San Francisco was the capital of the beat movement in the 50’s and it was also the birthplace of the hippie movement and later in the 60’s It also saw the birth of the Psychedelia movement. Yet variants of the Psychedelic style spread throughout the United States and eventually Europe.

Dances in the 1960’s were intense perceptual experiences of loud music and light shows that dissolved the environment into throbbing fields of projected colour and bursting strobes. This experience was paralleled graphically in posters.

The poster craze in the United States during the 1960s was fostered by a climate of social activism. The civil rights movement, the public protest against the Vietnam War, the early stirrings of the women’s liberation movement, and a search for alternative lifestyles figured into the social upheavals of the decade. These posters made statements about social viewpoints rather than spreading commercial messages. The psychedelia movement expressed this cultural climate. 

Psychedelia connotes the hippie movement’s return to communal living, its attempts at arts and crafts production, and its union of art, music, and literature. It was a visual code; those who could pierce the layers of symbolism to read the message, either with the naked eye or with the aid of hallucinogens, became members of the “underground” family. Psychedelic artists all together produced hundreds of posters for West Coast rock concerts.

According to newspaper reports, respectable and intelligent businessmen were unable to comprehend the lettering on these posters, yet they communicated well enough to fill auditoriums with a younger generation who deciphered, rather than read, the message.

Psychedelia was a counter culture that challenged traditional boundaries in music art and designs that; for a very brief period, was a honest reflection of the 1960s American youth culture. Then it was usurped as a marketable fashion by trendsetters in the merchandising business.


Psychedelic image making could be rather simple (hand-lettering, for instance, required only a rapidograph) and printing costs were low (the split-fountain colour technique needed only one pass through a press.

The psychedelia movement drew from a number of resources: swirling forms, the flowing, fluid organic line of art nouveau with the bold, hard contour of comic book and pop art, the intense optical colour vibration associated with the brief op- art movement popularized by a Museum of Modern Art exhibition, and the recycling of images from popular culture or by manipulation (such as reducing continuous-tone images to high-contrast black and white) that was prevalent in pop art.

Psychedelia reused Austrian Secessionist lettering, Art Nouveau ornament, East Indian symbols, Victorian typography, drug-inspired palette and comic-book iconography, and lettering warped and bent to the edge of illegibility, frequently printed in close- valued complementary bright and eclectic colour schemes, interference patterns and curves. It marked a distinctly American graphic style that expressed the vibrant but brief life of the youth culture.

As radically different as a psychedelic poster and a visual-identity manual might be, both are corporate designs, intended for or relating to a body of people with common values.