Everything Old Is New Again; Nostalgia as a Design Trend

Every decade (or annually, it sometimes seems to me), the fashion world shamelessly manipulates our taste for nostalgia—“a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period, circumstance or place with happy personal associations.” Fashion designers latch on to a particular era and revive the look of that time—bellbottoms and peasant shirts from the 1970s; paisley/Pucci/patchwork printed maxi and mini dresses from the 1960s; leggings and thigh-length oversized shirts from the 1980s (please, no big hair or shoulder pads…)

Many of us who lived through those eras the first time watch these revivals with eyebrows askance. But we understand the looks are new to younger fashionistas. We also get that evoking nostalgic attachments can sell products. We see it regularly from Hollywood, which seems to only do sequels, prequels, spin-offs and remakes these days. But nostalgia is also a marketing strategy.

We most appreciate the yen for familiar styles and objects when uncertainty resonates in our daily lives. Uncertain times increase a demand for “comfort food,” whether on the table, in our entertainment, or in our marketing, branding, imagery and design choices.

So it is no surprise that, as we near the seventh month of a new administration in Washington, DC (has it really only been 7 months?), we’re in the midst of a trend toward nostalgic design and branding.


Per retro-marketing brand experts Robert V. Kozinets, Stephen Brown and John Sherry,* retro-branding is “the revival or relaunch of a product or service brand from a prior historical period, which is usually but not always updated to contemporary standards of performance, functioning or taste.” We have retro-branding to thank for the following recent efforts:

  • Kodak logo – This reboot, based on an icon introduced in 1971, was launched last month to coincide with the reintroduction of Super 8 cameras and film, and a new photography-first smart phone named Ektra.
  • For the 2016 Anheuser-Busch Budweiser beer can redesign and complete brand repackaging, it’s all about heritage and history. The bowtie icon has been cleaned up for use on some bottles, while the beer can has a historic-looking medallion and bold script name plate.
  • KFC’s Colonel – When Kentucky Fried Chicken revived the Colonel Sanders character in 2015 (they called it “re-colonel-ization”), reviews were mixed. But they stuck with the idea, and the brand reports a sales resurgence. The rebrand includes a renewed commitment to quality ingredients, and internal “Make the Colonel Proud” branding aimed at employees and franchisees. Just this month, the brand introduced new ads featuring the original Colonel Sanders, because “no one can play the Colonel like the Colonel can play the Colonel.”

There has also been a trend toward republishing identity standards manuals much admired in their heyday, including those for NASA, the NYC Transit Authority and, most recently, the EPA. (That last one may anticipate a promised dismantling of the agency under the Trump administration—true nostalgia can only happen when something is gone.) Preserving some of these remarkable brand efforts from the golden age is admirable, but we look forward to new brand efforts that replicate that golden age success.

Retro design

For the past decade, retro design has applied to the revival of mid-century modern furnishings and color palettes. But we’ve also watched fondly as younger designers have rediscovered retro typestyles and fonts: Avant Garde! Serif Gothic! Kabel! Cooper Black! Watch also for ’50s and ’60s-style “album” covers, and patterns from those eras (paisley, geometric and op-art, oh my!).

More recent retro influences are the 1980s and ‘90s, which many GenX and Millennial designers reference as the last era before technology began to break down our mass-audience cultural connections. Influences range from the visual anarchy of punk and grunge, to a rebellious attitude toward traditional values and cultural mores. Characteristics of retro design include:

  • Limited, bright primary colors
  • Graphic simplicity
  • A perception of being more genuine, authentic, and handmade

New brands employing retro design are attempting to boost a perception of heritage where none may exist. That can backfire, so designers should be careful to replicate the feel of retro design, not copy it.

Retro Production

Not just a response to the speed of industry change, retro-marketing includes a renewed interest in reviving the craft of design. This includes the current boom in hand-lettering; a return to sketchbooks and visual journals; and a renewed interest in letterpress and other historic crafts of pre-computer design and marketing. This may also reflect a desire, especially among younger designers, to be “makers” of things less ephemeral than a digital ad or e-marketing effort.

Whether your design work is trending retro, or you are breaking new ground with your designs, make sure the work fits the style and emotions connected to the clients’ brands, products and services. Retro and nostalgia are not suited to every project or campaign. Be prepared to bid your nostalgic yearnings a fond farewell and look to the future for inspiration.

Before you use retro design, ask these questions:

  1. Does a retro flavor fit the brand or product?
  2. Does retro design strike an appropriate tone for the brand?
  3. Is anyone (or everyone) in your category pursuing a retro brand positioning?
  4. Is the audience likely to enjoy a retro brand offering, and is the retro era the right era for the audience?
  5. Is brand longevity a consideration?
  6. Can you reference a retro design look without “going full retro”?


*“Sell Me the Old, Old Story: Retromarketing Management and the Art of Brand Revival,” Journal of Consumer Behavior 2, June 2003


Please to use this feature.
Comments for website administrator (optional):