How LSD Helped Shape California’s Ecstatic Design Legacy

From drugs to the women’s movement, Californian counterculture has generated some of the most vibrant pieces of American graphic design.


From Deborah Sussman’s candy-colored “supergraphics” to R. Crumb’s drug-fueled comics and album art, some of the most vibrant pieces of American graphic design hail from California. Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires, and Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 (Metropolis) is the first major book to shine a spotlight on the Golden State’s electrifying design history, which, for the most part, “confirms all the stereotypes and expectations of a freewheeling West Coast culture where anything goes and everyone does her or his own thing,” as author Louise Sandhaus writes in the introduction. The book showcases more than 250 examples of groundbreaking graphic design projects from the left coast in the mid-20th century.


What unites all this design work? What makes it “Californian?” In addition to color palettes that mimic the state’s vibrant landscape–lemon yellows, pacific blues, sunny oranges, bougainvillea pinks–California’s design often reflects its reputation as a mecca of counterculture. Sandhaus, an award-winning designer and a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, posits that the unique social diversity and civil disobedience in the Golden State powerfully influenced its graphic output–as she writes in the introduction:

California has no terra firma—earthquakes, mudslides, fires, and the occasional civil uprising cause incessant upheaval and change. California is fluid. It has a sense of humor. It is a place of boundless reinvention and innovation…. It is also a place of great creativity, freedom, and social consciousness, where the status quo undergoes constant renovation. Without solid ground, tradition lacks secure footing; old rules go out the door and new motivations rush in, resulting in new and vibrant forms.

In reflecting on what distinguished California design from that of the East Coast, designer Frederick Usher commented that California embraced a “polymorphic society—one that acknowledged that everybody is unique or different.” Usher worked in the ’30s and ’40s, in the period Sandhaus calls “Sunbaked Modernism,” when Californian designers like Ray Eames, Merle Armitage, Alvin Lustig, and John and Marilyn Neuhart playfully reinterpreted colder, more cerebral modernist traditions imported from Europe.

There’s no underestimating the impact the hippie movement had on West Coast designers in the ’60s. Perhaps the most recognizable designs in this book are from this decade: think John Van Hamersveld’s sherbert-colored poster for the surfer documentary The Endless Summer (you probably saw it in some college dorm rooms), the work of the late, great Colby Poster Printing Company, and the deranged comics of R. Crumb, who famously underwent an artistic transformation following his first LSD experience in 1965.

“In the popular imagination, California graphic design of the ’60s tends to conjure visions of posters, and posters of a very specific kind: those with Art Nouveau–inspired lettering and undulating colors that would come alive when viewed under the influence of marijuana, acid, or ‘shrooms,” Sandhaus writes.

Even corporate, mainstream work was as experimental as the counterculture’s, Sandhaus points out:

How can we measure the charming, Victorian-inspired math- game graphics the Eames Office created for IBM against the exuberant, colorful circus-themed poster Dave Hodges conjured for the anticapitalist ‘free’ commune known as the Diggers? How to compare Archie Boston’s in-your-face race-themed promotional ads for his design studio, seeking clients unafraid of daring work, to Emory Douglas’s posters for the Black Panthers, aiming to unite factions within the movement and radicalize the wider black community?

Designers like Sätty (a pseudonym for Wilfred Podreich) harnessed the power of poster art for political causes–Sätty created campaign posters for Democratic presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy in 1968, in which the silhouette of a dove is superimposed on the politician’s face, symbolizing his anti-war platform during Vietnam.


The Women’s Movement was another countercultural force that deeply impacted the Californian design world. Take designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who formed the California Institute of the Arts Women’s Design Program in 1971, feeling that the institution was becoming too conventional. Her feminist leanings also led her to co-found the landmark Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, dedicated to women’s education and culture. As Sandhaus writes:

The environment and programming there allowed de Bretteville to focus on developing a graphic language that was less about satisfying the designer’s aesthetic interests and more geared toward giving voice to the aesthetics and interests of others.

For example, in one project, de Bretteville aimed to reinvest the color pink with more diverse meanings beyond the usual “sugar and spice,” and invited women ages 13 to 80 to draw or write about it. She assembled their work into a single poster, which she printed at the Woman’s Building and pasted up around Los Angeles. This sort of anti-patriarchal visual vernacular was new at the time.

The book ends with another nod to the impact second-wave feminism had on Californian design: Swiss-trained graphic designer April Greiman’s autobiographical work from 1986, “Does It Make Sense?” The illustration, a “life-size representation of her own body, scanned in sections and rendered in dark purple, juxtaposed with an atomic particle diagram,” wasn’t just “the first piece of design to embrace the potential of the Apple Macintosh,” as Sandhaus writes–it was an example of the influence women were gaining in coastal workplaces. “It was part of a seismic upheaval within in the comfortable world of design, and it signaled that many of those who were riding the resulting wave were women. California women,” Sandhaus writes.

Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires, and Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 is available from Metropolis for $40.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.