Nostalgia design: taking inspiration from the past

Branding and product design have been taken over by throwback trends. But is it a fleeting movement, or can looking back work for the long term?
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For all the discussion of brands heading into Web 3.0, much of the design world of late seems to have stepped into a time machine and headed backward. Think Nosta Beauty's makeup palettes packaged in CD cases, sunscreen brand Vacation's eighties-inspired packaging or Disco Country Club's Bauhaus-font emblazoned pickleball rackets

In a digital world seemingly dominated by fast-paced micro trends, this aesthetic has had enough staying power that it's even started to impact product design and tech platforms. Playdate, a handheld video-game console by software developer Panic, features black-and-white graphics and an analog crank control. Users of the metaverse community platform Gather interact as 8-bit avatars. Gaming studio Lexaloffle has created PICO-8, a ‘fantasy console’ where developers can create games and share them on virtual ‘cartridges’, mimicking old-school games while utilizing new technology. But does the past have enough pull for brands to continue using it into the future?

Looking back – and buying

We all reminisce. One survey indicated that 90% of people in the UK spend ‘at least some time fondly thinking about the way things used to be’ – and those warm and fuzzy feelings can impact our purchasing decisions. Almost half of those surveyed said they enjoy advertising that evokes the past, and one in five of those who enjoy those nostalgic ads say it also influences what they buy. Another study showed that those experiencing nostalgia are more willing to pay for something they desire.

The idea is that nostalgia connects people to simpler times – and this can be true even for eras that they didn't experience. Many millennial and Gen Z-focused brands will reference the seventies and eighties in order to evoke ‘vicarious nostalgia’ or to encourage a romanticization of a time in the past that didn't carry the weight of instantaneous communication, when the digital world was in its early days, according to design platform 99designs.

Past present

Nostalgia is essentially an emotional play, which is why it really exploded over the past two years, says Beth Butler, design lead at PR agency Hatch. ‘During the pandemic, the nostalgic marketing trend really took off, filling people with the joy that they were truly missing, while triggering an emotional reaction and a talking point,’ she says.

As certain product categories evolve into new realms, such as the rise of adaptogens (natural substances, such as herbs or mushrooms, that can help the body manage stress) in food and beverage, nostalgic branding can also create a familiarity with otherwise unfamiliar ingredients, says Alisa Pospekhova, founder of health lozenge brand Kindroot. ‘The mission of the brand is accessibility so, rather than being very cool and trendy, I chose to lean into a design that felt inclusive,’ she says.

Timeless design

That said, it's easy to veer into gimmick and, for small brands that are trying to create an identity, creating something that'll last is essential. ‘If your nostalgic branding strategy involves reusing old logos, graphics or color palettes, it should feel like a callback to an earlier era, not a rehash,’ writes Lindsay Kramer at 99designs.

There are a few quirks to this method – be sure to stick to one era and get your references right – but, otherwise, best branding practices still apply: be sure you have a strong story and a clear strategy. Both Beth and Alisa believe that customers will still be drawn to nostalgia but, for small businesses, the key is being thoughtful about how you incorporate it into design. Alisa, for example, blended retro-style illustrations with a modern font to give Kindroot's aesthetics a lasting look.

‘With smaller budgets in mind, this could be a conscious but effective way to leverage engagement,’ says Beth. ‘It's important to remember that historical trends should be specific to your industry and leveraged across multiple digital and traditional platforms to create a well-executed campaign.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 48, August/September 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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