When looking at the scope of design through the decades, one thing is certain: graphic design is an ever-present part of our culture. Just like many other aspects of life and society, design evolves with time. From cultural movements to technological advancement, there are many contributing factors to the ongoing evolution of design.
One of the most intriguing qualities of design through the decades is that the landscape continuously changes. Design keeps us guessing. Design can be unexpected. Design keeps us on our toes, offering a mix of fresh new concepts blended with cyclical nods to trends of the past.
The creation of the first electronic computer in 1950 paved the way for the digital era of graphic design. We’re still amidst this era, and design continues to adapt and thrive. Design has made great strides during the past 50 or so years, whether it meant embracing bold color trends, the advantageous Photoshop coming into play or customizing content to adapt to a smartphone screen. Design is clever, smart and has always been along for the ride.
Along with humanity, design evolves. Here, we’ll explore some major design movements from decades past that happened within the digital era.
Design through the ’60s
We’ll start with the swingin’ ‘60s. The BBC broadcasted the first episode of “Dr. Who.” The Vietnam War was at its height. An era of rebellious, booming and witty art, designers yearned to escape their reality, experiment with their work and take creative risks.
Beginning in Britain during the mid-’50s, pop art largely influenced Western design with a variety of countries contributing to the movement well into the ’60s. Iconized for its pop culture imagery and references, artists and designers used pop art to revolt against the institutionalized art they’d been taught at school. The movement was about taking something mundane and ordinary and turning it into a quirky conversation piece. It offered a lighthearted antidote to the political turmoil of the time.
During the late ’60s, we saw an escape from the brash realism of pop art. David Bowie’s Space Oddity provided the soundtrack and designers followed suit with a space-age aesthetic across many creative industries like interior and fashion design.
At the same time, the psychedelic movement was in full bloom. Hippies rooted it in music and art, protesting against the social upheaval that surrounded them.
As a whole, psychedelic design offered an immersive experience. It stimulated the senses through fantasy imagery, kaleidoscopic and spiral patterns, ultra-bright colors, extremely intricate detail and groovy typography. From the success of Woodstock 1969 to the rise of designers like Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso, the hype around this aesthetic provided a palette to bounce off for the cheerful colors of the next era.
Design through the ’70s
Design warmed up in the ‘70s, both literally and figuratively, thanks to captivating colors, thick lines, and eye-catching floral patterns. Design culture was driven by disco, funk and free love while peace and happiness. It was a time when design felt mellow and chill, while simultaneously impactful and striking.
With the conclusion of the Vietnam War, it was a cheerful time in the world, and design followed suit. From vivid orange to sunny yellow, warm color palettes reigned supreme. Along with the happy warm gradients, we saw an emergence of rainbow themes, like the iconic Partridge Family TV show’s logo, which features saturated rainbow colors on charming birds.
A telltale aspect of ‘70s design was freeform typography. The groovy curves, heavy line weights and lack of structure evoked a laid-back attitude which perfectly paired with the decade. There’s a casual, friendly quality that came with freeform typography, and it offered a seamless pairing with warm color palettes and peaceful hippie vibes.
Design through the ’80s
The 1980s was a time of game-changing cultural shifts. It began with the launch of MTV, aka the world’s first 24-hour channel for music videos.
Paving the way for multimedia graphic design, MTV was initially only available in parts of New Jersey, before becoming a cultural sensation in North America, Europe and Asia. Its presence gave designers the opportunity to create watchable, musical art for the widespread public. Recording artists and visual artists had a way to collaborate and get their work featured in many places. Suddenly, art was playing on a screen in a living room and in the background of a local pub. Art was everywhere.
Meanwhile, fashion found new shapes and silhouettes with power suits, leggings and denim-on-denim. Sure, the ‘80s were tacky, but they also had their groundbreaking moments.
Memphis-style design was—and still is—the defining look of western countries in the ‘80s. The Memphis aesthetic is characterized by scattered, brightly colored shapes and lines. It typically combines circles and triangles with black-and-white graphic patterns such as polka dots and squiggles. Picture the carpet at every roller rink, ever. But also, note the broad impact that Memphis made in every capacity, whether it was home decor, graphic design, fashion or the media.
The geometric shapes and gripping colors of Memphis design were abundant. From the whimsical patterns in Pee-wee’s playhouse to the set of Back to the Future 2, the media ate it up, but it was also an approachable aesthetic that felt relatable. It was a design trend that reached customers and businesses alike. The Memphis Group’s postmodern furniture looked just as comfy in a living room as it did in a hotel lobby.
We would be remiss if we didn’t also give a shoutout to the neon colors that enlivened the 1980s. Highlighter hues were in full force, displaying a sense of fun and optimism. We have musicians to thank for this trend. Due to its high visibility on stage, we saw daring pinks, oranges, yellows and greens steal the show. Madonna pushed us over the borderline in 1983, and others followed suit. While Memphis defined the ‘80s, neon perfectly paved the way to the ‘90s.
Design through the ’90s
With the 1990 release of Adobe Photoshop, ‘90s design started out with a bang. Designers had easier access to digital design tools, allowing for more intricacy within graphic design. This also marked a time when novelty typography gained widespread availability. And yes, that means we saw Comic Sans on every Beanie Baby tag.
Novelty typography spanned beyond mainstream Comic Sans, providing an opportunity for every blockbuster hit to have a signature font. From the strong, impactful Jurassic Park typography to the scattered, free-spirited Clueless lettering, novelty typefaces owned the ‘90s.
Meanwhile, garage bands in Seattle started experimenting by fusing punk and metal sounds. Due to the expensive cost of recording studios, many bands took a DIY approach, resulting in poor sound quality and a “dirty” sound, hence the term “grunge.” This undone, edgy sound influenced 90’s design aesthetics through experimental shapes and a rebellious attitude. Magazine cutout letters and rock ‘n roll imagery paired well with grunge culture, where ripped jeans and spiky hair ruled the roost. Moreover, grunge emphasized the beauty of imperfection through jagged lines and a bit of chaos, as seen on the original Cherry Coke can.
By the end of the ‘90s, most homes had access to the internet. Technology not only changed the way we designed, but it changed the way we lived. Anyone could sell anything on eBay, and anyone could steal music on Napster. Designers had more access to creative inspiration and tools, as well as more ways to read about Y2K conspiracies. The late ‘90s paved the way for the internet boom of the 2000s: a time when the term “internet celebrity” would suddenly exist. The door was open for digital design to grab the mic.
Design through the ’00s
We began the era in a state of panic over Y2K. Shorthand for “the year 2000,” Y2K referenced a computer programming shortcut, which was expected to wreak havoc on global society as we transitioned from 1999 to 2000. Contrary to our expectations, few major errors actually occurred, but the anticipation and media frenzy over Y2K still impacted global culture, in and outside of the design world.
As we transitioned into this new technological era, designers were faced with interesting challenges and changes. Designers were no longer simply designing for printed pages and desktop websites, but also for smartphones and social media. There was a continuous shift to a digital-first mindset, with many trading in their SONY Discmans for the first Apple iPods. Photoshop was the fuel behind the original iPod ads, which became one of the most defining campaigns of this generation. Whether it was cropping and slicing or color-correcting and drawing, Photoshop improved design efficiency and provided useful tools for digital artists. Everything became easier to create, and the image quality was clean and crisp. For example, in the iconic iPod ads, the precisely traced silhouettes of the people and the iPod were made possible due to the pen tool.
Aesthetically, the 2000s were youthful, lighthearted and cheeky. From Juicy tracksuits and Von Dutch hats to the Motorola RAZR phone, everything came in pink—the pinkest possible pink.
Reality TV gave us a false sense of reality, while the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami provided a harsh awakening worldwide. Tokyo- and Paris-based fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto made waves with avant-garde style, natural materials and a zero-waste approach to design. This paved the way for more designers to go green.
Designers and consumers began craving compassion, and this became the first era where consumers cared about sustainability. The Vanity Fair Green Issue launched in 2006, and around this time, designers started including eco-friendly messaging on product packaging. We saw IKEA kill the plastic bag, and many others weren’t far behind. And with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, technology was truly at our fingertips, paving the way to a digital-focused future.
Design through the ’10s and beyond
With the launch of Instagram in 2010, the current design era started out with a bang. In a world where smartphones, tablets and touch screen technology have become the norm, designing for social media, apps, and websites is incredibly important. Digital marketing has become a necessity, not a luxury. Design in this decade is all about concise messaging, eye-catching imagery and adaptability to different devices.
Responsive design was born in 2013, feeding the concept that design should not be “one size fits all.” UX designers are now trained to make websites, apps and logos respond to different screen sizes in order to give the user the best experience. Now, websites shrink and expand depending on what type of device is used to access them.
In addition to a focus on advanced technology, designers of the current era continue to experiment with aesthetics. Electronic music in 2010 and 2011 inspired the popular vaporwave aesthetic, which is characterized by warm gradients, vintage iconography and sunny imagery. We have also seen nostalgia marketing come into play, indicating our longing for a simpler time before wi-fi became essential for survival. Designers of the current era do have a fresh and modern approach, but a good throwback is also well-received.
In stark contrast to vaporwave colors, dark mode has provided another intriguing design movement in the current era. Apple debuted dark mode in 2018 and Android followed suit in 2019. Dark mode was invented as a response to the way that our current culture has become so screen-dependent. White text on a black background helps cut down on screen glare, so it’s easier on the eyes. Plus, the instant cool factor of dark mode is undeniable.
Now it’s time to make your mark
From the trippy quirks of psychedelia to the efficiency of responsive design, we’ve taken a look at how design through the decades has evolved, particularly in western countries, through the digital era. As design continues to twist and turn, who knows what we can expect to see in the future.