For the past couple years, a wave of nostalgia has been crashing into not only designers, but the general public as well. This trend can been seen in the realms of pro sports, movie titles, book jackets, and identity design, but is most obvious in the field of retail packaging. It has become so prevalent, in fact, that even The Wall Street Journal recently examined some of the rationales behind it.
I initially suspected the runaway success of the TV show Mad Men was to be credited for spawning a return to the marketing of old. But it’s fairly safe to say the creators of that show are simply caught up in the wave, too. Instead, one need only look at the recent political, economic, and spiritual mayhem that surrounds us to see how its collective seismic impact could result in this nostalgia tsunami. The notion of returning to a simpler, happier time is compelling indeed, but perhaps misguided.
And “compelling yet misguided” is a fairly apt way of describing much of the design work that is being produced in the name of nostalgia. Aesthetically speaking, the work has plenty of charm. It also stands out amongst its peers on the shelves and benefits accordingly.
Regrettably, while some of the designs are truly those of days gone by, much of it isn’t truly vintage at all. Instead, many products appear to utilize a vintage “feel” rather than actual vintage graphics. Some even go the extra mile of adding a distressed appearance, or, worse, labeling it with the word “vintage” just in case you couldn’t figure it out. And even when it is an accurate reproduction, they muck it up with an anachronistic t-shirt promotion or something.
So... big deal, right? Truly, why shouldn’t designers and marketers take advantage of the trend? I get it, I do. And like most people, I enjoy seeing the work. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what I really like about it isn’t its retro-charm, per se.
What I like is an apparent byproduct of designers striving for that vintage look. Be they disingenuous or spot-on, designers’ attempts at an older aesthetic are attributable to the use of techniques and standards they probably should have been using by default: clean but evocative typography; a limited, thoughtful palette of beautiful colors; and simple, iconic graphics that are crisp and flat instead of modeled and shiny. Those timeless design principles are the commendable aspects of this trend. They are the lessons we as designers should be learning, and re-learning. And they are the choices we should make before any others, as we endeavor to solve communications problems for our clients.
If anything comes out of riding this nostalgia wave, I hope it is a lingering—no, a nagging desire to continue to use those principles in everything we design. That way, when the next trendy wave comes, we can stand and let it wash over us instead of sweeping us away.