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Technology vs Art: Graphic Design of the 1980s

shutterstock_94178125The 1980s marked the early beginnings of the digital revolution and the introduction of business and personal computers. The influx of technology combined with the development of graphics software had a tremendous impact on graphic design. Within one short decade, the industry had changed forever.

But just like fashion trends, design aesthetics are circular. And what once just seemed dated is now retro and trendy. Whether it’s from a sense of nostalgia or just the desire take the old and make it new again, the 1980s design styles have regained popularity in the mid 2010s. Here’s a primer on the influences and impacts of 1980s graphic design.

Technological influences

Design software gave graphic artists the power to create 3D images and to easily manipulate layout, colour, and form. With the introduction in 1985 of PageMaker, Adobe’s first desktop publishing software, it became easy to instantly see the results of typeface changes and image repositioning. These new tools freed up graphic designers to experiment freely and take more risks.

The wave of experimentation led to a design aesthetic that was busy and colourful and steered away from earlier modern forms. The new software tools allowed artists to freely mix font families, weights, and sizes and create a jumbled, spontaneous feel. This “new wave” approach, as the decade came to be called, led to the development of the Deconstructive Typology movement. Type could be nonlinear, incorporating spatial layout and the visceral feel of the text to influence meaning.

Look and feel of the 1980s

Specific design trends of the 1980s included bright, sometimes even childish, images like colourful hearts and rainbows. Tropical themes were also popular. Think of the Miami Vice credits, with palm trees, beach shots, and fast sports cars.

If you want to get inspired by the look and feel of the 1980s, check out Jason Cawood’s excellent 80s art Tumblr site. Three trends in particular that have been popular in recent years include 80s deco, neon noir, and cyberpunk.

80s deco

Art deco, an aesthetic iconic of the 1920s, made a comeback in a big way in the 1980s. 80s deco had a huge impact in architecture, interior design, and graphic design. In architecture, the influence led to glass block walls and curvy furniture. Graphic design adopted 20s inspired art deco touches by relying on the clean lines of sans serif fonts and colour palettes of mauve and teal, peach and black.

Neon noir

The combination of dark backgrounds overlayed with script fonts in bright colours formed the basis of this distinctive 80s style. Primarily employed in film and TV credits, the look is visually distinctive and grabs viewers‘ attention. Neon green, pink, and blue text imposed on a black background creates this high contrast look. Imagery is typically focused on sunsets and palm trees, beautiful women, and hot sports cars.


Another look that first appeared in the 1980s is the Cyberpunk aesthetic, all sharp lines and grids, dark colours, and blurry, paranoid landscapes. Inspired by the introduction of personal computers and our first taste of digital life, this look can’t rightfully be described as retro because, in some ways, it’s never gone out of style.

Mostly the 1980s were about loud, sometimes even obnoxious design styles that undeniably grabbed your attention. Bold geometric shapes, bright neon colours, and an experimental approach to typography all pushed boundaries and led to new, distinctive graphic styles. The combination of powerful technology and freedom to experiment influenced the field of graphic design in ways that are still with us today.