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The Psychedelic Culture of 1960s Graphic Design

shutterstock_188911850Following the newfound American Dream innocence of the 1950s, the 1960s shattered America’s innocence with the brutality of the Southeast Asia wars, a world-rocking presidential assassination, and a growing racial divide. Along with these shocking changes, American youth rebelled against the cultural norms with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Art and graphic design reflected these changes, with a shift from 1950s earth tones to psychedelic neons: from geometric layouts to asymmetrical experiential styles, and from clean and prim forms to messy grunge abstracts.

The movements

The 60s was the decade of America’s psychedelic movement, when teenagers turned away from the conventionalism of the 50s to experiment with mind-altering drugs. These LSD-inspired distorted perceptions appeared in rock concert posters to express the trippy feelings they were experiencing. It was a time to question social, cultural, and political norms. The Black movement, the feminist movement, and the youth movement reflected themselves in the graphic designs of that decade, juxtaposed beside the lingering placidity of 50s graphic design that the older generations tried so desperately to cling to; on which the sun eventually set while simultaneously rising on the impending counter-culture revolutions.

Out with the old, in with the new

Materialism, discrimination, and capitalism were shunned. Environmentalism, Eastern mysticism, and music festivals especially, were embraced. Many could say that the 60s landscape was defined by the festivals and concerts that took place. Bands like Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who emerged as icons in an America at a time when the young generation was searching for direction.

The geometric layouts of the 50s were turned on their heads in the 60s, taking straight lines and angles in an entirely different direction to create dizzying optical illusions with repeating patterns. Defined as Optical art, or Op art, the artists of this abstract style aimed to represent the mind-altering perceptions that defined the 60s.

Continuing its rise from the 1950s, pop art evolved with Andy Warhol as an ironic homage to materialism and consumer culture. It also served as a protest against the elitist impressionism of art culture, and served to bridge the divide between high end art and contemporary culture, with artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns paving the way.

The major players

Wilson: Wes Wilson is one of the best-known graphic designers of the 60s era. His style, now synonymous with the psychedelic era, popularised a typeface that looked as if it was undulating or melting off the poster, reflecting the mind-melting sensations of psychedelic drugs.

Moscoso: Victor Moscoso popularised vibrating neon colour schemes to achieve the psychedelic effect, which clashed together colours from opposing spectrums of the colour wheel for eye-intensive images.

Lichtenstein: The paintings of Roy Lichtenstein featured chromatic colour schemes, thought bubbles, bold outlines, and repetitive dot stencils as a throwback to comic book styles. Although instead of handheld magazine-sized, like comics, his canvases expanded to billboard-sized.

Warhol: Andy Warhol, the most famous of the pop artists along with Lichtenstein, worked to bridge the gap between pop culture and the bourgeoisie by combining commercial and literary art in his work. The iconic Coca Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans are well known and still studied to this day for their incredible influence on graphic design artwork.

60s art and today

The 60s in America was a tumultuous decade where human rights, military action, sexuality, drug use, the environment, and musical revolutions were not only introduced into the American mindset, but remain as mainstream ideas and values to this day. Their culture of activism produced paradigm-changing movements of which the vibrations still echo. The graphic designs to come out of this defining era serve to represent the experimentation and radical mind-altering shifts of the 60s, that continue to inspire and influence popular culture worldwide.