Psychedelic Language Scott Santoro:

A graphic designer’s point-of-view.
Scott Santoro: Principal, Worksight
relating to or denoting drugs (esp. LSD) that
produce hallucinations and apparent expansion
of consciousness.
• relating to or denoting a style of rock music
originating in the mid-1960s, characterized
by musical experimentation and drug-related
• denoting or having an intense, vivid color or
a swirling abstract pattern : a psychedelic
Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 1
a psychedelic drug.
“High Society: Psychedelic Rock Posters of Haight-Ashbury,”
was the title of a 2002 exhibit hosted by Dartmouth College’s
Hood Museum of Art. Included were a series of lectures, one
of which was made by Victore Moscoso who designed some of
the most amazing works in this psychedelic genre.
I was asked to create a lecture with the point-of-view of a
working graphic designer. For me it was really an excuse to
listen to lots of Jimi Hendrix. I ended up titling the lecture
“psychedelic language” because an entire generation’s spirit
was translated through these posters.
This is a poster by Victor Moscoso, which he said he
designed in only a few days. This was the case with many
of the psychedelic posters—there was hardly an money
or time to get these pieces completed, and yet, they made
due. Moscoso said that this face wasn’t photographed, but
simply copied out of a magazine. There was no budget for
typesetting, and instead, was quickly rendered by penciling
in two curved lines, one for the baseline and one for the cap
height, and blocking in letters between. This process gave
each poster a unique hand made quality.
This intense poster by Bob Schnepf almost seems meant for
a blacklight. Color was also an important characteristic in
the psychedelic language, but before I go any deeper into the
formal qualities, I’d like to examine them from a social and
cultural perspective first.
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Besides buying books on the subject of rock posters, I visited
antique stores and second hand shops to see what residue
I might find from the psychedelic era—approximately 1965
when the Beatles began experimenting with LSD through to
1971. I found this Look magazine from November of 1967
which featured a story about psychedelic body painting.
November was only three months after “The Summer of
Love” in which young people from across American and the
world travel to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco,
boosting the population from 15,000 to around 100,000. By
late ’67, psychedelia had even worked its way through the
Iron Curtain finding its way into Polish posters, who were
especially keen on visual acts of rebellion through their
Someone that we used to read in grad school was French
Post-Structuralist Roland Barthe who said that “Style is an
organized network of obsessions.” Psychedelia fell under
this definition of an organized network of obsessions under
the banner of counter-culture, with the hippies of Haight
Ashbury as its muse.
Their obsessions developed into an organized network, for
example, collecting and wearing ornamented stuff that
no one else wanted—stuff their parents had thrown out
in the ’50s. And they lived in Victorian houses that were
considered big and ugly places that no one wanted to live in.
This was true in Detroit and Chicago as well. The American
downtowns of that era either tore down or removed layers
of ornamentation for the sake of appearing “modern.” So the
hippy embracing of past styles, and the adopting of an antimodern aesthetic seems to have been an act of defiance.
This ad from Look magazine reads “’68 Buick. Now we’re
talking your language” and it visualizes what hippies were
defying—that the car is a status symbol, that the crew-cut
was the way to go, and that complacency was coupled with
a surge of economic growth in America fed this kind of
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This magazine also had an article about the Vietnam War
adding credence to the counter-culture movement. If you
consider the act of growing long hair, then it’s easy to
understand how it was a sign of military protest. The same
is true of the colorful vocabulary, which contrasted the drab
fatigues and gray flannel suits. Flower power was a slogan
that symbolized a passive resistance to violence and war,
and it found form on dresses, ties, and shirts, which might
have helped spawn the back-to-nature movement later in the
Psychedelic posters truly reflected and reacted to the
social and cultural status quo. The word itself, psychedelic,
means mind-expanding, and the psychedelic drug, LSD, or
acid, was thought to be a way to expand one’s thinking by
temporarily remove the user from the world to find some
other way. This poster announced a music event, but also
symbolically portrayed an escape from reality—a druginduced trip.
Let’s take a look at of my favorite posters by Victor Moscoso.
It’s impeccably crafted with a bouquet of flowers created
out of letter forms. If you look closely at the vase, you’ll see
a silhouette of an upside down face. It’s set up for hours of
I translated the poster’s information into something more
neutral, but it ended up looking like Russian Constructivism.
It has a revolutionary tone, but it lost its surreal quality. No
matter how neutral I might have arranged the information,
its form still would have communicated something as a
visual code to the reader.
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Psychedelic poster artists borrowed heavily from other
styles and time periods like this direct lift from Alphonse
Mucha’s “Job” rolling papers. The lithograph from the Art
Nouveau period makes an obvious connection to pot smoking.
There’s also a connection between the use of LSD and
absinthe that Parisian artists used to drink. But this piracy
seems legit. As design critic Steve Heller wrote in his book,
“Graphic Wit,” “Psychedelia borrowed from the vernaculars
of previous times and places to become the vernacular of its
own time and place.”
Some forms were even derived from Roman and Gothic
sources like this poster by Bonnie Maclean. The psychedelic
audience “got it.” It became their imagery too.
Psychedelia was grounded in Eastern spirituality, which
equated it with the consciousness-raising experience of
LSD. The flowing electronic music and colorful light shows
supported the break from reality.
This must have all seemed like something from another
planet, which you can hear in the narrator voice. It reveals
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the generation gap that existed.
There were a lot of faces blended in with the typography
of the posters like this one announcing a band called The
Mindbenders, and The Chocolate WatchBand.
Poster artist Wes Wilson embedded a face in a poster for a
Van Morrison concert that feels very van Gogh-ish with it’s
vibrant brushwork. These posters are unlike anything ever
The previous generation’s posters—the early rock and roll
singers, they had the look of boxing posters. They were
letterpressed with blocky wood type of the sans or slab serif
category. And there could be an arguement made that the
simplicity of this visual language coordinated with the simple
beat of the music, but the process was mechanical—made by
the printer.
The early psychedelic posters were hand drawn by people
that seemed more like fans of the music and the bands, which
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brought them closer to art than to advertising.
Here’s another early poster—they look like sketches more
than final posters, but their unfinished look appealed to
their audience. Also, I think that just like the music, their
groove became as much part of the message as the words
As these psychedelic posters were being created, posters by
Swiss design greats such as Armin Hofmann were honing
something completely different. This poster from 1967 is
an example of the International Style, which became the
predominant design language in the world. In fact, this
approach was to clean up the world.
American designers followed suit using this visual language
to serve as the voice of corporate America. Here’s a poster from
1968 by New York designer, George Tscherny, for General
Dynamics, where ice is reduced and abstracted into pure
Rich Griffin’s illustration for headliner Jimi Hendrix on the
right incorporated a lyrical cartoon and it’s funny to see how
diametrically opposed it is to the reductivist approach.
Here is another by Griffin. His illustrative approach folded
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nicely into the broader psychedelic language.
All these posters were hung outside on the street, but it’s hard
to imagine. In fact, they only existed for a brief time on the
street because 90% of them were gone within an hour’s time—
carefully removed and rehung on bedroom walls where there
was time for contemplation.
The deliberate illegibility required the extra time for reading,
and for any additional meaning to be found inside them.
This is another Victor Moscoso that looks type inside of a
blender. Moscoso is one of the only psychedelic poster artists
formally trained in graphic design. Most of the others were
fine artists. He arrived in San Francisco with a BFA from
the Cooper Union, and an MFA from Yale in graphic design.
Moscoso said that he had to unlearn all the rules to make this
kind poster.
And all the rules he did know, especially in how to use
vibrating or ”hot“ colors were learned through intensive
study with Josef Albers, chair of Yale’s design department.
Albers himself was a student of the Bauhaus school in Weimar
where he began his own color studies, specifically opposite
colors, and the ambiguities of visual and spatial perception.
And Alber’s work had a dramatic influence on the Optical Art
movement, which, in 1965, was a full exhibit at the Museum of
Modern Art titled “The Responsive Eye.” I have a feeling that
hallucinogens were all the rage for op-art museumgoers.
I mentioned this lecture to Kathy McCoy who chaired
Cranbrook Academy of Art’s design department while I was
a student there. She said that one of her first freelance gigs
upon graduating from Michigan State University in 1967 was
to create psychedelic posters for the Birmingham-Bloomfield
Teen Center just outside of Detroit. This is the psychedelic logo
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she designed for the center.
And these are some of the posters. Kathy noted that as she
silkscreening these posters in the basement of her house,
Detroit’s inner city was in the midst of riots, and literally
burning, which, as she said, “definitely increased the sense of
You can see the logo being warped in all of these.
There’s the logo top right being reached at with this tough
arm. I think these posters also help explain how the language
reached across America, in this case, to the Midwest.
Kathy also sent me posters she created later for car showrooms
in Detroit, which she admits, were very “Yellow Submarine.”
Eventually corporation America blended the language in with
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their own promotions.
For example, here is a psychedelic commercial for McDonalds.
It’s a fairly late arrival—from 1973 I believe, which might define
this as psychedelic residue.
My own personal library includes a book version of “The Love
Bug’ movie. Hollywood tried to make psychedelia palatable
to the general public, and the movie did have an affinity with
the times in the sense that the idea of being different was
becoming acceptable. The book’s introduction states “Of the
many millions of small cars that rolled off the assembly lines,
it happened that one was different from all the others.”
Psychedelia was also produced on the east coast, especially in
the work of New York City’s Pushpin Group. The illustrators
and designers at Pushpin had an eclectic approach even before
psychedelia. This is perhaps the most famous poster that came
out of their studio in 1966 by designer, Milton Glaser.
As psychedelia became more ubiquitous, psychedelic typefaces
became available to the advertising and design fields. This is a
photolettering catalog from 1968, and it may have contributed
to psychedelia’s demise by turning the psychedelic style into
something mechanically done.
Here is an inside page showing the various faces available
for setting. Psychedelia seemed destined for a burn out or
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This poster by Wes Wilson in 1966 is considered one of the first
psychedelic posters.
And this was one of the last posters of the genre by David
Singer, commissioned for the unfortunate closing of
the Fillmore in 1971. It metaphorically interprets the
psychedelic era as a dream state, with a white cat in the
center symbolizing a light and playful mind, batting the globe
of Saturn, while a black cat sits in the background as one’s
mysterious unconscious.
This poster showed the growth happening within the
psychedelic language by a new generation of designers getting
involved. But the posters couldn’t exist without the Fillmore to
stay relevant, and by the beginning of the 1970s psychedelia,
as a movement, was over.
Since I titled this lecture “Psychedelic Language,” I had to ask
the question, “Is the psychedelic language a dead language?”
Or better yet, can I use it as a stylistic form today?
These two framed posters sit next to each other in my studio
and they helped me understand the question better. A highly
stylized and crafted Fillmore poster is on the left, and on the
right, a poster for a beer party (from my Cranbrook days)
created by a sculpture student. The beer party poster used
photo emulsion as paint to word out in drunken language:
“photo department, yes they’re back today...let’s be happy
about, beer, 10pm.” The poster is so outside of the
accepted design aesthetic that I think I’d have to be drunk
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to reproduce it because I’m so entrenched in the commercial
mode of clean lines and mechanical letterforms. The thing
about it is that it still feeds me in the way that graffiti does.
For example, these graffiti tags, or, signatures of people who all
know each other, also read as pure gestures that blend in with
the distressed, outdoor urban environment.
Their abstraction triggers compositional ideas for me that have
to do with color, shape, and contrast.
It’s the same with naive vernacular typography. For example,
in this photograph of a shop window in Amsterdam, denture
repair is advertised, but with vinyl type stuck onto a light
box for nighttime illumination, and actual dentures in the
foreground. It’s just so odd, to the point of being a bit surreal,
but it’s also incredibly resourceful and inventive.
Here’s another example: street numbers created with black
tape. It’s completely outside of the rules, yet it works in a
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stripped down, Punk kind of way.
Since music is a driving force behind these psychedelic posters,
I think it’s valuable to explain Punk Rock, which is an antiestablishment genre of music begun in 1974. Energy, and the
simple will to play, became more important than what the
overproduced crafting of the 1970s, and the fliers and posters
like this one from 1978 by Seattle artist Frank Edie, reflected
the raw attitude.
Graphic designers latched onto this aesthetic direction because
the profession itself started to lose its energy and needed some
David Carson—dubbed the father of grunge—happened onto the
scene with perfect timing. Carson was somewhat untrained in
graphic design, which was perfect because grunge had a very
“I don’t care” attitude and his art direction of magazines like
Surfer and RayGun hit a chord.
Instead of fliers printed in the hundreds, these magazines were
printed in the tens of thousands. Its language still permeates
our design culture today. The phrase “whatever” might be the
residue of that movement—my seven-year-old uses it on me
When we pair psychedelia next to grunge we see the shared
passion for typography, but the highly stylized level of
psychedelia puts it at odds with the naive languages like
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distressed grunge.
Yet, I see increasing references to the psychedelic, especially
involving subjects that have to do with community, rebellion,
and the environment. The hand drawn spirit has a quality that
confronts the coldness of the computer differently than grungy
distress does, for example with this poster designed by the
Henderson Bromstead Art Company.
And this rebellious, and slightly dangerous music poster was
hung at a recent Pratt show, designed by Pratt student, Maggie
Maggie also used the psychedelic language to bring an
environmental bend to these postcard design where she
integrated of type into natural settings.
One of my Pratt seniors, Arianne Schaeffer, used colors more
associated with an acid trip in her poster for a personal myth
which involved her love of the Girl Scouts—and it just occurred
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to me that there might be a connection between the two.
And another of my Pratt seniors, Olivia Chen, used the
psychedelic language to create a unique brand identity for
Bike Heaven. This was all on her own without my coaching or
pushing for the language.
And in a poster that includes a sprinkling of psychedelic
lettering and distressed punk, Olivia considers herself as a kind
of love child caught between confucianism and consumerism—in
other words, between the development of moral perfection and
the preoccupation with consumer goods.
Olivia was able to use both visual languages with confidence
because that is what graphic designers do to convey meaning.
It’s the real thing.
Since Olivia use an image of the real thing to explain her
point, I’ll finish with a Coke commercial made in 1971. This is
branding language, the premise being that we can all get along if
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we simply buy each other cokes.