An indicator that something is pleasing is if that particular aesthetic is copied and becomes a part of popular culture for a span of more than a decade. Graphic design, in particular, can serve as a visual indicator of world history through its various eras. Although we’ll be focusing on the ’80s and ’90s, in every era graphic design has a distinctive personality, a common denominator in every designer’s output.
Take for example the time of Medieval Art. Although this era covered about a thousand years in the Western world, the media revolved around illuminated manuscripts, metal works, mosaics, sculptures, and stained glass. These conservation-minded outputs were made with sturdy materials that are still preserved until today.
In the Renaissance Period, an important mark in European history, the era’s intellectual basis can be traced back to an early version of humanism; this was the time when philosophers, like Protagoras, believed that “Man is the measure of all things.” The Renaissance Period not only manifested in science, politics, and literature but also greatly affected European design. The development of perspectives in oil painting, concrete sculptures like Michelangelo’s “David”, and more realistic colors, textures, and mood in oil paintings became a trend during that time. Today, European graphic design, which is this art’s modern offspring, can be seen with a permanent touch of what influenced it hundreds of years ago.
As for the history of Asian design which can be traced back as early as the 14th century, local cultures of Southeast Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East share common factors that affected the evolution of design to this date. Art, science, architecture, technology, and literature are some of the important elements that affected Asian design–and eventually grew to influence the modern graphic design industry. Patterns, asymmetry, reference to nature, clean lines, and minimalist techniques can still be seen in Asian-inspired graphic design outputs.
The Birth of Retro
When Modern and Contemporary times formed, this meant to change–and this gave artists a wider range of options to express themselves through the arts and design. Retro Design became distinct for many artists in the ‘80s and ‘90s because it served as a visual representation of the slow transition of the Western world into becoming more liberal. Influenced by various political tensions, issues of freedom and modern humanity, and the cooling down of the Cold war, the Retro Designs became a reflection of what each artist felt towards the evolving system. Before, artists were only confined to producing artworks made from traditional materials like canvas, concrete, wood, and metal. Eventually, these classic techniques transitioned into creations on large-scale street art and pop colors to meet the need to produce bold, interesting, and eye-catching outputs. Retro style easily survived in the dynamic world of design and eventually invaded the world of Graphic Design.
Graffiti also made a huge impact in shaping the character of Retro Design in general. Although the first visible presence of Graffiti was born in Spanish Harlem in the early 60s, this new trend quickly caught on in all five New York boroughs and Philadelphia, by 1967. Its popularity grew so fast that freight trains, subway cars, and building walls did not escape those who wanted their works to be noticed. From bubble fonts to added sceneries, characters, and outlines, Graffiti’s identity became well established over the years. It became a notorious mark, to a point that the city government would spend hundreds of millions of dollars just to keep trains free from these creations. It wasn’t until 1977 that Graffiti was first visibly acknowledged through an exhibit at a gallery in Rome, Italy–and the rest was history. The birth of the Internet and Graphic Design heightened its visible presence and it became widely accepted internationally. Graffiti has since been established as one of the most significant facets of Retro Design.
Today, Retro Design is generally referred to as Vintage Art. When one thinks of Retro, something old and vintage comes into mind. Although this kind of art was first introduced decades ago, it never left the designer’s eye. Its thematic personality, saturated in geometric and abstract designs, summons nostalgia for anyone who experiences it. People who grew up in the 80s and 90s and found lasting success in their chosen profession use their influential positions to revitalize the styles that they grew up seeing in popular culture. Thus, Retro Art is still thriving and always will in the Graphic Design Industry. No graphic designer can claim they haven’t been influenced by Retro Design in one way or another. The mood, message, and colors it brings are still effective in catching someone’s attention–whether the intention is for business or for art appreciation.
Retro Lifestyle Designs
Retro Design is an effective element to make someone feel better about the past. It brings out emotion, memories, and scenarios that once made an impression on someone’s heart. Because of this, Retro Lifestyle Designs are often applied in any appropriate media to reach audiences more effectively. For example, social media applications like Instagram, where filters include the Retro option, remind you that it is still possible to create photos of Retro quality with modern technology–as if you are using a real vintage lens and camera. Even better, there are downloadable Retro Camera Apps on Google Play Store and the Apple App Store!
Graphic designs with a touch of Retro style are still scattered all over various media–especially print media. Magazine front pages, centerfolds, album covers, billboards, posters, book covers, and concert tickets are just a few print materials that Retro Graphic Design still invades.
When it comes to Retro geometric patterns, a graphic designer can opt to use simple or complex combinations of basic shapes, patterns, and colors. Color contrast is an effective way to convey an idea in an abstract vintage painting with geometric patterns. The mood is highlighted with artistic distribution and repetition of shapes and colors. Most graphic designs with Retro geometric patterns boast a clean finish–color blending, shadows, and shading are often left out to emphasize the beauty of geometric patterns represented as art.
The texture is a key visual element in graphic design. It helps the viewer to feel the “surface” of specific graphic design work, convey how it is to be perceived or “felt”. Texture enhances the visual tone of output and can influence a viewer’s level of attraction towards the design. It also influences the mood of the graphic design. For example, you know what a certain design actually feels like just by looking at it, you know how heavy and thick it is without holding it. Since the birth of the digital world, thousands of textures have been cataloged to improve one’s graphic design work. There are many sources for vintage design textures on the internet. Some of the common vintage texture samples are grunge, film, dust and dirt, streaky ink, wood, VHS, wrinkled paper, paint splatter, halftone, and speckle.
Even better, these textures are easily applied with just the click of a mouse–via photo editing applications like Photoshop.
Audio Waves and Musical Notations
The era of cassette and radio took the 80s and 90s by storm. Preserving the history in Graphic Design through audio waves and musical notations are making a comeback. The theme is ideal for any graphics targeting millennials. Although we live in a world where Spotify, iTunes, and other digital music platforms are the norm, cassettes and radios never really left the music industry.
In 1994, Cassette tapes were at their peak, taking over vinyl’s market share. But this success was cut short when CDs were introduced in the music industry. The transition was quickly and easily applied, manufacturers created radios with cassette and CD players, so as not to lose buyers. When CDs took over, both vinyls and cassettes waved good-bye to music stores. However, when downloadable and streamable music entered the digital world, even CDs didn’t escape the painful crash in the market.
But cassette and radios did have a comeback! One of the main reasons why is because Retro never goes out of style. It is already considered an ever-present facet not only in the industry of Graphic Design but in the music industry as well. Also, as simple as it may seem, cassettes and radios have a charm in them, particularly in the packaging, which entices not only serious vintage collectors but the general music lovers as well.
Since the year 2013, the number of people who want to have cassettes and radios has steadily increased. At the end of the year 2017, the population of people who “want” and “have” cassettes continued to expand. The amazing thing this data shows is that in 2018, the ratio of “Wants” to “Haves” skyrocketed to 238%!
Space and Dark Styles
Neon is Retro and vice versa. Attractively colorful lines and objects on dark backgrounds with space themes are characteristic of the 80s palettes and patterns. The National Geographic television show dubbed “Mars” adopted this palette. The theme is expressed with 3D images through neon illumination to create a virtual reality. Not only does it give the viewer a three-dimensional view, but it also envelopes the person in an altered virtual world where mood and thoughts are swayed.
Brace yourself for a Retro comeback and adapt to the change. Let your brand appeal to the largest consumer group by creating something that appeals to millennials. Retro is not only attractive to those who had the chance to witness it’s birth decades ago–but it can also be a good introduction to the younger generation about the colorful start of the vintage world of graphic design and music.
Retro Designers of Today
Vintage or Retro will never go out of trend. As a matter of fact, a few, as they may seem, you will find talented Retro graphic designers that continue to make an imprint in the digital market. Check out these few:
Overglow – Created by Italian Graphic Designer Alessandro Strickner, the Overglow is a treasure-trove of Retro graphic designs. The 32-year old designer started Overglow with no marketing plan, just pure passion for bringing iconic-style, neon-inspired Vintage and Retro designs back to life. He considers The Zonders, Valerie Collective, Arkuma, The Outrunners, Lazerhawk, the ‘80s and ‘90s Sci-Fi movies, Sega Megadrive, and Gameboy as the guilty parties that influenced him to find interest in vintage art.
Most of his works incorporate neon elements. Some of which are created with 3D chrome lettering and a metallic/airbrush effect, while some are created in 2D, with geometric patterns, and a little bit of motion.
Sharing his creations in the online community became a way to bring attention to his work and eventually, Alessandro saw this as an opportunity to turn his passion into a side-job. And it did–successfully!
Although Strickner believes that he’s still improving his Vintage and Retro graphic design skills, he considers the Arc Neon logo one of his most prized pieces of work to date. This logo, created during his early designing years, was made for the UK act Arc Neon. With a combination of chrome and hand-written text, Alessandro focused on dark-blue and purple shades to give the logo a more consistent and solid front. A triangle geometric pattern held the image together, which gave the Arc Neon a strong and intact finish. The dark background also contributed to highlighting the logo more. Today, Alessandro Strickner continues to inspire other Retro Designers through his numerous works, including the Overglow.
“Well, nobody could have this predicted, but I think all the retro revival really hi-jacked graphic trends last year. I’m seeing every day more references to that world in today’s stuff.”
– Alessandro Strickner: Owner and Designer, Overglow
Blood and Chrome – Hailing from Portugal, Blood and Chrome is another online entity that specializes in producing nostalgic ‘80s and ‘90s graphic design. Founded in 2014 and currently managed by Basil Murad, Blood and Chrome is a virtual world of combined retro and futuristic imagery that aims to influence those who are interested in ‘80s nostalgia.
Baz’s field of expertise in Vintage and Retro design revolves around playing with design elements like typography in chrome, synthwave acts, neon and brush typography in gaudy style, and some 3D treatments on the side. Although he prioritizes client demands, the Portuguese graphic designer loves to add lighting effects like glows, glints, lens flares, and color saturation in most of his outputs. He believes that these elements are essential in producing work with that ‘retro feel’.
The Magnum Force Playing Cards, a deck of playing cards in the style of ‘80s cartoons, is what he considers his best creation so far. It was a project funded on Kickstarter, a community of 10 million people in the creatives and design field.
This Retro-inspired card deck project was something huge. Inspired by a Saturday morning cartoon from the ‘80s, Baz easily knew what elements to use to come up with fictional Retro cartoons that depict the evocative feel of the era.
It wasn’t your ordinary deck of cards. It was the brainchild of a Retro graphic designer who wanted to produce something more than just playing cards, but a unique story with unique characters; inspiration drawn from shows like He-man, TMNT, and Thundercats. True enough, Baz really did a great job on this one!
Currently, Baz is the illustrator, animator, and graphic designer of Blood and Chrome. He also sees himself producing works that expand into film and game production in the coming years.
“As other ’80s-inspired designers continue to produce work, I’m sure it’ll grow and evolve, as I hope I continue to do. I don’t really focus on industry matters, I just do what I like, and other like-minded people respond to it.” – Baz, Owner & Designer, Blood, and Chrome
Sam Todhunter – This digital artist, illustrator, and graphic designer who hails from Laguna Niguel, California are known for his sci-fi and Retro inspired pieces like album covers, movie posters, paintings, comic books, and even storyboards. It was in the year 2014 when Sam Todhunter’s graphic design and art career took a turn to the nostalgic ‘80s. He started getting exposure from deviantart.com to make a name for himself, but considering the site’s overpopulation when it comes to budding artists like Sam, his effort didn’t yield what he expected. Who would have thought that it would take the modern revival of 80’s synthesizer film score, Retro pop music, and neon pink intro titles to make him realize that his love for Retro styles would resurface? As a ‘90s kid who grew up watching numerous ‘80s VHS movies and listening to the era’s music, his passion for Retro design pushed him to do pieces inspired by a new genre of music called ‘synthwave’. Since then, his career started going upwards.
Sam Todhunter is an expert in his area of interest and he applies this expertise to all kinds of art. However, with this kind of talent and love for Retro design, it seems too coincidental that he consistently gets hired to do Retro pieces, which he truly is happy to oblige! His target market consists of musicians and filmmakers, but he also did some covers for games. When it comes to ‘80s and ‘90s designs, Sam is fond of using vibrant, neon-colored elements, glowey effects and atmosphere, film grain, and gritty texture. His Retro designs incorporate sci-fi elements as well.
The Magnatron 2.0 album, released by New Retro Wave Records, is one of his favorite creations. The second installment of a previous album that consisted of various synthwave artists, the Magnatron is inspired by the late 80’s and early 90’s virtual reality craze. Like the music it represents, this piece was meant to wear its nostalgic influences on its sleeve.
Currently, Sam Todhunter is a freelance digital artist and an Art Director at the New Retro Wave Records. He believes that the ultimate goal of any form of media, whether it be music, movies, art, or design, is to inspire and entertain people.
“The art and graphic design industry is as much a part of this cultural phenomenon as the rest.” – Sam Todhunter, Illustrator, and Designer, New Retro Wave Records
Denny Busyet – Born in 1986, Denny Busyet currently lives and creates a variety of visual artwork in Indonesia. With a focus on dreamlike 3D imagery, Denny Busyet’s work weaves a deep nostalgia for the ’80s and 90’s aesthetics into modern design practice. His main artistic goal is to inspire the viewer to sweetly reminisce about “the good old days.”
The vivid 3D worlds he creates seem to exist in both the past and future. His work adds another dimension to 80s science-fiction’s depiction of the future; a future heavily laden with 50’s mid-century modern shapes. The work plays dramatically with the notions of high contrast prevalent in Retro design. Denny sets matte textures against high gloss; Bright, warm red and orange light against cool deep blue tones. These details, along with sections of Retro gridded patterns, makes the depth of his three-dimensional work more palpable.
To Denny, 80’s and 90’s synthwave is just another element in the atmosphere of his design. Like other artists that incorporate these styles, Denny’s works convey a romantic notion of the era that translates across the senses. Synthwave musicians like FM-84, Timecop 1983, The Midnight, and other pop culture sounds of the time are what drive his visions. He even pays homage to 80’s music, games and other media of the era with the objects in his compositions. For Denny, music, art, and other forms of expression are intrinsically linked.
“Art and music can’t be separated” – Denny Busyet
Vintage and Retro design is definitely an aesthetic that imprinted a permanent mark, not only on those who grew up seeing it develop over time but also to the newer generation who are naturally attracted to it as visual inspiration. It only goes to show that any form of art or design is not restricted or limited by time, because as long as there are people who have the eye to appreciate such, it will always stay visible and available. No matter how many decades come to pass.