All You Ever Wanted to Know About Psychedelic Fonts in Design
Seeing a psychedelic font takes you straight to the 1960s, with its abstract, swirling patterns, and very loud colors. The vividness and intensity of 1960s psychedelic fonts recall the hallucinations that someone can experience from being under the influence of a drug.
In graphic design, such fonts allow designers the creative freedom to become experimental and push the boundaries of their visual art. More than just a mere blast from the past, these characters add a unique feel to your projects that mesmerizes both your clients and their clients alike.
Read on for a deep dive into psychedelia in typography.
The History of the Psychedelic Font
To really understand what we’re dealing with here, we have to examine the broader psychedelic art movement from several decades ago. If we had to put our finger on its point of origin, it would be the late 1960s counterculture movement that lasted until approximately the mid-1970s. Psychedelic art itself was part of the broader concept of psychedelia.
Psychedelia is best thought of as a subculture that flourished during this time. It was the pursuit of reaching a state of altered consciousness, achieved via taking drugs like mescaline (found in cacti like the peyote) and LSD, which was then depicted in art and music. From this concept of the psychedelic experience, it’s easy to understand why some of its traits, like intensely vibrant colors and surreal imagery, are prevalent in graphic design and typography.
To see what we mean, just have a glance at some examples of what a psychedelic font looks like:
In the late 1950s—after America and its Allies had won the second World War—the post-war era began in earnest. In terms of art and culture, the Beat Generation of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac came to prominence. In their writings, which became popular among the youth of this post-war generation, they detailed their experiences with drugs like Benzedrine and Marijuana. Then, by the 1960s, advocates of so-called consciousness expansion, like Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, promoted the use of LSD and additional drugs in their own writings.
The result of this popularization and push of drug use in literary circles was the creation of a lifestyle centered around psychedelia, starting in the late 1960s in California. San Francisco and Berkeley were particular hotspots for this nascent movement. For example, the infamous Summer of Love in 1967 is seen by many as solidifying the launch of this subculture into the mainstream until it faded out in the mid-1970s.
One of the lasting legacies of this flash-in-the-pan phenomenon was the rooting of the word “psychedelic” in our modern language. Besides being used for a design asset like a psychedelic font, the word itself has come to mean so much more than just drug use or the subculture of altered consciousness.
Today, anything that even loosely calls to mind images seen in drug-induced hallucinations, like vivid colors and abstract designs, can be referred to as “psychedelic.”
Interestingly, the word was coined in 1956 by English psychiatrist Humphry Osmond. His goal was to develop an alternative word for hallucinogenic drugs within the context of using these drugs for psychotherapy. He and Huxley were friends, and in correspondence between the two, Osmond used the word for the first time.
By the late 1960s, graphic artists were already experimenting with the psychedelic font in various mediums, such as posters for rock musicians of the time and even in corporate advertising. What’s really cool is that these graphic designers’ artworks were inspired by more traditional design trends that we’ve already covered here on the blog:
When you think about it, it’s not much of a stretch that these well-established movements influenced the development of psychedelic art. Sure, pop art developed at the same time, thanks to people like Andy Warhol, but Art Nouveau and Dadaism emerged in entirely different eras. All three were avant-garde for their time, which meant that they rebelled against the established design norms of their peers. In the same way, this hallucinogenic take on visual art was a complete 180-degree turnaround from the design of the post-war era.
When you look at the trippy typefaces in posters for artists like The Grateful Dead and Herbie Hancock, you immediately notice traits like:
- Heavily saturated colors
- Stark contrast
- Extremely ornate lettering
- Weird iconography
- Collage components
- Solid symmetry
Check out additional examples of these vintage psychedelic fonts to better appreciate their features:
While this movement began in pop culture, the corporate world quickly caught on when it saw how popular it had become. Never an industry to squander a moneymaking opportunity, corporations began incorporating the psychedelic poster font in some of their ads.
Image Credit: Daniel Yanes Arroyo
For example, General Electric began to showcase some of New York designer Peter Max’s clocks in their ads. Their taglines promoted how Max’s clocks transpose time straight into fantastical colors. Then, we have Campbell’s Soup, which published posters that promised to “turn your wall souper-delic.” In these groovy posters, the company used bizarre fonts, vivid colors, striking contrast, curvilinear strokes, and two hippie children. It should also be noted that Andy Warhol, of pop art fame, was himself famous for using Campbell’s soup cans in his legendary artworks.
Some corporations were uncomfortable with this counterculture association in their ads, though, despite their use of trippy letters and other groovy design elements. The logos of the corporate parent would oftentimes stay in the background and not even be prominently (or at all) featured in the ads that incorporated this psychedelia.
Image Credit: Click Americana
The Design Characteristics of the Psychedelic Font
By now, you have a strong idea of what kind of design characteristics go into typefaces of this sort. Yes, it’s loud, brash, trippy, and is meant to replicate the hallucinations you may experience during an acid trip.
Let’s look at some specific and classic designs in this style to hone in on its traits even better.
Wes Wilson’s Bill Graham Presents Poster Art
Wes Wilson was an American artist who was regarded as one of the so-called Big Five of San Francisco poster artists at the height of the psychedelic art movement. Bill Graham was a German-born American rock concert promoter who put on shows at the Fillmore Auditorium and Winter Ballroom, both music venues in the Bay Area.
Their collaboration resulted in epic poster art from this era that typified the trippy aesthetic of all things 1960s.
Image Credit: Wes Wilson.Licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.
Take this one from a 1966 poster promoting the rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Great Society show at the Fillmore Auditorium in June 1966. The typography is so distorted that it’s sometimes hard to read at first glance, but the oversized, psychedelic lettering fonts jump out at the viewer enough to be legible, in the end. Also noteworthy is the effect of the design itself almost jumping out of the frame, which signals an urgency to be heard.
Image Credit: Wes Wilson. Licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.
Then, there’s this poster art from October 1966, which promotes the triple bill of Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. What stands out immediately is the large, hypnotic wheel or circle at the top of the frame. It seems like it’s almost vibrating or distorted, yet at the same time displays an unexpected symmetry and vivid colors that are bursting from the composition. The psychedelic rock font is also stretched and distorted, appearing in varying sizes down the middle of the poster. Finally, the whole composition is bookended by multi-colored flowers on each side of the poster.
Rick Griffin was another of the San Francisco luminaries in the early years of this design movement. In particular, he was known for the graphic artwork he produced for The Grateful Dead on their album covers. One of his more prominent legacies is the album art he created for their 1969 album titled Aoxomoxoa. The album itself is regarded among Grateful Dead fans as representing the height of their experimental phase of musicality.
Image Credit: Rick Griffin Designs
Right off the bat, we notice the calling card of typefaces in this era: extreme distortion in the lettering, so as not to be legible or readable. Heavily stylized and ornate, the title holds the entire composition together. The color contrast is also present, with the whole composition looking almost like a cornucopia of vividness. The illustrations on the album cover are themselves spaced-out, especially when you take a glance at the fertility symbols pushing up through the ground in the frame. Finally, the smiling skeleton adds a fitting, on-point branding effect that ties into The Grateful Dead.
Many of the 1960s-era trippy artists were not formally trained, yet still produced memorable designs. Victor Moscoso stands out as the first designer from the Bay Area club of concert-poster artists who received formal academic training and already had experience in the field. This may explain why his contributions to the 60s psychedelic font were so precise and full of intention.
Take his design for the 1968 cover of the debut album of the Steve Miller Band, called Children of the Future. “Steve Miller Band” is spelled out using a psychedelic font that seems to be a mix of flame (maybe from a lava lamp?) and hallucinogenic design elements. In contrast to some of the other typefaces of this movement, this one is at least legible and readable without any difficulty. Beyond the typography, the colors are again saturated and produce an intense contrast. Mixed in with these saturated colors are numerous icons and shapes that aren’t immediately identifiable, only adding to the trippy vibes of the whole composition.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
From these legendary examples of retro typography, we can now establish a defining set of features for the typography from this subculture of design:
- Loud, intense, vivid, and intense colors, running the gamut of the color spectrum
- Heavy saturation in color intensity
- Distortion in lettering, illustrations, and imagery
- Ornamentation over minimalism, readability, and legibility
- Meant to evoke and reproduce the feeling of being under the influence of drugs
- Curvilinear properties
- Elongated proportions
- Vibrating effects
- Geometric shapes and figures of all sizes
The Psychedelic Font in Graphic Design
Here’s a roundup of some of our favorite groovy fonts. They showcase what today’s contemporary graphic designers can do when they take a more modern psychedelic font approach to the classic aesthetics of these vintage typefaces.
Art – Nuvo — Rough Psychedelic Font
If you’re searching for a typeface to inject some hippie, counterculture sensibilities into your next project, then look no farther than this one. Open City Design Co.’s digital asset is a mind-bending take on lettering that you would’ve seen back in the 60s, if you were attending rock concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium or Winter Ballroom.
This grainy, rough type screams vintage and grungy at the same time. The curvilinear approach to its strokes and bowls evokes memories of the hallucinogenic, geometric styles that you would have seen in some of the corporate advertising in the late 60s and even into the early 1970s.
You’ll get six spaced-out, handcrafted files in total, including small caps, numbers, uppercase, Western European characters, and punctuation.
Psychedelic Bubble 70s Font
This foray into 70s’ style is an exciting creation because it incorporates the bubble letters you potentially doodled in your notebooks when you were in grade school into a digital asset. Full of the misshapen, massively distorted lettering that you’d come to expect from a hazy daze, this vintage asset is ideal for design projects that go against the grain.
In addition to the oversized letters, you’ll also get the plethora of wild colors that were typical of this period of time in the graphic design world. Loud pinks, in-your-face purples, and vibrant yellows jump right out at you in a quivering, vibrating presentation.
Overall, this set gives you 70 characters, including numbers, uppercase, and lowercase letters, and, of course, punctuation.
Sixties Flashback Psychedelic Font
The trippy ornamentations of typography continue with this digital asset from Mysterylab Designs. Do you like your fonts curvilinear, with exaggerated curves and strokes? How about oversized, with vibration effects and distortions galore? If you need to add 60s and early 70s flair to your design projects, this flashback font will literally transport your creations back to the subculture of hallucinogenic psychedelia.
Even though a typeface like this is heavily ornamental, that doesn’t mean it’s going to limit your use of it. A digital asset like this is good for a whole range of projects, including, but not limited to:
- Album graphics
- Concert posters
- Book titles
Add a dose of vintage goodness that will take your clients’ messaging back to the Summer of Love.
Mind Melt Font
Perhaps no other example of typography on this list is a better example of the whole point of psychedelic design than this digital asset. Remember that the purpose of this style is to evoke the hallucinatory effects (or something close to them) of artists who were experiencing an acid trip back in the day. MightySHORT Design Co. has done an effective job capturing the essence of this transcendental experience in its creation.
Using stark reds and various shades of blue, the Mind Melt Font looks like it’s about to drip right off the lines. Its flowing, curvilinear movements are balanced by its exaggerated and greatly distorted sizes. It’s definitely a fun font that’ll spruce up your next design project, whatever that may be.
Psych Handlettering Font
Prepare yourself to be transported right back to the late 1960s. The Psych Handlettering Font is exactly what you would’ve seen in corporate advertisements and concert posters during the heyday of this design movement. Take your creativity to another dimension of spaced-out possibilities by leavening the messaging of your next typography project with this outstanding, hand-lettered font.
The inspiration for these characters comes from the concert posters and album covers of the best bands from the 60s and early 70s. The cool thing about this digital asset is that it still focuses on a fair degree of both readability and legibility. This makes it ideal for use in a multitude of design projects. While this asset may be far out there in terms of colors, style, shapes, and contrast, it’s still accessible to any graphic artist looking to spruce up their project with hippie flair.
Groovy Typography to Make You Trip Out
Many of us missed the 60s and couldn’t be there in person to drink up the groovy design vibes of this hallucinogenic era. Thankfully, there’s a slew of modern-day creatives who have taken it up as their mission to keep this style alive well into this new century. Whether it’s a psychedelic alphabet font that you’re doodling or a psychedelic font online that you find appealing, working with these typefaces adds more personality to your artworks.
Like any good subculture member, be sure to experiment with the endless options at your disposal here. Mix and match intense and saturated colors, curvilinear strokes and shapes, and vibrations and distortions to create typography that will bend the minds of your audience and clients alike.
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