Punk design is associated with punk music, which began in the early 1970s and truly emerged in 1976, with the rise in popularity of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. The punk scene formed on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily London and New York, but also has roots in Australia. Punk rock music was—and is—about rebellion, starting from scratch, rejecting the social order, anger and hostility. Many individuals who listened to and created punk music sought to revolt against racism, fascism, capitalism and mainstream politics. Punk artists often bypass labels and managers, recording and distributing their music and homemade magazines (zines) themselves. The genre is still alive today, and has diversified and morphed into alternative and indie rock.
Because punk is all about chaos, anarchy and revolution, the design elements associated with it often eschew convention (both literally and metaphorically). Using punk design indicates you value individualism and authenticity. It shows that you can Do It Yourself (DIY). And you’re not afraid to confront stereotypes.
Punk design is best used used by companies and organizations that consider themselves outside of—or on the edge of—the mainstream. Designing for a neon hair dye brand? Punk might be a good choice for you. Designing an insurance logo? It may not be the best choice. (Unless you’re targeting a very specific niche. In which case, continue kicking ass and taking claims.)
So how do you make punk design work for you? First, think like an artist. Determine what elements of punk rock style you want front and center. Some classic punk rock features, like handwritten, black-on-white scrawled lettering, are palatable to many audiences. Others, like S&M wear, may not be what you want to showcase.
Next, review the history and flavor of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Don’t concentrate only on the music. Also look at clothes, jewelry, makeup and hairstyles. Finally, incorporate non-white and non-Western elements of punk style. There were and are Black punks, Indian punks, Chinese punks, Burmese punks, Latino punks and much more. Many non-white and non-Western countries adopted punk music later. Objects and features of their movements include mixtapes, subversive phrases in the language common to the group, and androgynous or sexually revealing clothing, as well as elements common to punk groups worldwide, like skulls, tattoos and leather. Do your research if you want to cater to locals.
Today it’s easy for almost anyone to mass produce things: we can create a single document on our computer and print as many copies as we need. Before the 1970s, however, the only way to mass produce flyers and brochures was through offset printing, which meant using a typesetter for your text. Both of these things were prohibitively expensive for the common person. It also severely restricted the look of what you could print.
For reasons of both practicality and rebellion, punk rock artists and activists tended to create materials from scratch. Handwritten and hand-drawn script and illustrations using the most basic materials, like marker pens and white T-shirts or ball point pens and newspaper. Stencils and stamps were also extremely popular, as they still had that unique, DIY feel, but were easy to mass produce. Finally, punk font design used a lot of cutouts, physically taking letters from mainstream newspapers, magazines and other printed materials, and scrambling them together to make new words. This was a visual representation of cultural subversion, taking the establishment and reclaiming it for their counter-culture designs.
If you want to be truly punk font, you should probably create a hand-lettered text treatment from scratch. (We’ve got a tutorial on how to digitize it). If you want a simpler solution, look for fonts that look non-uniform, messy, smudged, faded and stamped. Some examples are Punkboy, Punk Kid and Punk Rock Show. There are many variations on the “letters cut out from newspapers and mixed together” theme, such as All Ages and Mustasurma. You can also take a rounded, bouncy font like Chocolate Dealer and deface it.
Once you have your font, mix it up! Punk was not about clean, uniformity, it was about breaking rules. You don’t need to have one headline font and one body font; instead you can mix and match. It’s also a great idea to play with inversion—do white on black instead of black on white—and framing. You can box off letters or words (in actual boxes, or other hand-drawn shapes).
Black and white photos and imagery
Since they couldn’t rely on the establishment, punk rockers started creating their own form of marketing: the zine. In the late 70s, the Xerox machine made its way into print shops, allowing for punk artists to create these little booklets by hand and then copy and distribute them. However, the technology was new and they could only reproduce in black-and-white (even shades of gray were difficult). This led to the stark black-and-white imagery we associate with punk design.
Similarly, many photos of the punk rock era are shadowy black and white images, taken at night or in dark environments. They feature jeans and dark clothing or makeup. Subjects often wear designs that offer high contrast, like stripes, polka dots, and T-shirts with line drawings, handwriting, or defaced logos. Since the photos had to be printed and then physically pasted onto advertisements and flyers, they’re often scratched, torn or ripped. Subjects in the photos typically ignore the camera or look it head-on in a challenging way. Think of posing subjects in similar stances to capture defiant nonchalance or a gritty, direct stare.
Punk design is defined by mixed media. It utilizes many materials, from tartan kilts to metal studs, ink and exposed skin to army pants and choker necklaces. It then combines them in a way that challenges the eye and mainstream thinking. Typical contrasts include hyper-feminine elements such as frilly tutus and sparkling tiaras that are ripped, torn, and safety-pinned back together with hyper-masculine elements like motorcycle boots, leather jackets, and razor blades.
Bring these punk elements into graphic design by layering textures to mimic the cut-and-paste style of mixed media. Don’t be afraid to pair a grungy font with a feminine photo taken in black and white and then scratched up. When you combine different materials in a webpage or advertisement, make sure the transition is easy on the eyes. A reader may not want to have to look too closely at a bloodied T-shirt to read its slogan. In addition, be careful of including curse words and offensive language. Punk rock artists and slogans can include colorful language. These may be out of line with the standards for your company or the magazine or newspaper that publishes your ad.
It can be hard to determine how a punk look will play with an audience. Ask for feedback from your editorial staff and the public. This will give you a better idea of whether the artwork captures the style of the era yet is not too offensive. Punk style is meant to be edgy, nihilistic and aggressive. Work on making your material attractive yet not alienating, significant and rebellious, anarchistic with an idea of the order you have broken. Then you’ll know that you’ve won over even the hardest punks.
Want to know more about how punk changed graphic design? Read about it here!
About the author: Jessica Zimmer is a San Francisco Bay Area-based artist specializing in watercolor, Western and Chinese calligraphy, sumi-e and comics. She has worked with a wide variety of museums to organize exhibits, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco and the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara. She has over ten years of experience as a journalist, writing for The New York Times Company, Knight Ridder Corporation, and a variety of other newspapers, magazines and websites.