Even if you’re not familiar with its name or history, it’s very likely that you have yearned after a work of Mid-Century Modern design at one point or another—perhaps after watching an episode of Mad Men.

Mid-century modern inspired illustration
Mid-century modern inspired illustration by Vladanland

The Mid-Century Modern design movement, which began somewhere around the late 1930s to 1940s, was a natural progression from Modernist movements that preceded it, such as Bauhaus and International style. It was also a response to the ostentatious Art Deco movement with a timeless nod to no-frills beauty and dedication to function. The only thing that has changed about Mid-Century Modern design since its heyday is the circumstances that made the design desirable and necessary.

Mid-Century Modern design, or Mid-Mod, reached peak popularity following World War II and continued to grow until the 1970s.

1950s style illustration of parents and baby at home
Illustration modelled after the handmade advertisements of the 1950s by Tradition Studio

The design goes hand in hand with post-war America, as it was used to address the new societal needs of the time like housing for a population that was now more likely to commute to an office than a war zone.

Houses needed to be built practically, optimizing space in both urban and suburban areas. This mid-20th century focus on domestic spaces led to a design revival in furniture and architecture and then seamlessly spread to other forms of design, and to the globe.

It’s sleek, distinctive and accessible style became inseparable with the appearance of the times.

What defines Mid-Century Modern design?

1960s style logo and models outfitted in same style
Logo and brand identity for a modeling agency capturing the colors, fashion and vintage feel of Mid-Mod by betiobca

Mid-Mod prioritizes a less-is-more attitude and function over form. Whatever ornamentation there is is generally minimal and serves a function within the space. Vintage mid-century designs tend to be expensive but the intention behind the original designs was to be accessible for all.

As for the designs—they’re horizontally aligned and have clean, clearly defined lines that curve softly.  Organic influences remain through a crucial connection to nature while new materials such as plastic are embraced. Within spaces, this comes to life through open, airy designs. In interiors and architecture wood is seen side by side with glass, plastic, vinyl and metal.

A red lamp and a vibrant geometric poster
Bright hues and soft geometric curves are visible in this Finnish Mid-Mod display. Via J.G. Park.

Mid-Mod leans towards vibrant color palettes in general. Other than this, it cannot be pinned down to a set color scheme. While bright hues were popular in the 1950s, earthy colors were more present in the 1960s. In more recent revivals, muted colors and pastels can be seen more frequently. The style works with many different shades as long as you adhere to its basic principles.

Mid-Century Modern design in action

The disciplines that first come to mind when hearing the phrase “mid-century modern design” are furniture, architecture, industrial design and fashion. However, Mid-Mod had a massive influence on graphic design and typography. The first examples of these were initially seen through illustrated advertisements, illustrated book covers, and the postcards and signage of the mid-century.

Americana Hotel Illustrated T-shirt design
T-shirt design embodying the hand-made illustrations of the Mid-Century. Serifs and sans-serifs are combined to give the subject a thorough Mid-Mod look by Studio M18.

The postcards, called Linen Type Postcards, were aptly printed on linen. They were cost effective and natural, made up almost entirely of cotton. On the cards were depictions of the new architectural and interior designs. Suburban homes, roadside motels, city corners and monuments. The postcards simultaneously popularized and archived the aesthetic of the time.

Mid-Mod also had a huge influence on typography. The typefaces of the mid-century were super minimalist, with clean and modern lines that were geometrically influenced.

The beauty of mid-mod lies in its ability to transcend and unify design disciplines.

Some of the most famous examples that we still know and use today are the sans serifs Helvetica, the wonderfully named Futura, Gothics such as Century and Franklin, Standard and Akzidenz Grotesk. There were also serifs such as Clarendon, Garamond and Century Expanded. In Mid-Century Modern design combining contrasting typefaces is just as natural as mixing different materials, like wood and metal.

Charlie’s round the corner ice cream sign
Mid-century signage has illustrations and a layering of various typefaces. Via Brianna Santellan.

How to use the Mid-Century Modern style in design today

As seen above, mid-century design yields itself perfectly to fonts, graphic design and web design. Mid-Mod graphic design can boil down complex concepts into simple and accessible visual forms. To embrace this style, designers need to bare the bones of the design and emphasize clear visual communication above all else. Adapting the mid-mod principles to the aesthetic preferences and needs of today is crucial, as they could look needlessly kitschy and outdated otherwise.

Logo design for The Row apartments
A clean structure allows for the layering of different fonts, shades and texture by Purdy Logo

Mid-century modern design is a huge graphic design trend in 2019. If you want to give a design a Mid-Mod look, think of easily legible words and illustrations surrounded by plenty of white space. The negative and positive spaces are comprised of distinctive geometric shapes. Once you have this basic foundation down you can let the different fonts, shades, grit and texture playfully contrast each other. You can also mix it up and add a soft focus to bold patterns. Vibrant and loud colors could work just as well as pastels and earth tones.

Applying the Mid-Mod style to today’s designs also involves using custom illustration work, as an ode to the illustrated advertising of the mid-century. These types of illustrations give print and web designs a nostalgic and humorous twist, while bringing personality and handmade artistry to focus in an age when face to face interactions are becoming less common in commerce.

Logo design for Flame Cigar Lounge
Clean lines and plenty of white space make simple shapes memorable by Agnesema
Logo design for Atomic Media
Retro-futuristic concepts make designs timeless and comforting by thisisremedy

Mid-Century Modern illustrations yield a vintage feel that expresses simplicity and intimacy. And because Mid-Mod is minimal and understated it’s easy to mix with other more flamboyant styles, such as Art Deco.

Beyond Mid-Century

Retro-futuristic boxing poster
A poster design inspired by the Mid-Mod period. By ANAMOLLY.

The Mid-Century Modern design style lends itself perfectly to being rediscovered and reinterpreted by today’s brands and designers. With its simplicity and soothing natural approach, Mid-Century Modern design is easy to revive and revamp. Mid-Mod is practical, durable, comfortable and timeless. And besides, the 70s are always trending.

We’re currently seeing lots of brands exploring the Mid-Century Modern look using mid-century influenced illustrations on websites, packaging, posters and more. Often, these designs are clearly modern, yet retain dreamy vintage color palettes and an approachable, retro feel. Expect to see the Mid-Century Modern design trend continue to pop up in web and print work for years to come.