Design Rewind: Psychedelic Design

No matter how you rolled between the mid-1960s and 1970s, the singular bond between psychedelics and a mind-expanding society rocked the worlds of art, design, music and fashion. 

The groundbreaking essence of psychedelia was found in creative experimentation. Under the backdrop of social and cultural upheaval, from civil rights, the Vietnam War, and nuclear proliferation, the youth sought alternative lifestyles towards a more authentic mind-soul connection.

Krishna Devotee. Elaine Mayes, 1967.

The era’s idealism and expressivity profoundly shaped American culture. 

In all its simplistic, utopian splendor, the use of psychoactive substances tapped into the pulse of the counterculture hippie movement in San Francisco and expanded to London’s underground scene. These groups were born out of the need for change, influenced by pacifism and a growing interest in Eastern mysticism. 

The Beatles, Revolver. 1966. Artwork by artist and musician Klaus Voormann. The band’s seventh studio album—a sonic collage heavily influenced by hallucinogens and hash—marked the start of their “psychedelic period.”

Experimental highs—induced by the consumption of LSD, DMT, or mushrooms, to name a few—proposed a spiritual objection to the conformist attitudes of the 21st century. Visual distortions, jarring colors, and abstract fluid forms were distilled to visually express the otherworldly feeling of tripping out.

Although San Francisco exploded into a psychedelic hotbed during the 1960s, the roots of psychedelic design can be traced almost a century before that.

The origins of the 1960s aesthetic

If someone were to show you these two posters below, would you be able to identify the period from which each of them originated?

Tricky, huh? 

Here’s the answer: on the left is a 1967 The Byrds poster created by Wes Wilson for the band’s concert at The Fillmore in San Francisco. Along with Haight-Ashbury poster artists, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, and Stanley Mouse, Wilson was part of the group known as the Big Five, whose psychedelic works defined the period of music advertising in the 1960s.

On the right is A Damosel With Peacocks in a Garden by Aubrey Beardsley, pen-and-ink creation from 1893. As one of the most important figures of British Aestheticism and Art Nouveau, Beardsley created posters with delicate, interlaced forms and sinuous arabesque lines. 

A characteristic of psychedelic posters was the use of visual puns on the names of the bands. This feathery montage speaks of not only the name of the band, but how their pioneering sound would bridge the gap between acoustic and electric.

Wilson’s interpretation draws direct inspiration from Beardsley, complete with undulating curves and thick pen-and-ink style lines, a style that is now synonymous with the peace movement. 

The typography poaches from turn-of-the-century graphic art, something Wilson did strategically to catch the average pedestrian’s attention: “They’ll stop to read it because they can’t read it.”

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Chocolate Watchband, Great Pumpkin. Wes Wilson, 1966. Wilson is considered the father of the psychedelic poster.
Otis Rush & His Chicago Blues Band. Wes Wilson, 1967. Looking as if it’s moving or melting, Wilson’s eye-opening lettering style was inspired by Vienna Secessionist artist Alfred Roller.
Poster Sketch. Alfred Roller, 1898.
Poster for Vienna Secession XVI, Ver Sacrum. Alfred Roller, 1903.
Job (Cigarettes). Alphonse Mucha, 1898.
Big Brother and the Holding Company. Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, 1966.

Late 19th century art movements such as Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, Surrealism, along with early 1960s Op Art and Pop Art, shaped psychedelic style. 

In particular, psychedelic artists were inspired by the works of Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha and Georges de Feure: whimsical lines, fluid shapes merging one into another, and women with flowers and ornamentation in their hair and bodies.

The Virgin. Gustav Klimt, 1913. Borrowing purples, yellows, and floral patterns floating in a dreamy kaleidoscopic world of their own, Kimt’s colorful psychedelic phase proved to be his last stylistic change, and the closest to the psychedelic movement of the 1960s.
With her bold vision for a new language of painting based on repeated geometric forms, Op Art artist Bridget Riley rose to prominence in London during the 1960s.

Despite this, there is one stark difference: color. 

For instance, Art Nouveau artists tended to use palettes, allowing for more realistic results, whereas the 60s were characterized by utter revelry and neon madness that appears far more lively for the mind-expanding public of the time.

A Skeleton Amid Roses. E. J. Sullivan, 1900
Grateful Dead “Skeleton and Roses” concert poster. Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley. 1966. 

The word “psychedelic” is a combination of the Greek words psyche and delos, meaning “mind manifesting” or “soul manifesting.” In order to emulate the visual experience of an LSD trip and the soul-manifesting ideals of the movement, psychedelic artists infused their Art Nouveau-inspired designs with more vibrant and intense colors. 

Venues like the Filmore and the Avalon advertised the hippie revolution with posters reminiscent of those that once lined European thoroughfares. The ‘Fillmore Posters’ were popular for their vibrant colors with glaring contrasts, rubber-like distortions, and bizarre iconography. 

As a result, band and concert posters attracted many and the artists became famous themselves from their designs. 

Characteristics of psychedelic design

Hallmark psychedelic characteristics include curvilinear shapes, intense color vibration, and Inspiration from Eastern, African and Native American cultures.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold As Love. 1967. The album cover depicts Hendrix and the Experience as various forms of Vishnu, incorporating a painting of the musicians by Roger Law, which was based on a photo-portrait by Karl Ferris.
 Pink Floyd, Lee Michaels, Clear Light. Bonnie McLean, 1967.
The Yardbirds, The Doors. Bonnie McLean, 1967. McLean stood out as one of the only women poster artists of the psychedelic rock era, experimenting with brightly contrasting colors and optical illusions to evoke the dazzling visual effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD.

Expect kaleidoscopic palettes, acid colors, fractal forms, and expressive hand-drawn typography.

L-R: The Miller Blues Band; Big Brother and the Holding Company; The Miller Blues Band, The Doors, The Daily Flash. Victor Moscoso, 1967.

Spanish–American artist, Victor Moscoso used vibrating colors to create the psychedelic effect in many of his posters. This vibration was achieved by using colors opposite to one another on the wheel, each with the same value (dark to light) and intensity (brightness).

Biba fashion illustrations and fashion catalogues caught the psychedelic buzz, while borrowing heavily from 1920s Art Deco, and turn-of-the-century graphics.

In everyday fashion, Barbara Hulanicki of London’s retail shop, Biba, incorporated late-19th-century dress codes into her designs, namely from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. 

In contrast to Mary Quant’s Mod mini dresses, Biba offered fluid alternatives in line with the psychedelic style of the late sixties: long dresses, straw hats, and lace details, floral prints, velvet, bishop sleeves, dark colored fabrics. Classic Biba girls would wear longer hair, often with curls à la Alphonse Mucha or voluminous Gibson Girl buns. 

Ads for Baby Doll Cosmetics, sold at Woolworth’s during the 1960s and early 1970s.

A 1969 Levi’s ad.

We can still Turn on, tune in, drop out

While psychedelic art’s visual motifs date back centuries, the psychedelic design still feels fresh and exciting today. The style that was once brought to life in a postwar world, remains easily recognizable today, bridging between the abstract and the surreal. 

Wes Wilson reworked his psychedelic poster graphics for Dries Van Noten’s FW16 Menswear collection.

A key legacy of psychedelia within the realm of design is the concept of engagement through experiential, intuitive means. Here, what matters is capturing real life in a way only art can, in a hazy, vague yet beautiful sense that only exists in the blurred sensations and emotions of human society.

Coca-Cola ad, 2005. We might not remember the 1960s—perhaps we didn’t even live it—but we sure know what the decade looked like.

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