Designing for nostalgia: the secret power of retro

December 2, 2020

It feels like the vintage "trend" has been around forever, and, in a sense, that's because it has. People have always been looking over their shoulders at the past to create an ever-evolving design scene. Looking at it that way, vintage isn't really a trend — the elements change, but the practice stays the same.

Retro or vintage (or historical)?

Why do we say a design is retro or vintage? When does something stop being "vintage" and become "historical" or even "ancient" instead?

Strictly speaking, retro refers to the purposeful imitation of old artifacts, while vintage can refer to the artifacts themselves. Like, say, your aunt's dress from the seventies is vintage, while your dress, which was made this year but has a similar style, can be said to have a retro design. In graphics, however, the words retro and vintage are pretty interchangeable, because we're not talking about artifacts. In other words, we don't need to get our pixels in a bunch.

Historical, on the other hand, can refer to objects from more than a hundred years ago. When we create designs based on past centuries, we can safely call them historically inspired instead of vintage or retro. Graphics based on Rococo or Gothic architecture, for example, or illustrations based on Art Nouveau or Impressionist styles, are historically inspired.

So what makes a design vintage in a trendy way? The answer is nostalgia.

What is nostalgia?

You may have heard that everything looks better in retrospect. That's because of an emotion called nostalgia — a yearning for the past that is usually described by people to be both happy and sad at the same time. Happiness from good memories is mixed with sadness at the ever-growing distance of a past which will never return.

The nostalgia cycle

The nostalgia cycle refers to the period of time before which something becomes vintage and evokes feelings of nostalgia. Trends can have different nostalgia cycles. These cycles can be periods of twenty to forty years. Some would even argue that something can be vintage in five years.

It's not a surprise that nostalgia cycles for certain things are shortening. After all, the average millennial remembers using floppy disks, CD-ROMs, USB flash drives, and cloud storage. Technology changes our lives so frequently and so fast, five years ago can feel like a bygone era.

The cycle is confined to past decades because you simply can't be nostalgic for ancient history (unless you're an immortal vampire or the the last airbender). Vintage has to be something within your generation's memory. Mostly, vintage refers to things you remember from when you were younger, whether it's your Polly Pocket collection or your grandfather's typewriter.

Harnessing the power of nostalgia for marketing

Emotional marketing works: when you engage people with it, their decision to purchase is driven by both heart and mind. You'll have touched them, and they'll remember you.

Vintage design evokes nostalgia, which is a mostly feel-good emotion. It isn't all rainbows and smiles: there's a hint of pain that makes consumers do a double-take.

This is an edge over super-cheerful ads, which are easier to forget. While the happiness makes us to eager to share and celebrate, the sadness makes us crave even more connection.

Nostalgia also plays on people's fear of uncertainty and anxiety about the present. People experience comfort and relief upon seeing something old and familiar. This is a great touchpoint for creating brand loyalty.

The vintage aesthetic can also project reliability. If it wears its age with pride (wrinkles, patina, and all) it's probably authentic and relatable. If it's vintage in an aloof and classy way, it's surely something trustworthy.

Vintage trend inspiration

Paper-cut Collages

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Paper-cut collages are always nostalgic, even if they're not an outdated crafts activity. This is because it's usually a school activity, or something for the family album — it either reminds us of our school days, or of our photo albums from the 80s or 90s.

Overprint or Risograph Style

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This style is inspired by offset printing and risograph printing. One color at a time is printed onto a surface, which sometimes results in errors — colors sometimes are printed over the other, creating new colors.

Art Deco Monoline Borders

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Art Deco is characterized by decadent geometry and beautifully symmetrical details. This classy look is reminiscent of luxurious buildings and expensive liquor labels, and indeed, they're often used for bars and restaurants.

Vaporwave + Vintage UI

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Vaporwave is an interesting trend because it's a throwback within a throwback. Equal parts pop art and internet meme, it dates from the mid 2000's and uses elements from the 80s to 90s. It was, at first, an exaggerated take on vintage elements, but it became a movement in its own right.

How to make nostalgia work for you

Here are a few tips for making nostalgia work for your brand:

  • Stay woke. Keep your feet on the ground by remembering the nuances of your present culture. The vintage aesthetic is about authenticity. You don't have to sacrifice functionality, meaning, or sensitivity. Take a step back and ask yourself: is period accuracy an absolute necessity? If not, feel free to use individual vintage elements in relevant ways.
  • Choose the right pop culture references. Based on their demographic, your target audience has a shared set of cherished pop culture memories. Find out what they're into and draw inspiration from that.
  • Make sure your values are reflected. Nostalgia is highly personal. If it doesn't fit your brand identity, people will know you're overreaching.

Remember, you can't take a running leap at the idea of nostalgia and expect a design to work just because it's inspired by your grandma's cardigan. Examine your audience's lived experiences and get creative — and who knows, maybe you'll end up creating something that touches hearts.