Punk for a Day: Graphic Design History and the Punk Aesthetic

Call for entries: HOW Logo Design Competition

Deadline for entry: October 30, 2017


Youth culture is known for rebellion. But insurgence may have hit a a fever pitch in 1970s Britain with the start of Punk. Maintaining the ideology that “anyone can do it,” the young punks of the time began transforming the music scene from polished and produced to something fast and aggressive. Independently made 7-inch vinyl became the center of design for the nihilistic disruptors influenced by Dadaist collage, the 1960s underground press and counter-culture protest graphics from decades prior.

Punk was about opposition—whether that meant fashion trends, literature, venues or music. According to Russ Bestley’s HitsvilleUK site, the general rule of thumb when it came to music was, “if it can’t be said in three minutes, it’s not worth saying.” This credo followed punk throughout its sub-genres, from Proto Punk and Novelty Punk to Anarcho Punk and Real Punk. And was highly reflected in the graphic design of the culture.

punk aesthetic and design

Fast, messy, unpolished—whether it was an album cover, a promotional poster or a DIY zine, these tenets held steadfast.

“This was an art of expediency, making use of collage, cartoon drawings, hand-lettering, rub-down lettering, ransom-note lettering, stencils,…rubber-stamping and black and white Xerox copying, as well as silkscreen and offset litho,” writes Rick Poynor in an article for Design Observer.

These choices weren’t made from lack of planning or knowledge of design. No. Each design was created with the intention of questioning the standards and defying the norms of contemporary culture. Plenty of Punk musicians even had backgrounds in graphic design. For example, both Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, co-founders of the highly-regarded band Crass, were trained in graphic design, specifically working with books and typesetting. “…A lot of the projects at college were: ‘This is the product, how do you design and market it? How do you corporate idea?’ …It was a very distinct policy that things should have an instantly recognizable image,” says Rimbaud.

And it’s true—Punk’s image is anything but ambiguous. Johan Kugelberg puts it best in his book The Art of Punk, co-authored with Jon Savage, “The history of the punk aesthetic cannot be told, only shown.”

Images of the Punk Aesthetic

punk aesthetic and design

Punk: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage (Rizzoli)

punk aesthetic and design

Poly Styrene, X-Ray Spex at The Round House, 1978, lithograph. Collection of Andrew Krivine.

punk aesthetic and design

Ramones Los Angeles fan club mail-out, USA, 1977. Source: Punk: An Aesthetic (Rizzoli)

punk aesthetic and design

Black Flag, “Jealous Again” 12-inch EP, SST, USA, 1980. Design: Raymond Pettibon. Source: The Art of Punk

punk aesthetic and design

Pretty Disobedient, screenprinted poster by Shepard Fairey, USA, 2001. Signed by Fairey

punk aesthetic and design

Punk: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage (Rizzoli)

punk aesthetic and design

Punk: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage (Rizzoli)

punk aesthetic and design

Punk: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage (Rizzoli)

punk aesthetic and design

Punk: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage (Rizzoli)

punk aesthetic and design

Punk: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage (Rizzoli)

punk aesthetic and design

Anti, I Don’t Want to Die in Your War LP, New Underground, USA, 1982; Design: Dan Phillips, Ed Colver, Gary Kail. Source: The Art of Punk

punk aesthetic and design

Prag Vec, “Existential” 7-inch single, Spec, UK, 1978. Source: The Art of Punk

punk aesthetic and design

Anarchy in the U.K. fanzine, UK, 1976. Photo: Ray Stevenson. Design: Jamie Reid. Source: Punk: An Aesthetic


Meet more of PRINT’s New Visual Artists in the Fall 2017 issue of PRINT.

PRINT’s 2017 New Visual Artists Are Here!

Get the latest issue of PRINT to discover our annual list of 15 of the best creatives today under 30. Plus …

  • A look at the rebranding of an old industry made anew: marijuana 
  • A Manifesto from Scott Boylston on the dire need for sustainability in design
  • Paul Sahre’s memoir/monograph Two-Dimensional Man
  • Debbie Millman’s Design Matters: In PRINT, featuring Jonathan Selikoff
  • And much more! 

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