Psychedelia and Graphic Design

Our first lecture with Dr Simon Bell was focused on the psychedelic period (late 1960s), looking at why people of that generation had their particular view on the world and how this had an impact on the posters made in that time.

We initially looked at the 1960s, trying to understand why it was such an important era for graphic design. Up until about 1966 it looked back to the 1950s (post war times), 1966-67 had a life of its own, then the rest looked like the 70s. The overlap meant different creative styles could live side-by-side, responding to, and in turn generating, sub-cultures who could become easily defined and targeted. If your audience is very wide, your work can become bland and difficult to design, because you simply don’t know your audience.


The Byrds Poster by Wes Wilson, 1967

So why were posters from that era so difficult to read and unlike how you would expect a poster to be designed? In the mid-sixties, much of the youth had grown up listening to the stories of current events such as the Vietnam War, the assassination of prominent figures (such as John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King) and the Civil Rights Movement. This shaped a troubled society who were very inward-looking and self-absorbed consequently trying to find a way out, which happened to be music.

This was a very closed society who did not want to be involved with the government. Artists recognised this as an opportunity to create posters that did not need to be read to be understood, the posters weren’t trying to broaden a community or sell things to as many people as possible. Instead they acted as reminders to those already in the know about the events, reinforcing the exclusive and self-absorbed union of the hippy generation. This meant the text could be hand drawn, almost illegible to those glancing at the poster and the designs could be extremely colourful, with a lot going on and no single concept.

Canned Heat Poster by Lee Conklin, 1968


This lecture really got me thinking about psychedelia, a word I had never even heard before! It made me realise that a posters function isn’t always simply to sell a product or make people aware of whatever it’s trying to tell them. Design can be used for the exact opposite of what you may think. Perhaps sometimes it’s most effective that way!


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