Enter the 1990s. It’s a pivotal decade, one that crosses a line from the archaic and into something we’d recognise more acutely like today’s world. In 1990, the emergence of the internet would morph these years into the modern age – making us more connected than ever, disrupting and transforming everyday elements of how we live our lives. And by 1996, more than 10 million computers would be harnessing the power of the world wide web.
Computers weren’t the only hardware technology being dragged into a new era. Televisions too were suddenly thrust into a cool, fresh epoch with the launch of sitcoms like Saved by the Bell and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, alongside generation-defining new channels like MTV and Nickelodeon. The characters carried fashion trends like loose-fitting cargo trousers and garish shirts worn open over white vest tops, but they weren’t the only design trends being transmitted. Entertainment was paramount, but adoration and aspiration ruled too. It was about making viewers want to be those they saw in music videos and sitcoms, from Spice Girls to Joey Tribbiani.
The trend of cool confidence seeped into the billboard posters for such shows and the jittering flashes of TV channel logos are what we’d come to know as quintessential 90s design. Think of MTV, a graffiti-style typography emblazed over a three-dimensional letter M. The colours are gaudy, uncomplimentary, and out there, but the implication is so, what? Same as the before mentioned Fresh Prince of Bel-Air motif. Bubbled typography in a garish lime green glowing with purple. It’s ugly, yes – but it’s also just that: fresh.
Away from the screen, brands were quick to emulate this same mood. That, combined with the release of tech tools like Photoshop 1.0 and the birth of iconic fonts like Comic Sans – made for an altogether revolutionary kind of graphic design. There’s no better example of that amalgamation than Michael Jordan and the release of Air Jordans: when the player became the product. As a basketball icon, Jordan exuded a nonchalant coolness where others were contracted in concentration. People wanted a piece of it – and by the 1990s, that possession was a reality.
Like their architect, Air Jordans were worshipped. And so, what other branding would be more suitable than one akin to the era? Crimson red with an illustrated figure mid-slam-dunk. The 90s ad campaign for Air Jordans matched that tone too. The poster ads would see a street-styled and unimaginably dapper Jordan mid-action, attributing his success to the shoes. ‘It’s the Michael Jordan flight school’ one tagline read – a slogan just as easily imagined sprayed onto a street art mural as it was on a New York billboard. This was all about access, to give the consumer a piece of the icon – bring them closer to the real thing, just as the internet would do for so many stars, and just like Instagram does now.
Today, brands are still communicating their 90s cool. Take the Japanese-founded, French-based, fashion house Comme Des Garcons. In 1981 the brand introduced its avant-garde designs to European buyers, beginning a love affair that’s continued ever since. It’s the company’s branding though, and its marketing campaigns through the years that have earned them a mention here.
The aesthetic oozes understated cool, with the playful layering of photography, illustration, and their brand name’s now-iconic bold black lettering. It’s this blend of mediums that is classically 90s. A promotion for the brand’s A/W89 show featured a renaissance-style still life painting – fish, fruit, leaves, that kind of thing – overlaid with Pet Shop Boys lyrics reading ‘Sooner or later, this happens to everyone, to everyone, To fall in love, is it so uncool?’ The overall feel is one of disruption and deep thinking, beyond the mainstream and the obvious – a kind of anti-design that finds creativity everywhere.
As for their logo, the wide-eyed heart illustration in the brightest of reds – rarely has there been a more widely recognised shape. Even if consumers can’t pinpoint the brand behind it, they can articulate the kind of values it represents: cool, creative and original. The cleverness of Comme Des Garcons though comes not just in the design, but the deployment of the logo. Their collaboration with the Converse – the lace-up pump found on everyone from Mila Kunis to Daniel Radcliffe – was quite frankly, genius. Bridging high fashion with everyday streetwear, Comme Des Garcons put its heart logo on the shoes of millions. Just as Michael Jordan did, Comme Des Garcons made itself visible and accessible, opening the floodgates to the many, not the few.
Another brand emulating 90s design is the skate-shop, turned worldwide streetwear brand: Supreme. Started in Manhattan in 1994 by a British businessman, James Jebbia, Supreme soon became synonymous with high-quality streetwear served with a cocky, nihilistic attitude.
The famous red and white logo, known as the Supreme Box, was inspired by the American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, who became famous for her unusual collages on acutely social topics. At first glance, it seems that the word Supreme is no different to any other: the usual white letters without decorative elements are located inside the red rectangle. But this is what is part of Kruger’s recognisable handwriting.
The logo retains the original collage style that was used on the poster in support of abortion. Adhering to her creative traditions, the artist depicted the phrase “Your body is a battleground” over a black and white photograph and, noticing how striking the white inscription appeared on a red background, the Supreme founder decided to borrow the conceptual design. This concept of influence and inspiration was common for 90s graphic design, where intellectual property wasn’t so much owned but rather a result of collective thinking and ideas.
Supreme have coined many successful marketing campaigns over the years, but perhaps their most iconic was the 2012 itineration spearheaded by supermodel Kate Moss. In posters plastered everywhere from Soho to Manhattan, Moss wears her own leopard print coat over a white Supreme tee, dutifully pouting with a cigarette dangling from her hand. Its understated simplicity is its superpower, sending consumers into a buying frenzy as they sought to recreate the nonchalant swagger. And like the before mentioned brands, it’s the strategy too that feels ultra 90s. No neon billboards, or skyscraper-size projections – but crimpled printed posters, repeated rigorously across only the coolest parts of town.
Here at Glorious, we have helped plenty of clients create that 90s feel in their branding and advertising. Make Me C is a collection of work by North West-based designers and makers. In 2005, Glorious was enlisted to create the visual identity for an exhibition of the collective’s work to be showcased at the Manchester Art Gallery. The dramatic and diverse collection of work was an exciting taste of ideas and materials, the designing and discovering of new forms and solutions.
By understanding how varied and diverse the art within the showcase would be, we decided that the 90s aesthetic would be entirely in keeping with the project and its direction. We wanted the creative language to wholly communicate the mix of mediums being used by the artists too. That would mean lots of different elements being brought into one cohesive look and feel – similar to how so many brands in the 90s opted to use collages and borrow different ideas from their peers.
Our response was a bespoke alphabet whereby each letter was made up of the artistic tools used by the designer or maker to create their work. The A was represented by a compass, whilst the C is made up of a protractor. This alphabet became the exhibition’s identity and was used throughout, including signage and artist profile panels.
We were able to experiment with the playful typography of the 90s during some of our work with Sense of Place too, creating captivating wine labels for some of the world’s most respected vineyards. It was the producer La Di Da, especially where we were able to really push the boundaries with the era’s aesthetic. Using black and white portraits as our background, we then adopted a funky typeface in an array of lively colours. Having the brand name appear as though tattooed on the faces of these high-society portraits created an interesting paradox, one that felt unequivocally cool and akin to the era we were trying to emulate.
So, if all this nineties natter has you wanting to hinge your brand identity in this decade – then you ought to follow our top five tips for getting it right…
As you’ve been hearing, typography is an intrinsic part of 90s branding and graphic design. Strong and bold doesn’t need to be boring either, experiment with a variety of fonts and take inspiration from others – think Supreme and the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger.
The 90s brand campaigns were very much about the streets and that’s an important consideration when you come to launch. As well as digital media channels, you should also be thinking of where to get your brand noticed away from the internet. Not all budgets will allow for a huge offline spend, but you can be clever with it. If cool enough, those printed posters could go viral.
Your colour pallete from the 90s should steer away from anything too safe – think back to those 90s TV series in all their garish colours. However, if you do want to opt for the decade’s grungier style, then add a pop of neon where you can or make a statement elsewhere – like in the mix of mediums for example.
Speaking of medium mixing, illustration, photography, and animation –are all mediums that should be used with fluidity throughout your brand campaigns and visual identity. The 90s aesthetic is heavily rooted in experimenting with form, so don’t be afraid to make this a part of your creative too.
In choosing your brand ambassadors for a photography shoot or influencer marketing strategy, lean away from the expected and the mainstream. For example, if your industry is clothing – then think about who a surprising fit might be – rather than someone you’d naturally expect to sit within your target audience.
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