Design on the Catwalk
The 1990s is enjoying a revival in graphic design at the moment, and for good reason. This decade saw a return of the less-is-more approach favored by the Modernists, in reaction to the over-the-top aesthetic favored during the 1980s.
Luxury fashion took its place at the top of the design chain, with catwalk styles filtering across into interior and product design, and fashion advertising becoming a leader for graphic design trends.
Fashion designers like Calvin Klein ushered in an era of minimalism, favoring clean lines, neutral colors, and natural beauty. Running alongside a general move towards minimalism was the anti-design movement, which had an anarchic-meets-lethargic spirit. The fashion industry latched onto grunge, which began as a music movement in San Francisco, and transformed it into the new, idealized epitome of cool.
American graphic designer David Carson is credited with introducing grunge into graphic design. Famously self-taught, Carson used experimental typography to spectacular effect in his designs for Ray Gun, a Californian alternative music magazine.
2000s: Graphic Design Goes Global
After a decade of down-to-earth coolness and grunge dominating the design scene—qualities still aspired to by graphic designers today—the 2000s don’t always feel quite as impactful.
However, the decade of bling, pop punk, and R&B saw the increased formalization of graphic design as a major industry. It also witnessed the discipline align with other professional creative fields such as architecture and industrial design. It was during the 2000s that “rebranding” became not only desirable, but essential in a fast-paced and increasingly digitized consumer market, with graphic design agencies like Pentagram creating some of the most widely-recognized brand identities for clients worldwide.
Stylistically, the 2000s inherited the fashion-forward ethos of the previous decade, with New York (in particular) as a center of fashion and consumerism. Sex and the City brought high-fashion and rhinestone-encrusted typography to the small screen, and pink, favored by Juicy Couture and punk pop fans, became the undisputed color of the decade.
Arguably the most iconic design of the 2000s was the traditional poster. In 2008, LA-based street artist Shepard Fairey designed a now-iconic stencil portrait of presidential candidate Barack Obama. Teamed with the word “HOPE” in vintage-inspired sans-serif type, the style of the design has been widely copied (and parodied) ever since.
2010s: Vintage Revival and Flat Design
With internet usage at an all-time high and smartphones a part of daily life, perhaps we’d have expected the 2010s to be a decade of futuristic design. Not so. Brands shunned tech-inspired styles in favor of vintage-inspired design, which looked to 19th century woodcut styles and rural influences. The result was rustic logos that helped digital brands feel older and more established.
Grunge textures, stamp-style branding, and humanist fonts became the hallmarks of “hipster” design, adorning coffee shop windows and website landing pages.
Alongside the vintage design revival, flat design became the dominant graphic style of the decade, believed (arguably erroneously) to improve the usability of apps. Digital design continued to branch away from print design, with UX design, web development, and app design formalizing into stand-alone disciplines with their own stylistic preferences. In 2010, Google launched Google Fonts, providing web fonts free of charge.
From Free Love to Free Fonts
In the first part of our Design Through the Decades series, we looked at how Modernism developed through five decades and survived two World Wars to become the dominant doctrine of design worldwide. The 1960s stretched the boundaries of Modernism, and by the 70s, a more experimental and individualist vision of design was in vogue.
In just over half a century, graphic design as an industry has evolved from commercial art to corporate necessity, with big business now placing brand design at the heart of their marketing strategies.
In the last three decades, computer technology and the internet has also transformed the design industry almost unrecognizably. Digital design now sits alongside print as an equal, and it seems likely digital designers will only enjoy more prominence in the near future.
Catch up on the first part of our Design Through the Decades series, and discover how the Modernists came to shape graphic design as we know it today.
Discover more about the fascinating history of photography, art, and design with these in-depth reads: