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Brand New, You’re Retro: Why Retro Design has Become Youth Design

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 08/21/2017 | 5 Minute Read

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By: Sam Becker, Executive Creative Director, Brand Union

The supermarket aisle has become a bit more precious than it used to be. The dominance of e-commerce, digital advertising and social media has lessened the pressure on physical packagings to give the hard sell. As a result, brands have embraced more and more beautiful, uncluttered designs that strive hard to communicate a brand’s highest purpose. This newfound purity of purpose has strong echoes of an earlier, simpler time.

In some ways, packaging is the ultimate vessel for nostalgia. As we move toward a world where more and more things are virtual, there’s an undeniable draw to the tangible. It only makes sense that the young millennial audiences, natives of our ephemeral, limitless, digital culture, would enthusiastically embrace the ideals of care-free nostalgia and a counter-culture sense of rebellion.

Like Gen X before them, millennials have had a tendency, by way of curiosity or comfort, to look back in order to move forward, be it fashion, music or branding. They are seemingly attracted to anything existing outside the establishment. This sensibility stretches from a rejection of big government and big business to a growing preference for things that live outside our current time.

The demographic doesn’t want to follow the pack, instead looking blaze a new trail. To some, that means rediscovering and reinterpreting the past. That has yielded a resurgence in non-tech (farming, mindfulness), low-tech (flip phones, vinyl records, film cameras), and weird tech (a website based on a non-existent, crude operating system called Windows 93). What has now been deemed by some to be “early-onset nostalgia” has catalyzed a resurrection of old brand messaging and packaging. But for brands, tapping into the retro crazy isn’t always so easy.

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Even Nostalgia Has Limits

Retro-branding isn’t an ideal solution for every brand, let alone one that has had a look and feel of days gone by to begin with like Krispy Kreme, a brand steeped in nostalgia. From the retro logo—complete with kitschy Ks and the red Budweiser bowtie holding shape—to the no frills, humbly printed boxes and idea of building a business around a single flavor of glazed donut sold in bulk—the brand has hardly changed since it was founded in 1937.

So, how does an already retro brand create a commemorative cup? The designers got a lot right with the look of this cup but, in some ways, Krispy Kreme’s new packaging effort is a victim of the brand’s own success. It’s so authentically retro that putting a giant 1937 on the cup seems forced. Even the precise tone-on-tone printing seems a bit slick, and significantly more sophisticated than the donut box Krispy Kreme is known for. On one hand, little touches like the original “KK” characters holding up the coffee mugs are fun—but then you see the hashtag and website call to action and it totally takes you out of the moment. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when nostalgic designs and an existing brand identity don’t completely mesh.

Warby Parker, meanwhile, does a wonderful job capturing craft and attention to detail with their period retail settings complete with lab coats, eye charts, train boards and stores that mimic rich, mahogany libraries or studies. For a digitally born brand, these stores do an excellent job carrying the weight of history. On the other hand, Ford has always been a brand that hasn’t lived up to its undeniable retro potential. Arguably the first car in the world, the brand has completely lost any trace of its heritage or connection to its original prowess as a car manufacturer. As with both these brands and many more, retro-branding can prove to be a meaningful exercise, fruitless expedition or a missed opportunity.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Whatever the result, we seem to keep shortening the loop that we mine for retro appeal. We’re already celebrating the 90s as if they happened fifty years ago. What does that mean for the future of retro designs? Strangely enough, at this rate, I can imagine future brands reviving early 2000s startup culture. It has all the ingredients of retro appeal: a zeitgeist, a location (San Francisco), a pioneering spirit, great characters (Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin), and a strong aesthetic featuring minimalism, quirky illustrations, pastels, and approachable names like Ernest, Casper and Oscar.

For now, though, brands and designers need to tread carefully as they try to wade into the waters of retro design. Remember: not all brands benefit from, or require, a strong link to their past. So keep things authentic and make sure you have a brand that can make a credible claim to retro without appearing revisionist. If possible, when building a visual language, revive actual photographs, found typography, colors and forms that could have believably been fabricated, printed or produced in earlier times. That way, when you engage audiences that are eager for something strong and rooted in a solid identity, you’ll be able to build your brand on a real connection instead of a transient fad.  

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Sam BeckerSam Becker is the Executive Creative Director at global branding agency Brand Union where he has gained a broad spectrum of client experience across technology, media, healthcare, law and FMCG. His most significant brand engagements have been with AT&T, KPMG, Time Warner Cable, Shazam and John Deere.

Sam is a passionate designer, programmer and creative technologist and is well versed in Rails, Node.js, CSS/HTML5, JavaScript and Swift. His work has been recognized by the ADC, the TDC and the London International Awards and he is the winner of IBM's inaugural Watson hackathon. Sam has a BFA from Syracuse University in communications design.