Monday, November 23, 2009

Vintage Design: Pr*tty, yet Sh*tty, yet Pr*tty again.

I’m taking a slight deviation from the regular format today to examine a trend which I’ve been seeing more and more of: “vintage” design.

I’m not sure what spawned it, but it would appear a tidal wave of nostalgia has crashed into not only designers, but the general public as well. My knee-jerk reaction is to suspect the breakout success of the TV show Mad Men for 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 current 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 largely 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, and benefits by looking different enough to stand out amongst its peers. However, it seems much of it isn’t truly vintage at all. Mind you, I’m hardly a design historian, nor am I old enough to personally remember anything predating the mid 70s, but most of the work simply appears to utilize a vintage “feel” rather than actual vintage graphics. They 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. Even when it is an accurate reproduction, they muck it up with an anachronistic t-shirt promotion or something.

So... so what? 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.

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 should have been using by default: clean but evocative typography, simple iconic graphics, and a limited palette of beautiful colors. Those are the commendable aspects in the current trend. Those are the lessons we as designers should be learning, and re-learning.

And if anything comes out of riding this nostalgia wave, I hope it is a lingering... no, a nagging desire to continue to use those lessons in everything we design. That way, when the next tsunami comes, we can stand and let it wash over us instead of sweeping us away.

Thanks to P*S* readers Kyle Gilkeson and Steve Juras, respectively, for the Raisin Bran and Mr. Goodbar images.


  1. What a lovely post. I really enjoyed reading your more in-depth analysis of this trend, and it allowed me to vicariously sort out my own mixed bag of feelings about this re-emergent style.

  2. These designs are a breath of fresh air for all the reasons you listed as well as (which you may have included by implication) the absence of 3D-ifying which for years has been an epidemic in packaging design. I think we're responding to its flatness. No drop shadows, no gradients, no artificial gloss.

  3. Glad you liked it Benn.

    And yes Laura, that's exactly what I was implying. The whole 3D-ification of stuff is rampant... but that's another post.