Our Music Poster timeline- curated by Kingston University Graphic Design student and Creative Youth intern, Josie Biggs- illustrates the evolution of the design of the music poster, reflecting on shifts in aesthetics, commercialisation and technologies.
The 1960s experienced a revival heavily influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, evident in intricate, hand-drawn typography and organic forms. Fluid lines and ornate details served as artistic embellishments and expressions of beauty, rather than functional elements. This stylistic approach merged with bold and vibrant hues, as the psychedelic movement left its indelible mark on the aesthetics of the era, imbuing it with a sense of experimentation and transcendence.
Psychedelic Rock, Pop, and Folk were genres at the forefront of the decade, with labels such as the iconic Motown Records introducing more artists from gospel, jazz, R&B, pop, and rock and roll into the mainstream. As listeners began to embrace new sounds, world music sounds from Latin America, Jamaica, India, and Cuba were being embraced, influencing the imagery and narratives of posters, with iconography drawing inspiration from Eastern Art and Symbolism such as mandalas and sacred geometry.
Folk Art and Folklore further motivated creative expression through the visual narratives of mythological themes and connecting with nature. There was an embrace of alternative ways of living paired with anti-establishment sentiments. The influence of Pop Art became apparent in the use of bold, graphic elements. Furthermore, mid-century modernism from the ‘50s continued to shape graphic styles of the ‘60s, with technological advancements like the rise of automotive design contributing to streamlined forms and futuristic aesthetics.
Referencing classical styles of manufacture and innovation, the design ethos of the era embraced sleek minimalism. Screen printing – a technique involving passing ink through a mesh screen onto a printing surface, with areas blocked off by a stencil – was a popular print production choice, not only cost-effective in large runs and versatile regarding printed mediums, but fitting the poster aesthetic of the ‘60s. The vibrant opaque inks were perfect for bold-coloured prints and the printing method allowed for fine details and a smooth finish, suitable for intricate designs and patterns.
The 1970s saw a surge in many new music subgenres that carried their own visual identities, as people became more confident to express themselves and make political commentary through fashion, art and music.
In terms of typefaces, the free-form aesthetics of the ‘60s continued into the ‘70s, with evolving alterations. Calligraphy and script fonts became more popular, with contrasting thin and heavy stroke lines -bold yet unaggressive. These groovy typefaces were often associated with the Funk and Psychedelic-Rock genres of music. Punk, Heavy Metal and Hard Rock genres had a ‘grungy’ and sometimes grimy visual aesthetic; distorted sans serifs of various fonts, Dada-style collage imagery, and the use of the Xerox machine giving posters a distressed quality.
These artworks had a loud and abrasive feel, consistent with the social climate of counter-culture rebellion through music and art. Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols posters spearheaded the dominance of a new ‘Punk’ aesthetic, with jagged ‘cut and paste’ elements and subverted, anarchistic imagery that would remain central to the aesthetic of the counterculture for decades to come.
The colour schemes of ‘70s posters were muted and often mono-toned, in contrast to the intense acid colour pallets of the ‘60s. New genres such as Disco and Glam Rock held their own however, not only in saturated colour pallets but with the fashion brought with it; a culture shock of groundbreaking creative expression through attire and makeup.
The typography associated with these genres are sleek and bold, exuding rhythm and power in the dynamic curves and angles. Aside from screen printing which was still a consistent printmaking method being used, offset printing became a prominent commercial printmaking method in the ‘70s (a technique that involves transferring ink from a metal plate to a rubber blanket, and then onto the printing surface). The ability to handle large quantities of prints efficiently and deliver high-quality results contributed to its widespread use in the decade.
The 1980s music scene had an interesting blend of modernist styles with more visually aggressive, alternative graphics. Trending typography featured angular metallic typefaces, glitchy VCR effects and pixelated fonts – reflecting the influence of emerging video game culture and new technology. New Wave, a genre that blended punk rock with pop melodies, experimented with synthesisers, influencing the futuristic and digital elements in poster designs. This extended to Cyberpunk aesthetics which brought a dystopian outlook to posters, mirroring the dark thematic genre of science fiction prominent in films like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Mad Max’.
Dark ambient aesthetics could also be seen in Neon Noir visual media cultures, a combination of neon elements with the dark aesthetic of ‘40s and ‘50s Noir films. These visuals were adopted into Punk Rock aesthetics, the genre blending an array of subgenres including Alternative Rock, Post Punk, Hardcore Punk and Hair Metal. This hybrid range of forms had a broad spectrum of punk-themed sounds, from aggressive harsh tones to experimental blends of reggae. Iconic fonts such as “ITC Benguiat”were featured in such posters, the sharp angles associated with grunge and horror-themed media.
With ‘The Second British Invasion’ leaving its mark on the American music scene, British bands and artists still emphasised Alternative Rock bold graphics, colourful imagery, and mixed media poster design approaches. Printmaking was becoming cheaper and more accessible to the masses, enabling a widespread distribution of music culture and protest materials. Xerography contributed to the raw and gritty poster visuals given the photocopying distortion process, yet also gave photos a timeless feel through the weathered qualities. Risograph printmaking, additionally had a breakthrough in this decade (a technique that combines aspects of screen printing and photocopying, using a digital stencil system).
Art movements such as the Memphis-Milano Style, heavily showcased bold shapes and striking colour combinations, drawing from Art Deco and Pop Art influences. ‘80s Deco style in particular emphasised the modernist elements of sans-serif fonts and pronounced angles.
Grunge Music (encompassing alternative rock, a hair metal scene, and classic-rock standbys and indie) had similarities with the Punk aesthetics of the previous decades, and utilised mixed media approaches to visual aesthetics. Street art and graffiti movements, which gained prominence in the 1980s and continued to evolve in the 1990s, influenced poster design with their bold and expressive visual language and social commentary. Elements like spray paint effects, stencils, distressed textures, patches and hand-drawn elements found their way into posters for music events and other spaces of the counterculture.
The late ‘80s brought a wave of hip-hop and rap music, with visual aesthetics similar to grunge, often with hand-drawn elements, scribbles, and a raw, unpolished look characteristic of mixtape cover designs. The type formatting was more dynamic in grid system placement compared to previous decades, with bold typefaces like “Impact” and “Arial Black” demanding attention with their thick, heavy letterforms. Fonts like “Bauhaus 93” and “Agency FB” were prominent in the decade, with characteristics of clean lines, sharp angles, with a minimalist approach. These fonts were often associated with technology-related industries, creating a sense of sophistication and innovation – also linking back to the previous decade’s retro-futurism aesthetics.
Whilst R&B was gaining popularity in the late ‘80s, the ‘90s are often considered the genre’s golden era. Visually this genre is presented very differently from the rest. The colour palettes used were warm and muted, the imagery featuring soft and moody lighting, with emotional and often sensual undertones. Pop music saw a major revival in the late ‘80s with bands such as The Spice Girls and The Backstreet Boys, a boom of multi-platinum female singers and songwriters coming into the scene. The visual aesthetics included a comeback of Pop Art, with its iconic imagery and popular culture incorporations. “Comic Sans” and “Mistral” became staples in casual communication and small text – playful and whimsical yet highly legible.
With this rise of digital technology, artists started to explore digital printmaking, involving computer software to create or manipulate images, which were then transferred onto paper using inkjet or laser print processes. Photogravure became popular, (a process that combines photography and intaglio printing, utilising a light-sensitive gelatine resist to etch photographic images onto a printing plate). This technique allowed artists to reproduce photographic images with the tonal richness and subtlety of traditional intaglio prints (a technique where an image is incised into typically a metal plate, ink is applied to the incised areas, the plate is wiped, the paper is then pressed onto the plate to transfer the ink, creating a print with raised, inked areas with distinctive, textured appearance).
Kingston born and bred, Sue Smallwood is both the original bassist for local, post-punk band The Trudy, as well as an accomplished graphic designer, with over forty years’ experience in the industry. During her time in The Trudy, who played across venues such as The Dolphin, Three Fishes and The Grey Horse in the 1980s, Sue created all the band’s promotional material, sneaking into the office early to utilise the industrial photocopiers, and run off hundreds of copies of handcrafted posters and flyers.
On display here you can see a range of original promotional artworks, handmade by Sue, that typify the distinctive, ‘cut and paste’ collage approach of the time, with the text referencing various tongue in cheek elements and inside jokes with her bandmates, Peter Tagg and Ralph Cade.
With Punk the dominant new aesthetic – preaching a ‘do it yourself’ attitude – graphic arts, particularly within the music scene, became an unprecedented new medium for self expression and promotion. Drawing inspiration from Jamie Reid’s groundbreaking Sex Pistol’s posters, with their crude, ‘ransom-note’ assemblages and anti-establishment swagger, any burgeoning, local band on a budget could produce reams of flyers to post around town, advertising their latest album, or gig.
The ‘tools of the trade’ – Lettroset, marker pens, cellotape and the Xerox Machine (photocopier), combined to create an iconic Punk aesthetic, with an enduring, expressive integrity still revered today, as digital apps attempt to re-capture the analogue look using filters that weather, texturise and distress.