There’s nothing like the approach of a new year to make a person look back, take stock, and maybe get a little misty-eyed over the year that was. In 2018, though, the usual slow creep of nostalgia boomeranged at sonic speed back into graphic design’s consciousness, in ways both subtle and bold.
Trends are notoriously cyclical. What’s cool today will assuredly not be cool two years from now. This year, we saw a deep embrace of all things ’60s and ’70s; from chubby typefaces, to psychedelic aesthetics, to a resurgence of archival graphic design, some of the best design in 2018 has its roots firmly in the past.
We could speculate on why that is—maybe it’s our collective anxiety, a yearning for simpler times, or simply because it looks good—but the boring truth is, when it comes to visual culture, what goes around often eventually comes back around. With that in mind, let’s take a minute to explore where the past met the present in 2018.
Is it just us, or was psychedelic design was everywhere this year? Sure, we might be biased (we did dedicate an entire magazine to the intersection of design and psychedelia, after all), but this mind trip of a year felt like the perfect backdrop for graphics that were a helluva lot wilder than usual.
You might argue that psychedelic design has never fully gone away, and that’s fair. The acid-laced design aesthetic, which has its commercial roots in the drugged-out culture of ’60s San Francisco, has found its way into all forms contemporary design over the years, from “witchy sci-fi” music posters to buttoned-up business magazines like Bloomberg Businessweek that redefine what “psychedelic” means in the 21st century.
When we started thinking about how to express the idea of psychedelia in print, our designer for issue #02 of Eye on Design magazine, Shira Inbar, instantly gravitated towards Day Glo, a line of ultra-bright pigments that were first used for utilitarian purposes and have since entered the design and fashion sphere. She was interested in Day Glo orange’s physical properties—the fact that it absorbs UV light invisible to the human eye and reemit it as visible glowing light. In other words, you can’t truly see fluorescents like Day Glo orange on screen.
The choice turned out to be a perfect balance of contemporary and retro: It was a brilliant antidote to all the time we spend staring at screens and a true homage to the past.
This year there was a decided backlash against all things minimalist. After years of flat, sans-serif wordmarks, we saw brands moving towards softer, rounder, typefaces and logos. Brands like Chobani, with its chubby, folk art-inspired typeface and branding, led the way, and plenty of other companies followed suit. Hims/Hers, Year & Day, Great Jones—all of them have embraced a subtly groovy serif as way to say “we’re not like the rest of those direct-to-consumer companies.”
The swinging of the trend pendulum hasn’t reached full retro. Many of these companies are still using the familiar flat photography and desaturated hues meant to make their brand feel accessible but modern. But there seems to have been a consensus amongst cool, young brands across the spectrum to reject the sharpness of logos in years past in favor of the softness a ’70s-era serif provides.
Naturally, we’re already getting to the point where this form of visual shorthand is being recognized as a lazy millennial-friendly crutch. A friend recently texted me a photo of a Hers advertisement, and asked, “Why does everything look like this now?” The only solace I could offer were the wise words of designer Armin Vit, who told us earlier this year that “The next big thing is the opposite of whatever is happening right now.”
The good news after all this talk of trends is that some things are evergreen. In 2018, we saw an emphasis on documenting design from the past, including an online archive of Saul Bass’ work and an IRL exhibition that explored the long-forgotten feminist designs from the 20th century.
For the Saul Bass Archive, Los Angeles’ Film/Art Gallery digitized and organized dozens of Bass’ posters, creating a comprehensive look at his prolific career. It includes obvious gems like his film posters, but extends well beyond Anatomy of a Murder. We chose to dive deep into his work for organizations like Girl Scouts and the ACLU, and highlight the lesser-known pieces of design that helped spread important messages outside the design circle and into the wider world.
Meanwhile, exhibitions like “We Dissent: Design of the Women’s Movement in New York,” served as an important reminder that social and political movements that go undocumented do not go down in history, a fact that was as true for the pre-Suffragette agitators as it is for today’s activists. With the many kinds of media that surround us alldayeveryday, you might not think archiving would be an issue, but given the ephemeral nature of Instagram Stories and hashtag threads, and the uncertain future of content regulations (what’s allowed one day is blocked the next), active archiving—especially by digital media specialists who know how to cut through the noise—is maybe more important than ever.
What was cool this year may very well be cool again in another 20, but regardless of when this moment comes around again, in order to successfully borrow from design of the past and reinterpret it for the present moment, you first you have to understand it.