How the psychedelic 60s changed design forever…in a groovy kind of way.
“If you remember the ’60s,” the old joke goes, “you weren’t there.”
Thank goodness, then, for the decade’s great psychedelic concert art. In his new book, Are You Experienced?: How Psychological Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, The German Times art critic Ken Johnson makes the case that art would not have developed the way it did in the past 50 years if psychedelic culture had not been so popular. There is no doubt it has had a huge impact and changed design forever.
We agree, this revolution in art broke new barriers and continues to delight us all over again today.
Author note: Since this is one of our most popular posts, we updated it in 2020 with more groovy new images from our favorite artists.
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Let’s take a trip into just a fraction of the psychedelic 60’s designs that rocked the world and changed art forever.
Music posters proliferated the 60s with mind-bending art.
“The psychedelic movement helped people move beyond the act of viewing art into a deeper experience of it,” Johnson says. “Art is no longer something just to be admired. It’s something to consume and to feel.”
Color exploded, with the use of opposing colors to create vibrating images. Typography was twisted, oozed and melted into shapes. And it was all done by hand. No Photoshop, just painstaking illustration.
The word “psychedelic” is a combination of the Greek words psyche and delos, and means “mind manifesting” or “soul manifesting.” Indeed, this is the function of art today. Modern art is not just there to be looked at. It’s a 360-degree experience that you’re meant to feel as much as think about.
As Johnson puts it, “This whole psychedelic thing is still part of our culture. It’s not over.”
Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out
No one embodies the psychedelic spirit more than Wes Wilson, the father of concert poster design.
Coining a style that is now synonymous with the peace movement and the groovy ’60s, Wilson created the posters for Ken Kesey’s acid tests and the Beatles’ final performance.
Wilson also changed typography forever when he invented and popularized a”psychedelic” font in 1966 that made the letters look like they were moving or melting.
The letters, notably, are nearly illegible at first glance. “If people care enough, they’ll lean in and look closer,” Wilson has said. And we sure did!
Wilson’s undulating, bold patterns and non-Euclidean geometry spoke directly to an audience happily experimenting with LSD, the recently developed (and still legal) drug.
Blocks of letters created shapes which seemed to bend and vibrate in place. Right on, Wes!
Wilson passed away this year. Thanks for changing our culture forever.
Of course, we wouldn’t be representing the 60’s without the album covers we devoured while we lay in front of the Hi-FI speakers, grooving to the music.
How to make colors vibrate
Color vibration is achieved by choosing colors from the exact opposite end of the color wheel, each one having equal value (dark to light) and intensity (brightness). If you do this correctly and choose the polar opposite, it might blow your mind!
Breaking long-established conventions of graphic design with their twisting, melting, and distorted forms, psychedelic art mimicked an acid trip itself. These designs were counterculture made visual. And the mind-blowing use of color may be how the psychedelic 60s changed design forever.
Early Inspiration for Psychedelic Illustration
Aubrey Beardsley is often attributed to being a major inspiration for psychedelic artists. You can see why in a few of his flowing, twisty illustration style. He mainly worked in black and white, but the later artists added the mind-blowing color opposition to their work which really kicked it up a big notch.
The Beginnings of Digital Art
It may be that the first digital art was created by The Joshua Light Show at the Fillmore East in 1968 – 1971, who were as legendary as the performers themselves.
The group of resident artists created the trippy visual effects that became integral to the music with color wheels, mylar, aluminum foil, hair dryers, watercolor and oil paint, crystals, clock faces and original film footage they shot.
They are still at it today, performing in the Hayden Planetarium, the Parrish Museum and Lincoln Center. Read their story here.
Psychedelia is the root of digital art
But lest you think this is just nostalgia, psychedelia has solidified its place in the digital age.
“If todays art is about altering consciousness and doing so broadly,” Johnson writes, ‘what better medium to achieve that than computers and the Internet, which can reach millions?”
Computer art has allowed for a new expression of psychedelic vision. Fractal generating software creates an accurate depiction of psychedelic hallucinatory patterns, but even more importantly 2D and 3D graphics software allow for unparalleled freedom of image manipulation.
The digital revolution was heralded as the “New LSD” by none other than Timothy Leary. Web designers have taken note.
Much to counterculturists’ dismay, the psychedelic style has also gone corporate. There is no one who would dispute that the Psychedelic 60s changed design forever. Advertisers for Coca Cola and other business giants have co-opted the hippy style to hawk their big budget products. Because who wouldn’t want to buy peace, love, and understanding?
But don’t worry rebels, psychedelic art is still right where it belongs: in modern rock ‘n’ roll.
The colorful, fun and visually mind-blowing style has worked its way into Fanta ads, Herman Miller’s poster and a poster for a club. Whether in the 1960s or 2013, the bold colors and psychedelic patterns will always have a special place in our hearts.
An exhibition at the NY Public Library celebrated these artful years. Here are a few images from that wonderful exhibit:
And remember, these were all drawn by hand, no computer digital, no photoshop!
We might not remember the sixties, like the old joke says, but we sure do remember the art. It was a trip.
In closing, I would be remiss in not including this iconic 60s poster of Bob Dylan by Milton Glaser, an icon himself.
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