Tripping out: The history of psychedelic design

Alex Bigman

Today, we’re taking a look back at that hazy yet brilliant period of artistic fluorescence: the later 1960s. Specifically, we wanted to explore the phenomenon of psychedelic design—a style that nowadays gets recycled often in commercial work, while its original history threatens to fade from collective memory.

The history of psychedelic design is of course vast: it crossed countless borders and dominated the graphic arts for a good decade, between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s. To keep this post manageable, we’re going to focus on the movement in the United States, where it flourished the most, around its high water mark, 1967—the year that Victor Moscoso designed no fewer than 60 posters in 8 months. And who said hippies were lazy?

But the story begins about 80 years earlier.

Early influences

Consider some of the primary attributes of psychedelic art: fantastic subject matter, kaleidoscopic and spiral patterns, bright color, extreme detail, groovy typography. All of these can be found in the art and design of fin-de-siecle and early 20th century Europe; specifically, the movements of Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, and Surrealism.

It’s no coincidence: these are the movements that the psychedelic generation, many of whom were educated in art, looked to for inspiration.

Art Nouveau

Poster design by William Bradley
A poster design by William Bradley shows bright colors and curvilinear patterns
Alphonse Mucha
This iconic poster by Alphonse Mucha exhibits incredible detail and a female figure who seems to be in psychedelic reverie

Vienna Secession

Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt’s famous portrait shows a woman emerging from a symbolist milieu of spiral and other patterns
Vienna Secession movement
The striking typefaces of the Vienna Secession movement were a direct inspiration for psychedelic designers like Wes Wilson

Surrealism

Salvador Dalí's "The Persistence of Memory"
Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” … doesn’t get much more psychedelic than this
André Masson
Another surrealist painter, André Masson, paints fantastic, often metaphysical scenes that prefigure the darker side of psychedelia

Immediate influences: Op and Pop Art

Fast forward to the early 1960s, with the world of psychedelic design just on the cusp of coming into existence. At this time, art and design spectators in Britain and the United States were having their minds regularly blown by the achievements in Op Art, which exploits principles of optics to make paintings that seem to vibrate and move.

Pop Art was popular as well, using techniques of mass reproduction, such as silk-screening, to reconfigure the images of commodity culture. Both strategies would make a strong impact on the nascent psychedelic cohort.

Bridget Riley op art
Bridget Riley’s huge, vibrating vortex epitomizes Op Art
Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe
Andy Warhol’s iconic painting uses silkscreen technology to reproduce Marilyn Monroe’s face, which he saturates in various combinations of bright, highly contrasting color

Pyschedelia takes off in San Francisco

San Francisco—specifically the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood near Golden Gate Park—was by virtually every measure the epicenter of hippie culture in the United States.

Many artists, most famously Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso and Bonnie MacLean, were headquartered here, and received a great number of commissions for poster designs from local rock ‘n roll concert venues like The Fillmore and the Bill Graham auditoriums.

Wes Wilson

Wes Wilson Fillmore
The eagle in this poster clearly harkens back to the curving details of Art Nouveau
psychedelic poster design
Likewise, the era-defining font used in this poster is derivative of typefaces created by Vienna Secession artists

Victor Moscoso

Moscoso poster
Moscoso designed posters as well as comics for publications like Zap, an underground comic to which many psychedelic artists contributed
Moscoso poster
This poster exemplifies two of Moscoso’s signature strategies. One was to contrast colors from opposite ends of the color wheel, of equal value and intensity, which produces an Op Art-like vibration effect. Another was to make type as difficult to read as possible—the exact opposite of conventional design wisdom. The idea was, if you aren’t interested in taking the time to decipher the poster, then the event probably won’t be your cup of tea either.

Bonnie MacLean

Bonnie MacLean poster
Bonnie MacLean made an indelible mark in a male-dominated scene
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Los Angeles

Although lacking a hippie mecca on the order of Haight-Ashbury, L.A. claimed a large share of psychedelic artists, who often emphasized surf culture more than their Northern California counterparts. The most famous were John Van Hamersveld and Rick Griffin.

John Van Hamersveld

psychedelic poster design
Seeking alternatives to the puritanical, capitalist mainstream culture, hippies in the United States often looked to Eastern and Native American mysticism, while also adopting design motifs from these dissimilar cultures.
The Endless Summer poster
This poster, like the one above, demonstrates another common psychedelic strategy: Xeroxing a photograph over and over, until it is reduced to a collection of strong black-and-white shapes.

Rick Griffin

grateful dead psychedelic poster
Posters weren’t the only locus for psychedelic design. Album covers, like this one for the Grateful Dead, were also key
Rick Griffin psychedelic poster design
Rick Griffin was also a devoted contributor to “comix” like Zap

Rick Griffin was also a devoted contributor to “comix” like Zap

New York

When one thinks of psychedelic art, it is the Californian work that jumps to mind. But that’s not to say that the movement didn’t reach the East Coast. On the contrary, artists in New York were developing their own aesthetic.

Two of them, Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, even teamed up to form Push Pin, one of the most important graphic design agencies of the 20th century.

Seymour Chwast

psychedelic poster design
Like the psychedelic work shown above, this poster possesses the attributes of bright color, high contrast, and curvilinear forms
psychedelic poster design

Milton Glaser

Milton Glaser's Bob Dylan poster
Milton Glaser’s Bob Dylan poster is probably the artist’s most iconic early period work. In the 1970s, he would outdo himself by going on to design the “I ❤ NY” symbol
milton glaser mad men
Half a century later, the popular TV show Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s, tapped Glaser to produce original art for the show’s seventh season

What is your favorite work of psychedelic design? Share in the comments!

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