’90s design: riding the wave of nostalgia marketing
It’s 1997, you’re sitting on your blow-up armchair watching Ross and Rachel take a break. The Spice Girls are on every radio station on repeat, and you’re blissfully unaware that in a quarter of a century, all of these nuanced talismans of the ’90s will be referenced and repeated in a’ 90s design trend.
A brief history of ’90s design trends
The 1990s was simultaneously a rich time for pop culture moments and one of the most garish and playful eras in graphic design history. Whilst the pilot episode of Friends aired in 1994, in this same year Comic Sans was released.
Photoshop 1.0 was created exclusively for Macintosh, which revolutionized the move from analog to digital design and MSN messenger was released towards the end of the ’90s. The rise of the internet and digital design translated into futuristic design aesthetics focused on technology.
The early ’90s saw a significant hangover from the hugely popular Memphis design movement that dominated the 1980’s. Founded by architect Ettore Sottsass, Memphis was a wildly exciting and creative reaction to Sottsass’s boredom with modernist design.
The bright and garish contrasting color palettes and fun squiggly graphic shapes of the Memphis design trend carried on through the early ’90s, infamously used in the various iterations of the Seinfeld logo, as well as Saved by the Bell.
Groovival, a term coined by The Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute, was the ’90s answer to rehashing the groovy flower power aesthetic of the 1960s and’ 70s. This both appealed to ‘boomers’ for its nostalgic qualities, as well as to young children for its bright colors and novelty groovy motifs. With the release of the Austin Powers franchise and the popularity of ’90s band Deee-lite, swingin’ ’60s flower power patterns crept up on us in fashion, music videos and films.
We can’t discuss ’90s design without mentioning the music genres that dominated and informed all aspects of popular culture including graphic design and fashion. In 1997, the world looked on as Gary Halliwell wore her infamous union jack dress at the Brit awards, a timely pastiche of the Brit Pop trend of that moment, which was informed by the 1960s mod aesthetic.
Whether you were in Berlin, Detroit or Manchester, the clubbing culture of the ’90s otherwise known as the second summer of love, resulted visually in abstract and garish neon flyers and posters to a like-minded crowd. To reflect the loved-up atmosphere of the underground raves, party promoters would create eye-catching neon flyers depicting drug-inspired smiley designs and unconventional typography layouts.
The ’90s raves have been described as totally lawless, which is portrayed in many of the posters and flyers, where promoters would rip off well-known brands and artists like Keith Haring, Marmite and Salvador Dali.
In moody contrast to the acid colors of Rave, the trend for Grunge surpassed its roots in the Seattle music scene and became a worldwide aesthetic. Bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam had people all over the world wearing thrifted flannel shirts and copious amounts of eyeliner. This laid-back and carefree outlook translated directly into graphic design, most notably on the album covers of these bands.
Grunge and punk musicians looking to promote their DIY gigs would often use xerox copy machines to cheaply mass print handmade posters they’d made themselves. The rough textures and unconventional layouts of this iconic grunge look were infamously referenced by designer David Carson in the 1990s alternative rock magazine Ray Gun.
In the summer of 1999, everyone was seemingly preoccupied with 3 things; the total eclipse, The Millennium Bug and box office hit The Matrix. With the rise of the internet and the overarching sci-fi themes of the millennium, graphic design and fashion became more futuristic and borderline cyberpunk. This was a time when everyone was looking towards the future, celebrating the turn of the millennium and wanting to reflect excitement by wearing shiny clothes and silver eyeshadow.
It’s common for trends to repeat themselves in cycles of 20-30 years, but with the fast-growing rise of TikTok and design experts reporting on micro aesthetics, we’re seeing a slew of niche ’90s looks reappearing.
Nostalgia marketing taps into and innovates upon audiences’ fond memories (and therefore positive associations) of events or features from decades past to create fresh, contemporary concepts. The resurgence of the ’90s design is therefore particularly popular with millennials, as it represents their’ coming of age ‘period.
The ’90s also present the most recent, pre-internet time — as in this was the era in which people began welcoming the internet into their homes, but it wasn’t yet commonplace. It’s therefore thought of as a simpler time than ever digitally-dependent today, which is why nostalgia marketing works so well with events or design from this decade, and why Gen Zs are so fascinated by it.
So let’s take a look at the ’90s design trends that are proving particularly popular in 2022.
Taking direct inspiration from the original ’90s grunge graphic designer David Carson, grunge design has made a huge comeback. Where minimalism has reigned for so long in digital design, designers are turning to the grunge aesthetic of the ’90s to stand out in a minimalistic user-friendly world.
Designers have become more experimental in their use of anti-grid layouts and becoming more playful with using a mix of analog and digital design to make a more dynamic 3D effect. Tearing up paper, scanning and warping prints and textures and pushing these further in Photoshop creates a standout aesthetic that is less traditionally user friendly and more punk.
The trend for Y2K (the year two thousand) design was prominent in the mid to late ’90s in anticipation of the millennium. It’s characterized by a futuristic, high tech and sleek look using mostly white, silver and blue tones with the occasional pop of bright yellow or green. The resurgence of Y2K is still prevalent in 2022 because of the way it uses nostalgia to talk to millennials and boomers who experienced it first hand, and also speaks to the Tik Tok Gen Z’ers for its endearing futuristic qualities.
Tik Tok is not only the best social media platform if you’re into viral dance crazes, it’s also a treasure trove of trend reporters sharing videos on their research into niche design aesthetics and micro styles.
One of the most popular ’90s micro styles on Tik Tok and Instagram at the moment is Frasurbane. According to Vice, ‘the aesthetic means steeping yourself in beige, espresso, serif fonts, and the glory years of post-grunge Gen X.’ Frasurbane, a satisfying portmanteau of the show Frasier and urbane, is the wonderfully specific aesthetic of the late ’90s interiors of people who want to come across as sophisticated and worldly. Translated into graphic design, this means using a lot of stately serif fonts, an earthy color palette using sepias, beige and black and white, and — more randomly — often featuring compasses. Super niche, but that’s Tik Tok trends for you!
This designer takes the Frasurbane aesthetic into 2022 by modernizing the Serifs and using sleek photography, whilst still using the beige scale color palettes and sophistication of the original ’90s Frasurbane look.
Second cousins to brutalism and grunge, Anti-Design is the antithesis of user-friendly design. In a world where your apps are constantly fighting for attention, anti-design jumps out of your screen and demands to be noticed. Similar to Grunge, Anti-Design often uses paper and printed textures to create a dynamic quality, but the focus is more on throwing out the rule book of graphic design which creates a wildly freeing feel.
Anti-Design has been around since last year but it’s increasing in popularity more and more. It’s design that dismisses standard design principles, has colors that clash and type that’s illegible.
Portuguese graphic designer and illustrator Bráulio Amado doesn’t use traditional layout grids, in fact, the way he experiments with handwritten text and mind-boggling layouts is almost illegible — in the best way possible.
The Memphis design movement has been described as Bauhaus-meets-Fisher-Price, which perfectly sums up the essence of its current resurgence. Whilst Memphis was very much an ’80s trend, it seeped into the’ 90s design and like all good trends, has found its way back in the early 2020s.
Flat minimalism, bright pastel colors and bold geometric shapes and squiggles are great for website and packaging design because they are loud and spirited, perfect for grabbing a consumer’s attention.
Which ’90s design trend is next?
One of the best ways to predict what’s next in design is by looking at what was popular over the past few decades and digging into niche aesthetics. Whilst Y2K and Frasurbane are enjoying their comeback, what’s next? McBling? Or maybe Gen X Soft Club? Tell us your predictions in the comments.
Need help innovating your favorite trend for brand assets?
Our talented designers will master it.