House of Blues has a
uniquely lo-fi take on
design. These examples
feature a rubberstamp-
to type and images.
illustrate lo-fi as both
and graphic style.
Printed on inexpensive
composed of graphic
patterns and borders)
that are reused dies
from other projects.
It exhibits a kind
of “orderly chaos,”
with rough typography
working together to
create a sophisticated
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention.
Naturally, that applies to graphic design. Sometimes
budget constraints wear down designers and cause
a sense of futility, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Down and dirty doesn’t have to mean ugly and
ineffective. Limitations can instead push a designer
to new levels of inventiveness. As famed designer
Charles Eames once said, “Design depends largely
What is lo-fi?
Forced with restrictions, some designers turn to
new ideas and new production methods, which
then prompt new graphic approaches for exploration.
Sometimes old is new again, and time-tested
hand-done techniques come back into play. Other
times, it’s simply a question of aesthetics—a desire
for a “high-touch” tactile quality, with looks evolved
from production constraints of the past. This may
not be a reaction to limited dollars, but a backlash
against slick-looking work. Whatever the motivation,
sometimes the best solution is to go lo-fi.
The term lo-fi comes from the audio world,
where it is short for low fidelity. Lo-fi was once a fact
of life on all sound recordings due to technological
limitations. Today, lo-fi audio—complete with its
characteristic noise and static—is a creative choice to
support a particular musical style or emotional intent
in a musician’s work. The term applies to graphic
design equally as well: using technology (or not using
it) to achieve a gritty look and a specific kind of
Lo-fi is equally expressed in both concept and
execution. Different designers define the term in
different ways. Some think of it as a set of production
techniques, while others think of it as a graphic
style. Still others just “know it when they see it” as
a mélange of both style and technique. Regardless,
going lo-fi is an especially effective strategy when
used as a deliberate approach to the reality of working
within budget constraints.
It’s a production technique
“Lo-fi graphics is economical, cheaply made design.
I’d also include design using very little technology,
not using weird techie filters and stuff that comes
with all the programs nowadays. I think of ’zines,
newsprint, silkscreen, woodcut, and letterpress,” says
designer and educator Jon N. Sueda.
For lo-fi production, consider printing on inexpensive
paper stocks, limiting ink colors, and using
prefabricated materials … to name just a few techniques.
The House of Blues uses stock uncoated kraft
Chinese takeout boxes printed with one-color red ink
as containers to serve fries in their restaurants.
Pushing boundaries with limited resources often
means pushing the limits of production technology
or thinking of new ways to incorporate and use old
techniques, as when AdamsMorioka used a newspaper
printer to print “mark your calendars” promotions
for the Sundance Film Festival.
Lo-fi can mean repurposing elements for high
impact at low expense. Lo-fi designers use limited
colors—for example, duotones—to give the illusion
of more colors. These designs create impact from the
intensity of color, as in the Hammerpress poster. Knowing up front that you’ll be limited in
certain ways is critical.
Using the aesthetic but employing hi-tech tools
to create it is the reality of many lo-fi designs. It is
ironic to use high-powered computers to achieve
a look labored over by hand in days gone by, and
lo-fi designs often subtly comment on that irony to
achieve impact. Photographing and scanning vernacular
objects with funky wood, painted, or metal type
allow designers to create new digital type specimens
that can be used in headlines for a distinct look.
“I think lo-fi is both the technique and the
style. In production, they’re intertwined. If something
is done in a lo-fi technique it has to look it,
like rubber stamping or Xeroxing,” says Michele
Moore of Moore Graphic Design. “You can’t fake
your way up to hi-fi. However, lo-fi as a style can be
achieved many ways. For example, on the web I’d say
lo-fi means simple HTML colors and texts.”