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15 Photos You'll Only Understand If You Were a Designer in the '90s

Kevin Whipps March 31, 2021 · 10 min read

Let me put things into perspective a bit.
In the early 1990s, I went to my first concert. It was M.C. Hammer, En Vogue, and Vanilla Ice was supposed to appear but he never did, which caused people to riot. I remember the bootleg Bart Simpson T-shirts being sold out front, complete with the shaved lines in the eyebrows and the side of his head, just like everyone’s then-favorite caucasian rapper. And, more than anything, I remember all of the bright colors.
The 1990s were a unique time in design. Coming out of the 1980s when things were on a whole other level, designers had to challenge themselves in a different way. And boy, did they change it up.
Need further proof? Well it’s not like I’m stopping the article here or anything, so keep reading and step back in time to the days when Snoop Dogg was 18 and grunge was king.

This was your computer

1990s iMac
Back in the day, you had two options for your computing needs: an Apple computer and a PC. And yes, you still have those choices today, but back then the lines between the two were intense. Windows dominated with the release of Windows 95 and then Windows XP, while the Mac was slogging through the time after they fired Steve Jobs and before they brought him back on with the purchase of NeXT. But when they did, this was one of the first products, and it was a doozy.
See, Macs were used back then primarily by students and designers, and they were super expensive. But because they were the tool of the professional artist and graphic designer, they were often found at those types of businesses. Were you to work at a magazine back then, you likely would’ve had some kind of Apple machine. And if it was 1998 or later, it might’ve been an iMac like this one right here.
I never owned one of these personally, but it’s on my bucket list of old tech to buy.

You survived the Font Wars

Adobe Typeface Manager
You could make the argument that today we take fonts for granted. We have libraries full of thousands of them, and no matter what you want to do, there’s a font that you can pick (or you can always make your own). But back before fonts there were typefaces, and pages were laid out by hand. When Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh in 1984, the machine came with fonts included, making it revolutionary in the desktop publishing world. And that same year, Adobe also introduced PostScript fonts. Soon thereafter began the Font Wars.
Who were the combatants? On the one side, it was Apple and Microsoft, teaming up to build the TrueType format, while Adobe was on the other side with PostScript. Back then, you could select a font on your screen, but you didn’t necessarily get the same thing when you printed it out. Meaning, what you saw wasn’t always what you got. Adobe created Adobe Type Manager to combat that, and from that point on, you literally saw your fonts on the screen. Eventually TrueType (by Apple and Microsoft) would catch up, but they were destined to lose the war. Microsoft and Adobe teamed up to build the OpenType Initiative so that one font file would work on both Windows and Mac systems.
Yeah, the ’90s were a crazy time.

This look worked

Saved by the Bell
I have fond memories of the classic TV show Saved by the Bell, as I’m sure many people do. And when it came out, the visual styling of the whole thing may seem to reflect the 1980s (it was released in 1989, after all), but it was really showing off the ’90s ahead of its time.
That’s right, SbtB was a trendsetter. Soon designs like the famous diner were everywhere, both in real life and in print. And even though this seems like it should be an ’80s trend, it stuck around for years, influencing people both towards and away from the style. Crazy, right?

Lisa Frank Existed

Lisa Frank cat
We’ve talked about the brand before, for good reason. After all, the brand was huge back in the ’90s, and it was hard to avoid, particularly if you were in school. But take a moment to think about the designers of the era. Someone had to make this stuff, right?
And they made lots of it, too. So much stuff that it inspired copycats to come out with their own products, and then it was just a wave of rainbows everywhere. Sure, that’s kind of depressing, but it’s a sign of the times for sure.

You Designed Something Like This

Looney Tunes t-shirt
The 1990s brought back all sorts of things from earlier eras, and Warner Bros. pushed hard to bring Looney Tunes back to the mainstream. And guess what? It worked. And they did it by “modernizing” those cartoon characters with hip-hop gear and street cred. Did it work? It did on me. True story: one of my senior photos was taken with me in an orange pair of jean shorts with a black Looney Tunes T-shirt. And to think I wondered why my dating life was so sad back then.
Because of Looney Tunes’ success with this formula, other companies did the same and soon it was everywhere. Someone designed that stuff, and it just might’ve been you.

You saw this screen all the time

AOL login window
My first internet connection was through my college, and it required plugging an Ethernet cable into the back of my desktop PC. We didn’t have wireless internet back then, mostly because it hadn’t been invented yet. And the fastest speeds you could find were usually done via a dial-up modem and a free subscription to AOL.
That’s right, those CDs that used to come in the mail by the dozens gave you an email address and access to all sorts of cool things. And to bring them to you, you’d have to sit through this loading screen. Man, the memories this brings back.

You ate here

Taco Bell
Every creative person I knew in the ’90s had some kind of connection to Taco Bell. A friend of mine that ended up working in print once had a job as a cook at a Taco Bell. Another buddy is a web designer today, but back then he worked the counter at the Taco Bell inside a Smitty’s (that’s a grocery store chain, for those who are wondering). Somehow, Taco Bell’s weird design both in their packaging and restaurants seeped into the public’s consciousness.

You designed a banner ad like this

first banner ad ever
Know what that little tiny pic is up there? One of the first banner ads. That’s right, today they’re ubiquitous, but they had to be invented sometime, and the people at AT&T are the ones you have to thank. In fact, after this one came out in 1994, the ad world changed and soon Yahoo was selling them like crazy. And fun fact: this led to the spin-off of Wired magazine. So on the one hand, it’s great that we now have Wired, but we also have banner ads so …

You welcomed visitors to your website

Welcome gif
Think this was just a MySpace thing? Nope. Animated GIFs like this one existed in the late ’90s, even though they took forever to load. And if you didn’t have a GIF, you still welcomed people to your site either with a graphic or text. Regardless, it’s a weird practice in hindsight. I mean, it’s like visitors to your site are visitors to your home — and that doesn’t make a whole ton of sense.

Websites were “Under Construction”

Under Construction
Oh man, I totally did this one.
Back in the day, I was the president of a car club named Xiles. Since the web was relatively new, it was easy for me to register (which I no longer have), and then establish my own web presence. Thing is, it was tough to design for the web when you had no idea what you were doing, so I put this little “under construction” image at the top. Made sense, right? Ugh. Makes me want to kick myself in the butt retroactively.

You had a visitor counter

And going back to that car club again, I definitely had one of these. Obviously there was no Google Analytics back then (and if there was, most people didn’t know about it), so they needed some way to show off how many people had visited their site. One of these fancy little counters was the way to go, and it certainly worked. We all got excited when it ticked past 10, then 100 — but could it ever reach 1,000? Spoiler: yes — but not by much.

You designed a website like this

dole kemp website
Yeah, before people did wireframes and Sketch was a thing, this was … well … a website. Soak it in folks, because this is everything the 90s created in one convenient image.

You read Ray Gun Magazine

ray gun magazine
Magazines were still cool in the ’90s, and one of the coolest ways Ray Gun magazine. Why? Well the graphic design was cutting edge for sure, and published content about music, art, pop culture and a ton more. And if you want to cement them even more in the ’90s, here’s a good stat: the book ran from 1992 to 2000. That’s right, Y2K killed Ray Gun, depending on your perspective. RIP Ray Gun, you were a treasure.

You drank from this cup

Solo Jazz cup
Come on, you know you remember this cup. There’s a long and fascinating story about the design, but I’ll give you the quickie version.
Gina Ekiss designed the cup for Solo back in 1989 and was dubbed, “Jazz.” The pattern was on all sorts of things, from plates to cups and everything in between, and since it was so popular, you probably saw them all over. I know I had more than one meal off of these products, and if you were a designer in the ’90s, you did, too.

You saw/designed one of these

Magic Eye
Man were these things annoying.
In case you don’t recognize the design, these Magic Eye jobbers were designed so that if you looked hard enough you’d see a 3D image hidden in the pattern. As they say on their site, “Without sophisticated graphics software in the hands of an experienced user, the chance of a good result is slim.” Riiight. Well, I get that it’s complicated, but today’s software is way ahead of what you could do in the ’90s, so I’m pretty sure we’re good.

It’s your kids, Marty!

Look, I loved the ’90s. I grew up there, made a ton of mistakes, and found out who I was. But sometimes it’s best to leave these things in the past. Sure, there are some high spots here and there, but for the most part, the ’90s was a confusing time with some odd design trends. Let’s just pretend they didn’t exist, OK?

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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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