Why does the fearful face emoji seem so familiar to us? The simple answer? Because it’s the modern reincarnation of a classic expressionist painting—it’s Art History 101.

scream emoji
The scream emoji
Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece, The Scream
Don’t worry Edvard, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece, The Scream. via LEGOMENON.

The emoji is part of a long history of imitating The Scream. Check these out:

Home Alone Home Alone expressionism influenced poster
Macaulay Culkin may have had a brief panic attack, but he got over it and laid the smackdown on those pesky burglars! Home Alone expressionism influenced poster via Posteritati Movie Poster Gallery.
Wes Craven’s Scream expressionist poster
Wes Craven’s Scream poster takes inspiration from Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Via JoBlo.
Nightmare Before Christmas scream expressionist tank
This Nightmare Before Christmas tank screams The Scream! Via On Cue Apparel.

But how could a painting from 1893 become so famous that we’re still using it all day everyday 126 years later? We’ll tell you in a minute, but here’s a hint for now: the power of expressionism. Let’s discover what expressionism is, and how you can harness its influence in your own designs. Read on, friends!

What is expressionism?

expressionism poster by Fritz Bleyl
This art for the first Die Brücke show in 1906 was banned by the police… scandalous! Poster by Fritz Bleyl via Reddit.

Expressionism is an art style which came out of Germany and Austria around 1912. Emphasizing emotion over realism, expressionism employs a non-realistic portrayal of objects and events to arouse emotion in viewers. This was a rebellion from the tradition of Realism which started in France during the mid-19th century.

There were two main expressionism groups: Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Both groups used distortion, primitivism, fantasy and formal elements in a vibrant, clashing, violent or dynamic way. The members of Der Blaue Reiter saw expressionism in an even deeper way. They portrayed their subjects’ spirituality rather than merely what could be seen on the surface. The expressionists were adventurous with color, and their dramatized forms expressed the exotic qualities of their subject matter. Heavy brushstrokes, use of shadow, and deep color in order to convey a feeling are hallmarks of the style.

expressionism art by Keith Haring
You can feel the pain just glancing at this one. Expressionist primitivism and color splash drives the point home. Human rights art by the iconic Keith Haring.
expressionist book cover art by Ian Douglas
“I wanted to imagine what original terror might look like, in frequency if not in form.” Cover art by Ian Douglas.
expressionism poster art by AlexStrangeDesign
Jazz players bustin’ loose with colorful renditions. Right on! Poster art by Noqui.
expressionism cover art by Wassily Kandinsky
Kandinsky loved horseback riding and felt the color blue represented spirituality. Der Blaue Reiter almanac, cover art by Wassily Kandinsky. Via Smarthistory.

Immortality through expressionism

Snoop Dogg homeboy alone
Snoop Dogg homeboy alone via GIFER.

Now, back to The Scream. What makes the art form timeless is what’s at the core of expressionism: an appeal to the emotions. If you want to make a sale, you’ve got to tap into the emotional part of your customer’s brain before you hit their logical part. Expressionism’s ability to appeal to the emotions of a viewer makes it the perfect style for selling.

Edvard Munch used the techniques of expressionism, blood red sky contrasting with bluish-black sea, thick swirling brushstrokes, primitive shapes, and dramatic expression, to depict a panic attack. It’s unrealistic yet effective—you might start feeling anxious just looking at it.

Everyone from Macaulay Culkin to Snoop Dogg can dig The Scream. You don’t have to be part of any particular culture, religion, political affiliation or nationality to get this painting. Emotion is universally accessible, which is why Edvard Munch’s Scream has become a timeless emoji, I mean icon.

Your brand may or may not become timelessly iconic, but you can use expressionism in your design to evoke an emotional response in your audience. We’re going to take you on a tour of a bunch of inspiring designs which employ expressionism to enhance their brands. Come on guys, let’s express ourselves!

Expressionist logos

Companies who have a spiritual, nonconformist or existential element should strongly consider using an expressionist logo. Customers can instantly feel that your connection goes beyond skin deep when they see your third eye, ethnic colors, war paint or confident poses. These elements will show that your brand has depth, as opposed to your shallow competitors.

Joe Rogan expressionist logo
Joe Rogan’s dramatic expression and upside-down third eye show his nonconformist spirituality. Via ytimg.com.
expressionist logo art by Dusan Klepic DK™
African influenced patterns and colors representing connection to spirituality. Logo art by Dusan Klepic DK™.
expressionism logo art by Dusan Klepic DK™
This personal identity logo’s splash of red war paint and use of shadow give it a serious emotional edge. Logo art Dusan Klepic DK™.
True Colors logo
Expressionist confident figures represent a place where nonconformists can find their express their true spiritual selves and share themselves with kindred spirits. Art by eko.prasetyo*.
Happy Confident Me logo
The spirit and pride of a lion is reflected in the colors and expressionist motifs. Logo by logorilla™.

Expressionist web design

Emotion was a key watchword for the expressionists. It was often missing in realistic art, but in expressionism, you can’t accurately depict a subject if you don’t show the emotional dimension. That means you can’t just see, you have to feel!

These next examples show how expressionist techniques can be used to amplify the emotional content of a design. Viewers are swept into a friendly fun science lab, an electrifying sound party, the adventures of learning, and the ambiguity of art. Businesses who want their customers to feel a certain “vibe” can achieve that through expressionist design.

Surreal and expressionist web design
Surreal and expressionist web design by spoon lancer.
Mystical expressionist web design
Mystical expressionist web design by KR Designs.
expressionist web design
The primitivism, fantasy, and bold use of shape give this web page animation a fun, adventurous Sci-Fi feel. Expressionist web design by felipe_charria.
expressionist web design
Ahhh, the adventure of learning! Web design by ArtGloz.
Powerful dramatic video game web design
Powerful, dramatic video game web design by Mithum.
entertainment web design
Web design with tangible atmosphere and emotion by Mithum.

Expressionist illustration

expressionist illustration for Artlounge, Australian Online Art Gallery
by ArtGloz

Fantasy is a staple of expressionism. After all, it takes imagination to figure out how to show a feeling. So what better way to explain a subject than to show the fantasy elements around it?

From a teen’s creative poppage, a fantastic fish in white space, a space jam, an elegant alternate dimension, to a time travel into the modern primal world of Keith Haring, the possibilities are endless. If you’re hoping to take your audience into another world, get inspired by these examples!

expressionist Illustration
Happiness (Jumping boy/bright poppage) by BATHI
Keith Haring for Sandwich
Homage to Keith Haring’s iconic style. Cover art by Fafahrd Deustua.
The Clever Coyote Slideshow Illustration
Elegant otherworldly art by Konstantin Kostenko
Children line art
Space Jam! By Fabio Fantini.
expressionist illustration
Enthusiasm (fish w/ colorful tail) by LizYee

Expressionist album covers

Music and dramatic expression need to go hand in hand. It’s only logical that musicians use the visual drama of expressionism for their album covers. It’s all happening in this sound garden! A musician cries rainbow tears! The woman in red is made of stardust! And Jimi Hendrix is, well… Jimi! Check out they ways these brands deliver the drama!

expressionist album cover
The power of music to transport you to a magical forest is portrayed through expressionism. Album cover by Daria V.
expressionist album cover
The subject in black and white crying rainbow tears is only the beginning of the emotional content in this expressionist album cover art by MillionDollars.
How U Been album cover
Der Blaue Reiter’s tradition of portraying the soul of a subject is honored in this expressionist album cover by LazebraArt.
Jimi Hendrix expressionist
A picture of Jimi doesn’t capture his essence… this does. Album cover art by BRUNI Sablan.

Expressionist book covers

Books that focus on issues of inner violence or turmoil can utilize the violent clash of color and images that expressionism provides. When shapes, colors, and images clash, it has a jarring effect on the viewer. This effect can communicate the essence of your story to readers at a glance. In expressionism, confusion, isolation and the frantic nature of life can be effectively explored.

New Rules book cover
Bold color clash and dramatic urban imagery. Book cover art by ValentinaG.
The Red Book cover
Confusion, Anxiety, High contrast, shadow… this dude’s in bad shape. Expressionist book cover art by thekidgraphic.
Born Lucky book cover
Dark spirituality, anger, split personality. Expressionist book cover art by Proi.
A dream of darkness book cover
Does this forest say creepy isolation, or what? Expressionist book cover art by kellydid.

Expressionist packaging

Brands looking to communicate a feeling rather than a literal idea will do well with expressionism. Just as a realistic portrait of your best friend might not fully capture her vim and vigor, expressionist design also shows things as they seem, rather than as they actually are. The following packaging examples offer consumers the experience of a feeling rather than the practicality of a specific product or service. Dance the night away with your long-lost lover! Be energized by the tropical vibe while drinking a cup of Joe!

Klip Werx packaging
Spiritual Mystical chill nature vision. Expressionist packaging by MANTSA®.
Expressionist couple dancing
Ethereal love fun spiritual orbs. Expressionist packaging by Fabio Fantini.
Beach Blend coffee packaging
Tropical chic vibes with a relaxing cup of Joe… This coffee packaging turned out quite special as it has a holographic effect. Packaging art by Daria V.
Adventures in IPA packaging
Freedom, nature, adventure, brushstroke. Expressionist packaging by MANTSA®.

Expressionist posters

Expressionism in poster design often keeps things simple, using just enough of the fundamental shapes to get the point across. When you’re learning to sketch, you learn that every object breaks down into basic shapes. But even basic shapes can have a lot of impact and create powerful visuals. See how these next examples use simple, expressive elements to various degrees!

In-tune studios school of jazz poster
Capturing the emotion behind Jazz music. Poster art by AlexStrangeDesign.
Expressionist poster illustration for Opera
The red of Beast’s cape echoes the red roses. Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain. Poster art by WolfBell.
Family tree poster
In joining as individuals they unite constellations. Poster art by Natalia Maca.
International Day of Forests poster
You can feel the epic majesty of nature. Poster art by Dakarocean.

Express your emotion

lithograph of Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece, The Scream
Edvard made more than one version! The Scream lithograph. Via British Museum.

What emotion do you want to convey through your expressionist design?

If you’re having trouble pinning it down, imagine your brand as a person. List the qualities and behaviors your brand embodies, identify what makes it different.

Then ask yourself what emotions you want to convey to your customers. What do you want them to feel when they think about your brand and your products or services? Passion, warmth, impatience, power, trust, excitement or joy? To complete the picture, imagine your customers all in one room. How would you greet them? “Whasuuup!” Or, “greetings precious ones.” Or, “Good afternoon.” Do they get the three-part street fist bump? A long deep hug? Or a standard firm handshake?

Have some fun with these exercises and get ready to create your own expressionist design!

Want a unique, expressionist design?
Our designers can create just about anything for you.