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10 Top Tips for Creating Retro-Inspired Designs

This post is part of a series called Top Design Tips.
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This post is part of a series called Grease Movie Week.
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Retro Speech Bubble Icons
Retro Speech Bubble Icons

You don't have to have lived through an era to understand its design aesthetic. Here are 10 tips for creating fantastic 1950s-inspired designs, from illustrations to icons to photos. We'll explore shapes, colors, patterns, textures, and more! Let's get to know what makes a design fit in with retro style!

1. Choose Your When and Where

This one's easy for this article: 1950s America. The principles of this article, though, remain the same for any decade or era. Once you know when and where you want to place your design work, you can then draw upon its design aesthetic to add classic and well-understood references into your work. 

Think of it this way: when you choose an era to draw upon for design inspiration, you're suddenly giving your work a context in which to exist. 

1950s Kitchen
1950s Kitchen

Let's take a look at the kitchen render above. Note the colors, patterns, textures, shapes, and technology showcased. Most everything in the image points to the 1950s as being the setting for this scene. From the mint cabinets to the bright red vinyl and chrome kitchen accessories, you can get a real sense of what 1950s-inspired design may contain. 

By choosing your "when" and "where", you'll be able to create your design's context for viewers, giving you more to work with when sourcing inspiration for era-centric work.

2. Consider Your Color Palette

Your color palette alone can change a modern design to something inspired by years past. In terms of 1950s design, colors were often muted, with reds, teals, mints, and taupe tones being used often. Using these colors in your design is especially beneficial when you're trying to make it obviously inspired by the decade to your viewers or clients.

An example of a retro-inspired palette
An example of a retro-inspired palette.

Note the swatches above and how many instances of teal, yellow-orange, red, and neutral tones there are. This palette was inspired by the first image in this article and is a good starting point for some colors used heavily within the decade. Notice that while there are some bright colors, you're not likely to find palettes overly saturated and filled with rainbows as you would with the 60s, or filled with pastels and neons like the 1980s.

You'll see hints of those things to come, but this decade's design sense is more closely related to the Art Deco era of the 1920s than it is to the psychedelic design aesthetic of the following decade. It's also important to note that depending on where you are in the world, color palettes for particular eras may differ.

3. Work With Appropriate Shapes

The image below is an excellent example of what sort of shapes were common with graphic design in the 1950s. Lots of rounded corners and fun sharp angles point the viewer's eye in the direction of more design or an advertisement's copy.

Retro Speech Bubble Icons
Retro Speech Bubble Icons

Lights were used a lot in signage in the 1950s. Note how much this design element is being used above. Metal, chrome, painted metal, lights, and other resources that would've previously been caught up in war efforts were suddenly free to be used in advertising, products, and various industries relating to design and designers.

You'll also see these shapes in the products and various technology from the decade. Think about the kitchen we looked at previously and how rounded the corners of the table, refrigerator, and breadbox were. If those edges were squared off, the kitchen would look far more modern than the cute and quaint style of the 50s. 

Another shape style to note is found with various styles of four-sided figures. It's not all rectangles and squares in the speech balloons above. Instead, there are various angled objects, some asymmetrical and some more diamond-like. As we run through this list of design elements, I'll make a note of additional, common shapes used throughout the decade.

4. Use Patterns in Retro Design

Coordinating patterns were used in a variety of design in the 1950s. From textiles to wallpaper to notepaper, patterns were meant to complement the design of the world around them. If a chair was upholstered with a patterned material, chances are the carpet, foot stool, walls, lights, and other furniture and accessories around it matched some of the color or shapes within it.

Geometric patterns were in style. In the image below, I've gathered a few examples of retro-inspired patterns that make great use of angles, circles, and sparkle-like design elements. Note the color palette as well: plenty of reds, mints, and neutral colors again.

Set of Retro Geometric Seamless Background Pattern
Set of Retro Geometric Seamless Background Pattern

Sparkles, ornaments, four-sided figures, and elements of nature were all commonplace in patterns used in retro design. If you're illustrating a room, for example, or a fashion drawing, knowing what sort of elements would be found within patterns keeps your design from looking out of place (or out of time).

5. Give Your Design Some Texture

A common way of giving something an instantly retro touch is to include some sort of texture. Whether it's paper, the look of an old photograph, or some sort of fabric like tweed, adding texture to an image makes it seem more tangible or even just old.

If the viewer feels as if they found your design in an attic or as if they could reach out and touch it because it doesn't look digitally created, you're much closer to creating a vintage design aesthetic than you would be if you left texture out of it. 

While the easiest way to create artwork with texture is to use traditional media (canvas, textiles, and paper all create fantastic bases for textured artwork), using a digitally created or scanned texture can do the trick to morph a modern design into a rather retro one. 

Retro Wall Texture
Retro Wall Texture

Note the textures above for their look of textiles common to yesteryear. Doing research on what sort of materials were commonplace in the decade you'd like to place your design aesthetic will do wonders for giving your work context in the minds of your viewers.

6. Use Appropriate Fonts and Typographic Styles

We've had a preview of typographic design styles of the 50s with the speech balloon signs used to discuss shapes. Noting those icons and the sweet Valentine's card design below, it's obvious slab serif fonts, script fonts, and sans-serif fonts with small flourishes were all the rage. Most notably, these types of fonts remind me of the embroidery you'd find on a varsity jacket or other university-related typographic design.

Retro Valentines Typography Cards
Retro Valentines Typography Cards

You're not going to find a lot of gradients in typography like this. Instead it's a lot of outlines, offset printing styles, and additional graphic elements. This is likely due to the technology of the time and a lot of print design work being screen-printed, lino-printed, and done on printing presses still.

Retro Valentines Typography Cards
Retro Valentines Typography Cards

Other sources of typographic inspiration can be found in signage and advertising. Consider the classic diner, neon signs, pinstriping on cars, and the bouncing type often used to catch the eyes of the consumer. All of these inspirations can be found in a variety of retro typographic design and often serve as a good starting point for reference when creating this design style.

7. Use Era-Appropriate Imagery

I've mentioned a variety of elements that contribute to era-appropriate imagery, and I think the image below showcases several of them quite well. Note the vector texture, ornament style, script font style, colors, screen-printed look, and appearance of sparkle elements. 

Vintage style Merry Christmas illustration

It's not that these elements are always necessary, but it's that this looks like a design that could have been created in the 1950s (although not as a vector graphic, of course). The design itself doesn't betray the designer for their anachronistic design, and instead seems era-appropriate.

Other imagery to consider may include retro diner elements, poodle skirts, leather jackets, makeup of the era, plastic combs, cars, and various clothing elements, all of which we'll discuss in a bit more depth below.

If you are creating something that's just a slight reminder of the 1950s rather than something that looks as if it was created in the 1950s, then feel free to pick and choose elements from yesterday and today. But if you're illustrating an image showing a person in a specific setting, for instance, their world needs to match the era in which you're placing them, and you need to get to know what sort of images were created at the time as well as what people used to look like or dress like or do back then.

8. Use Era-Appropriate Technology

This is a big one and goes hand-in-hand with era-appropriate imagery. If you are illustrating a greeting card featuring a woman talking on a phone and it's supposed to be a 1950s-era housewife, she'd probably not be on a touch-tone phone or a cordless phone, seeing as they didn't exist at the time. Instead, she'd use a rotary phone like the vector illustration below.

Retro Red Phone
Retro Red Phone

While anachronisms can be filed under "artist's license" for whether or not they fit into a design, if your client is expecting something to only feature technology of a certain era (such as the retro kitchen from the beginning of this article), then including a microwave, which wasn't really in households across America until the late 1960s, would be a huge mistake. Even if it seems silly, knowing what sort of technology has its place in history can be a boost to your design work.

9. Dress and Style Hair for the Decade

While it may be difficult to pinpoint the hairstyles that will define our current decade (we're just too close to it), when you look back it's likely certain styles will pop out to you. Hair can make or break an illustration or design in keeping it rooted in the era you're trying to set your work.

In the case of women's hair in the 1950s, think of victory rolls, tight coifs, ponytails, and cute flipped hair (we're not yet in Hairspray territory, but we're getting there). Hair in the 1950s is thought of as being "put together".

DJ disco pin-up girl rocking out to retro vinyl
Pin-up Girl

Men wore short hair with pomade or other control substances. Think of James Dean and Elvis Presley with their pompadours or how popular a conservative side-part was. Illustrating an asymmetrical bob or crimped, 80s hair would look incredibly out of place unless you were drawing some fantastic time travelers.

Then we come to clothes! Clothing combines a good deal of the previous tips: colors, patterns, shapes, hair, and imagery. From the cut of a dress or suit to the materials it's made of, clothing can make or break a design in placing it in the appropriate context.

Take the dresses seen below. They're 1950s-inspired with tulle petticoats to make the skirts large and fluffy, pearl accessories and headbands to keep the ladies below looking put together, and simple details like a belt or swooping neckline.

three young woman in bright colour dresses
Three Women in Bright Colored Dresses

For men's clothing, we can look at a variety of styles: tweed suits, fedoras, wingtip shoes, and leather jackets all made the cut for a variety of well-dressed men. Think of Elvis and Frank Sinatra: two very different men, but both had quite iconic styles for the decade (and beyond).

Of course there are tons of variations of clothing depending on the people you're illustrating and where they live, as well as when they live, but having some guidelines and search terms to kick off your research into creating era-appropriate design should be a great help in designing the perfect soda-shop illustration!

10. Let Music Inspire You!

Check out the music of the decade and the imagery that goes along with it. Album design has always been a great source of design inspiration, no matter the decade. When you want to place your work in that decade or if you're working on an album design that's inspired by the past, what better way to research that design than by looking back at the real thing?

As an example of retro-inspired design, see the band poster below. While it may showcase some modern design styles and technology, the typographic design and use of textures are pitch-perfect for the style of some album design of the late 1950s. 

Folk FlyerPoster
Folk Flyer/Poster

Check out the Dave Brubeck Quartet's album Time Out, which was released in 1959. Note the typographic design and how similar the spacing and placement is to the retro-inspired poster above.

As a couple of other examples, check out Frank Sinatra's Songs for Young Lovers, released in 1954, and Little Richard's debut album, Here's Little Richard, from 1957. Note the font usage of Sinatra's album cover and how similar it is to the poster seen above. Additionally, the clothing styles showcased on Sinatra's album go along with our previous tip.

If we turn to Little Richard's album, you'll notice that while the album itself is full-color, his photo is in black and white; technological limitations of the era at work! While color images were possible, black-and-white photography was far more cost-effective at the time. It wasn't until the following decade that everything, from photo to film, really exploded with affordable color images for the masses. The more you learn about the history of art and design, the more effective your retro-inspired work will be!

Let's Break It Down!

Now that we've run through all ten tips for creating great retro design, check out this handy checklist:

  1. Choose the where and when of your design. Doing so gives you and your viewers context for an image.
  2. Consider your color palette. Choosing the right palette, inspired by your decade, can bring life to a design!
  3. Work with era-appropriate shapes. When you create designs with popular shapes from that era, you're reinforcing the aesthetic in your viewers' minds.
  4. Use patterns and pattern styles that were common to your chosen era.
  5. Give your design some texture. Photo, paper, and textile textures add a lot to retro design styles.
  6. Use appropriate fonts and typographic styles. Perhaps research what fronts were popular and what fonts were created when so you have a good grasp on what to use.
  7. Use era-appropriate imagery. Along with shapes and patterns, subject matter can also lend itself to great retro design.
  8. Use era-appropriate technology. Matching the technology of that decade to your design gives your work context for viewers and more for you to work with on a creative level.
  9. Dress and style hair for the decade. Take note of popular hair styles and clothing styles to help define your decade.
  10. Let music be your guide! Check out the popular design styles of album artwork to further explore pop culture and design in your chosen era.
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