Graphic Design Through the Decades Series: The ’50s

The 1950s donned a cloak of perkiness – smoking didn’t kill, Cuba was a vacation destination and women were pleased as punch to do housework in pearls and heels. The advertising of that decade, as seen on the popular TV drama “Mad Men,” featured splashes of color to convey satisfaction and wealth. But to paraphrase the old Camel cigarette ads, we’ve come a long way, baby. Today, tobacco products legally must carry warning labels, Americans must climb obstacles to travel to Cuba and women are as much of the workforce as men.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the advertising of the ’50s is not to be taken seriously. After all, that was the era when graphic design superstars Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Max Bill and Milton Glaser came into their own by starting agencies and unveiling iconic logos. Designers today can make note of the soft tones in people’s faces, the watercolor-like feel of the painting and even the use of sans serif fonts. When I look at advertisements of the ’50s, I get a sense that the people are happy whether they’ve bought a new television set or are simply going about a household chore. And that’s an attitude that designers today often still want to convey.

Sylvania TV ad from 1957. Note the sans serif fonts.

Nona Triennale ad from 1951.

One of illustrator David Klein’s advertisements during the 1950s for TWA.

Travel and tourism advertising art poster for Cuba in the 1950s.

Paul Rand’s redesign of the IBM logo in 1956 used a bold serif font.

This Australian travel poster from the ’50s continues the sans serif font trend of the decade.

Saul Bass’ poster for Hitchcock’s 1958 film “Vertigo” features a bold orange you don’t see much today in movie posters.
Chevrolet ads from 1957-58 show a carefree lifestyle.

An example of the popular Swiss style of the ’50s by Max Bill.