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1990s Socio Political Shifts, Culture and Design

A UK perspective
Edmund WardBy Edmund Ward 4 years ago
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1990s Socio Political Shifts, Culture and Design

When I first began working as a graphic designer for a living in the early nineties, I wasn’t hugely aware how much the political landscape and resultant culture bled into design trends. I mean, it’s an obvious phenomenon, but to be fair, I was young, fresh out of university and on a steep learning curve using QuarkXpress, Photoshop and Illustrator.

We were on the tail end of the 80’s, which in the UK meant Thatcherism, boom and bust, the ending of the Cold War and brash over-produced pop. By definition, the decade-change seemed to signify a cultural shift. My first awareness of this approaching shift was ‘Pump up the Volume’ by M.A.R.R.S which was at #1 in the UK pop charts in August 1987. Trite example? Oh well that’s as deep as it gets folks! But in fairness, this sounded like a distinct move forward from the massive shoulder pads, gated reverb and rasping horn sections of 80s mainstream pop. Think ‘Level 42’, ‘Duran Duran’, ‘Simple Minds’ et al.

So what about the above example? In musical terms, ‘house music’ (as it was then tentatively labelled), represented the early cut and paste culture, which has become the staple of numerous media we now work with, day in, day out.

M|A|R|R|S 'Pump up the Volume' 12 inch single cover art

M|A|R|R|S ‘Pump up the Volume’ 12 inch single cover art from 1987

Party!

The 90’s were most definitely a time to celebrate! As of 26 December 1991 Soviet Russia ceased to exist. The terrible fear of being nuked by the USSR was seemingly over. Let’s face it we deserved a party after nearly 50 years of constant posturing between the nuclear super-powers.

Recreation was changing too. The home computer was not only great for gaming (as it had been from the early 80s) but now also a genuine creative tool for music, writing and graphics alike. Think Amiga, Atari ST and of course the Apple Mac (which was now slowly finding it’s way into peoples homes). The IBM PC had a little way to go from a usability point of view, but soon caught up with the release of ‘Windows 95’.

In the UK young people we’re partying… seriously. Rave culture had taken hold. There was the ‘Madchster’ phenomenon in the early 90s, centred around the Factory nightclub, with wonderful aspirations of love and unity walking hand-in-hand with highly dubious undercurrents of drug and gun crime. Fear of the drug ecstasy, guns in clubs, ram-raiding and impromptu raves held by travellers in England’s green and pleasant farmlands were of grave concern to the establishment. Especially, one might argue, in light of the success of the poll tax riots in March 1990. Cue modifications to the Criminal Justice Act in 1994, and some considerable opposition from the musicians and the public alike.

Primal Scream, 'Screamadlica' Album cover from1990

Primal Scream, ‘Screamadlica’ album cover from 1990

Graphic Arts Message, Tokyo 1992

Graphic Arts Message, Tokyo 1992

90’s Style

So how did this considerable shift in culture, consumerism and recreation affect graphics in the 90’s? Well, it didn’t take long for the print media, music industry, advertising and broadcast media to realise that ‘phat beats’, ‘one love’ and spiritual highs of ecstasy could be infiltrated, and adopted, to engage consumers on many levels. The 90’s party brought forth bright, bright colours, high contrast imagery and plenty of ‘mind altering’ photographic manipulation. After all, we had a new and ever improving toy – Photoshop! Typefaces were being manipulated like never before. The ability to easily adjust all facets of your typographic layout via QuarkXpress or Illustrator (or perhaps you were a Freehand person?) led to some big bold manipulations, crazy compositing, tight kerning, and heavy uncompromising sans-serif fonts. Graphic designers seemed to be engaging in their own arms race – who could deliver the heaviest typographic ‘wow factor’, highest contrast and brightest colours.

Looking over our small sample of design concepts from the decade on our 90s Pinterest board, I’m struck by how hugely carefree and optimistic it feels – like something genuinely joyful was happening. The West had, after all won! New found brotherly and sisterly love (in part fuelled by MDMA), transcendence and true creative expression, went hand in hand, (for a short while anyway) with consumerism, capitalism and market forces.

In the UK, the 90’s was a decade that celebrated the perceived sexual freedom and music of the 60’s, (cue Brit Pop), the glam and garish excesses of the 70’s (remember those platform shoes made popular by Baby Spice?), dove-tailed with the advanced consumerist mechanisms born in the 80’s. The economy began to grow, job opportunities increased and we finally saw an end to 18 years of Conservative government in May 1997, with charismatic New Labour ideology. All this paving the way seamlessly for the ‘dot com’ boom of the late 90s and early noughties.

The Spice Girls 'Spice up Your Life' from November 1997

The Spice Girls ‘Spice up Your Life’ from November 1997

All Things Must Pass…

By the late 90s, fear was slowly creeping back into our collective subconscious. Perhaps ignited by the death of Princess Diana, hot on the heels of New Labour’s historic electoral victory. The UK was plunged into a profound period of mourning and introspection. The Y2K scare loomed too. Were the world’s computers really about to crash and burn come the year 2000? There was a total eclipse in 1999 that, whilst amazing to behold, was in equal measure a tad disturbing. A primal hysteria gripped our media regarding the millennial countdown. Forward-wind to September 11 2001, and we see a profound socio-political shift, on a Global scale, that we’re still struggling to come to terms with.

The 90’s was a holiday by comparison.

 

To see more 90s trends, check out our Pinterest board
Here

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