The underground press of the 60s

Words by Matthieu Visentin

At the dawn of graphic design history, two movements changed the face of our society: the International Style - with its rational, industrial and practical ideals - and the Psychedelic Revolution - that freed itself from the rigidity of the mainstream industry. Let’s dive into the rainbow tide that swept over the western world of the Sixties and the revival of the underground press.


"Human beings are worth a risk. Peace is erotic. Joy, affirmation, chaos, flowers to the enemy. Political non-violence, psychedelic pacifism, terror to the old Left, innovator to the New". An advert in the American magazine Win dating back to 1971 sums up alone the atmosphere and the values of that decade. Of all social revolutions, the psychedelic one was undoubtedly the most groundbreaking.

According to writer Robert J. Glessing, "[...] millions of young readers begin to participate in college politics, peace demonstrations, and police confrontations, they become tremendously more inquisitive and aware. This alertness often leads to a feeling of being cheated by the mass media, whose purpose seems to be to perpetuate the system rather than to examine it." [1]

And color was surely one of the distinctive features of this new movement. As writer and activist Thorne Dreyer underlined, "Every day millions of sheets of gray print come off the big commercial presses of America. Every day these gray sheets find their way into American homes, American minds. But into this sea of gray came a colorful splash – the underground press." [2]


Inevitably the necessity of communicating the new, radical, transcendental thinking with original communication means arouse quickly - in such context underground publications appeared as self-evident. From The San Francisco Oracle to the East Village Other (EVO) and The Oz, thousands of alternative newspapers and magazines - varying greatly in content and visual quality - started to emerge.


But in order to survive, the alternative press had to be united and work together. Often more willing to share expenses and equipment than their competitive mainstream counterparts, the underground production directors established typesetting centres available to all movement papers. [1]


The Oracle - which was printed in twelve issues from 1966-1968 and covered subjects such as poetry, spirituality and multiculturality - was one of the most iconic alternative newspapers of the time and now stands as a perfect testimony of the atmosphere prevailing in San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury district.


Originally named the Psychedelphic Oracle (P.O. Frisco), it was initiated in the summer of 1966 by poet Allen Cohen, and Ron and Jay Thelin, and funded with their head-shop benefits. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Oracle took its colorful and revolutionary look. In fact switching to Howard Quinn Printers enabled the artists that worked for the magazine to experiment - on Sundays - with the presses and to explore the split-fountain inking effect that became their iconic visual identity.

Many keystone events and subjects were covered by the paper: articles on the hypothetical Age of Aquarius, a full issue launching the historical Human Be-In event, and a lot of texts written by authors such as Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass. The newspaper met a great success: starting with an edition of only 3000 copies it peaked at 500,000 copies.


While mainstream media covered weddings, deaths, sport events and the stock market - as it still does - underground press concentrated on radical politics, psychedelic drugs and religious prophecy.

Altered states of consciousness had a great influence on the graphic work of the artists active in the alternative scene of the 60’s. There was a research for new forms of communication and experiments with new shapes that questioned the visual perception as well as the medium itself – getting to the point where the whole mechanism of our society was questioned.

At a time when psychedelics and togetherness are regaining interest, media are plagued with violence and fascism, and fake news become more and more common, we might actually be living at the threshold of a new Age of Aquarius.

Will this raise a new graphic revolution?

It will depend on the media we choose and on our ability to keep coherence between form and content. More than ever we have the opportunity to express our ideas. Indeed, it takes less effort for one person to reach the whole world through a single 140-character message than it used to be 50 years ago for many media combined. We are living in the so-called Global Village, but so far this mostly benefits the mainstream industry. So, just as graphic designer Quentin Fiore’s groundbreaking layouts reflected the hectic spirit of the 60’s and helped re-think books, we are now confronted with the challenging task of re-imagining our whole media industry...

Let’s not sink into the general lethargy generated by the ever-accelerating ultra-accessibility of the digital world. We are not products of our machines. Authors, designers, publishers, the public - let’s all work hand in hand to make it happen!



1_Spread from R. Buckminster-Fuller’s book « I seem to be a verb » designed by Quentin Fiore in 1970. © 1970 Gingko Press; 2_Underground Press meeting at Boulder, Colorado, 1973 © 1973 Underground Press Archive; 5_San Francisco Oracle, covers of Issues 5 to 7, when graphic explorations started. © 1967 San Francisco Oracle; 4_Journalist Chip Berlet on the printing press, 1973 © 1973 Underground Press Archive; 5_Spread of the British paper International Times of 1968 © 1968 International Times; 6_Underground Press meeting at Boulder, Colorado, 1973 © 1973 Underground Press Archive;

[1] Robert J. Glessing "The Underground Press in America" Indiana University Press, Blooming and London, 1970; [2] Thorne Dreyer, Liberation News Service, 1969;

Published: 5 June 2017

#MatthieuVisentin #GraphicDesign #UndergroundPress #Sixties


About the author
A Multimedia Design graduate of EIKON (Switzerland), Matthieu Visentin is a Swiss graphic designer currently finishing a bachelor in Graphic Design at ECAL (Switzerland). Constantly digging in the psychedelic annals of the 60’s, his fascination is triggered by an eclectic theoretical curriculum provided by ECAL and personal findings in the literature of Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. Most of his books collection is made of rare psychedelic artefacts and spirituality manuals.
Visit his website for more infos about his work.

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