Punk isn’t dead. See how the counter-culture movement that sprang up among disillusioned youth in the 1970s continues to be a huge influence on designers today.
In a contemporary context of political uncertainty and a growing distrust of authority, spurred on by social media engagement, punk has regained its relevance and found a voice in this new era.
Here, we explore the origins of punk design and look at the movement’s considerable and clamorous influence on design and art.
How Did Punk Design Begin?
The young generation in 1970s Britain were disillusioned. Suffering from a high rate of unemployment and with many young people living below the poverty line, the country’s frustrated youth found an outlet in the emerging punk rock music scene. Punk was an “anti” movement—anti-consumerist, anti-conformist, and anti-establishment.
The music was angry, raw, loud and messy, and the flyers and album artwork created for gigs and record releases mirrored this, with cut and paste collaging, haphazard stencil typography, and abrasive, acid-bright colors. The most influential punk designer of the period was Jamie Reid, a self-proclaimed anarchist who in 1977 created the now iconic Never Mind The Bollocks album cover for the band who were the defining icons of punk—the Sex Pistols.
Reid set down the template for a new rawness and imperfection in design. The style became hugely popular, in part because it democratised the design process. Instead of expensive, rigid typesetting, amateur and professional designers alike could create their own haphazard designs using collage and rubber stamping.
Cheap-to-produce fan zines, such as former bank clerk Mark Perry’s Sniffin Glue and the US-based feminist zine Riot Grrrl, were created by hand using felt tips and newspaper clippings, and reproduced using photocopying.
The form of DIY design that emerged during the 1970s in Britain was transplanted and widely imitated around the world. The anarchic style that characterizes it is still considered the hallmark of cool, anti-establishment design today.
How Did Punk Design Evolve?
The original punk aesthetic pioneered by Jamie Reid and his contemporaries fell out of favor during the 1980s. Instead, brash and flash consumerism dominated the mood of design.
The spirit of punk design made a significant comeback during the 1990s, albeit in a new form that was connected with the grunge music movement that emerged in Seattle in the US.
American graphic designer David Carson spearheaded a new form of “anti” design, with his unconventional layouts for Ray Gun magazine. Grid-breaking, experimental typography and layered, distorted photos and collages defined Carson’s aesthetic, which is now considered the defining example of the “grunge typography” era of design.
Following Carson’s lead, many other designers have also lifted core elements from punk design and applied these to create new styles that fuse punk with, for example, Victoriana (creating steampunk), gothic, or club aesthetics.
While the pure anti-consumerist ethos of 1970s punk might have been watered down since, the anarchic, fun and rebellious spirit of punk design remains and continues to influence designers across a variety of fields.
The Influence and Evolution of Punk Design Today
The term punk design can loosely apply to any design style that breaks the conventional rules of “good” design. Designers working within the punk aesthetic might not even produce work that some viewers would deem to be aesthetically pleasing or professionally produced.
Because it doesn’t abide by any rules, such as grid layouts or perfect typesetting, punk design can be incredibly liberating for designers and artists looking to push the boundaries of conventional design. Combine the haphazard and imperfect techniques of collage-making and home-made typography with a healthy disrespect for authority and convention, and the result is visual media that has the ability to convey an exceptionally strong message.
Because punk originated in the UK, there is still a particularly strong thread of punk heritage running through the output of many British artists and designers. In many cases the punk aesthetic combines with satirical or observational commentary to dramatic effect.
Urban artist Banksy creates large-scale street art that combines traits of punk design with contemporary social themes. In a similar vein, British satirist Cold War Steve uses purposefully crude cut-outs from Twitter and tabloid newspapers to create collages that highlight the often absurd nature of the UK political system.
Graphic designers, illustrators, and photographers continue to explore the heritage of punk today. But, now these artists often combine punk-inspired traits with other styles to give a contemporary take on an anti-establishment aesthetic.
Shutterstock contributor ded pixto fuses punk collage with contemporary zine elements and psychedelia styling to create off-kilter portraits of statues.
Ukrainian graphic designer Lera Zaitsev lifts influences from both early punk and David Carson to create political collage posters.
Zines also experienced a radical resurgence in recent years, with the punk-originated format now hugely popular amongst a new young audience. Combining 1970s punk traits, such as acid colors, felt tip type, and cut-out graphics with Millennial- and digital-influenced design elements, the new wave of zines are as fresh and cutting-edge today as the first 1970s zines in their heyday.
The Lasting Influence of Punk Design
Punk design has never truly gone away, but has instead evolved into divergent movements and styles, such as grunge, steampunk, and zine culture.
The fact that punk design deviated from its original 1970s aesthetic is no surprise given that it was conceived as a democratic design style, with both professionals and amateurs able to create and reproduce their own punk flyers and zines.
It’s this DIY, design-for-all approach that best describes the spirit of punk design—an approach that designers and artists continue to explore today when looking to create counter-culture communities, or to make social or political commentaries with serious impact.
Cover image by contributor Ajaibs.
Want more on the punk aesthetic and design? Don’t miss these posts.
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- Tutorial Video: How to Use Zine Textures to Make Awesome Designs
- The Rise of Zine Culture and the Power of Women in the Arts
- Design Trends: An Introduction to the Return of Zine Culture
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