Formative years: the enduring influence of the 1990s (for me at least)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I’ve recently been jumping at the chance to buy up bits of the 1990s. Little pop-cultural fragments of my youth have suddenly taken on totemic significance. Every now and then, I’ll add another book or magazine to my precious hoard. It’s not stuff that I need, but … it’s stuff that I need.

For example, how exactly was I supposed to go on with my life without the July 1994 issue of The Face? The cover is the 90s: a grainy black and white Ellen Von Unwerthy shot of Winona Ryder maintaining her dignity with the aid of a pair of compact discs, accompanied by the cover line “Generation X – Who Is it? What Is It? Does It Really Exist?”. If I keep hold of that, then that’s 1994 locked down. I have that. It can’t escape me.

I don’t have a sentimental attachment to all of this stuff; it’s just collected because it fits the recut special edition version of adolescence that my memory has chosen to keep. For example, I now have a respectable pile of David Carson goodies – a few Ray Guns and Blah Blah Blahs and couple of books. These hold few memories for me; his magazines mostly passed me by 20 years ago. I picked them up but always put them down again. His particular brand of graphic mayhem felt too alienating and cool for little me, like they were written in a language that I wasn’t worthy to understand. I was more used to the simple, readable pleasures of a good issue of White Dwarf. (Note to self: check eBay for early–90s White Dwarfs … Dwarves.) 

Carson’s monograph, The End of Print, is more like a zeitgeisty migraine than an actual book. There is overlapping text, fragmented and hybridised characters, fluctuating leading, text and image melting together. One feature is set entirely in 3pt, another in Zapf Dingbat. It misbehaves, and does the reader – or the writer, now I think about it – no favours. (Tellingly, it’s stylistically similar to another piece of iconic 90s design: Kyle Cooper’s opening credits for Seven. Basically, Ray Gun was the serial killer Smash Hits.)

Twenty years later, I still can’t decide if I like it or loathe it. So why am I dipping into it now? Perhaps because I now have enough perspective to see that this is where my identity began. It was in this period that I discovered design but I hadn’t yet figured out that maybe I could be designer. Only now do I feel like I have enough perspective to locate myself in a historical context. Is this Generation X? Was Carson? Am I?

What I find interesting about Ray Gun and its ilk, and why I keep returning to it, is because of what it signifies: the transition from physical design to digital. Mid-90s design was a computerised evolutionary step away from the cut-and-paste of punk; one generation borrowing from the last, technological advancements dictating a new aesthetic.

Looking back now with enough hindsight and objectivity, it’s possible to see this same story recurring in different creative industries throughout the 90s. In design, music, film, publishing, a tectonic shift occurred; mechanical/chemical process and associated specialist trades gave way to the digital.

It’s right here in another of my hoard: The Making of Jurassic Park. Now this one I did know very well indeed. I was 15 when the film came out – not only the ideal age for watching dinosaurs rip people apart, but also to get behind the curtain and see how such carnage is orchestrated. This book was my bible. It reveals how the film was made with a mix of animatronics, models, puppets and CGI. They used the most appropriate technique for each shot rather than go for all-out digital gimmickry. It’s a fascinating document of an industry facing an enormous shift in craft, straddling the old ways and the new.

Of course, the most pertinent detail in the book now is the little bit about Chip Kidd’s iconic cover. Not that my professional foundations were about being exposed to specific designs or designers, but watching them work through this industrial transition. From the 90s to the … whatever we call this decade, I’m privileged to find myself in the perfect time to be a designer: surrounded by and learning from older X-Acto-scarred designers and younger digital-natives. Who is Generation X? Right here, peering over your shoulder, learning new tricks.

(Note to self: search eBay for first editions of Generation X.)

Neasden Control Centre,
Neasden Control Centre,

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See and @gray 

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