Vibrant colors, crazy patterns, and feathered hairstyles – the distinctiveness of the 80s graphic design trends can’t be overlooked! To say that someone “has an 80s style” instantly conjures up specific visuals. Its fashions and designs were heavily infiltrating themselves into pop culture and advertisement. The 80’s era set the trend for bright colors, graphic patterns, and geometric shapes.
Starting with the Memphis design movement, led by Italian architect, designer, and photographer Ettore Sottsass, the 80s postmodern design style was established and has remained in many of the works we see today. Unsurprisingly, many designers still recall their influential characteristics and continue to enthusiastically reach out to them.
1980s Graphic Design History
The Memphis group, formed in 1981, are the ones to give credit to when it comes to the specific, visual vocabulary of the eighties. The name of the group itself was based on Bob Dylan’s song, which happened to be playing in the background during one of their meetings. The group had members from Italy where it was conceived (among which are Lido Sofa, Michele De Lucchi, Marco Zanini, Massimo Iosa Ghini, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanusso, Andrea Branzi, Beppe Caturegli, Giovanni Levanti), as well as people from all around the world (Japan – Shiro Karumata, Masanori Umeda, Arata Isozaki, France – Nathalie Du Pasquier, Martine Bedin; Great Britain – George Sowden, Gerard Taylor, Terry Jones; Austria – Hans Hollein; America – Michael Graves, Peter Shire;).
Their 80s’ design style made such a huge influence that today, it still continues to inspire creatives. The essential elements of the 80s look, originating from the so-called ‘Radical design movement’ from the 60s, were focused on breaking out of modernism, a style that required designers to follow too many rules. As George Sowden once said, ‘a lot of people felt trapped within these rules’.
80’s Best Design Trends
1) 80’s Deco
Prior to this, there was the original art deco – a style of visual arts combining modernist styles with fine craftsmanship. The 80’s version of this consists of a minimalist design with the touch of a fancy flare. Essentially, the 80s deco style in graphic design entails clean, sans-serif fonts, pronounced angles and curves. Drop shadows and outer glows were also commonly added to emphasize the text. However, in terms of interior design, it meant decorating rooms with black lacquer furniture and arched ceramic vases. The 80s deco atmosphere is evident in the classic Miami Vice logo example seen below.
Image source: Wikipedia
Image source: PosterGroup
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2) 80’s Digital Style
Another prominent feature of the 80s design style is its love for scientific and technology-related elements. One key element that really stood out with this visual trend was the well-known ‘digital look’, the type of aesthetics that we may now find super retro considering how far technology has advanced since then.
Some references of this design style can be found in the movie ‘Real Genius’ and music videos by Thomas Dolby. The world of visual design was overwhelmed by grids, science-fiction motives, and computer-based graphic fonts. Below we’ve shown the cover art for the Tron soundtrack, screenshots from the opening credits of The Terminator, and the trailer for the film ‘D.A.R.Y.L.’. With these examples, we are sure you will be able to name many more films that have adopted the infamous 80s digital style easily.
Image source: Mirror80
3) 80’s Cute Design
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No other era have yet used iconography in such a way that the 80s did, and one of the best examples of this was the rise of the 80s cute design. While it may seem like a very generic description, ‘80s cute’ is a concept that stands for fun, colorful, sparkly, and playful designs.
Bold coloring and lines are implemented to create cartoonish style icons that adorned t-shirts, curtains and illustrations alike. Cute little icons were covered with food items often sweets, ice cream, bananas, musical notes, flowers, unicorns, hearts, and cuddly stuffed animals. Say hello to the abundance of heart- and rainbow-infused merchandise that mesmerized the children’s market throughout the 1980s. This era definitely took cuteness to a whole new level! With the pop artist Lisa Frank at the head of it all, the 80s were all about brightly-colored, shiny images on products such as toys, school supplies and of course, stickers.
4) Neon Noir Style
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Image source: Bondorama
This style is highly linked with many of the graphic designs seen on film and television show posters such as ‘Miami Vice’, ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’, ‘Risky Business’, ‘Thief’, ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), and David Lynch films such as ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) and ‘Lost Highway’ (1997). Some modern films that have adopted this design style include Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’, Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ (2013), and ‘The Persian Connection’ (2016).
Can you feel the air of crime-filled streets mixed with shiny clothing and man-made lights that provide a stark contrast to the dark environment around them (a.k.a chiaroscuro juxtaposition of light and dark)? Do you remember the film scenes with neon signs and brightly lit buildings providing a sense of alienation and entrapment? Or perhaps an existential confrontation of society in a hyper-technological and globalized world?
Expressive neon noir design elements included sports cars, palm trees, sunsets, and beautiful women posing strategically to attract attention. Scripted fonts are often shown in movie posters, written in a bright, electrifying color, often against a darker background, and this ultimately became a staple in 80s graphic design. Again, similar to the example of the retro deco style, neon noir is yet another retro style of a film genre from the 1940s and 1950s – Film Noir, which were dark and gloomy. The 80s aesthetics, with its neon and poshy attributes managed to brighten it up notably.
Film poster designs of the neon noir genre borrowed many of the elements from the era of film noir, which was mainly characterized by the presence of crime and violence, mystery, hyper-stylized aesthetic, moral ambivalence, and complex characters and plot-lines. However, beneath these superficial traits lies an emphasis on the socio-critique purposes of film noir. It provides a critique on specific socio-cultural dimensions of the interwar years, global capitalism, while also making thematic references to contemporary and pop culture. In addition to that, this genre orbits the themes of urban decay, consumerist decadence, existentialism, sexuality, and issues of race and violence.
5) Cyberpunk Style
Image source: Medium
This style is a vivid juxtaposition of future technology and cyberspace with the lower level of life in reality. As a result, it became a dark thematic genre of science fiction. Cyberpunk was seen often in films, novels, and designs like ‘Blade Runner’ or a William Gibson’s novel ‘Neuromancer’. In the world of design, borrowing visual concepts from 80s cyberpunk has actually never found its end. Check out the ‘Matrix’ and you will understand why this retro style is not going anywhere anytime soon.
6) Memphis-Milano Style
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Here we are taking a trip down memory lane in the North of Italy, Milan, where we’ll be getting back to the true roots of the 80s style – the Memphis Group – with its founder Ettore Sottsass. After setting out to break out of modernism, this movement has vastly spread and made a true impact towards design. Thanks to its achievements, it proudly cemented its genre all over the world. Currently, it is seen as high pieces of art by collectors.
Elements of art deco design and pop art, meaning asymmetry, bold graphic shapes and primary colors identify the characteristics that can be found among interior designs and graphic prints presented by this movement. Till this day, the Memphis Group’s projects can be commonly found on museum displays and designer showrooms.
To put it shortly, the 80’s world of interior and fashion design were comprised of striking color combinations, geometric motifs, bold shapes, and lines. Interior design layouts inspired by pop art were characterized by asymmetrical-shaped furniture and exotic colors that allowed each piece to stand out. After releasing the Memphis Group’s work at a prestigious furniture fair ‘Salone del Mobile’ in the early 80s, the movement instantly took off. Eventually, the Memphis-Milano Style spread over many other design areas.
7) Tropical Style
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Image source: Trapper Keeper
If the tropical design style was ever flourishing with an immense amount of artistic power, it was definitely in the 80s! Palm trees and neon pastels were everywhere, from t-shirt prints to illustrations and posters of popular films. One of its fully-fleshed representatives is the instantly recognizable works of Yoko Honda. Bright, neon-like, extraordinary colors embody the creative need for breaking the rules. Designers desired to express themselves utterly and in an unbreakably positive way!
In fact, applying the 1980s aesthetic today can result in the creation of incredibly appealing works of art with no special craft needed. All you have to do is simply follow the 80s creative guidelines. After all, they are all somehow interwoven – from sunsets and palm trees linked to neon noir, to the way geometry accompanied its patterns in Memphis-Milano. Tropical style of 80s has since been applied to various artworks, fabrics, movie posters, school supplies, and they have all worked very well.
80’s Logo Design
Logo design trends that were budding in the late 1970s bloomed in the 80s. Digital technology was becoming cheap, powerful and widely spread. Everyone started tinkering with logos, making them bigger, bolder and brighter than ever, especially for TV shows and movies. Logos of the time express a particular sense of urban Weltschmerz by using primary colors, stark contrasts and lines so sharp you could cut yourself on them.
The 2016 Netflix show “Stranger Things” pays a loving homage to the 1980s, starting with the logo. Blood red letters on a pitch-black background evoke a sense of horror, mystery and Weltschmerz — it won’t end well for our protagonists, will it? The show quickly became a fan favorite, just like one 1980s movie franchise that got an homage in the 21st century.
When Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, it was way ahead of its time and defined the entire decade ahead. The opening scene features a bright yellow, sharply delineated logo in Helvetica Black. George Lucas actually asked the art director to choose the most “fascist” typeface, so she pored over literature on German type design. Letters were hand-drawn, stacked and tied together to produce a rectangular logo that would fit the original brochure and translate well to the movie screen.
80s fonts were inspired and produced by the technology of the time. Angular, metallic typefaces stood neck and neck with glitchy VCR, laser strikethrough and pixelated fonts. Together, these fonts produced an impression of living in a cybertech utopia, where physical and virtual reality become one.
Logos of 80s metal bands exemplify the angular, metallic font trend. For example, the edge letters in the Metallica logo pierce through the baseline and protect the other letters from intrusion. It’s impossible to make a sentence using this logo — the edge letters fight everything else on the page. The logo was drawn by James Hetfield, with an entire font later made as “Pastor of Muppets”. Two other famous 80s bands, Megadeth and Antrax, adopted similar fonts in their logos but toned down on edginess.
Glitchy VCR fonts intentionally introduce pixels and artefacts to make the letters rough, edgy and blocky, with the best example being VCR OSD Mono. They were once the pinnacle of typeface design but now are mostly used to emphasize the nostalgia and wistful remembrance. 8-bit fonts are another great example in a similar vein, hailing from the video games of the time and their criminally low resolutions. Finally, laser strikethrough fonts, such as Alien Encounters, feature forward-leaning letters with a heavy drop shadow and horizontal slices through the letters.
80’s Poster Design
It’s no wonder people see faces in toast, carpet designs and shrubbery; our brain has a fascination with finding, recognizing and staring at faces. That was the realization driving the design of the 1980s posters, many of which featured iconic faces from various angles and spawned prolific franchises.
The 1984 Terminator poster features a familiar face of the square-jawed muscleman paired with sunglasses, leather on bare skin and a sporty gun. Schwarzenegger’s face alone was enough to fascinate the viewers into cinema seats and keep them there despite the nonsensical time travel plot, making the movie an instant hit. Sharp red letters on a black background, a staple of 80s graphic design, promise a lot of violence and we do get it.
In 1988, we learned that half a face is just as recognizable in the poster for Die Hard. The poster says it all: there’s explosions in a building where Bruce Willis is hiding from someone, his eyes locked on the target and a tense expression. He’s outnumbered and outgunned by the baddies, isn’t he? The main villain death scene at the end is roundly mocked for its shoddy CGI effects, yet it too is iconic because it features — a close-up of a face.
How To Create 80s Style Design: Guide & Tips
If you are familiar with ‘Trapper Keeper’, ‘Moonwalk’ by Michael Jackson, and Milli Vanilli; if ‘Reganomics’, ‘Just Say No’ and Pac Man ring a bell to you; plus, if you own an original pair of ‘Jams’; it probably means that you either grew up in the 80s or are totally fascinated by this era.
The 80s was a colorful decade to be a part of. There is nothing wrong with missing its design aesthetics, and we really mean it! I mean, the 80s was a terrific time of absolutely bright, bold, and unique designs, and if you desire, you can always try to bring it back to life by creating the 80s style of design yourself. After taking a look at some of the most iconic imagery and design styles listed above, feel free to recreate them in your designs to give your project the 80s feel you were going for.
There are several ways you can recreate some of the iconic looks from portrait shots in the 80s, including the soap opera glow effect. To do this, Photoshop will be required. Also, you can always visually refer to bright neon and pastel colors, palm trees, light grids, and gradients. Otherwise, go for colorful or cute cartoonish designs.
All in all, the 80s style was all about grabbing attention and being visible. Bold, neon colors, and jagged typography defined the era, so as a tip, you should consider setting out to incorporate some of those scratchy graphics, bright colors, as well as geometric shapes to fill your design. Vamp it up with some tropical or cyberpunk patterns, and keep experimenting until you’ve reached the perfect outcome.
While clashing colors and mix-matched geometric shapes, combined seem to go against the usual rules of design, this is what makes the 80s style so different, unique, and refreshing compared to the many other trends we’ve seen. Interestingly enough, this style has been widely accepted in the world once before, therefore, if you’d like to play around and experiment with the various graphic design trends from the 80s, feel free to do so!
Interesting read: Best Design Portfolio Websites from Pixpa
Your burning questions on 80’s design trends, answered.
⏩ What 80s design patterns were all about?
⏩ What was 80s Memphis Design?
⏩ How was 80s Retro Design?
⏩ How was 80s Logo Design?
⏩ How was 80s Poster Design?
⏩ How to create 80s design style?
Besides having grown up in the design Industry, Christiaan has advised some of the world’s largest companies on their branding & packaging designs. Has been the resident judge for design awards, and has spoken at numerous global design & marketing events. Christiaan founded the London office of the award-winning Cartils agency, and has founded the DesignBro.com platform.