Going retro: Four design styles you can use

Four design styles you can use featured image

We're lucky to live in a period where modern design is a melting pot of different styles, and with so many creative options at our disposal, it’s useful to look back through history and see where and why some of these styles originated. In this article, we will look at four retro design styles and the key features that have allowed them to stand the test of time.

Since the first caveman made a handprint on the cave wall we have drawn influence from what has come before us, over time evolving and expanding design concepts beyond recognition. Here are some retro design styles to provide inspiration for your own designs.

1. Art Nouveau (1890 – 1910)

Art nouveau

Art Nouveau was a movement inspired by nature and organic forms. This style resisted using hard, straight edges and embraced curves and flowing lines found in plant life and floral structures. Art nouveau also incorporated a lot of earthy secondary colors to further associate itself with nature. The movement caught on so successfully that it not only encompassed design, but fashion, architecture, furniture and utensils.

Key features:

  • Highly decorative, often employing the use of frames and floral themes.
  • Earthy and pastel colors. Purples, Pinks, oranges etc.
  • Intricate dark line work.

2. Dada (1915 – 1923)


Dadaism was a European avant-garde movement born out of a negative reaction to World War I. The Dada style focuses on a rejection of reason and logic, a key motif being the destruction and re-creation of mediums. This resulted in heavy use of collage and mismatched elements. Tired of the stale conventional art, Dadaists wanted to invoke a feeling of energy and movement. For this reason, black and red colors were used extensively, creating attention-grabbing designs through the use of contrast.

Key Features:

  • Chaotic placement of elements with no regard to structure.
  • Use of many different mediums within single pieces (Collage, illustration, print, etc.)
  • Heavy contrasting colors and shades.

3. Bauhaus (1919 – 1933)


This German-based movement had a goal to eliminate “needless ornamentation” within design, breaking everything down to the base elements to adhere to the ideal of “function over form”. For this reason, the Bauhaus style focuses on simplicity and efficiency, making use of bold, thick line work, flat block colors, and un-ornamented text designed to be easily readable. Angles are a popular technique within this style, and help to stave monotony and create energy without compromising the simple integrity of the design.

Key Features:

  • Simplistic geometric shapes.
  • Flat Primary colors (Red, Blue, yellow).
  • Use of heavy black to distinguish key features within the design.

4. Art Deco (1910-1939)

Art Deco

Drawing on the ornamental elements of Art Nouveau, but following the simplistic functionality of Bauhaus, the Art Deco style spread like wildfire throughout Europe and America. This movement utilized clean lines, striking colors and geometrical patterns to create a streamlined look that became associated with elegance and wealth. A celebration of the modern industrial age, Art Deco embraced repetition and mass production.

Key Features:

  • Geometric Patterns inspired by ancient Aztec designs.
  • Symmetry and resistance to the “imperfect” organic forms of nature.
  • Use of gold and yellow colors to symbolize wealth and style.

Though a far cry from the majority of today’s style, a lot of elements and techniques originated by these movements can be seen within many aspects of modern design:

Modern examples

Starbucks incorporates a very Art Nouveau inspired woman within their logo created from organic, ornamented line-work. The NSA logo employs the Dada Ideal of destruction and re-creation in its broken, jarring design. The White Stripe’s 2000 album “De Stijl” purposely imitates the Bauhaus style of flat, primary colors and thick black line work. Art Deco elements can clearly be seen within the symmetrical design of Reforger Film’s logo, utilizing geometric ornamentation and a flat, cut-out style synonymous with the streamlined movement.

Though these movements seem unique and iconic in their own way, each one was a reaction to the movements that had come before them. Before you go wracking your brains trying to create something entirely new out of thin air consider what has been successful in the past, and try building on those successes within your own unique designs.

Got any other art movements you find inspiring? Share them in the comments below!

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