Week 7: How Punk changed Graphic Design

In the 1970s, the frustration among the younger generation towards the political and social repression was eminent. As stated by Lekach in one of her articles (2014), “Tired of being spoon-fed by a mainstream media who no longer seemed to care for them, there began a small — but quickly growing — uprising of bands. They took the 1950s style rock ‘n roll, turned up the volume and increased the speed. And punk rock was born.”


Taking the stage to articulate the feelings of a dissatisfied generation calling for change were the Sex Pistols, who played their first gig in 1975 at St Martins College of Art.

The picture above is one of Jamie Reid‘s best known artworks, the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” album cover. It was inspired by a Cecil Beaton photograph of Queen Elizabeth II with an added safety pin through her nose and swastikas in her eyes, which Sean O’Hagan from The Observer described as “the single most iconic image of the punk era”.

By defacing a picture of a highly respected monarch with text from newspapers, Reid was criticizing the media and the establishment. It seems as if he was trying to break down the idea of formality and dignity associated with the queen and shocking people with conflicting images. Still, by using the Union Jack, he manages to give the piece a sense of patriotism and pride.

With the recently found identities and values came new forms of graphical expression to better suit their means and ideals.

“Punk expounds an aesthetic and a mood that is aggressive and contemporary, urban and raw, ephemeral and instantaneous, regressive and regurgitated. It’s about a group of people calling for change through joyful havoc.” (Lekach, M., 2014)

Due to punk’s nature as an alternative movement generated outside of broad capitalist and consumerist media, most of punk imagery was created by the intuitive needs of the culture and the access its members had to the required technologies. In their creation of their own graphical style for album sleeves, concert flyers and self-published zines, a general DIY attitude was adopted out of practicality and to show autonomy from what was going on in the industry.

Typesetters, aside from being expensive, also placed text on a rigid grid.
To avoid these limitations, punk imagery took to a variety of methods to advertise their simple, dirty and offensive messages.
Their collage style would accept appropiation of commercial images for revolutionary purposes, a “ripping up and starting again” ideology. With punk’s general disdain for all things conventional, the freedom this format created allowed punk style to break out of the typographic grid that was limiting to most designers at the time.

Another way to get around the typesetter was the use of stencils, which were practical — easy to acquire and to use — and were associated with the underground, denoting something raw and urban, as well as simply flawed by design. In the words of Lekach, “Afterall, punk always boasted its flaws”.

One of the most common spaces for this apparent lack of care for aesthetics was the zine, an inexpensively made, self-published, self-distributed, underground publication.

Sniffin’ Glue, seen below, was “highly influential as one of the first of many punk fanzines that featured anti-consumerist ideals and information on the music and scene outside of mainstream press”. (Lekach, M., 2014)
Its composition revealed the rushed immediacy of the punk movement. Details as defacing pictures before photocopying them, nearly illegible script, hand-written text and hand-drawn logos and imagery portrayed the independent and urgent nature of the new culture.

While many changes have occured since the Sex Pistols encouraged anarchy in the UK, these styles and ideologies have remained essentially the same. Punk rock has taught us it is O.K. to express our most deep and raw emotions, with no fear of what others may think. As to the punk aesthetic, the same ideology can be applied.

I think society needs more “rawness” and “ugliness”, more honest thoughts. We may need to bring back the punk.


  • Bestley, R. and Noble, I. (1999) Punk uncovered: an unofficial history of provincial opposition. Available at Eye Magazine.
  • Hyndman, S. (2013) How Punk changed Graphic Design. Available at Type Tasting.
  • Lekach, M. (2014) All ripped up: Punk influences on graphic design. Available at 99 designs.
  • Mutongerwa, T. (2011) God Save the Queen.
  • Poynor, R. (2012) The Art of Punk and the Punk Aesthetic. Available at The Design Observer Group.

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