What does retro style mean? Retro or vintage design refers to a broad range of graphic design styles which lift influences and inspiration from different historical eras and retro style design, from mid-century modern graphic design and 50s art styles to vintage 70s graphic design.
What Is Vintage Design?
When you’re asked to give a design or image a ‘vintage’ look, what does that actually mean? ‘Vintage’ encompasses a whole range of styles, which span decades and design genres. In this quick guide, I’ll walk you through some of the most popular vintage design styles so you can recreate an old-fashioned look with more authenticity and attention to detail.
Here, we'll walk through a timeline of retro design styles, from Gothic and Victorian through to mid-century modern graphic design, 1950s graphic design, retro graphic design, Bauhaus, and Grunge. We'll see how contemporary designers are reinterpreting vintage design and historical graphic design styles to create vintage graphic design that's fresh and unique.
How to Identify a ‘Vintage’ Design Style
What is vintage design? Everybody has an idea of what looks ‘old’, but when and where you were born can influence your perspective. The way you perceive something as appearing ‘vintage’ or ‘old-fashioned’ is conditioned by three factors—nostalgia, perception of age, and visual style.
These three factors combine to create a vintage design that looks in some way historical or retro. For example, a designer can use 50s design elements such as fonts and mid-century illustration to give something a 50s art style or retro graphic design, and combine this with aged textures to give the impression of ageing.
The nostalgia factor comes into play in terms of the audience you are aiming at, with designers and marketers aiming particular vintage products at particular demographics to tap into what they find nostalgic about their own childhoods and the periods when their parents were young. Nostalgia is of particular interest for marketers, who tap into the psychological value of retro graphic design style to sell products with a vintage design.
What Is Nostalgia?
If you were born in the Eighties, this decade might have a more nostalgic quality for you as this is the decade when you were a child. If you were born in the Seventies, this era likewise might seem more nostalgic and positively emotional for you personally, meaning that products with vintage 70s graphic design are more likely to have a powerful psychological draw.
What Is Nostalgic Marketing?
Many contemporary brands have realised the power of tapping into nostalgic marketing for their products. Giving a product, such as an item of clothing or advert, a stylistic reference to the target market’s nostalgic decade is a surefire way to increase sales.
Note how lots of brands now targeting the millennial market are looking to the design styles of the nineties to make their products appear more nostalgic. The theory goes, if you loved wearing a velvet choker circa 1995, you’ll be more likely to buy into the trend again 20 years later.
The second factor which helps you identify a ‘vintage’ or retro graphic design style is perception of age. Everything ages, and time has an influence on how retro design elements appear depending on how old they are.
How Do We Perceive Ageing in Vintage Design?
Look at a shiny modern digital print, and you’ll probably place it as having being made recently. You might guess the age of a print with slightly more pixelation and a duller color as being of the 1950s or 1960s. A print with yellowing, curled, or ripped edges and serious signs of damage or decay looks even older—possibly 19th or early 20th Century.
When we recreate vintage design styles, we might try to replicate the look of these ageing processes to make the design appear more authentic. You can easily infuse your designs with instant retro style design by using a vintage-inspired texture or background.
3. Visual Style
Aside from nostalgic value and ageing being hallmarks of vintage graphic design and retro style design, you can also identify vintage styles from visual pointers.
Even though you might not have lived through a particular decade, such as the 1920s, you’ll still be able to recognize if something references the era by picking up on visual clues. We’ll explore this side of vintage design in more detail below.
What Is Retro vs. Vintage Style?
One of the more confusing things to understand when it comes to historical-inspired design is the retro vs. vintage style distinction.
What is vintage design? In this article, all historical styles are generally referred to as 'vintage' graphic design. However, some later periods, such as 1950s graphic design, 60s style, and 70s graphic design, are often referred to as representing retro graphic design.
What does retro style mean? 'Retro' refers to something that imitates the graphic design style of a recent period. The word stems from the French word rétro (short for rétrograde), which means 'backward' or 'behind'.
The retro vs. vintage style distinction can seem a little vague, but in short, a vintage style illustration might appear more truly 'vintage' if it imitates the style of older periods, such as the 1930s or 1940s, while the same vintage style illustration can have a more retro style design if it references a 50s art style, 60s retro graphic design style, or vintage 70s graphic design.
Your Essential Guide to Vintage Design Styles
From Baroque to Victoriana, Steampunk to Mid-Century graphic design, there's a wealth of history to source vintage graphic design inspiration. Vintage graphic design styles are far from stuffy—the best examples reinterpret retro graphic design styles to create something new and exciting.
This guide aims to show you how to identify specific vintage design styles and retro design elements, and I'll also share some tips on reproducing the style in your own work. Note that to keep a vintage design style looking relevant and fresh, designers will often mix elements of the vintage style with more modern design features. It’s this vintage/modern balance that makes a style look ‘vintage’ and not outdated.
What Is Victoriana?
Victoriana refers to a design style that takes inspiration from the period 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria was on the British throne.
Victoriana is inspired by the decorative arts and design styles of the Victorian period. Because the Victorian period spanned 60 years, the Victoriana style is broad, and the look can be achieved by referencing very diverse design styles.
Graphic designers might interpret Victoriana now by using circus-style typefaces, text-heavy layouts, or military elements like medals and uniforms in their designs.
In many ways, ‘vintage’ graphic design as we know it today is mostly influenced by Victoriana styling and has evolved into related styles, like Industrial, Steampunk (see below), and ‘Hipster’ styling.
This bifold menu template is a great example of modern Victoriana styling.
Ornate borders and ribbons, along with hand-drawn serif typefaces and a busy text-filled layout, take direct inspiration from styles that were popular in the 19th Century.
- Shares traits with: Steampunk (see below), Industrial, ‘Hipster’, Military
What Is Letterpress?
Letterpress is one of the oldest printing techniques, using a method of relief printing to create an engraved color effect. The effect adds an appealing hand-done look to designs, which makes it a great pairing for vintage-style layouts.
Although letterpress has enjoyed popularity throughout a number of historical periods, it is particularly evocative of vintage design of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the letterpress method was widely used for printing books, posters, and pamphlets.
Though letterpress is a print technique, its distinctive look has made it into a recognizable design style of its own. Designers enhance its vintage appeal with muted colors, vintage style illustration, and old-style typefaces.
Digitized letterpress effects can also replicate the look without the need for printing using the letterpress method. These Photoshop letterpress textures allow you to mimic the look on your computer without the need for a specialized printer.
Use this letterpress label mockup template to give your vector designs a vintage, tactile look in an instant.
- Shares traits with: Victoriana (see above), Folk, Rustic, Craft
Steampunk & Retrofuturism
What Is Steampunk?
Steampunk is not a purist vintage design style—rather it is an eclectic blend of different graphic design styles and pop culture references.
Steampunk is a relation of Victoriana, taking inspiration from 19th-Century industrialisation and technologies and merging this with sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cultural references.
Using steampunk elements in graphic design allows designers to give an off-beat, distinctive twist to vintage styles.
Steampunk was a popular revival design style during the 1970s and 1980s, with its visual aesthetic, steampunk vintage style illustration, and retro style design used in a number of post-apocalyptic movies such as Mad Max (1979) and Time Bandits (1981).
Cogs, metallic textures, and rich colors help to bring a touch of steampunk to any design.
What Is Retrofuturism?
Retrofuturism is a related trend, not particular to Victorian references, which creates interpretations of the future from the perspective of an earlier era.
Often inspired by 1950s graphic design, mid-century illustration, and vintage 70s graphic design, retrofuturism exaggerates the true historical form of objects often related to space travel, abstracting them to create a more cartoonish appearance.
These retrofuturistic rockets are an example of the retro graphic design style, using 1960s references to create designs with an exaggerated retro look.
- Shares traits with: Industrial, Victoriana (see above), Punk (see below)
What Is Gothic Design?
The Gothic design style is based on decorative and architectural styles that were popular in the mid-to-late Medieval period. An extremely broad ‘total’ design style, its influence can be seen across architecture, art, and decorative arts from this period.
Among the most traditional and formal of vintage design styles, Gothic design brings a sense of authority, majesty, and darkness to vintage graphic design.
In graphic design now, Gothic styles are characterized by medieval references in typefaces, aged textures, and simple colors that mimic the dark, natural atmosphere and textures of many Gothic-period buildings.
This Cattedrale blackletter typeface is a traditional example of the Gothic trend, borrowing old calligraphic elements to create a style that has a formal, dramatic quality.
- Shares traits with: Baroque (see below)
What Is Baroque?
If you want to create more of an ornate, detailed look in your vintage designs, Baroque is the style to aspire to. A design style that was extremely popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Baroque is characterized by grand, exaggerated features like ornate gilding and detailed decorative elements using natural elements like shells and plants.
Baroque is also related to Rococo, a vintage design style which refers to the extremely ornamental and romantic visual style of the Late Baroque.
To replicate the style in your own work, look out for beautiful ornate typefaces, botanical vintage style illustration, and French-inspired frames and borders. It’s a beautiful style for using on more formal items like wedding invitations.
- Shares traits with: Gothic (see above), Art Nouveau (see below)
What Is Art Nouveau?
Art Nouveau was a popular design style at the turn of the 20th Century. Inspired by curved and natural forms, the style is characterized by fluid borders with ornate details, pleasingly symmetrical layouts, and warm, optimistic colors.
Art Nouveau is still a go-to style for contemporary designers looking to inject romanticism and beauty into their work. Menus, invitations, and posters will all benefit from a dose of Art Nouveau styling.
Art Nouveau fell from favor during the Art Deco period, but this romantic, ethereal vintage design style has since been revived during the 1970s (when it was popularised by fashion house Biba) and more recently in web and brand design.
The quickest way to buy into the look is to look for ornamental frames and graphics and delicate, curved typefaces.
- Shares traits with: Art Deco (see below), Baroque (see above)
What Is Art Deco?
Art Deco is a glamorous architectural and decorative style that reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. A very distinctive design style, Art Deco can be identified from its strong geometric and symmetrical forms, rich colors, and luxurious, often metallic, textures and finishes.
Vintage style seekers won't be disappointed with the wealth of vintage graphic design inspiration evident in Jazz Age posters, packaging, interiors, and architecture.
Compared to more classical styles that came before it, Art Deco looks intentionally more modern. This has ensured its lasting favor among designers who want to add a touch of luxury and geometric beauty to their work.
Art Deco manages to balance masculine and feminine qualities well, making it a great choice for people looking for something less floral and traditionally ‘pretty’ for their wedding stationery. These wedding invitations show just how minimal, glamorous, and beautiful the Art Deco style can be.
Aside from wedding invitations, the Art Deco style works well across all sorts of media. Try using Art Deco typefaces on posters and packaging to make events and products feel more aspirational.
- Shares traits with: Modernism, Art Nouveau (see above)
What Is Bauhaus?
Bauhaus is a niche design style inspired by an art school in Germany that was widely influential during the 1920s and 1930s. A founder of Modernism in Germany, the Bauhaus movement championed simple, minimal graphics and bold, poster-box colors.
As a style created purposefully and skilfully by graphic designers and architects, this retro graphic design style is particularly popular amongst graphic designers today. Geometric elements, grids, and playful colors make this a retro graphic design style with a distinctly contemporary appeal.
The Bauhaus’s favored palette of white, red, blue, yellow, and black instantly conjures up the impression of an early Modernist style. Use the colors in combination to transport your designs to Pre-War Europe.
- Shares traits with: Modernism, International Typographic Style (see below)
Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design & Pop Art
What Is Mid Century Modern Graphic Design?
When you think of the term ‘retro’, you might well picture a 1950s design style in your head. ‘Mid-Century Modern’ is the term design historians use to describe this distinctive style, which was incredibly popular in the 1950s and 1960s across design and architecture.
50s design elements include jaunty typography and mid-century illustration, creating a sense of movement and positivity and making 1950s graphic design feel youthful and fun.
Characterized by minimal, curvy shapes and cheerful colors, Mid-Century Modern graphic design is a friendly vintage style that adds a fun touch to any design.
More than Art Deco, Mid-Century Modern is much more of its time, and less contemporary in style a result. By using elements of the style, you will immediately make a design appear more 1950s, which coincidentally is a growing trend across product and graphic design right now. Look to mid-century illustration or 50s design elements, such as diner fonts, to give your designs instant retro graphic design style.
What Is Pop Art?
Linked to Mid-Century Modern is the Pop Art style, which gives retro pop culture imagery a witty, and sometimes dark, twist. A retro graphic design style which was popular during the 1950s and 1960s, Pop Art links across to surrealism (an art movement popularised during the 1930s) and comic-book culture.
In your own designs, you can reference the style using the graphic effects favored by sixties pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, such as collage-style colors and pixel-dot effects.
- Shares traits with: Kitsch, Modernism
International Typographic Style (or Swiss Style)
What Is the International Style?
Also known as the Swiss Style, the International Typographic Style is a graphic design style that was first conceptualized in the 1920s in Europe, but became fully developed and popularized by a group of Swiss designers in the 1950s.
This retro art style is one of the most subtle and enduring vintage design styles, paving the way for modernist, minimal graphic design.
The style marks another rung on the Modernism ladder, and you can identify it from its emphasis on minimal layouts, legibility, and sans serif fonts like Akzidenz Grotesk and Helvetica.
Today, designers still adore the Swiss Style for its clean, modern look. It applies incredibly well to more formal media, like reports, business stationery, and magazines.
Designers also lift the Swiss Style’s favored color scheme of grey, red and white, to make a nod to the style in their work.
- Learn how to create a poster influenced by the International Typographic Style in this typography course.
- Shares traits with: Modernism, Mid-Century Modern (see above), Seventies (see below)
What Is Vintage 70s Graphic Design?
The decade that marked huge cultural and social revolutions also gave birth to some fascinating retro style design. For some, the 70s is the epitome of 'retro' style design, while for others it can be demonised as the decade that taste forgot.
The seventies have struggled with a poor design reputation for some time. Only recently have designers started looking to the decade for some fantastic retro graphic design inspiration.
Playing on the nostalgic qualities of the decade, designers are starting to use seventies design traits to appeal to audiences who either lived through the decade or have parents who did.
The era may be remembered by some for unflattering fashion trends and dodgy wallpaper, but it also produced glamorous, iconic designs across interiors and graphic design.
Emulate the look with a warm color palette of oranges and browns, and mix photography in with vector graphics for a look that feels authentically seventies. This flyer template plays up the nostalgic qualities of the era, mimicking the look of an old-school record sleeve.
This bundle of seventies-inspired patterns, brushes and textures allows you to transport your designs to the era of disco.
What Is Punk?
Inspired by the punk music scene of the late 1970s and 1980s, the punk style is anarchic and attention-grabbing. A daring and divisive retro graphic design style, punk broke all the rules and refashioned them in a haphazard and confrontational way. Newspaper collages, hand-written typography, and clashing neon color palettes took their aesthetic cues from the grittiness and noise of punk music gigs and the safety-pin-strewn outfits of punk fans.
This poster template displays some of the strongest features of the style, with neon colors, jumpy text baselines, and newspaper-print photography.
Graphic designers still turn to punk for its in-your-face character. This poster for the movie Filth shows how punk has evolved to suit contemporary designs. Spot the newspaper textures, collage-style cut-outs, and off-kilter text.
If you want to grab someone’s attention and hold it, punk is a great vintage design style to reference. This makes it the perfect choice for flyers, posters, and other advertising or marketing media.
It also has connections with the Motorbike/Heavy Metal design style, which takes punk elements and incorporates them into tattoo-inspired logos and typefaces.
- Shares traits with: Steampunk (see above), Grunge (see below), Gothic (see above)
What Is Grunge?
One of the most recent of styles that can be considered ‘vintage’, grunge, like punk, is inspired by the music and fashion scene of the same name.
A more laid-back interpretation of some of the vintage design styles popularised by the punk movement, grunge uses aged, retro design elements to create a dirty, too-cool-to-care effect.
At its height during the nineties, the grunge style is cool, angst-ridden, and laid-back. Graffiti, sombre colors, and dirty textures have come to characterize the style for contemporary designers.
Grunge’s main contribution to modern graphic design is the popular grunge textures, which add a grainy, aged look to any design. To achieve the grunge look in your own designs, a grunge texture is the best and easiest way to buy into the trend. Use it across flyers, posters, and photos to give your designs an instant grungy look.
This flyer template picks out some of the strong stylistic traits of grunge, such as papery textures, tinted photography, and muted colors, and places them in the context of a more contemporary, grid-based layout.
Your Potted Guide to Vintage Design Styles
Vintage graphic design, retro graphic design style, and retro design elements are sourced from a rich timeline of historical design styles. Today, vintage design is not a purist, conservationist art form, but should be considered as a way of paying tribute to our shared design heritage.
Here, we’ve whizzed through some of the best-known design styles that can be considered as ‘vintage’. As we touched on at the beginning of this article, we can class a style as being ‘vintage’ by looking for all or some of these three qualities—nostalgia, perception of age, and visual style.
From Gothic art to 1950s graphic design, mid-century illustration to vintage 70s graphic design, there's something to inspire every design enthusiast.
You can see this guide as an inspiration melting pot for your own vintage designs. Whether you want to accurately emulate a particular era or simply borrow elements from one or several styles to give a modern design a slightly retro edge, this guide will hopefully have you feeling more confident about identifying and mimicking particular vintage styles.
Have I missed a vintage style that you love? I’d love to hear your thoughts on your favorite vintage styles and how you emulate them in your work. Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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