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Dreaming of 70’s Design Spirit

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Image by srpatterson via Flickr

Neon orange alongside stark green. Bubbly lilac font on dead-pink walls. Overly stretched lines in contrast with playfully curved Letraset prints. Childlike hippie flowers and strict Saul Bass’ title sequences. Those were the “in” designs during my teen years--the happy days of the good ol’ 1970’s.

Loud and glaring and often gaudy, designs that are reminiscent of the 1970s are not completely gone. Buildings, kiosks, subways and other forms of transportation, structures, posters, ads--all these continue to sport a lot of 70’s-inspired design. If there’s anything that appears to be missing, it’s the SPIRIT. The design spirit that was palpable back in the day seems to have disappeared completely.


My hometown in Massachusetts isn’t exactly a place where artsy dreamers like me are bound to thrive. So I knew early on that I needed to go somewhere else to make my dreams happen. Going out of the country—to maybe France or Italy— seemed ideal but was next to impossible on my salary as a newspaper cartoonist. So I did the next best thing: I moved New York.

So it was that the grandeur of New York introduced me to contemporary design--at least, to the then-contemporary approach to design. My arrival was perfect. The 1970s saw the heretofore unsophisticated Americans start a modern design revolution; out in Europe, Avant-garde artistic experimentation was all the rage. It was unnecessary during those years to spend a lot of money on costly museums. Everywhere—from rusty subway stations to hallways to boulevards—was a place of pure artistry to me. I literally considered everything as artwork. I did not care if it was a mural spray painted by a teenage hippie or an impressionistic building designed by a renowned architect, because for me, I was experiencing real artistry.

I miss the unadulterated and fearless approach to design that was typical of the ‘70s. It is perhaps this fearlessness, this boldness, this unfettered expressionism that makes up what is known as the ‘70s spirit. This is what is lacking in design today.
The modern years

The designers of today, in my opinion, lack passion. In my heyday, I would literally immerse myself in my projects to get my creative juices flowing. Young designers today don’t care enough to come up with original mind-blowing ideas. Trained to use the internet to source their design ideas, most are simply too lazy or don’t care enough to experience design for themselves--to go out in the world to see, look, touch, and feel “the real thing” for themselves. Don’t get me wrong. The internet does open up new worlds, especially for those with creative minds. But it has its limitations, too. There is still nothing better than actually getting to experience art first hand to stimulate design ideas.

The entire 70’s design spirit was completely different. Books were our Internet then. But frankly, we were not dependent on these books. We made it a point to experience life and breathe life into our designs. Designing for a shoe company meant literally trying on its shoes; conducting surveys among its customers; anything that would help bring reality into our design concept. If it was food, we had to taste it, if our client’s business was clothes, then we had to wear them. I kid you not, that’s how it was. Clients were a bit different as well; they were always involved in the design process. They had representatives who attended brain storming sessions and were involved in the research. The greatest thing about it was they always wanted to be part of the “life” we would breathe into their products. Clients and designers always worked as a team.

As I said earlier, we were fearless then. I mean positively fearless--though not wild or negatively radical--we were unafraid of going against the grain and creating newfangled ideas. We were innovative and, luckily, our clients were open to it. Today, it’s all about the money. It’s copyrights, contemporaries, norms, and mass market appeal. Conversely, the 70’s was all about creativity, innovation, identity, and vision. Set color combinations were considered absurd: The entire 70’s was a decade of color and contrast experimentation.

The yesteryears were years filled with friendly competition among designers. Today, there is commercial competition among large companies and designers, it seems, are merely paid lackeys.

Reality bites. It will be difficult if not impossible to ever recapture the design spirit of the 70’s. But as designers who lived in those times, it falls upon us to sometimes, if not always, ignite that spark of creativity and originality in younger designers--reminiscent of that glorious time-- and encourage them to translate it into contemporary design.

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