Design insights & tutorials.

State of the Union: Grunge Design

Turquoise Flag-Tip

Grunge design was getting popular when I got started in 2004. I was inspired by the artwork and branding behind the underground punk, metal, and hardcore music I listened to. Naturally their aesthetic seemed to be riddled with dirt, grime, and blood because it seemed it fit the bands image and message. I had no idea why it was that way, it’s just how it was. So let’s take a step back a few years to see where it came from.

They say David Carson is the “father of grunge” because he rejected typical type layouts and played with non-mainstream techniques to achieve different results. He surrounded himself in the Southern California surf/skate culture in the late 80s and early 90s where he began to make his mark. This went on to help define the visual aesthetic for surf/skate culture as fans began to identify with it.

When I was in college from 2000-2004, I flipped through music magazines and read through the liner notes of my favorite albums, I noticed something that caught my eye. Here was “smart” type layout combined with illustration, dirt and grime. Something my newbie designer eyes had not seen before then. This helped me discover that design wasn’t ONLY about creating ads with a clever tagline like my friends who majored in Graphic Design did in college (I was an 3D Animation major).

I was soaking up the designers and artists responsible for this refreshing hybrid including Asterik Studio (now Invisible Creature), Eduardo RecifeDamnengineTHS, and the Bau-da Design Lab. To me it was the anti-mainstream and rejection of pop culture, boy bands, and the slick MTV aesthetic. I was all about it.

Eduardo Recife

These are just a few of the many pioneers of the modern grunge style. They stood out because they were able to move between stunning photo manipulation and hand drawn illustration without neglecting their typography.  Of course, the icing on their collective cakes were the dirt, stains, spills and splatters that symbolized the underground and alternative design sense.  Their combination and skill of putting it all together was what made them great.


For the rest of us just getting started, we hadn’t yet learned or trained our eyes for type or had the resources for pro photography.  However, we knew Photoshop and we had the tools to help us LOOK like we existed in the same realm.  Around that time, Photoshop brushes, textures, and grungy fonts were tools developed to achieve that counter-culture vibe that so many of us found refreshing and relatable. At that time it seemed like everyone I knew was hording brushes, textures, and grunge fonts from sites like Misprinted Type and Dubtastic. Clean “corporate” design was so “pretentious” and “boring” and our young energetic selves needed to destroy all that was clean and too “business-like.”  It kind of went with the territory when you listen to metal and punk rock and watched films by David Lynch or Harmony Korine.  Also, adding “aged effects” was an attempt to make your designs feel less digital and more realistic and natural.

We found beauty in the grotesque and solace in the sinister.  We found comfort in nostalgia and we smile when we see something that visually takes us back in time to our childhood.  We wanted to make stuff in the same vein and the availability of these “tricks” made everyone who had Photoshop be able to put together a “grunge design.”  Copy, paste, boom you’re done.  Easy.  And the popularity of those resources encouraged designers to create and share their own as a way to get exposure.  In fact we did this in 2006 when we launched the Arsenal and sold hundreds of “vector packs” and were featured in magazines like IDN and Computer Arts.

So what has happened since?  It’s exploded and because it’s so “easy” to find and download tricks to create a dirty and grungy design, you have young designers “grunging shit up” all the time because they can.  What’s happened is that you’ve got an overabundance of awful and messy collages of used and reused free grunge brushes and vectors.  Apparel brands and department stores are making loads of money selling tees using heraldry emblems, eagles, wings, skulls, splatters, etc.  4-5 years ago it was an emerging trend.  2 years ago it was a tired cliché.  Today your grandmother owns a garment with a skull or dragon on it and a few copy/pasted splatters.

So where is the “grunge movement” going today?  There are certainly designers still doing great work out there. A few years back, you had designers like Ronald Ashburn (Electrik Suicide) making waves with his futuristic retro style and Scott Hansen and Mark Weaver setting trends with a more minimal and Swiss approach.

On the music design side, you have Kyle CrawfordThe Black Axe, and Sam Kaufman perfecting their craft and building upon the rich visual history of the bands they work for.  I don’t see the trend ending any time soon, but I do see a more mature approach as designers grow and appreciate subtlety and get sick of the messy clutter or design objects often associated with grunge.

In reality, whatever the mainstream is doing, look for the new pioneers to reject it and create something entirely new.  If grunge design is mainstream and ubiquitous by now, there’s certainly an undercurrent of young rebellious designers looking to destroy it.

If you have some inspiration for a refreshing take on the “grunge” movement, please post it below.

About the Author, Jeff Finley

I'm a partner at Go Media, a Cleveland web design and development firm. We also specialize in print design and branding. I started Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and wrote the book Thread's Not Dead, teaching artists and designers how to start a clothing company. In my spare time, I write songs and play drums in Campfire Conspiracy. I'm a happy husband and an aspiring b-boy and lucid dreamer.
Discover More by Jeff Finley


We want to hear what you have to say. Do you agree? Do you have a better way to approach the topic? Let the community know by joining the discussion.

  • Simon H.

    Nice post. Love the way you're tracing stuff back.

  • Steve Spatucci


  • bimon

    Great article. I'm definitely a fan of the retro and retro-futurist sub-genres of the grunge movement. I really like what I would consider the vintage cinematic theme of some of your current work Jeff.

    Also, Tavis Coburn has some fantastic illustrations that have a vintage theme, with loads of half-toning and amazing color:

  • Stephanie Rexroth

    Awesome… I concur. It's sad how the ideology behind any movement dies a tragic death as the movement goes mainstream — stripping it of any remains of the original thinking/consideration.

    I also think that the movement was fueled by the overall rejection of the clean/computer/photoshop generated graphics. It was the re-introduction of the artist's hand into work. A rebellion against the technology/computer revolution.

    Historically, it's happened several times before. Most directly, the Art Nouveau movement emerged out of a rebellion for the machines of the industrial revolution. Bauhaus was a rebellion against the artist's hand (Art Nouveau). Psychedelia was a rebellion again Bauhaus. Swiss was kicking back to the Bauhaus forefathers. 80s Post-modern was a rebellion to the Swiss… and so on and so on.

    The pendulum swings one way and then back the other again and again and again. Each time, designers reintroduce an old idea/movement in a new way because it's under contemporary circumstances. Always relevant to and reflective of the zeitgeist.

  • GRoY

    Great article. Being a punk-rock fan most of my life I found it interesting when the design style got popular a few years ago… But working as a web designer in a small city most of my clients didn't get it, so i stopped trying to get grunge influences in my designs. After it got all over the internet I kinda grew sick of the easy cut and paste grunge that shit up style as you so well mentionned in your great article, but that's when clients started to request it…

    In my opinion, trends are great when used subtly. Making your design to trendy will only make it age too fast. I'm an old fashion designer and I try to keep my designs clean, well organized firts, and then I spice it up with a few twirls or other trendy elements. I swear I'll never use the term spice again.

    You also have to keep in mind what you are designing for. You design for your client's market, not for your client. Use grunge design when appropriate.

  • Jeff Finley

    Good points Stephie, it's comforting to know that there will always be something else bubbling up to rebel against the current visual aesthetic. I wonder in 50 years, people will refer to this as the “Grunge Movement” or what? It doesn't sound cool like Bauhaus or Art Nouveau haha.

  • Jeff Finley

    Yeah the color is great in his work. Thanks for sharing it!

  • Jeff Finley

    Yeah I know what you mean. I remember the short-lived “glossy button” days from 2-3 years ago when “web 2.0″ was the big thing. I think in web-design, things change so fast that's why I don't see it much anymore. Good thing haha. But I remember when it was fresh, it was cool!

  • Jason

    It feels humbling to be included in the post as a part of “history” of sorts. I still remember being contacted by Friends of Ed about co-authoring New Masters of Photoshop 2 with a chapter on grunge. Hopefully my inclusion was on a positive note and not credited toward destroying a movement. :)

    For me, grunge and textured art has always been appealing. It still is to me today. I enjoyed creating resources to use and others seemed to enjoy downloading what I created for use in their own work, which has always been flattering.

    Everything seems to come and go and come back around again. If I recall correctly, just before using grunge became popular, a more tech-like design was being used quite heavily. 3D elements, color burn, dodge, and blurs could be found just about everywhere. I think the grunge movement was refreshing for those that did not care for that type of work or want to create it.

    For me personally, its much like an old house you see while traveling. Something about it just makes you wonder about its history, the character of it, etc.

    To this day I still love grunge and those thing textured. It has come quite handy, and though applied much differently, the same techniques and philosophy has served me well in both my freelance graphic design work as well as my professional photography.

  • Jeff Finley

    Your inclusion was definitely positive Jason! When I was getting started you were a great resource and I still think you're doing good things today. Nobody is at “fault” for destroying a movement, it's just naturally how it goes. If anything you could point the finger at whoever took it to wal-marts and the absolute mainstream, but still that's all part of the process.

    I totally forgot about the “tech” phase that preceded grunge. I totally geeked out over adding 3D to my designs, using pixel based fonts, and immersive flash websites with sound. Haha, that brings me back.

    I agree with Stephie's thoughts about how grunge came as a rebellion that “photoshop look” which I can't really describe but know exactly what she means.

    Anyway, I'm with you. I still am attracted to things on the opposite side of normal, whatever that may be.

  • Jeff Finley

    Yeah, “spice” it up! Some people would say that you should never just add “spice” just for the sake of it, but clients use that phrase so often! “Just add some coolness to it!” “Do it up!” “Give it some flavor!”

  • Raul

    I think that influx of 3d stuff was originally called Metalheart. (I almost bought the book) That techno / 3d meets little tiny 4pt. vertical text thing that happened for a while. That was cool for a whole week or so. Than everyone and their mother found out the formula, including me. So I went backwards and started handmaking everything in my work. But even that caught up to me and became trendy.

    There's really nothing you can do about the rebellious nature of design/art or anything used to communicate an idea. We will always fight to be the one pushing the boundaries of originality and fighting against what came before.
    Just the fact that work is going public will give birth to imitators who will inevitably not know where the original idea stemmed from. When it falls into that “whoa, that's cool!” category, its pretty much dead, transformed into trend and reproduced a billion times over. But half the fun is trying to out do yourself the next time anyway.

    Funny sidenote, Kurt Cobain never even called it Grunge. He said he was playing punk. Rebellion, thats what it was supposed to be about, pushing the boundaries and even they were fighting against the polished prog stuff of the time. And ironically that got the label “grunge,” it became popular and was copied to death if you think about it.

    I have mixed feeling about overused ideas/graphics that become trendy. Even if a client insists on it. Like if someone has made this already and I saw it on something else and I'm thinking about it right now than its already pass the point of being a trend. Right?

    But then you got ridiculous guys like Dave Mckean. I don't think that he's ever conformed to anything. Always pushing the boundaries no matter what the client. For him its the idea and how you visualize that idea that matters most, like you guys at GoMedia. Its not the medium and not whats popular at the moment.

    Those are the guys that find that happy place where creativity flows freely because its what they do naturally. They find that nice bridge between art and design. Its a hard place to get to.

  • Jeff Finley

    I like your perspective Raul, I feel mixed about it too. And I also hate the term “grunge”. Your comment about Kurt Cobain said he was playing punk, that puts things in perspective.

    Actually all these comments make me feel pretty good and positive about the cycle of trends.

    Oftentimes I feel confused about design as a solution to a problem and then design as art. But that's a whole new discussion.

  • air jordan 19

    Well , the view of the passage is totally correct ,your details is really reasonable and you guy give us valuable informative post, I totally agree the standpoint of upstairs. I often surfing on this forum when I m free and I find there are so much good ugg boots information we can learn in this forum!

  • Seventh.Ink Shirts

    Great post! I was really into grunge design in college as well and did a report on David Carson, good to see you included him in this article. :D

  • antitudo

    Great article, people start following trends but never look bakc form where they came from and try to understand its background and reasons.

    I might got a big influence of what you call “grunge design”, but for me they tried to push so many times that Carson fella that i ended up creating something like an aversion for his name. His contributions to this style are undeniable but there´s way more gold in that jar.

    For me, the best example (and an important personal reference of mine) is Art Chantry. Chantry not only helped to forge the “grunge” style (creating stuff for the 90s grunge/punk music) but transcended it, creating what is today an almost “standart design” for concert/silk screened posters, based on photocopy manipulation, retro ephemera figures, fewer colors, broken typography and so on…

    And even with people trying to emulate his style over and over, his designs seems so fresh and show no sign of ageing (different from what happened to Carson, hes designs looks outdated for my eyes).

    That said, sorry for my third world english (i´m from brazil).

  • Jeff Finley

    Oh yeah, how could I forget Art Chantry, he's obviously another big influence. Good call on that!

  • Dave Rau

    The best grunge uses specific elements for a specific design problem. Forget stock grunge elements — I prefer to create my own. Scan a splotch from a misprinted etching or some texture from a screen print gone wrong; find some old photos or a dirty book cover in the library and scan or photograph that.

    Certainly not all design lends itself to this approach, but I'm tired of hearing about how played out grunge is. It's a style, a technique and when done properly it's a holistic approach to a specific problem, not just some copy/paste/plugin bullshit.

  • OverIthisWire

    This was a great read jeff! I”m glad i stopped over to the page tonight. The grunge trend has definitely been a part of my past design work. Some of my early work was making T shirts for my band. It wasn't until we went on the warped tour that i noticed grunge was the trend for most punk/hardcore bands. While on the tour i always would go to each merch booth to check out what the other bands merch looked like. Many of the shirts had a very similar theme going on! Back then what had caught my eye first was the typography, either split apart or ripped apart looking text. Then the splatter and so on and so forth. At the time our band also had a T shirt company that endorsed us and most of the shirt designs were also grunge. It was most definitely the band scene that got me into it. As my style progressed i noticed i was using it in a more subtle way with self made textures. I agree that this style will still be around for a while. I do think designers will take a more mature approach as their style evolves. For some reason when i think of the grunge type of design i think of the younger demographic as the target audience. I've been doing design for 8 years now. 4 years professionally. As i've grown over the years i've come to love a more simple but effective approach to this style. For me when i think of grunge now i think of incorporating really nice texture work with less going on. For example that one movie poster you did with the gorilla on it. I kind of consider that style to be new grunge type look.

  • cheap spa breaks

    I really need someone who wants to share his or her design. I haven't got money and the i stock photo is really expensive. I need designs for floral, grunge, and vector.

  • Heather

    Would you call an electrician and ask for free service because paying for it is “really expensive”? Don't take advantage of designers.

  • endüstriyel mutfak

    Great article. I'm definitely a fan of the retro and retro-futurist sub-genres of the grunge movement. I really like what I would consider the vintage cinematic theme of some of your current work Jeff.

  • Natalie

    look on art sites, like etc.; a few stock artists there give it away free, for commercial/off-site use (look at groups free-stocks, commercial stock, etc.)

  • Tim

    Great grunge design!

  • Tim

    Mega fan of the retro, and state of the union

  • download60s

    thanks.. find more best tutorials here
    Photoshop tutorial, from beginner to advanced. Including Photoshop text effect tutorials, photo manipulation tutorials, give you joomla templates,joomla extensions,wordPress theme,web templates,
    if you think i make a spam please remove this comment.
    thanks.. find more best tutorials here
    You have good tutorials and i had post it on my website.

  • download60s

    thanks.. find more best tutorials here
    Photoshop tutorial, from beginner to advanced. Including Photoshop text effect tutorials, photo manipulation tutorials, give you joomla templates,joomla extensions,wordPress theme,web templates,
    if you think i make a spam please remove this comment.
    thanks.. find more best tutorials here
    You have good tutorials and i had post it on my website.