Do you remember the first zine someone put in your hands?
If you lived through punk’s heydey, or any of the subcultures that reverberated down from its birth to echo into the mid-aughts, you probably came across more than a few of them. Variable in quality, self-printed, gratuitously niche, and often full of self-referential winks, zine culture existed at a precise moment when computers were becoming more common, but social networks hadn’t yet made the notion of communicating with your peers on paper irrelevant. They mixed DIY culture and nascent technology with music and art. You sent away for them, hoarded them, and published your own responses, even if you were a high schooler imagining a culture thousands of miles–and probably a decade or two–away from your own.
They were outsider design. But the zines, fliers, and posters produced by punk and its associated subcultures were hugely influential to design practice itself, in ways that are only now, 40 years later, being given a closer look by historians and curators. Earlier this spring, a visual history of club culture published in the U.K. considered the impact of dance music on design. Vitra Design Museum is currently staging a show on the design of nightclubs in the ’70s and ’80s and how they influenced gentrifying global cities. And at Cranbrook Art Museum in Michigan, the curator and designer Andrew Blauvelt is opening a comprehensive exhibition Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976-1986, on June 16.
Blauvelt grew up in the Midwest and went to school at Cranbrook during the era his show reckons with. It shows: The exhibition’s publication is an oversized, three-part zine of sorts itself, printed on newspaper, that’s as fun to read as it must have been to put together. In it, he talks about the mood in design at the time. “[Punk was] an inescapable soundtrack that filled the air of painting studios in the days of the boom box, or one’s ears dutifully plugged into a Sony Walkman,” he writes. “I think a lot of graphic designers were influenced by [punk], because they were listening to the music in school, and buying the albums, and being part of that culture,” he adds over the phone. “You would have been exposed to a lot of this stuff. So it gets all mixed up, and I don’t think it’s really been untangled.”