What the 1980’s can teach us about great design

Fashion/ clothing

Anyone over the age of 40 can remember (usually with crashing embarrassment) their 1980’s fashion disasters. From kilt-wearing punks (yes, the boys as well as the girls), to brushed and mottled denim, to pink leg warmers and ‘Frankie Says’ t-shirts, it’s fair to say that the 1980s taught us all, that it is always best try to wear what suits you and not what half a dozen stylists in London or New York have decided is ‘happening this season’.


When it comes to the coiffures of the 1980s, the key word was ‘big’. Big hair dominated the decade. From fashion or glamour girls to the miners and coppers on the picket lines to the bouffant city boys and poodle glam rockers; hair was always rich, plentiful and (for many) teased into towering shapes or swoops. Back then, even bald men would compensate for hair loss with a healthy, lip-brimming moustache. It is quite unusual these days for any male above the age of nine to not have their hair cut razor short. The good new is guys, you can relax. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would put it, you can – ‘let it grow’.


Buildings/ architecture

When it comes to architecture it is not easy to sum up the 1980s. Certainly some critics describe buildings from this era’s as uniformly ‘dreary’ and with a few exceptions, 80’s architecture seemed to neither embrace the thrusting modernism of the 60’s and 70’s or the sparking individualism of the last 20 years (see the London Millennium Bridge and the City of London’s ‘gherkin’ for example). If anything is to be learnt, it is that an architectural identity should both hit the zeitgeist and suggest the future. If you’re still not sure, just ask Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.



Mobile phones the size of house bricks, home computers the size of a small chest of drawers and ghetto blasters as big as your holiday suitcase; if there’s one thing the 1980s taught us about tech design it is that ‘small is beautiful’. In fact, tech minimisation is now taken to such extremes, that our handheld gadgets are so tiny they are almost impossible to find and use. But frankly, who cares? All I really want to know is, will my new iPhone fit into the front pocket of my skinny jeans?

Graphic design

Talk to a shaven-headed graphic designer in his 40s or 50s and he’ll smile wistfully, gaze longingly into the middle distance and remember the halcyon days of Pete Saville at Factory Records and Neville Brody at The Face. These Brit design pioneers quickly moved away from the ripped and torn graphics of punk and took their inspiration from turn of the century art houses such as Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists. Cool, clinical, mathematical; Saville’s designs perfectly echoed the bleak musical minimalism of Joy Division, Section 25, A Certain Ratio, et al, and Brody’s typography-heavy designs, launched a new era in clinical chic. Thank god acid house and Madchester came along and brightened things up with a bit of lysergic colour later on.



Think about classic 1980’s cars and it’s hard not to think of the sleek DeLorean DMC that Doc Brown soups up (with the addition of some handy weapons-grade plutonium) in Back to the Future. When the DeLorean rolled off the production line in 1981 the future really had arrived. The design was classic early 80s; futuristic, glacial, pointy and silver. Since then auto design has thankfully, brought back warm and organic shapes whilst retaining (of course) those edgy, speedy looks.


Why not share your views about (or memories of) 1980’s design and how it influences our designers today?