Going Retro: How to Bring New Creative Life to Your Designs With Retro Design

Step into my time machine and let history inspire your next design.

Contemporary graphic design will often reference past eras and historical styles of graphic design. Indeed, inspiration can be found in both the aesthetics and cultural references of past design, but is best used when reinterpreted and updated, rather than copied and imitated. That is, look to the past, but make it relevant to today.

So, grab your pen and paper because we’re going back in time. Let’s take a look at 150 years of graphic design – from 1850 to 2000 – and how you can bring new life to your creative work by going retro.

01. Victorian (1850—1900)

Victorian-era graphic design is strong on typography and ‘more is more’ was certainly the order of the day. Named for the reign of Queen Victoria, the Victorian-era (and the Industrial Revolution that preceded it) saw radical shifts in manufacturing and production, as well as social and economic changes.

01. Victorian-era
Clockwise : 1: Letterology 2: B/I/D 3: Letterology

New technologies made printing and paper more affordable and businesses employed graphic design for commercial benefit. Type founders developed new and ornamental typefaces and lettering, and splashed them across posters, advertisements, magazines, and all other printed material with an aesthetic that is elaborate, symmetrical, and heavily patterned.

Be inspired by Victorian-era design:

  • Fill the page – all of it – but keep the design symmetrical
  • Experiment with hand lettering and elaborate type-faces
  • Add shadows, outlines, and embellishments to letters
  • Integrate text and image as one piece of artwork

Victorian-era graphic design is a suitable choice for a coffee bar that has ‘Victoria’ in its name and lots of unique and inventive details in its interior design. The Victoria Brown logo by The Brand Bean has a symmetrical layout, distinctive typography, and flowery forms; and its appropriately topped with a crown.

This letterpress calendar by Mr. Cup is a modern interpretation of Victorian-era graphic design with angular and geometric lines symmetrically radiating from the center stamp. A debossed pattern fills the page and is lighter, visually, than if in all black.  

02. Arts and Crafts (1870s—1910s)

If you thought Victorian-era graphic design was heavily patterned, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the mass manufacture and shoddy goods of the Industrial Revolution.

Led by William Morris, advocates proposed a return to handcrafted design, truth to materials, and joy in labor. They used traditional production processes and looked to nature and the past for patterns and inspiration.    

04. Arts and Crafts
Clockwise: 1: University of Glasgow 2: Artyfactory 3: William Morris

Be inspired by Arts and Crafts design:

  • Use a color palette inspired by the natural world
  • Create dense patterns of interlocking, flowering, and curving forms
  • Represent floral and vegetal forms as you see them
  • Use bold and medieval-inspired typefaces

Dana Tanamachi is a lettering artist and designer chalking her skills up in bars, cafes, and restaurants across New York. This heavily-patterned chalk wall has interlocking floral and vegetal forms that not only fill the gaps between letters, but transform the letters themselves.  

Studio Ahamed’s visual identity for organic medicinal vegetable garden Puree doesn’t have the same dense pattern but it does represent nature as it is in real life and uses a color palette expressive of the natural world. The result is an aesthetic that looks good enough to eat.

03. Art Nouveau (1880s—1910s)

Art Nouveau is often perceived as a swirling, curling representation of nature. In fact, Art Nouveau is an expression of the psychological shift – and anxiety – that took place at the turn of the twentieth century and much of the flowing and sinuous design reflects the state of flux and change.

There were new discoveries and technologies and greater awareness of the world. In addition, men felt threatened by the increasingly liberated modern woman who studied, worked, and rode bicycles (if you can believe it), and they represented women in a state of entrapment.

07. Art Nouveau
Clockwise: 1: Britannica 2: Citrinitas 3: Taringa

Be inspired by Art Nouveau design:

  • Emphasize line and abstract forms and create flat designs, influenced by the Japanese tradition
  • Use sinuous and flowing lines and forms that transform, move, and melt
  • Design should be expressive of the subject
  • Feature women’s faces

Juan Hernaz’s book cover for Ancient Tales of Japan is appropriately inspired by the influence of Japanese design popular during the Art Nouveau era. The ‘C’ and the ‘J’ in the title transform into natural forms; flowers almost grow from the bottom of the cover; and a dragonfly (a popular Art Nouveau symbol) flies in from the upper-right corner.

This visual identity for Violette Chocolatier features a strong emphasis online, transmuting forms, and a woman’s face entrapped in the logo. Designer Martin Sitta says it is inspired by the work of Alphonse Mucha, an Art Nouveau artist whose distinctive posters and advertisements featured beautiful female faces and swirling lines.  

04. Dada (1910s—1920s)

Dada was an anti-art movement that concentrated on anti-war politics.

For Dada artists, the war made no sense; it called into question the society that participated in, and therefore called into question their art. Dada artists sought to destroy traditional values in art and replace the old with the new.

They subversively and experimentally directed a typographical revolution against the “idiotic and nauseous conception of old-fashioned books,” and as a result, pages exploded with spontaneous lettering and images intended to “redouble the expressive force of words.”

10. Dada
Clockwise: 1: Kdan 2: Libcom 3: Design is History

Be inspired by Dada design:

  • Experiment with typography, layout, and white space
  • Break the rules and follow no order
  • Clip images, tickets, newspapers, and other printed material for photomontage
  • Question and subvert meanings by combining a variety of images and text

Question is what the Dada artists did and Lauren Golembiewski’s packaging design says it right there on the box: Question taste! The design explores white space, experimental lettering, and photomontage, and each bottle is spiced up with a nonsensical name.

The concept for this poster questions what the neighborhood of Vila Madalena in Sao Paulo means to people. The end result is intended to convey the variety of cultural and artistic events in the neighborhood and thus is appropriately influenced by the experimental work of Dada artists.  

05. Avant Garde (1920s-1930s)

The inter-war period was an inventive and innovative era, and the term Avant Garde is often used to refer to the people and works that came from this time. Indeed, experimental and groundbreaking artists pushed the boundaries of design.

In the Netherlands, De Stijl artists abstracted and reduced forms and colors to express a new utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order.

In Russia, Constructivist designers fused art with new technologies and political ideology to help build the revolutionary new state.

In Germany, Bauhaus proponents merged art, craft, and industry to design better goods for the masses.

13. Avant Garde
Clockwise: 1: University of Ferrara 2: The Creators Project 3: Wikimedia 4: Kvetchlandia

Be inspired by Avant Garde design:

  • Embrace strong geometric lines and forms
  • Use a basic and saturated color palette
  • Incorporate photomontage
  • Make typography big and bold to get the message across

Rocket and Wink have got the strong and minimal color palette right on for the corporate design of German Haus. Plus, inspired by the Bauhaus, the design is comprised of only geometric shapes – square, rectangles, triangles, and circles – and used to effect throughout all elements of the visual identity.  

Yannuck Buchs’ (unofficial) CD cover design clearly references the work of the Russian Constructivists with a red, black, and white color palette; strong geometric lines that slice the square format; and elements of black and white photomontage.

Krzysztof Iwanski has a fantastic portfolio of work (check it out here) with a great selection of bold and abstract posters, many of which reference the ideas of the Avant Garde. This poster is a collage of black and white photos, saturated color, and concrete blocks, while still respecting the white space of the page.

06. Art Deco (1920s—1930s)

From the roaring 20s to the Great Depression, Art Deco was intended to boost both production and consumption. Art Deco originated in France where luxury goods were seen as pivotal to short-term economic revival.

French craftsman used exotic materials, revived traditional techniques, and incorporated references to the classical and colonial world to create exclusive and one-of-a-kind items.

As Art Deco spread to America, designers embraced the forms of the machine, the city, and commerce to create a new aesthetic suitable for a modern way of living—and consuming.

17. Art Deco
Clockwise: 1: Vogue 2: Dieselpunks 3: Decolish

Be inspired by Art Deco design:

  • Incorporate strong and radiating geometric lines
  • Stylize and abstract shapes to create flat, two-dimensional forms, as if frozen in place
  • Take inspiration from the skyscrapers, machines, transport, and the jazz age
  • Create shining, glimmering, glossy surfaces

Art Deco spread across the world in 1920s and 1930s, including Shanghai, and specifically Donghu Road. Thread Design created this Art Deco-style design for Shanghai Brewery located on Donghu Road. It features gold outlines of famous Art Deco buildings on richly colored backgrounds.

The concept for Murmure’s design for Nördik Impakt electronic music festival is about creating a visual break from previous aesthetics, just like the concept of Art Deco. The modern and elegant graphic identity glitters in gold and features modern skyscrapers rendered with geometric patterns that dissipate down the page.

07. International Style (1950s—1960s)

Ever wondered where and when that celebrated typeface Helvetica originated? Well this is it. The International Style (also known as Swiss Style) was the pursuit of simplicity, minimalism, and precision after the turmoil of World War II.

In the 1950s and 60s, Swiss designers advanced the modernist ideals of the Avant Garde and experimented with typography and photomontage. They viewed designers as communicators and as such saw no need for personal expression.

Indeed, the style embodied the mantra ‘form follows function’ as designers created a universal, anonymous, and objective graphic language.

20. International Style
Clockwise: 1: Design is History 2: Fonts in Use 3: Print Mag

Be inspired by International Style design:

  • Use sans-serif typography, such as Helvetica
  • Incorporate photography in place of illustrations or drawings
  • Give your design breathing room with plenty of white space
  • Use a grid for structured and asymmetrical layouts.

Simplicity and clarity is key here. Taking the concept ‘less is more,’ The Negra designed a minimal and modern visual identity to reflect the minimal and modern environments of architecture studio Cm2. The design has an emphasis on typography and structured layout with a black and white color palette.

Abbas Mushtaq created a conceptual design project for Wimbledon Tennis Championship with bold, easy-to-read type, plenty of white space, photographic images, and a very simple color palette.

08. Mid-century (1950s—1960s)

Meanwhile in mid-century America they were celebrating the good life with a great deal of optimism and prosperity after World War II.

Designers drew on the ideals of European modernists and fused them with that feeling of optimism and prosperity to create bright, colorful, and vibrant work intended to appeal to consumers and encourage them to spend, spend, spend.  

23. Mid Century
Clockwise: 1: Design Taxi 2: Design Taxi 3: Modular4kc 4: Designer’s Library

Be inspired by Mid-century design:

  • Use a bright and vivid color palette
  • Make the most of white space and give your design plenty of breathing room
  • Incorporate fun and expressive illustrations imagery
  • Create vibrant and whimsical compositions

These wooden toy cars recall an era before plastic toys, so Ivan Aguair created a packaging design that also evokes this era. His mid-century style design features colorful and abstract illustrations of American cars that are drawn to portray speed and motion.

Vicki Turner has an illustration style that recalls mid-century design, particularly the work of the great Alexander Girard. Her style is detailed and compact with a strong sense of geometry, appealing color combinations, and folk-art references.  

09. Psychedelic (1960s—1970s)

The psychedelic movement was influenced by the prevalence of hallucinatory drugs in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, as all those postwar babies came of age in the 1960s and 70s, they questioned America’s materialistic and conservative values, resulting in a revolutionary youth movement that heralded rebellion and experimentation.

With music festivals and concerts – and consequently drugs – being a prominent feature of the social landscape, graphic design visually expressed the feeling of ‘tripping out’ with intense color, swirling lines and forms (similar to those seen in Art Nouveau), and barely-legible type.

26. Psychedelic

Be inspired by Psychedelic design:

  • Use a bright and clashing color palette
  • Leave no space untouched
  • Incorporate faces
  • Create forms from strong swirling lines that seem to move and morph

A trippy design makes this Trippy Taco menu. It has bright neon colors and lots of radiating lines to question the integrity of your eyesight.  

This poster by One Horse Town is a fantastic piece of artwork that references psychedelic design, and appropriately so given it advertises a series of concerts for The Black Keys. No space has been left untouched while lines and forms appear to move and morph.

10. Postmodernism (1970s—1980s)

Postmodern design, what is it, really? Well, after the order and rationality that ruled modernist design, postmodern designers sought to throw formality and seriousness out the window and instead worked with bold, flashy, and faddish design.

It was the 1980s after all. They ignored traditional conventions and created expressive and playful graphic design combining high culture and pop culture references.

29. Postmodernism
Clockwise: 1:Design Observer 2: AIGA 3: Postmodernism Graphic Styles 4: Design Observer

Be inspired by Postmodernism design:

  • Combine as many bright colors as you possibly can
  • Be playful, lose all seriousness, and think about form, not function
  • Use photomontage for fun and aesthetics, not for meaning
  • Aim design at a popular audience

Oh Kanye, you’re quite a postmodernist yourself; or are you? It is questionable. But either way, Eric Yankher has illustrated Kanye West for Printed Pages magazine with a stacked portrait that references both Dada and Avant Garde design and certainly does away with convention.

As Yankher says, “The ability to recognize a celebrity from stacked parts is perhaps one of the only things that truly separates humans from pubic lice.”

Office Milano’s stationery brand Write Sketch & (WS&) pays homage to Memphis, the postmodern design group out of Italy. The bright, pastel colors are spot on, as are the lines and forms that are for pure aesthetic delight—and nothing more.

11. Grunge (1990s)

Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots—a lot of great music came out of the 1990s grunge era; as did some dirty examples of great design. As whacky postmodernism was a reaction to functional modernism, muted grunge was a reaction to colorful postmodernism.

It was intended to be a more accurate and realistic depiction of real life with dirty stains, blurred images, broken icons, and grimy textures. David Carson is the grandmaster of grunge design and he experimented with expressive typography, background images, and textures.

32. Grunge
Clockwise: 1: Cvltnation 2: Cvltnation 3: Cvltnation 4: Kamilgraphic

Be inspired by Grunge design:

  • Use a subdued, muted, and dull color palette
  • Experiment with blurred and distorted imagery
  • Apply dirty textures and elements, such as stains and tears
  • Incorporate hand-written elements and irregular typography

Alternative American band Mudhoney hails from Seattle, the capital of grunge, and their highly-distorted music was influential on the Seattle music scene. Appropriately, this poster is highly distorted mixing muted colors, jagged typography, and grotesque imagery.

Marissa Passos’ design for a publication about Thomas Edison experiments with scrawled and hand-drawn typography and layered textures and imagery for a result that, she says, “doesn’t follow the usual rules and takes a rebellious approach.”

YOUR TURN

Trends and fashions in graphic design are cyclical. Look to the past for meaningful (not just aesthetic) inspiration and be an innovator, not an imitator. And just remember, historic trends in graphic design are best reinterpreted when there is relevance in their context and meaning.

Rebecca is a freelance writer, researcher, and design historian. She has a Masters in the History of Decorative Arts and Design from Parsons The New School for Design, New York, and studies cultural history through the lens of architecture, design, and decorative arts.