Dial-a-Style #3: Nailing the Vintage Look

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Vintage photo of 5 school boys

In a world of design where modern, minimal and simplification have taken over, one of the best ways to stand out can be to tap into some of the flavors of the past.

Vintage designs are extremely popular, because they remind people of days gone by, and hint at a golden era that no longer exists.

Psychology is always important in design, and vintage designs appeal because they can give viewers the sense that the product or service is established and successful.

Screenshot: Ponysaurus Brewing Co.
Ponysaurus Brewing Co. were founded last year,
yet pull off a feeling of time-honoured
know-how and quirky tradition.

Interestingly, this can be just as effective for a new brand, as it can be for a 100 year old business. Vintage designs can help build trust, evoke wistful nostalgia and get attention.

The concept of ‘vintage design’ can cover a number of eras, but we’re going to focus on styles mostly from the first half of the 20th century.

Some designers like to go for the really “old-timey” 20s and 30s design styles, while others aim for a slicker, jetset 50s and 60s look. Each produce their own distinctive looks, and each are equally loved and enjoyed in their own rights.

Color Palettes

Early 20th Century: Block Color

1940's Primary by itsjustluck
Early 20th century block color

The color palettes of these vintage design styles are completely different. The color palettes of the 20s and 30s were primarily pure colors.

Colors aren’t muted, and you can expect to see colors in full saturation. Red is red, blue is blue and green is green.

Earlier 20th century designs were more likely to be ‘spot color’ — a single color used with the black ink — than the four-color, CMYK print methods that become more common from the mid-sixties onwards.

Mid Century: Pastels meets Neon

It's my party - MipsyRetro
Typical 1950’s Pastels

In the 50s and 60s, the color palettes are either muted or electric. 1950s saw the explosion of the neon sign, and even a lot of non-electrified text, still hinted at some element of a neon glow.

On the other hand, interior design and fashion saw much more use of pastels, in blue, green, pink, and yellow.

Line and Texture

Line and texture are extremely important for the 1920s and 1930s inspired designs. At that time, printing still produced a lot of imperfections, so the ink could never maintain the crispness of our printing methods today.

Newspapers and magazine layouts were assembled by hand with boxcutters, glue, and low-fidelity photographic techniques. Paper was expensive so low-grade, highly textured paper was the norm.

A sample from the Deseret News – May 1945

Google’s vast newspaper archive is an incredible treasure trove of inspiration for vintage styling ideas, from fonts to illustration styles to layout details.

Lines were hardly ever straight, and they had almost a hand drawn feel to them, as if they were cast or cut from wood blocks.

As you can see from the newspaper samples, the ink fails to fill-in in a lot in places, and blurs in others. The technical limitations meant it was literally impossible to keep the text or illustrations crisp.


So, to hit the right note with this style, the key to perfection is imperfection.

If you want to replicate the 1920s and 1930s look in your work, it is important to add glitches, scratches and noise to your work. You can use distressed brushes in a layer mask to distress your design, especially within the type and thinner lines.

It would be similar to an over-photocopied image in a monochrome printer today. Adding dirt and grit is easy in Photoshop, and there are tons of free distressed and grunge brushes available on sites like Brusheezy.

Below are a few examples of good brush packs to download and use to distress your work, to make it more convincing.

Grunge Paint Brushes

Dirty Steel Brushes

Grunge brushes
More grunge brushes for organic edges.

The 1950s and 1960s were different though, with smooth, rounded shapes. If the design was linear, the lines were crisper, but they still weren’t quite perfect.

Though more photography was used, it still wasn’t as widespread as today. It was still cheaper and more time-efficient to pay an illustrator than a photographer in 1960 — a strange idea today.

Many fonts and typefaces used in the 1950s, especially for advertising, were italicized or slanted for a lighter, more conversational tone.

Images were grainy, so if you want to replicate the imagery of the time, whether it is a photo or an illustration, it is important to add noise or grain to them in Photoshop.


Almost any color ad was a hand-drawn illustration. Photography was available then, but it was expensive.

Designs were inspired more and more by Art Deco, the current art movement at the time. Designs were much more ornate and decorative, and so were their typefaces. Typefaces were tall and thin, with varying thicknesses.

Some example vintage typefaces available now that you can use to replicate typefaces from the 20s and 30s are shown below.






bazar_vintage font

The 1950s and 1960s used bolder typefaces with a lot of curves. By this time typefaces have become more refined and printing produces crisper results.

Fonts like airstream mimic the Bel Aire era, with curvilinear forms. EastMarket is a mix, with thick strokes and thin curves. Contrast was big in the letterforms of the 1950s and 1960s.

Chunkfive is a popular font with a 1950’s industrial feel. It is easy to imagine Chunkfive at the title of a 1950s school book.



East Market


Chunk Five

Chunk Five

Examples of Great Vintage Designs:

Stalls and Dean


The ornamental script, combined with the wood-cut, old style text and textured background create a vintage experience. The line art and borders add to the vintage effect as well.

The vintage hand-drawn elements really tie the entire design together.

Lacanche Vintage


Lacanche screams of the 1950s and 1960s. With the dull pink and the seafoam green color combo, polka dots, checkered floor, the script font, and the vintage stove, you can’t help but get the feeling of vintage nostalgia.

Banger’s Restaurant

Bangers Restaurant

This is probably one of the best examples of vintage design that I’ve seen in a while. The vintage photo, toned in the vintage sepia style, combined with the distressed borders and its distressed typeface, make this a completely unified, ultra-vintage design experience. The distressed, simple icons are a nice extra touch.

The Dollar Dreadful

The Dollar Dreadful

I was blown away by this one. The Dollar dreadful combines hand-drawn illustrations with vintage typefaces and subtle lines to recreate the sense of a very old newspaper.



This is another great vintage website that combines vintage type with hand-drawn illustrations. Images such as the hand-drawn vintage carriage and the inlaid wood carvings add that extra element of vintage flair that pushes vintage design to the next level.


If you want your designs to stand out in the modern age, you might want to consider creating a vintage inspired design. When done right, vintage designs grab and hold the attention of viewers very well.

Combining the right elements to pull of the correct era will make your work more convincing. As you can see, creating vintage designs takes a lot of time and a little extra craftsmanship that speaks of quality.

James GeorgeJames George
View Author

James George is a professional web developer and graphic designer. James is an expert in design, and a professional web developer, with a special interest in WordPress. Founder of Design Crawl, James has been a professional designer since 2005.

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