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Design Styles Across 10 Decades

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This post is part of a series called 10 Years of Envato Tuts+!.
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In celebration of Envato Tuts+’s ten-year anniversary, we’re going to look back even further in time to explore the era-defining trends and styles in graphic design and illustration over the past ten decades. 

Studies of design and illustration have always given historians intriguing insights into changing trends in aesthetics, buying patterns, and popular culture, but it’s also invaluable for designers to know what has influenced and continues to influence their work today. 

Love vintage design, or simply want to find out more about how designers worked in the past? You’ll want to keep reading!

Make sure to pay a visit to GraphicRiver and Envato Elements to source vintage-inspired photos, illustrations, fonts and templates to channel a bygone time in your own designs.

Design in the 1920s

The 1920s marked one of the most important and exciting decades for the visual arts, and its remarkable influence is still felt across the design industry today. 

The ‘Jazz Age’ marked an era of new social freedoms and economic growth, and favored design styles followed suit. At the start of the decade, more fluid, realist styles such as Art Nouveau were still very popular across the commercial arts, but by the middle of the decade this was dramatically replaced by new modernist styles which were gaining traction in Europe. 

kodak poster
Travel poster published by Victorian Railways, Australia, which has a very striking Art Deco design.

Art Deco, a style defined by modernist, geometric designs and luxurious materials and colors, first emerged in France but quickly grew in popularity, becoming one of the first international design movements and resulting in some of the most glamorous buildings, interiors and artworks the world has ever seen.

Particularly in New York, the post-war economy was booming, and in this atmosphere of financial excess, advertising design experienced an incredibly creative period. Poster artists embraced the Art Deco style wholeheartedly, focussing on creating strongly graphic layouts, with rich color palettes and geometric type styles. The glamor of flapper girls, exotic travel, and new food and drink dominated billboards, enticing viewers to dance the Charleston or buy Coca-Cola. 

pivolo art deco poster cassandre
French-Ukrainian artist A. M. Cassandre designed this Art Deco poster for Pivolo in 1924. This now famous example of poster advertising displays the traits of early Art Deco style—strong silhouetted forms, simple layout style, and geometric type. © www.cassandre.fr

Design in the 1930s

The excesses of the 1920s unfortunately couldn’t last forever. The Great Depression had a sombre influence over design in the 1930s, with a more restrained form of Art Deco which focussed on curved forms replacing the glitter and glamor of the decade before. In poster art, we can see how the rich palette of colors from early Art Deco is replaced with more subdued tones.

twinings poster
Twining tea poster by Charles Loupot, circa 1930

Also influential during this decade was the accessibility of modern technology for consumers. Electricity, the automobile, and the telephone made radical changes to daily life, and design increasingly reflected this. 

The Futurist art movement emphasized the supremacy of technology, speed and industry in an ever-changing world. Designers and illustrators focussed their efforts on giving a sense of movement and scale to their designs. 3D-style gradients and textures also became popular, helping poster work feel immersive and larger than life. 

latlantique art deco poster
"L'Atlantique" poster by A. M. Cassandre, 1931. © www.cassandre.fr

Design in the 1940s

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, fascism began to creep across Europe and threatened to spill over onto a global platform during the early part of the 1940s. This frightening new reality led to the once commercial emphasis of design to be replaced by propaganda and motivational imagery. 

Some of the most interesting design to emerge in this period was that of the Soviet propaganda artists, who were inspired by Art Deco and Constructivism (a Russian art movement which emphasized art as having a social purpose) but developed a unique and direct style rendered in sombre shades of red, black and grey. 

Stylistically, modernism was becoming a more influential movement, and we can see this in the use of abstract illustration, irregular layouts, and minimal color palettes. At the start of the 1940s, realist illustrations which romanticized battle were very popular, but by the end of the decade, consumers were ready for something very different. 

We can see the roots of the Mid-Century Modern movement in design and illustration from the late 1940s. Visible brush strokes, witty designs and rich colors marked the end of the dark days of war and heralded a sunnier Post-War period. 

forties advert psd
This retro advertisement kit is inspired by the more colorful, optimistic style of the late 1940s

Design in the 1950s

Designers have looked back to 1950s design time and time again, and with good reason. The era was an incredibly rich, optimistic and exciting time for design. Just as we have today, there were many different trends which found their place in the Fifties design landscape. 

In America, a booming economy meant that ordinary homes now had kitchen appliances, motor cars, and televisions, all of which were advertised heavily to the public. Across commercial advertising we see atmospheric, cheerful illustrations and photos in pastel ice-cream shades or technicolor brights. The sense of movement, youth and excitement generated by this style of image is infectious, and still has remarkable influence over advertising design today.

car of the future magazine
Magazine cover illustration for the August 1950 issue of Science and Mechanics.

Meanwhile, other designers were exploring modernism’s potential and giving it a fun, playful twist. Flat design was made popular by the Mid-Century Modern movement, which focussed on playful patterns and textures, and used simple, pared-back color palettes in earthy shades.

The Fifties were also a time for boundary-pushing in typography and typeface design. Perhaps the most famous example is designer Paul Rand’s reimagining of the logo for IBM in 1956. With its distinctive jaunty, geometric lettering, this type style influenced the perky, animated character of other typefaces which came to dominate billboards and signage across the last half of the decade. 

Design in the 1960s

Graphic design in the Sixties tended to split into two main stylistic groups. Some designers continued to evolve the simple, modernist style favored during the 1950s, and many were influenced by the Swiss Style, which came to have a huge influence over layout design and typography during the decade. 

The Sixties were also a wonderful time for modernist illustration, with artists like Charley Harper exploring geometric shapes, stylized design and grainy textures in their drawings. Their simple, striking work had commercial appeal, making them a perfect fit for advertising work and textile prints during the period. 

charley harper birds
Charley Harper’s 1963 book plate illustration of finches is a lovely example of Sixties modernist illustration at its most whimsical and charming.

The other popular design movement in the Sixties was a reaction to the restrictions of minimal, modernist design. Psychedelic design was influenced by the free love movement, rock ‘n’ roll, and hallucinogenic drugs. 

Graphic design merged with art, as designers and illustrators became more experimental and threw out the traditional rule books preaching grid structures and ordered layouts. A rainbow of acid colors, fluid lines, and trippy patterns came to define the look of the pop culture scene of the Sixties, and it’s still much more evocative of the Sixties in popular culture today than its modernist counterpart.

oracle cover
This cover of the San Francisco Oracle, January 1967, has an Art Nouveau-inspired psychadelic design 

Design in the 1970s

1970s design has enjoyed a recent revival in design, fashion, and illustration, and perhaps this is in part because it’s such a rich resource for retro design in so many forms. The decade was defined by a diverse range of pop culture and social movements, which allowed individuals to express who they were more extrovertly through fashion, music, and art. Punk, Disco and the hippy movement were just a few of the cultural trends which defined the decade, and their influence spilled over into the world of design. 

seventies flyer
Flyer template inspired by the music-centric design styles of the 1970s.

In graphic design, we start to see photography becoming more dominant during this period, with illustration taking a more supportive role in magazine and ad design. Photography, as with everything in the Seventies, explored extremes—it was either moody greyscale or disco-bright technicolor. Magazines like Rolling Stone embellished photos with anarchic collage touches, bright color, and ‘look at me’ typography.

Developments in typesetting technology also helped the Seventies to become the decade that is defined by jaw-dropping typography, which is at turns both garish and revolutionary. Three-dimensional effects, curved lettering and cartoonish proportions make for type that pushes the limits of good taste, and has become the defining characteristic of 'retro' design.

Design in the 1980s

In the decade of boom and excess, there’s also nothing subtle about Eighties design. Topping the Seventies for sheer ‘look at me’ value, this decade carried over the more brash elements of Seventies design, such as disco typography, and exaggerated them even more. 

Punk still had a huge influence on popular culture in the early 1980s, and an anarchic use of color was used by designers to contrast against newspaper-clipping text and moody silhouetted photography. Anti-establishment British bands like The Smiths and The Clash used traditional design elements like serif typefaces and reimagined them with a neon color palette and jumpy grids, creating engaging, confrontational album art in the process. 

the clash london calling
Album cover for London Calling by The Clash (Released in 1979 in the UK, and 1980 in the US) 
the smiths the queen is dead
Album cover for The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead (1986) 

In the latter part of the decade, garish, neon-saturated styles came to dominate commercial design and spilled over into music and the arts. Some of the most recognisable design traits of the Eighties can be sourced from the inescapable type styles that were developed from the mid-Eighties onwards. Sharply italicized lettering fonts in neon pinks and purples adorned album covers and advertising billboards alike. 

While not all Eighties design is considered to be indeed ‘good’ at all, let alone tasteful, thankfully some designers were still creating amazing work, some of which has come to be recognized as iconic and well-loved as examples of ‘nostalgia art’ decades later. Some of the most incredible design during the 1980s appeared on movie posters, with complex collage designs, super-bright colors and highly detailed layouts. Illustrations were hyper-realistic and dramatic, with exaggerated light and shadows. 

labyrinth artwork
The promotional artwork for movie Labyrinth (1986) is a beautiful example of the highly detailed, illustrated collage style favored by poster designers in the 1980s

Design in the 1990s

The designs that defined the 1990s take a little longer to come to mind than the visual culture of the hippy 70s and brash 80s, but it’s actually an incredibly significant decade for the development of graphic design as we know it today. Digital design technology had evolved and become more accessible (remember Microsoft Paint?), which meant that the days of creating layouts by hand were fast disappearing. As a result, layouts took on a more polished, clean appearance. 

While design may have cleaned up its act, its influences were altogether much rougher around the edges. Grunge was a significant influence across pop culture, fashion and design over the early part of the decade, and in many ways this clashed with the clean, tech-forward focus of designers who were embracing digital design wholeheartedly. 

You can’t mention Nineties graphic design without paying homage to American art director David Carson, who founded alternative music magazine Ray Gun in 1992. A world away from the measured minimalism of digital design, he ‘broke the grid’, experimenting with collage-style type and edgy photography. It remains the most evocative design example of the grunge era.

ray gun magazine
Ray Gun magazine covers from the 1990s

Towards the middle and later part of the decade, minimalism became the order of the day, which felt completely refreshing after the scruffy grunge years. Calvin Klein pioneered minimal graphic design in his adverts featuring a waif-like Kate Moss posing next to an ultra-simple, watermarked logo design. It marked a new era for advertising design in which less became more, setting the benchmark for the pared-back fashion advertising we see in print today. 

Design in the 2000s

While the 90s marked the first venture into digital design for many designers, it was inescapable during the 2000s. No longer was computer-aided design simply an option, it became a necessity, with designers needing to craft layouts that would work just as well on computer screens as they would on handheld devices like mobile phones. 

Logos had been around for decades, but the 2000s were the boom years for branding, with some of the most iconic tech brands like Google, Twitter and Facebook creating and honing their brand identities during this decade. Logo design became a consuming area of focus for many graphic designers during this decade, with many judging the future success or failure of a business from the quality of their brand design. 

facebook logo
The original Facebook logo, which has since been redesigned to make the type appear less rounded.

The 2000s were a decade of great political and social change across the world stage, and design followed was often employed to raise awareness of causes such as environmental change and the impact of events like the financial crisis of 2007. 

One of the most memorable examples of design as a political tool was Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster for the 2008 US presidential campaign. Stylistically, it referenced older street art styles, a hallmark of 2000s design, but the strong sans serif type and ultra-realistic portrait of Barack Obama made it feel fresh and relevant, and ultimately was a significant contributing factor to the success of Obama’s campaign. 

obama hope
Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster design for Obama's 2008 campaign.

Design in the 2010s

Sure, we’re only seven years into the decade, but the 2010s have already seen plenty of incredible work and look to be an exciting decade for graphic design and illustration. While it can be difficult to assess the dominant trends of the decade without hindsight (and still with three promising years to go!), we can already look back on a few styles that have proved to be almost universally popular in the early and middle part of the decade. 

Vintage mania hit the graphic design world at the start of the decade and still remains very dominant in design. With the internet becoming an all-encompassing influence in people’s lives, vintage, folk and ‘hipster’ styles can be seen as reactions to a technology-mad world, even if antique-style textures and vintage logos are used to brand tech products! 

Illustration has also experienced a welcome revival this decade, with flat design revisiting some of the modernist traits of mid-century design and vectorized and digital illustration evolving as an art form. We’re starting to see more explicitly tech-inspired design gradually creep back into illustration now too, with low-poly and line art taking their cues from the ever-evolving world of web and app design. 

Conclusion

A lot can change in a century! Design and illustration offer amazing insights into the social and cultural trends and changes that defined decades, and I hope you’ve found this trip back in time interesting and perhaps inspiring for your own creative work. 

No designer can truly work in a vacuum, so it’s fantastic to be able to see what visual culture would have been a constant presence in the lives of your parents, grandparents, great grandparents and beyond.

Do you have a favorite decade for design? Let us know which eras get your creative juices flowing in the comments below.

Head over to GraphicRiver and Envato Elements to find vintage-inspired design elements to take a trip back in time in your own creative work.

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