1970s Graphic Design: Trends, Designers, and Creativity
The 1970s – a decade of social change and creative experimentation that ushered in a new era of graphic design. As the revolutionary counterculture of the 1960s gave way to a more uncertain time, graphic designers responded with bold, psychedelic styles that captured the freewheeling spirit of the times.
Musicians like David Bowie and Pink Floyd were pushing the boundaries of rock, and their surreal, otherworldly album covers provided graphic inspiration. Designers embraced vivid colour palettes, flowing organic shapes, and optical illusions. Psychedelic posters advertised concerts and events with fantastical artwork that echoed the trippy light shows of the venues. Avant-garde typography broke free of strict modernist conventions with wiggly, hand-drawn letters or futuristic, space-age fonts.
Fashion also took a wild turn, from flared jeans and retro prints to glittery disco flair. Graphic designers imprinted t-shirt designs with iron-on transfers, adding a new canvas for self-expression. As the punk rock movement gained momentum, ransom-note collages and gritty zines spread the anti-establishment message through bold DIY graphics.
Throughout the decade, print design, album covers, and poster art all served as creative outlets for designers to capture the nonconformist energy of the times. The postmodernist and New Wave styles pioneered in the 1970s would continue reverberating through graphic design. The era still stands as a testament to the power of innovative graphics to reflect and shape the culture of an age.
Join us as we take a vibrant visual journey back to the 1970s – a defining time for graphic arts and creative rebellion. We'll explore the people, styles, and culture that made this decade so visionary in the design world.
A Time of Change
The 1970s was a transformative decade of social change and activism in the United States. The civil rights movement, which began in the 1950s, continued to fight for racial equality and justice. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and groups like the Black Panthers pushed for reforms to combat institutional racism against African Americans. The women's liberation movement also gained momentum as women fought against gender discrimination and sought equal rights and opportunities.
These movements sparked broader questions about identity, power structures, and human rights. Activists challenged traditional social norms and values, speaking out against war, environmental destruction, and other injustices. “Power to the people” became a rallying cry.
Designers responded to this cultural upheaval, using graphic design as a tool for activism and expression. Posters, logos, illustrations, and other designs gave visual form to the ideas fueling these social movements. For example, the iconic “Black Power” fist symbol, designed in 1967 by Emory Douglas for The Black Panther newspaper, became a unifying emblem of black identity and self-determination. Its graphic simplicity and unequivocal message embodied the spirit of the civil rights movement.
Other designs, like Milton Glaser's psychedelic Bob Dylan poster or Sister Corita Kent's vibrant serigraphs containing social commentary, pushed boundaries in form and content. These experimental designs reflected countercultural perspectives. Music festivals like Woodstock, with specially designed posters and logos, also became visual touchpoints of the anti-establishment subculture.
Throughout the 1970s, design mirrored a rapidly changing society and actively shaped the era's culture and politics. The bold, aggressive aesthetics in much activist graphic design starkly contrasted with the polished advertising imagery of the 1960s. For many designers, their work became an act of protest, challenging traditional hierarchies and giving voice to marginalised groups through impactful visual communication.
Groovy Tunes and Psychedelic Art
Music was a major cultural force in the 1970s, shaping fashion, art, and politics. New genres like psychedelic rock, disco, and funk took centre stage, each with its distinct sound and visual aesthetic.
Psychedelic and surrealist influences entered graphic design, creating visually arresting, mind-bending album covers and posters. Bands like Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, and The Rolling Stones worked with designers to create surreal landscapes filled with vivid colours, optical illusions, and fantastical imagery that mirrored the experimental, hallucinogenic sound of the music.
The swirling, tie-dyed patterns and kaleidoscopic colours of psychedelic art were bold departures from minimalist modernism and reflected the era's spirit of radical self-expression and defiance of convention. Similarly, the stylised illustrations and sexualised imagery of disco album covers captured the scene's emphasis on freedom, dancing, and sexuality.
These graphic design innovations paralleled developments in photography, fashion, and film. Figures like Annie Leibovitz expanded the creative possibilities of album cover photos through inventive concepts and techniques. Style absorbed psychedelic influences through bright colours and wild prints, while movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey delivered stunning visual effects.
Overall, graphic design in the 1970s fused art, music, and culture into iconic images that gave visual identity to the sounds and ethos of an eclectic, transformative decade. The era's bold aesthetic continues to influence artists and designers today.
The fashion trends of the 1970s made a significant impact on culture and design. Bell bottoms, platform shoes, and bold, geometric patterns defined the decade's fashion aesthetic. Designers embraced these daring styles, integrating them into their creations.
The bell bottoms of the 1970s originated from a nautical design but took on an exaggerated flare. Paired with platform shoes, they created an eye-catching silhouette. Graphic, modular patterns in vibrant colours also dominated the era's aesthetic. Psychedelic prints and optical illusions reflected the influence of the 1960s counterculture.
Fashion designers drew inspiration from these bold looks, incorporating them into their collections. Diane von Fürstenberg's iconic wrap dress epitomised 1970s style with vibrant prints and figure-flattering silhouettes. Its enormous popularity cemented the graphic, mod look in mainstream fashion. Other designers like Halston and Yves Saint Laurent also embraced bold colours, prints and shapes in defining 70s style.
The fashion trends of the 1970s went on to broadly influence design in other areas. Graphic designers incorporated mod prints, colours and shapes into posters, album covers and other works. The decade's aesthetic can still be seen in retro-inspired designs today. Though bell bottoms and platform shoes may no longer dominate the runway, the bold, expressive spirit of 1970s style continues to impact modern fashion and design.
Characteristics of 1970s Graphic Design
The 1970s was a pivotal decade that shaped graphic design in countless ways. From bold colour palettes to surreal imagery, the visual culture of the 70s continues to captivate and inspire designers today. Let's explore some defining characteristics that made 1970s design so groundbreaking.
Vibrant, Psychedelic Colour Palettes
Colour was used creatively and psychologically in the 70s graphic design. Earthy tones like burnt orange and avocado green conveyed warmth and nostalgia. Metallic disco palettes captured the era's glitz and glam. Bright neons reflected psychedelic experimentation. These vivid hues starkly contrasted the muted palettes of previous decades.
Colour also took on a deeper meaning. Burnt orange elicited feelings of cosiness and nostalgia for simpler times. Disco-era metallics mirrored the glittering escapism of the dance floor. Psychologists believe colour can impact moods and emotions, so 1970s designers harnessed this power through strategic colour choices.
Surreal, Psychedelic Art Influences
The mind-altering aesthetic of psychedelic art heavily influenced graphic design in the 70s. Surrealism also remained prominent, with designers embracing fantastical imagery. Bright patterns and optical illusions that played with perception were common. These trippy graphics rejected structure and traditional design rules.
Artists like Heinz Edelmann, whose surreal illustrations defined the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, impacted design. Salvador Dalí also inspired dreamlike visuals and warped perspectives. This surreal approach aligned with the era's radical experimentation and personal expression spirit.
Handcrafted, DIY Typography
The 70s saw a significant shift towards handcrafted custom typography. Designers rebelled against previous eras' stiff, uniform fonts by hand-drawing display type and logos. This artisanal approach aligned with counterculture DIY values and emphasised individuality.
Whimsical hand-lettering with uneven baselines, thick and thin strokes, and embellishments became popular. Calligraphy and script fonts also provided a more freeform alternative to traditional serif and sans-serif typefaces. Overall, typography took on a more personal, retro feel compared to the sleek minimalism of later decades.
New Printing Technology and Techniques
Advances in offset printing and phototypesetting expanded the graphic possibilities of the 70s. Phototypesetting allowed designers to experiment with various typefaces, angles, and scales. Offset printing enabled more detailed and intricate designs with layered elements and effects.
These new techniques opened the door to more photorealistic and complex designs. Richly detailed illustrations, muted duotones, and enhanced colour gradients could be reproduced precisely. Overall, printing upgrades enabled designers to realise their visions without technical limitations fully.
Notable Designers of the 1970s
Behind every iconic era of design, some visionary designers lead the way. Let's meet some of the creative minds who shaped 1970s graphic design.
Milton Glaser: The Man Behind the “I ♥ NY” Logo
Milton Glaser is a legendary graphic designer whose creativity and vision have left an indelible mark on the design world. He is perhaps best known for creating the iconic “I ♥ NY” logo in 1977, which has since become a globally recognised symbol of New York City.
The genesis of this now-ubiquitous logo is humbler than one might imagine. It was created as part of a pro bono marketing campaign commissioned by New York's city government to help promote tourism and boost morale in a city plagued by crime, grime, and economic turmoil in the 1970s.
Glaser's brilliantly simple design featured a vibrant red heart symbol and chunky lettering spelling “NY.” The message was clear – New York is the city of love, the heart of America, a place worthy of affection despite its flaws. His ability to distil the spirit of a diverse, complex city into a visual haiku spoke to Glaser's talents as a designer and communicator.
- Hardcover Book
- Heller, Steven (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 288 Pages – 03/29/2023 (Publication Date) – The Monacelli Press (Publisher)
Over the decades, the “I ♥ NY” logo transcended its original purpose, evolving into a globally recognised symbol of New York City. The logo's ubiquity on t-shirts, hats, posters, and more reflects Glaser's design's timeless, universal appeal. His use of colour, composition, symbolism, and typography combined to create an image that immediately conveys meaning and emotion to viewers worldwide.
Beyond the “I ♥ NY” logo, Glaser's work in the 1960s and 70s also impacted graphic design. He utilised bold colours, inventive illustrations, and elements of psychedelia to create posters, magazine covers, and advertising campaigns that captured the visual zeitgeist of the era.
Glaser proved that effective design requires technical skill, imagination, storytelling, and an understanding human nature. His legacy demonstrates the power of graphic design to distil complex ideas into simple, evocative images that resonate across cultures and generations. Over four decades after its creation, few logos or graphic designs have proven as timeless and universally beloved as Glaser's ode to New York City. His work will continue inspiring designers and delighting audiences for many years.
Paula Scher: Breaking Boundaries with Postmodernism
Paula Scher has had an immense influence as a trailblazer in the postmodern graphic design movement. Her experimental and rule-breaking approach fundamentally challenged the status quo of graphic design in the late 20th century.
Scher catapulted onto the design scene in the 1970s and 80s through her innovative work at CBS Records and other major corporations. She began bucking modernist traditions of order and simplicity by incorporating irreverent visual puns, historical references, and absurd juxtapositions into her designs. Her maximalist style was bold, complex, and unapologetically chaotic at times.
Scher's designs for the Public Theater in New York are some of her most iconic works, featuring vivid colours, unconventional textures, and visual plays on words that subverted expectations. Her Swatch poster series exemplified her postmodernist spirit, as she remixed and collaged disparate artistic and vernacular elements into surreal pop art pieces.
- Scher, Paula (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 256 Pages – 09/15/2020 (Publication Date) – Princeton Architectural Press (Publisher)
As one of the chief pioneers of the postmodern style, Scher permitted designers to view their work through an avant-garde lens. Her audacious ideas and “rules-free” approach to design inspired designers to think outside the box and use imagery in new, provocative ways. She challenged the notion that design always had to be clean, orderly and conform to modernist ideals.
Scher's trailblazing work opened the doors for more postmodern designers like David Carson, who upended conventions with his grungy, chaotic designs. She paved the way for a more iconoclastic, irreverent sensibility, emphasising visual wit, historical reference, and deconstructed layouts. Scher proved that pushing boundaries and breaking rules could yield innovative design solutions that engage audiences unexpectedly. Her impact forever changed graphic design's visual vocabulary.
Peter Saville: Revolutionising Album Art
Peter Saville is a legendary graphic designer who revolutionised album cover art in the 1970s. His innovative designs for bands like Joy Division and New Order didn't just complement the music – they helped define the visual identity of entire music scenes.
When Saville first started designing album covers, most followed a standard format – just a photo of the band members or a literal depiction of the album title. Saville broke the mould completely, using complex and sometimes cryptic imagery that perfectly encapsulated the feeling of the music within. For example, his stark cover for Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures shows pulsar waves from a radio telescope. This cold, scientific image matches the dark, reflective mood of the post-punk album.
- English (Publication Language)
- 380 Pages – 10/25/2022 (Publication Date) – Soul Jazz Records (Publisher)
Saville's album art didn't just represent the music – it also came to represent an entire cultural movement. His covers for Factory Records bands like Joy Division and New Order visually defined the Manchester post-punk scene. With its elaborate colour-coded maze, the famous cover of New Order's Power, Corruption, and Lies inspired countless imitators seeking to capture a similar aesthetic.
Many wondered if bold cover art would still matter as album art shifted away from vinyl and CDs towards digital catalogues. But Saville has continued to produce iconic designs, from Pulp's compilation album to projects with contemporary bands like Manic Street Preachers. Saville's album covers are instantly recognisable triumphs of graphic design that forever changed how albums could be represented visually. Nearly 50 years since his first commissions, Saville's revolutionary album artwork remains influential and impactful.
The Enduring Influence of 1970s Graphic Design
Nostalgia is a powerful force in today's culture, and many modern brands are tapping into the visual language of the 1970s to evoke a sense of nostalgia and connection to the past in their audience. From retro-inspired logos and fonts to earth-toned colour palettes and natural textures, 1970s design elements are making a significant comeback.
Branding Nostalgia Through Retro Design
Major brands are bringing back 1970s-era logos, packaging, and advertising styles to appeal to consumers who fondly remember these designs from their youth. PepsiCo recently reintroduced its 1970s logo and slogans for limited-edition packaging, which sparked nostalgia among Gen X consumers. Other brands like Carl's Jr. have featured 1970s celebrities in ads or created retro-style commercials that transport viewers back to the decade. This nostalgic branding establishes an emotional connection with consumers by reminding them of beloved childhood brands.
1970s Homage in Pop Culture Visual Media
If you're a fan of movies, TV shows, or music videos, you've likely noticed copious references to 1970s style and culture. Content creators often draw from the iconic fonts, colour palettes, fashion, and graphic imagery of the 1970s to evoke nostalgia or pay homage to the era's singular aesthetics.
Quentin Tarantino's recent film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” beautifully captures the look and feel of 1970s Los Angeles with painstakingly recreated retro outfits, signage, and graphic props that fully immerse viewers in the era. Beyoncé's music videos feature disco-inspired sequences with earth tones and retro silhouettes celebrating 1970s style. This homage to the decade in pop culture helps keep its legacy alive.
Learning 1970s Design History & Techniques in the Digital Age
Today, Graphic design education recognises the importance of studying the field's evolution to inform current practices. Design schools ensure 1970s styles and techniques remain relevant by teaching them alongside modern digital design.
Courses at leading design schools like Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) offer in-depth studies of 1970s design history and principles. Students learn typography, colour palettes, illustration styles, and layout techniques integral to 1970s aesthetics that still influence graphic design today. This pedagogy preserves the rich design heritage of the 1970s while equipping students to evolve its principles in the digital age.
The 1970s revival in branding, pop culture, and academics proves the decade made a memorable and lasting impact on graphic design that continues to shape the field today. By keeping its legacy alive, we enrich design's future evolution.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What defines the colour palette of 1970s graphic design?
The 1970s were known for their vibrant and earthy colour schemes, with hues like burnt orange, avocado green, and harvest gold taking centre stage.
Who were some prominent graphic designers of the 1970s?
Notable designers from the 1970s include Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, and Peter Saville, each known for their unique contributions to the field.
How did technology influence graphic design in the 1970s?
Advancements in printing technology allowed for innovative design techniques, such as phototypesetting and offset printing.
What role did DIY culture play in 1970s graphic design?
DIY culture had a significant impact, leading to handcrafted typography and a rebellion against traditional design norms.
Are there any modern brands that draw inspiration from 1970s graphic design?
Many contemporary brands incorporate 1970s design elements to evoke nostalgia and appeal to a retro-loving audience.
The 1970s were indeed a remarkable and revolutionary decade for graphic design. A period of immense creativity, artistic experimentation, and influential innovation shaped the field indelibly. Vibrant, psychedelic colour palettes became ubiquitous as designers embraced a more radical and expressive aesthetic. Surrealism and retro-futurism provided endless inspiration for fantastical, dreamlike designs that captured the free spirit of the times. Visionaries like Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, and Muriel Cooper pushed the boundaries of print, motion, and multimedia design in new directions that still reverberate today. They explored early digital techniques, avant-garde typography, and cinematic approaches to image-making.
Moreover, the 1970s nurtured a dynamic design culture where numerous influential studios, publications, and collectives flourished. From Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters to studios like Pentagram and Chermayeff & Geismar, creative hubs catalysed bold new styles and philosophies. Magazines like Emigre disseminated cutting-edge ideas from the postmodern, deconstructionist design wing. This highly fertile period's radical thinking and formal experimentation would provide the foundations for digital-era design.
Indeed, the innovative spirit of the 1970s continues to inspire designers today. The decade's visual audacity, conceptual brilliance, and willingness to break conventions have become integral to contemporary graphic design identity. Its pioneers shaped the field's trajectory over the past half-century, proving that groundbreaking design maintains its power and relevance across generations. In sum, the 1970s forged an exuberant design legacy whose impacts reverberate through our visual culture.
Last update on 2023-09-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API