From Rave to Ray Gun: A Walk Through 90s Design Culture

With tie-dye set to be an influential trend in design for the year ahead, the Cali-cool aesthetic of the 1990s is back in vogue for 2021.

The experimental decade intertwined music and design, as well as introduced a stripped-back minimalist style that continues to inform product design, fashion, and branding today. 

From grunge to minimalism, the 1990s continues to have a huge influence on design today, from fashion to interior design. Left: Model Giedre Dukauskaite pictured at the Spring Summer 2020 Dior show in Paris. Image by contributor sy cho. Top Right: Image by contributor PlusONE. Bottom Right: Image by contributor Street Boutique.

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Come As You Are: 90s Design at a Glance

Compared to the dominant cross-cultural styles that defined the look of graphics, products, and fashion in earlier decades (think 1950s Mid-Century Modern, 1970s psychedelia, the Crayola-bright palette of the 1980s), the 1990s DesignScape can be trickier to pigeonhole.  

A decade of experimentation in design, and society at large, the 90s celebrated individualism. Graphic design and fashion was intrinsically linked to music over this period, which might explain why the decade’s design output is so diverse. From Acid House to Grunge, Electronica to Brit Pop, design sub-movements sprung up in connection with a wide range of music tribes. 

90s Music Design
Grunge, Acid House, Rave, and Brit Pop: the music scene of the 90s was as diverse as its design output. Image by contributor Jarretera.

While a come-as-you-are attitude defined the 90s, this was also the decade of big brands and hyper-consumerism. Shopping malls became social hubs, bringing sleek product and interior design to the masses. Meanwhile fashion designers like Calvin Klein and Jil Sander took minimalism global.

Computer software (hello Photoshop 1.0) also contributed to the experimental attitude of the decade. And, while there are plenty of examples of early eyesores (Comic Sans has a lot to answer for), the decade also saw designers being playful and inventive with these new methods of designing, with cyberpunk and dystopian styling resulting in iconic posters and movie titles. 

90s Movie Poster
The theatrical release poster for The Matrix (1999), featuring 90s-approved glitch fonts, grunge textures . . . and plenty of leather. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A special credit must, of course, go to graphic designer David Carson. He transformed the industry in the 1990s with his brand of “grunge design” that remains as impactful today as it was in the early years of his alt-music magazine Ray Gun

Read on to discover the key design styles and movements that defined the 90s, and find inspiration for your own nostalgic designs along the way. We’ll take a look at:

  • The 80s-influenced styles of the early 1990s.
  • The popularity of novelty typography.
  • The influence of music on design throughout the decade.
  • How California crafted grunge graphic design.
  • How minimalism became the language of global design by the end of the 1990s.

The Eighties Hangover

The first half of the 90s saw an evolution of some of the design styles that had been popular during the previous decade—the bold and brash 1980s.

Ultra-bright color palettes, energetic geometric patterns, and jaunty comic book type was the backdrop to youth advertising and MTV, with shows like Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210 using this aesthetic in credits, clothing, and set design. 

Attention-grabbing and, in some cases, headache-inducing, early 90s design was really an exaggerated form of the New Wave styles, as well the distinctive aesthetic created by the Memphis Group in the 1980s.  

90s Memphis Style
Image by contributor meow-meow.

By the mid-1990s, this hyper-energized style had fallen from popularity. Instead, young audiences were increasingly drawn towards a dramatically different movement in music, fashion, and design—grunge.

Novelty Type

The 1990s was the decade of the blockbuster, with movies like Independence Day (1996), Titanic (1997), and Armageddon (1998) filling theater seats worldwide. While CGI was in its formative years, early experimentation with vector software also resulted in memorable logo titles and distinctive movie posters that helped to evoke the adrenalin and excitement of the movie-going experience. 

Novelty typefaces were one of the defining design features of the 90s, and varied from atmospheric (think the iconic Jurassic Park logo) to downright kooky (the logo for Austen-adaptation Clueless being a prime example). Today, we might consider these types of logos a little obvious and overfacing, but remember that for 90s audiences, these novel computer-generated designs were, well, completely novel. 

90s Novelty Fonts
From top to bottom: The logo for the 1993 movie release of Jurassic Park. The Saved by the Bell title logo, which was first shown on screens in 1989. The title logo for Friends, which was designed by Deborah Nayee, and first seen by viewers in 1994. The glitch-inspired title design for The Matrix (1999). The kooky and jaunty logo for Clueless (1995). Logos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Casual fonts that appeared handwritten were also incredibly popular during this decade, going hand-in-hand with the easy-going mood advocated by grunge. Designers spent a huge amount of time and effort into creating designs that looked effortless and laid-back. This was, of course, the decade that Comic Sans was invented (1994), and the script type for the TV show Friends is an enduring reminder of how nothing in the 90s was overly formal or polished. 

Music as Design: Grunge, Rave, and Brit Pop

While the 80s had been all about aspiration, during the 90s the ultimate goal was to be cool. Music led the way, with designers clamoring to create designs that tapped into consumers’ penchant for rock, indie, and dance music.  

Alt-music movements sprang up in reaction to the polished pop of earlier years, with the Seattle Grunge scene going on to be one of the most influential music styles of the decade. The plaid and eyeliner aesthetic championed by bands like Nirvana, Bush, and Hole influenced the carefree spirit of fashion and design throughout the mid-to-late 1990s. 

90s Grunge Movement
Top: Lead singer Kurt Cobain performing with his band Nirvana at the Roxy in Hollywood on August 15, 1991. Image by contributor Kevin Estrada/​Shutterstock. Bottom: Courtney Love performing with Hole in 1995. Image by contributor Ian Dickson/​Shutterstock.

On the other side of the spectrum, neons, trippy typography, and drug-inspired smiley designs defined the look of clubbing culture in the early years of the 90s. Acid House, Rave, and Electronica music played the high-octane counterpart to grunge’s laidback mood. 

In Britain, the Brit Pop movement saw a revival of 1960s Mod culture. Bands like Oasis, Blur, and the Spice Girls gave a hedonistic, fun-filled twist to the red, blue, and white palettes of the Quadrophenia era. Union Jacks, pop art references, and 60s-influenced rounded fonts were consistent features of Brit Pop album covers.

90s Brit Pop Style
Union jacks, 60s-inspired fonts, and (once again) leather, were the hallmarks of Brit Pop style in the late 90s. Image by contributor Lenscap Photography.

Cali-Cool: Grunge in Graphic Design

While Seattle was the focus of the grunge music scene, it was further down on the West Coast that would have the greatest impact on graphic design in the 1990s. Always a leader in cool and casual style—thanks to its surf heritage and reputation for laidback living—California was made for the mellow 90s.

90s California Tie-Dye
California’s unique brand of laidback design still resonates with creatives and consumers today. Above: Models in reimagined 90s tie-dye at the Proenza Schouler Spring Summer 2019 fashion show during New York Fashion Week. Images by contributor Ovidiu Hrubaru.

While denim and tie-dye was the fashion uniform of Cali-cool in the 90s, it was the deconstructionist attitude of designers working in the sunshine state that had the most transformative effect on design as a whole. The pioneer of this deconstructionist approach was graphic designer David Carson, who used experimental typography in his ground-breaking editorials for magazines Beach Culture and Ray Gun

90s Design Layouts
Layout designs from Beach Culture (top) and Ray Gun (below), featuring David Carson‘s use of experimental typography.

Based in Santa Monica, Ray Gun’s first issue was released in 1992. The magazine’s dismissal of grid-based layouts and anarchic embrace of broken type and collage graphics made the perfect match for the alt-music content. Self-taught designer David Carson was unfazed and unrestricted by design conventions, even setting one article—a particularly boring interview with Bryan Ferry—entirely in symbol-based Dingbat.

Carson’s brand of “grunge graphic design” is considered one of the turning points in graphic design history, allowing designers the freedom to create impactful designs without the restrictions of grids, legible fonts, or neatly-framed images. 

Grunge Graphic Design
Image by contributor Street Boutique.

Minimalism Goes Global

If one design term comes to mind when thinking about the late 90s, it has to be minimalism. An extreme break with the brash excess of styles earlier in the decade, the trend for stripped-back, clean design developed in postmodern architecture, but was catapulted into commercial design by the fashion industry. 

Less is more—the unshakeable mantra of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—became the guiding priciple of fashion designers like Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and Calvin Klein. The shape of clothing was simplified, with power shoulders out in favor of simple slip dresses. The color palette followed suit, with black, white, and powdery, neutral hues creating a subtle and effortlessly elegant palette. 

90s Minimalist Fashion Design
Kate Moss on the runway at the Calvin Klein fashion show in New York in 1998. Image by contributor Steve Wood.

Calvin Klein’s ads for his unisex fragrances (a first in beauty marketing) and clothing, which paired black and white photography with sparse, monochrome typography, set the tone for the clean and stripped-back styles that still act as a benchmark for brand design today. 

Interior design, products, branding, and graphic design quickly adapted to the new penchant for urban modernity. In popular culture and cinema, minimalism evolved into an extreme urban style, which touched on dystopianism and kink. The Matrix, released in 1999, is representative of this extreme form of minimalism, which was at its height when the decade came to a close. 

Perhaps more than any other design style that emerged in the 1990s, minimalism has had the most durable influence across a wide range of design fields—from furniture to fashion.

90s Minimalism Design
Image by contributor Ivan Zhurba.

Even while maximalist styles are enjoying a resurgence in the 2020s, we still find ourselves returning to the minimalist heritage of this earlier decade. It’s enduringly modern and honest, and its pioneering celebration of androgynous style resonates with the fluid forms of identity that we now take for granted. 

From More-is-More to Less-is-More: The Cool and Cleansing Spirit of the 1990s

From the Memphis-influenced excess of the early 90s, to the brand of minimalism that became a global phenomenon by the end of the decade, the 1990s saw a sea-change in how designers and consumers engaged with graphic design, interiors, branding, and photography. 

Nineties design, particularly minimalism and grunge, is enduringly cool, youthful, and modern—no wonder creatives today still find it to be a source of inspiration. 

With tie-dye set to be a significant creative trend in 2021, it seems our interest in nostalgic design is only set to continue. Discover more of the trends we anticipate to make waves in the year ahead—from Inkscapes to Surreal Faces—in our data-based Creative Trend Report

Cover image by contributor Yuliya Shora.

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