This article, encouraging and intellectualizing the use of punk style in graphic design, is not entirely punk. All apologies. That being said…

Sometime in the 70s, the youth started getting dissatisfied. Tired of what they were 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 1950s style rock ‘n roll, turned up the volume, and increased the speed.

And punk rock was born.

Ramones Live

The Ramones at Eric’s Club, Liverpool, England by Ian Dickson

Don’t Accept What They’re Giving You

With New York and London were at the epicenter of this invention of a subculture, and bands like New York’s The Ramones and London’s The Sex Pistols led the punk uprising from a small sect to a phenomenon. With these newly formed identities and values came new forms of graphical expression to match their means and their 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.

F*** Your Typesetter

God Save The Queen

Seminal album artwork for seminal Sex Pistols album God Save the Queen, design by Jamie Reed

Due to punk’s nature as a movement outside of the mainstream, and particularly outside of general capitalist and consumerist media, lots of punk imagery was created by the innate needs of the culture and the access of its’ members to the requisite technologies. In their creation of their own graphical style for album sleeves, concert flyers and self-published zines, a general Do It Yourself (DIY) ethos was adopted out of practicality and to show autonomy from what was going on in the industry at large.

Typesetters, aside from being expensive in a poor economy, also situated text on a rigid grid. In order to get around these limitations and restrictions, punk imagery took to a variety of methods to showcase their simple, dirty and aggressive messages. This collage style suggested a ripping up and starting again. The style takes a commercial image and repurposes it for revolutionary purposes. With punk’s general disdain for all things conventional the freedom this hand created format allowed punk style to break out of the typographic grid that was limiting to most designers at the time when text was regularly formatted in this standardized method.

Made famous most originally with this album artwork for The Sex Pistol’s first major album release, God Save the Queen, the Pistols both subverted status quo opinions on the British monarchy and standard methods of typesetting. Although Reid’s use of borrowed and mish-mashed lettering could be seen as an inexpensive shortcut, it was also an imagery ‘borrowed’ from the graphic language of anger and protest. A ransom note seems to scream GIVE US WHAT WE WANT! Punk music screams that with a fast drum beat.

The Art Critic

The Art Critic (1920) by Raoul Hausmann, an Austrian Dadaist. The imagery has shocking similarities to the ‘revolutionary’ punk montages of nearly half a century later.

The ransom note style fit into the larger scheme of collage in the punk imagery. This reappropriation of current culture imbued these cut-and-paste designs works with an added edge of ideological flair. Take your culture and shove it. Its silly and we’re gonna make it our own.These ideas were directly taken from who might be the under-recognized predecessors to punk, the Dadaists, who — much like the punks — valued scissors and glue over paint and brushes. They believed in recycling old material to create new thought. In many cases this was taken to the benefit of certain underrepresented groups, such as females or the working class.

In particular, this famous Buzzcock’s cover for their album Orgasm Addict. By using the female body but replacing often sexualized elements, like the face or the breasts, with commonly viewed items, like a steam iron.

Another method of avoiding the typesetter was the use of stencils. Originated in the machine age, stencils had frequently been used for their ease of use and acquisition, their association with the underground through graffiti, denoting something raw and urban, as well as its nature as simply being flawed by design. Afterall, punk always boasted its flaws.

The Clash

Album artwork for The Clash’s first self-titled album (1977) by Roslaw Szaybo

The band’s logo shows a uniform font, however its marred edges and seemingly sloppy paint job belie its stencil-style roots.

This album cover also shows another style of this DIY, low-cost, image production. The photograph of the band is darkened and two-toned, much like the way a photo looks when photocopied. This look, in time, became synonymous with the punk aesthetic and highlighted its dark nature and crude edges.

‘Haute Ugly’ & Zines

While OG punks would have probably never used the word ‘haute’ to describe themselves, they did prescribe to a certain style that valued not philosophies and beauty and order like the design that came before them, but rather chaos and a dissemination of shock. Using their often illegible and garish styles to shock the viewer out of apathy, the punk movement gave little thought to the commonly perceived ‘good’ design practices.

One of the most common spaces for this seeming lack of care for aesthetics was the zine. A zine is a self-published, self-distributed magazine, often with countercultural tendencies and propaganda.


Volumes 3 & 4 by seminal punk zine Sniffin Glue, found by Alternative TV frontman Mark Perry

Sniffin Glue, seen above, 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. Its style showed the rushed immediacy of the punk movement. Touches like writing directly onto images before copying them scrawled, nearly illegible, script and hand-drawn logos and imagery showed the independent and urgent nature of the new tribe. Much like the music was an aggressive and minimal bastardization of punk rock, the style of the magazine stripped design down to its basics.

Punk Magazine

New York punk Zine Punk, designed by John Holstrom

New York’s imminent zine at the same time as Sniffin Glue was Punk Magazine. This zine featured other tenets of the punk rock style, like hand drawn crude imagery and logos as well as so-called comics for adults. Just as punk music attempted to free youth from the slavery believed to have been pressed upon them by society, so too did this imagery attempt to free comics from a purely childish message.

Although, much like the use of ransom note style type, the crude compilation of these zines were built of of necessity due to lack of money or material, it was this very anti-consumerism that so thoroughly underlined the ethos behind the culture. Although it was often amateurish and sloppy, anyone could do it. Unlike capitalist society, it was a participational culture where there were no limits or restrictions.

De-volution and Parody

It’s no secret that punk has political and subversive messages. Much of the imagery went on to match this, using images from a media saturated culture for new purpose. These parodies were meant to trigger recognition in the viewer and include them on the subversive in-joke.

Ramones Seal

Logo for The Ramones, featuring similarities to the Presidential Seal of the US

In order to prove The Ramones were ‘American as apple pie’, logo designer Arturo Vega appropriated the most overt American imagery he could, the governmental logo of the president. Although punk rock music might go against the official ideals of the mainstream culture of America, this appropriation decried a connection to the people of the nation and placed The Ramones on the pedestal as the REAL leaders of the REAL free world.

Post-punk band Devo, actually named after the idea of de-volution, often featured imagery ‘borrowed’ from the 40s and 50s of American culture, reusing it in such a way to question the materialist and optimistic opinions of the time by re-situating it in an inquisitive punk format.

Devo Are We Not Men

Devo’s 1978 album cover for Are We Not Men? (designer uknown)

This album cover cheekily asks the question proposed in the band’s general manifesto, ‘Are we not men?’ By using the imagery from the US’s positivist past and making it look like some sort of overly happy mutant, the imagery throws the standards on their heads and mocks the idealism and consumerism of days past.

Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk

Punk has always functioned in a tenuous state. By it’s very nature it was against capitalism and consumerism and being a part of the majority. However it also survived on album sales and concert attendance. Naturally the major labels began to pick up big name bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and Blondie, theoretically maiming the scene forever. While punk undergrounds carry on through today in various locales (Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Germany, etc…) the original us v. them ethos of punk music was scarred by its acceptance into the mainstream.

It is important to note that these punk aesthetics have largely remained the same over the course of the past 40 years since the scene’s inception. Bands still frequently use many of these visual tropes to place themselves within the punk community and associate themselves with the scene although elements like stenciling, graffiti style and crude writing can appear all around the design world to evoke the coarse edge of punk.

But furthering cementing punk’s place is the mainstream is the new availability and ease of computers, which have turned DIY into the basics of design in all genres. Anyone can do anything and punk styling is now just another font setting on your Mac computer. Although underground groups and designers could choose from ‘ugly’ and crude designs or ‘beautiful’ and flawless ones, there is now the choice to choose punk.



Logo design by thealienfactory for Bakd. Even bread can be revolutionary!

This re-appropriation of punk design with the aim of eliciting a certain feeling almost recalls the original re-appropriation by the punks back in the 70s. However, what would probably upset the punks would be the blatant use of the style for commercial purposes. Fashion houses trying to get in on the edge with punk outfits often creatively use the visual style for their promotional material.

Forever 21

Forever 21’s branding material for their 2013 punk collection, using handwritten text, collage style aesthetics and an attempt to appear as the page of a zine. Note the ‘all rights reserved’. Very un-punk.

Although this print ad for fashion conglomerate Forever 21 achieves its goal of looking ever-so-cool, it does so at the expense of the culture they are claiming to represent. They use all of the tropes of the style and yet they do it in such a candidly commercial way that it becomes a painful irony to the discerning viewer.

Other works utilize the design elements with more subtlety, focusing on pastiche much like the punks do. This design from one of our 99designers shows the two-tone coloring and collage known to DIY but does so in such a way that it does not exploit the original culture.

Goodform Salon

Design for Goodform Salon by roban

Punk has even gone so broadly as to be featured at New York’s Metropolitan Museum titled Punk: Chaos to Couture, making it official that punk had risen from the garage and warehouses of its inception and all the way to the highest (not to mention most pristine) levels of culture.

Chaos to Couture

The branding for this event featured the two-toned colors and crude stenciling of punk style, immaculately implemented. This styling takes punk most thoroughly out of its original context both literally and figuratively. Although the stencil-style text features imperfections, it does it with a sort of sheen that almost changes the intention of the entire movement. It is perhaps this new height of the style that could eventually work to change the connotations of the imagery as the style grows into its maturity.

While much has changed since The Sex Pistols encouraged anarchy in the UK, these styles have remained at their essence the same. They have taken on more than the sum of their parts to be a beacon of youth culture, counterculture, edge and sass. Punk rock told us that it is ok to get angry, its ok to get loud, its ok to get messy. And when going for the punk aesthetic, its ok for your designs to do the same thing.

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