This piece was originally published our most recent Eye On Design magazine, issue #05, themed, “Distraction.”
While the term “acid” mostly connotes a big, powerful LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) head-trip, it’s a loaded four-letter descriptor. “Acid” bears a cultural resonance far deeper than its noun form. The word variously conjures hippies, “mind expansion,” ’60s psychedelia, ’90s acid house, ravers, techno, wizened drug casualties, and Timothy Leary. Aesthetically, too, we have an innate and multifarious understanding of the word: paisley-spattered psychedelic swirls, op-art, and even a narcotic-tasting spirituality come to mind.
Today, however, we have an updated understanding of “acid graphics,” as a new wave of contemporary designers bring a future-facing take to a trope that may have once seemed naively utopian and nostalgic. While the acid aesthetic from past decades can carry connotations of “free love”—a mind-expanding kind of optimism that almost feels outdated in today’s world—this new style is tinged with irony and a darker sense of humor.
Stylistically, there are of course still a few smileys in there, but mostly this new style of graphics is defined by a miasma of bright colors (there’s a hell of a lot of neon green); experimental typography (it’s warped, back to front, upside down, takes on the appearance of viscously dripping liquid metal); op-art-esque patterns; sci-fi futurism; and the odd ’70s throwback, with dystopian-tinged skies and desert scenes that owe more than a little to legendary ’60s studio Hipgnosis.
Once you tune into them, as it were, you start to see acid graphics pretty much everywhere: across music posters and record sleeves, the style’s most natural home, but also in editorial design, branding, digital design, and elsewhere. Designer and art director Hugo Hoppmann, who’s previously worked with 032c magazine, describes the style as a “really trendy” look defined by “super organic forms” and “crazy lettering” mixed with a “heavy metal aesthetic” that draws on ’90s rave graphics, though created with modern tools—“lots of rendering and 3D stuff, but also pretty trippy.” He cites David Rudnick as the oft-aped touchstone of the current acid-mania in the design world. “You see so much around, but really it’s all building on his original work,” says Hoppmann.
Once you tune into them, you start to see acid graphics pretty much everywhere.
There’s even an entire Instagram account, @acidgraphix, devoted to the style. The feed was started in 2018 by Luigi Brusciano, a graphic designer by trade who works as a senior digital designer at a major fashion brand he’s not allowed to name. On his Instagram page, real and speculative print and digital designs for posters are peppered with some cheeky renderings of graphics on tabs of acid.
For Brusciano, the term “acid graphics” is very much about “vintage” techno and rave flyer designs. He reckons that the proliferation of acid graphics is in part an evolution of the web-based Brutalism trend. “My personal opinion is that [a lot of creatives] were at a point with graphic design where we wanted to break the rules completely,” says Brusciano. “One of the eras where all the rules were broken was with [’90s] rave flyers: They were using horrible fonts, almost ‘antidesign.’”
In an era where it’s easier than ever for everyone from graphic design students to your Auntie with a cupcake business to create their own designs using simple-to-use digital templates, it makes sense that graphic designers would look, once again, to rule-breaking in order stand out. The return to the ’90s, too, ticks the 20-year-cycle box of trends veering in and out of eyeshot, almost like clockwork.
While it’s hard to know how this might correlate directly to a design trend, it’s worth noting that concurrent to the rise in acid graphics becoming so retina-searingly hot, the use of LSD has made a serious comeback. U.S. government statistics reported by Vice at the end of 2018 showed an almost fourfold increase in 18- to 25-year-olds who admitted to taking LSD since the mid-2000s (1.31 million in 2017 compared with 317,000 in 2004). It’s a leap we’ve seen in the UK, too. Until a few years ago, it seemed very few people were using acid, bar the odd bearded festival dude, or a few psytrance nuts (the sort of folk who are into poi, or fluffy neon leg-warmers). Recently though, the drug has had something of a renaissance: UK government stats show that the number of 16- to 24-year-olds who took LSD tripled from 2012- 2013 to 2014-2015, from 0.4% to 1.2%, respectively; and the 2017-2018 Global Drug Survey also showed an increase, with around 47,000 more people between 16 and 59 using the drug than in 2016.
Could the increasing prevalence of acid the drug be having an impact on that of acid, the graphic style? The application of intense, vibrantly colored patterns have long been common as a visual shorthand for the experience of tripping. In 1926, German-American psychologist Heinrich Klüver studied the effects of hallucinogenic substances on users, and noted that the visuals they experienced were often recurring geometric patterns—dubbed “form constants”—in “highly saturated colors.” This is mimicked in both the club imagery of the past and the acid graphics of the present; though those today are notably far more biting, and less utopian, than their ’60s psychedelia counterparts.
It’s not just drugs that hint at acid’s multi-pronged comeback. “Everything is acid,” declared the Financial Times of fashion’s menswear shows for Spring/Summer 2019, pointing out that most collections’ designers used intense acid colors alongside references to 1980s and ’90s acid house in floral prints, raver-like knitwear, and bucket hats. Naturally, that “everything” encompasses graphics, too.
“I like the notion of visualizing in a biting and sour manner.”
One designer regularly cited as an exponent of acid graphics is Leipzig, Germany-based Anja Kaiser, whose work, in her words, is often characterized by “interrupted typography, fuzzy layouts, multiple compositions, and vibrating colors.” While she says she’s unfamiliar with the term “acid graphics,” her take on the descriptor is interesting: “I like the notion of visualizing in a biting and sour manner,” she says, sidestepping the hallucinogenic connotations of the word “acid.”
“I imagine acid could also apply to subjective and emotional strategies like elaborating on visual dissonances, messiness, and coexistence,” she continues. “Eurocentric graphic design is loaded with dominant imperatives like the desirability of simplicity and clarity. I feel like acid tactics could be one way to challenge these concepts.”
Indeed, challenging typical notions of beauty and desirability is a crucial component to acid graphics. Rudmer van Hulzen is a designer and art director at Dutch creative agency G2K, which has curated an exhibition showcasing international night club poster designs from the likes of Studio Cryo, Studio Feixen, Anna Kulachek, Bráulio Amado, and Jonathan Castro. “While many might dismiss these works as ugly, if you look closely at how they’re made and what they aim for, you’ll find that they are intentional and have a beauty all of their own. And you don’t need chemical stimuli to see it,” he says, adding that the posters that vibrate within the acid graphics style owe more to the attitudes of punk than the lysergic bliss renaissance of the ’90s. “I feel it has more to do with an independent, punk-like attitude equivalent to the DIY aesthetic of the Xeroxed hardcore punk flyers from the ’80s and ’90s,” he says, noting that the aesthetic is more about “going against the grain.”
Perhaps in the wake of everyone Marie Kondo-ing every inch of their lives into clean, neat, order, the recent wave of acid maximalism has come along to fuck it all up again. Acid graphics are, in a sense, a provocation. “They’re saying ‘fuck you’ and [rebelling against] things like smooth color palettes, single tone backgrounds, beautiful photos… I guess they want to contradict all the ‘nice’ stuff that comes out of certain agencies,” says Lithuanian designer Mindaugas Gavrilovas of Studio Cryo. “Maybe it’s also trendy because of a few ‘superstar’ designers like David Rudnick or Jonathan Castro.”
Hoppmann, however, is skeptical about both the label “acid graphics” and the dilution of the style as it has rocketed. “I don’t get really excited by it. For me, maximalism [can just be] lazy—just a lot of crazy graphics. I’ve seen it a thousand times. Some are really well done when it comes to composition and the way people play with textures and create a nice clash, but I’m really going back to simplicity. [‘Acid graphics’] for me is too ‘cyber.’”
“Nightclub poster design will always be on the forefront of graphic design in terms of trends, experimentation, and innovation.”
While this style is certainly having a moment, like any modish aesthetic, it might not be around forever. “As with anything that becomes trendy, it’ll slowly integrate into mainstream design,” says Gavrilovas. “So when it reaches that point and is no longer ‘underground,’ these weirder designers will find something else that will contradict the mainstream.”
G2K’s van Hulzen gives it another five years. “Trends in style, color, and shape (in fashion, art, design) seem to be coming back every 20(ish) years. It’s kind of a waveform. It will be copied a lot, and people will become bored with it… I think nightclub poster design will always be on the forefront of graphic design in terms of trends, experimentation, and innovation; and because of that, it has to keep on evolving.”
“That ‘very trippy, lots of typefaces’ thing is maxed out.”
As for what’s next, Hoppmann reckons the “counter-trend” emerging is more “organic,” focusing on simpler things, and centered on evidence of a “human touch,” with simple art direction, clean typography, and great photography. “That ‘very trippy, lots of typefaces’ thing is maxed out.”
The designer suggests that among the trend’s devotees, it’s not hard to spot the good design from the not-so-great–or, the empty trendy designs from the ones grounded in a concept. “It can just feel really shallow,” he says. “It’s about taking a step back as a designer, going back to your roots and thinking, ‘What do you bring to the table that’s unique?’”