With its clean lines, vibrant colors, and clear, bold visual aesthetic, there’s no mistaking retro graphic design, or to miss the impact that it’s had on designers working today.
Influenced by a mid-century modern design style, and the movements that immediately preceded it (including Art Deco and Bauhaus, among others), designers that create retro graphic designs rely on geometric shapes, clean sans-serif type, and an overall simplicity of form. From roughly the late 1930s to the late 1960s, mid-century design reflected the prosperity and optimism of post-war America. It’s easy to understand why we are now seeing a resurgence; the functional and appealing retro aesthetic works equally well in advertising, publishing, and art in the 21st-century, too.
Today’s successful retro designs build on visual inspiration from the past. Graphic design icon and popular Skillshare teacher Aaron Draplin has become famous for creating logos and icons that incorporate an unmistakable retro influence with thick lines and brash colors designed for maximum visual impact.
Want to develop your own retro graphic design? We’ve rounded up a mega-guide of retro graphics — design works that include those by major designers like Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Stefan Kanchev, Wally Olins, and of course, Aaron Draplin. If you’re interested in creating bolder, brasher, and more visually appealing work, we’ve got all the inspiration you need to get started.
Heights of Success
A true icon of mid-century modern design, Saul Bass’ Vertigo movie poster features his signature hand-cut type (along with Draplin’s beloved orange!) and incorporates graphic elements form the film’s unforgettable title sequence, also designed by Bass.
Paul Rand’s 1972 IBM logo suggests both unity and movement and has become a touchstone of effective logo design. It was the perfect expression of the company’s mantra under chief executive Thomas Watson, Jr., “good design is good business.” IBM still uses it today
Food For Thought
Though more often celebrated for his iconic black-and-white trademarks, Stefan Kanchev also used color and detailed illustration enticingly, like in this gorgeous restaurant logo he designed in 1976..
Londoner Wally Olins was the world’s original branding and corporate identity guru that helped establish and define retro graphic design style over the course of the 20th century. Among his company’s accomplishments was this 1994 logo for French telecommunications giant Orange, which reflects the solid colors and clean type that characterized Olins’ work.
If anyone ever asks you “what is retro design?” point them toward Aaron Draplin’s poster tribute to the space shuttle. His thick lines and bold colors make this piece a powerful example of why retro’s resurgent.
Fast & Furious
This stunning poster by artist Michael Turner for the 1975 Monaco Grand Prix seamlessly gets across the in-your-face excitement of Grand Prix racing (bottom) and the effortless style of the exotic French Riviera (top).
A striking example from Saul Bass’ decades-long series of posters created for film festivals, this piece makes the most of a simple concept — country flags placed on film strips hanging out to dry — to communicate the event’s international flavor.
Southern California artist and illustrator Shag (aka Josh Agle) dug deep into the style of 1960s advertising to create this beautifully-detailed poster
Paul Rand created this much-loved poster in 1981 to support the IBM motto “Think.” The image is a “rebus” — a word puzzle using pictures to represent letters — but also a knowing riff on the designer’s original IBM logo.
Commissioned by the Rural Electrification Administration, this 1937 poster by early modernist Lester Beall juxtaposes the solid, bold colors of the flag with black-and-white photography to get across that there’s nothing more American than progress.
Follow Your Heart
It’s hard to think of a logo more famous or effective than Milton Glaser elemental 1997 “I Love New York.” Fittingly, the original drawing was created in the back of a taxi and is now held by the Museum of Modern Art.
Aaron Draplin’s logo for Cobra Dogs, the snowboarder’s food truck of choice, is playful yet intense and is made to complete the large negative space of the truck’s yellow side panel.
Cipe Pineles became the first autonomous art director at an American magazine (Glamour) in 1942 among many other professional firsts as a woman. Her magazine covers, such as this one for Seventeen, brought a clean modern aesthetic to fashion photography and design.
Known as “the master of the trademark,” Bulgarian designer Stefan Kanchev was often stark and bold yet somehow playful, such as this 1972 logo for the Sofia State Puppet Theatre.
Shades of Color
Simplicity and the inspired use of color drive the illustration work of German designer Klaus Meinhardt.
Draplin’s self-portrait posters distill his style in both their unadorned graphic design and the similarly economical turns of phrase he chooses to place on them.
Austrian Joseph Binder was reportedly among the very first to call himself a graphic designer. The beautiful and iconic Binder poster for his homeland dates all the way back to 1930 and shows that the roots of mid-century modern run deep.
Getting In Shape
Bradbury Thompson’s cover design for his classic book The Art of Graphic Design leaves no doubt about the significance of vibrant color and simple geometric shapes.
This unforgettable 1971 PBS logo by Herb Lubalin and Ernie Smith reveals the potential power of blurring the lines between type and illustration.
Alvin Lustig revolutionized book design by creating covers that captured the tone and feel of the writing within, such as as this captivating example from 1944.
Wheels of Fortune
Otl Aicher’s poster series for the 1972 Olympics relied on vibrant, almost neon hues to communicate the unique intensity of Olympic competition.
Birds of a Feather
With work like the NBC peacock, innovative designer Ivan Chermayeff brought abstracted shapes to the world of corporate logos at a time when letterforms had been the standard.
Draplin’s simple yet powerful logos and trucker hats are a match made in heaven.
Polish illustrator Pawel Jonca’s recent poster for Label Magazine celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus art movement and reminds us that use of geometric shapes and bright colors in graphic design go all the way back to the early 20th century.
This illustration by Parisian artist-turned-illustrator Tom Haugomat recalls multiple eras of art and design while telling what seems a complete story through a single image.
Field of Vision
The tremendous variety found in the look of Draplin’s Field Notes notebooks spotlights the unlimited breadth of retro-inspired design.
Want to make your own retro designs, faster? Check out Aaron Draplin’s latest class here.
Cover image from Pretty Much Everything by Aaron Draplin