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.
How to Identify a ‘Vintage’ Design Style
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.
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.
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’ design style is perception of age. Everything ages, and time has an influence on how things appear depending on how old they are.
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.
3. Visual Style
Aside from nostalgic value and ageing being hallmarks of vintage 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.
Your Essential Guide to Vintage Design Styles
This guide aims to show you how to identify specific vintage design styles, 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.
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 (to mimic the style of original Victorian posters, like the one pictured below) 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 chalkboard poster 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
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.
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 and old-style typefaces. Digitized letterpress effects can also replicate the look without the need for printing using the letterpress method. These Photoshop actions allow you to mimic the look on your computer without the need for a specialized printer.
This business card template uses metallic foil and delicate serif text to bring the letterpress style into more modern territory.
- Shares traits with: Victoriana (see above), Folk, Rustic, Craft
Steampunk & Retrofuturism
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.
Cogs, metallic textures and rich colors help to bring a touch of steampunk to any design.
Retrofuturism is a related trend, not particular to Victorian references, which creates interpretations of the future from the perspective of an earlier era. This retrofuturistic rocket is an example of the style, using exaggerated 1960s references to create a machine with a distinctly retro look.
- Shares traits with: Industrial, Victoriana (see above), Punk (see below)
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.
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 Oropitem typeface is a nice 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)
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.
To replicate the style in your own work, look out for beautiful ornate typefaces 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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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 & Pop Art
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.
Characterized by minimal, curvy shapes and muted colors, Mid-Century Modern 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.
Linked to Mid-Century Modern is the Pop Art style, which gives retro pop culture imagery a witty, and sometimes dark, twist.
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)
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. 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 new typography course.
- Shares traits with: Modernism, Mid-Century Modern (see above), Seventies (see below)
The Seventies have struggled with a poor design reputation for some time. Only recently have designers started looking to the decade for some fantastic 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 flyer gives a more contemporary twist to Seventies design elements, mixing a more modern layout with a grainy photo and Seventies-inspired colors.
Inspired by the Punk music scene of the late 1970s and 1980s, the Punk style is anarchic and attention-grabbing. This poster for a punk music gig 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 movie poster for the recent film 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, like the one pictured below, 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)
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. Popular in 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
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.
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!