Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: How Punk is Still Impacting Graphic Design

Of all subcultures, it’s not a stretch to say that punk boasts the most recognizable aesthetic: snarling, unashamedly DIY, and above all, urgent—the sort of thing typified by Jamie Reid’s, ransom-note typography and blustering cut-and-paste newsprint. More than 40 years since what many see as the birth of punk, the word has taken on connotations reaching far beyond three chord wonders like The Ramones or clothing held together with nothing but safety pins and a flagrant disregard for “the man.”

The punk look of the 1970s has never really gone away in the design world—the most obvious flag-bearer being the world of zines. The devil-may-care collaging of various typographic styles, handwritten additions, and conflation of disparate pieces of found imagery is still rife across poster design and even in more commercially minded publications (it could be argued, for instance, that the likes of Mushpit—with its scattergun approach to layout and so on—takes the baton from punk.)

When we spoke with him last year, Reid told us that punk isn’t about a look or a label, but what lays at the heart of it all is “ideas and attitude.” And it seems the design world has taken heed: the word has become a signifier for rule breaking as much as it has the sounds of downtown New York or London’s 100 Club in the 1970s. Indeed, trend forecasters for the world of graphic design declared in 2016 that creative output would be “more punk.”

While the word has come to mean a lot of things, it’s always worth looking back at its roots. Which is exactly what a new show at the Museem of Art and Design (MAD) in New York sets out to do in its exhibition Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. The show focuses on punk graphics created between 1976 and 1986, boasting more than 500 posters, sleeve designs, flyers and more that “challenged the commercial slickness of the mainstream media,” as the museum puts it. Among the works on show, which draw from the collection of Andrew Krivine, are rare designs for bands including Sex Pistols, The Clash, Black Flag, Ramones, The Cramps, Killing Joke, The Slits, Joy Division, Devo, PiL, Buzzcocks, Television, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith Group, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, B-52s, X-Ray Spex, and many others.

The show is arranged to demonstrate both design work and how it manifested physically, with crates of vinyl visitors are invited to play on turntables. There’s a section devoted to typography, delving into punk’s take on lettering through stencil fonts,  Letraset, hand-scrawled lettering, and graffiti. “That’s one interesting aspect, musically, as punk came to occupy the space just before hip-hop. The scene of emerging artists in New York were tied into those milieu,” says Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum and curator of the show.

For Blauvelt, the impact of punk on today’s visual culture is everywhere. “The direct descendent of DIY culture today is seen in terms of the empowerment of punk: anyone could be a musician, the bar wasn’t set at technical virtuosity, it was enthusiasm and passion. That ethos went into graphic design—people making their own graphics. The other big influence we see today is breaking the hegemony of modern typography and reaching what we now call New Wave graphics from the late 1970s and early 1980s. You can see that in things like iD magazine, which was really a zine before it became a publication-proper. New Wave styles ended up converging with ‘professional’ graphic design, and a lot of that emerged in the record industry with people like Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville, Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, and Vaughan Oliver.”

The curator acknowledges that to “purists,” the punk era is far shorter than that spanned in the show—in fact, it was just ’76 and ’77. “But you can’t talk about post punk and New Wave without talking about punk,” he says. “The 10 year bracket is a little arbitrary, but a lot of influences from a design history standpoint are within that period.”

Here, we discuss five pieces from the show; and you can listen to a few of the songs behind them on the Spotify playlist below.



Caryn Gough and Morrissey, The Smiths, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, 1986

“Morrissey was driving the design a lot,” says Blauvelt, even though the quiff-topped singer worked with designer Caryn Gough, who has created sleeves for everyone from The Associates to Robert Wyatt and Everything But The Girl. The piece appears in the cut and paste section of the show, since it uses an appropriated image of a young Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton.

“They didn’t want their image used in their packaging, so wanted to substitute other images for that of the band,” says Blauvelt. “At the time, there was a belief that you had to have the artist on the cover, but a lot of punk bands weren’t interested in that. The simplicity of this cover in terms of its type and muted colors makes it feel incredibly modern—it wouldn’t be a surprise if we were told it was coming out in 2019. Certain things in the show are very timely like that, in that they come around again but maybe 10 or 15 years ago would have looked very dated.”

According to NME, Morrissey later said of the cover: “When I put him [Capote] on the cover of the Smiths single The Boy With the Thorn In His Side a certain member of the Smiths (who unfortunately is still alive) said, ‘Is that Ernie Wise?’ …. dear God …”

Gough studied graphic design at the then London College of Printing, going on to work for the agency Assorted Images, creating album covers for bands such as Duran Duran and Culture Club. She continued to work with Morrissey into his solo career, telling Times & Star, “He used to send me little postcards if he especially liked the record sleeves.”

Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and M&Co, Talking Heads, Remain In Light, 1980

A personal highlight, the Remain in Light sleeve designed by Tibor Kalman at M&Co, with Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth, features in the New Wave section. “This is an interesting story as this was one of the first computer generated album designs,” says Blauvelt. “The imagery was processed by two guys at the MIT Media Lab using early processing software.” The imagery is from historical war pictures—a reference to the fact Weymouth’s father was in the navy in WWII, as well as the album’s proposed alternate name, Attack. The band’s faces are obscured. “They were interested in the idea of masks,” says Blauvelt. Frantz, Weymouth, and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne all attended Rhode Island School of Design.

Arturo Vega, Ramones, Showcase Poster, 1975

“Arturo Vega is sometimes considered the fifth Ramone,” says Blauvelt. Vega was the graphic designer who worked as the art and stage illumination director for the Ramones from the band’s inception until the group’s end. This poster was created for a battle of the bands contest at infamous Bowery punk venue CBGB. “One of the band met Arturo while he was in the neighborhood and they were mutually intrigued with one another. That’s him wearing the belt buckle in this image; they associated the Ramones with classical American values, and so he was interested in using the eagle, the bird of America, a lot.” It was Vega who created that now-often-aped logo for the band in 1975: a parodic piece that mixes the Presidential Seal with a baseball bat (a direct reference to the Ramones’s song Beat on the Brat).

Peter Saville, New Order, Movement, 1981

This piece features in the typography section of the show, and exemplifies the radical new approach to designing for music introduced by Peter Saville in his work for the label Factory Records. As indicated in the Factory numbering system. Saville’s work was based on functionality and simplicity, referencing Constructivist and Bauhaus ideals in style and form. In its sense of pared back order, the image–not to mention New Order’s music—feels like a departure from what we might ordinarily associate with punk. “It’s very different to the Jamie Reid stuff,” says Blauvelt. “But it’s used in the show to signal different movements and styles, and this shows a more refined, modern aesthetic. It’s indicative of where [post punk] wanted to go.”

Saville has had a huge impact on the way we approach design and branding for music. He took the language of Modernism and reworked it into striking but subtle signifiers of a new sound. “He had so much influence in terms of look and feel,” says Blauvelt.

Saville and designer Malcolm Garrett, who worked with the likes of The Buzzcocks, and also has work featured in the show, were commissioned to create a “reprise” of two of their designs to use in the subway campaign advertising the exhibition.

Peter Saville, Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, 1979

Likely not a new one to any of you, Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures design has spawned numerous tattoos, a dress, posters, T-shirts, Tumblr reposts, and more, becoming an instant signifier of a person not dissuaded by the gloomier, more brooding side of life. The band’s guitarist Bernard Sumner is said to have chosen the cover image, which is based on a diagram found in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy depicting pulsar radio waves. Saville’s design saw the image reversed from black-on-white to white-on-black, and this was printed onto textured card for the original album release.

But why has this particular image become so iconic? “It’s mysterious,” says Blauvelt. “I think a lot of it’s wrapped up in the biography of Ian Curtis and the story of Joy Division. It has that  darkness we associate with their sound, and the way they introduce electronic components naturally resonates with the image.”

Share: Twitter Facebook Pinterest Email

Design + Music