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Your Position: Home - Home & Garden - Why is retro style important?

Why is retro style important?

From cutting-edge toy stores and action-packed movies to out-there fashion, retrofuturism is everywhere you look. But what exactly is it? And given the genre includes grim steampunk, cheerful space-age fantasies and a whole heap in between, where should designers and product owners start? Here, we cover the history, the features and the most important varieties of retrofuturism and offer plenty of inspiration for how to use it in your designs.

Illustration by OrangeCrush

What is retrofuturism?

A few months ago, the city of Xi’an—the Chinese starting point of the ancient Silk Road and the resting place of the Terracotta Army—a luxurious new toy store opened to an excited fanfare. The theme of its minimalist, industrial interior? The airship, a great flying inflatable that had its heyday almost a century ago. But why would a futuristic space theme itself around a technology that’s virtually obsolete?

Steps climb into the airship-themed interior of Chinese toy store X11 via Floornature

There’s a one-word answer to that: retrofuturism. Officially, retrofuturism is “the use of a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era.” That can mean people in the past looking forward, but it can also mean us going back, and imagining a mix of modern life with older features or ways of behaving.

Solar-powered zeppelins, chrome barstools and space-age diners all fit the bill. Marvel’s visions of Asgard (Vikings in spaceships) are retrofuturist, but so is Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, a cultural-center-meets-flying-saucer above the beach on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Still confused? Let’s go back in time, to the beginnings of this playful, back-to-the-future trend.

Oscar Niemeyer’s Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, completed in 1996 via smithsonianmag.com This 1895 illustration from the satirical magazine Judge predicts a bright future via ZME Science

When did retrofuturism start?

According to some commentators, the term was coined in a 1967 book called Retro-Futurism, by TR Hinchcliffe. But, fittingly for a genre that mixes the real with the imaginary, there’s very little evidence this book was ever actually written or published. The first reliable mention of retrofuturism comes in a 1983 New York Times advertisement for Bloomingdale’s department store, which describes jewelry with “silverized steel and sleek grey linked for a retro-futuristic look”.

But the trend was gestating long before we found the words for it in the 1980s. Futurism itself began in Italy in the early 1900s, as industrialization and urbanization were transforming our relationship with the world. It fetishized planes, cars and modern inventions, as well as values such as speed, technology and youth.

Models wear stark, angular 1966 outfits from Pierre Cardin and Jacques Heim via L’Officiel USA

As the twentieth century went on, we pushed the throttle even harder. Planes crossed oceans and rockets roared into space. Buildings rose higher and higher, and comic book superheroes still leaped over them. Highways, then malls, spread across much of the world, neon lights banished the dark and clothes were mass-produced from fabrics that hadn’t existed a few decades before. Even the food got fast.

People, inevitably, sold products, made designs and told stories based on these changes. American poet Ezra Pound put it neatly in 1920, when he wrote, “The age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace.”

From raygun gothic to steampunk: key retrofuturist designs

Buildings, clothing, sci-fi books and films, art, advertisements and video games moved with the times, and looked forward in both hope and fear to what might come next. When we started looking back on those works, retrofuturism was born. The trend has taken many forms, but here are some of the key types:

Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis is a gloomy but beautiful portrait of a futuristic machine age via Pera Museum
  • Atomic Age: Nuclear weapons and nuclear power were two sides of the same coin. One killed hundreds of thousands in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the other promised to power the world. This mix of optimism and dread fuels a great deal of retrofuturism. So-called “atompunk” features laboratories, espionage, great factories and classic cars. See: Metropolis, Dr Strangelove, the Fallout series, The Incredibles.
This LA branch of the Norms chain has bold “Googie” design, full of space-age futurism via Steampunkopera
  • Space Age: Closely tied with the Atomic Age, the space age generally has a more optimistic feel, summed up both by real trips to the moon and the utopian exploration of Star Trek. An American-influenced culture of chewing gum, roadside diners, surfing teens, comic-book heroes and the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, plus dynamic modernist and art deco design, shaped the space-age look, which is sometimes called “raygun gothic”. See: The Jetsons, Barbarella, Moonraker
Retro tech for a digital brand: this crypto logo’s pipes, cogs and furnace-like backdrop is pure steampunk by Steve Hai
  • Steampunk: the Wild West and Victorian London are popular settings for this mix of 19th-century tech and science fiction. Steam-powered machines, ornate difference engines (early computers), cogs, gears, burnished bronze and greatcoats are among its features. See: Wild Wild West, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hugo.
Cyberpunk 2077 may be a 2020 game set in the future, but with its analog-looking cybernetics and old-school casting (yes, that is Keanu Reeves), it has real retro appeal via NBC News
  • Cyberpunk: when it crash-landed in the 1980s, cyberpunk was arguably pure futurism. Its mix of dystopian settings, virtual reality, drugs and cyborgs came with a distinct look—leather, shades, surveillance cameras and neon lights—that now itself feels retro. See: The Neuromancer, The Matrix, Cyberpunk 2077.

Of course, retrofuturism doesn’t stop there. Try watching the Flintstones (modern tech reimagined for the Stone Age, or stonepunk) or Star Wars (swords and princesses in space), or opening your ears to the mix of analog tools (cassettes, vintage synths) with modern R&B production used by artists such as the Weeknd. Some of our oldest stories are arguably retrofuturist—think of the legends of King Arthur, in which 12th-century poets added then-modern innovations (stirrups, chivalry, plate armor) to the myth of a 6th-century British war leader, shaping the way we see the legend to this day.

A record player with a spaceship-stylus: retrofuturist products can tap into the nostalgia market by Netralica

Why designers love retrofuturism today

Now that we’ve seen how we got here, it seems reasonable to ask why. Retrofuturism’s appeal is undoubtedly partly about kitsch. Nostalgia is a heady cocktail, and it’s fun to look back at the visions of the future people once had. The results can be funny—like kooky robot butlers, pills that taste just like chicken or the belief that the moon might really be made of cheese. There’s an opportunity for playful, imaginative humor here that will suit many brands.

This dramatic Maximilian outfit from 2021 mixes legwarmers, a Scuba mask and leather clubs in combo that’s very space age, and very now via ID

Retrofuturism can also be stylish. Fashion in particular is known for its cyclical nature, in which looks fall out of favor then come back with a bang. Art, architecture and clothing constantly reshape the old to find a look that feels powerful today: retrofuturism just makes its classic influences obvious. As a designer, you might mix a Scuba mask and leg warmers because they look awesome, but also because they offer an image that you can play with: the outfit above references late 20th-century leisure trends and space-age optimism, but gives it an austere, almost dystopian modern twist.

This t-shirt for a software company has a bright and breezy optimism that recalls the postwar years by Kuziola

We live in a world of climate change and digital addiction, not to mention inequalities and cruelties that stubbornly refuse to go away. The more optimistic end of retrofuturism conjures a time when people really thought that gleaming new buildings or nuclear fusion might take us closer to paradise.

Today’s technology also offers plenty of opportunities, but when a transformation like the metaverse is right in front of us, it can look pretty scary. Retrofuturism can help us deal with that fear by presenting transformative technology in a safe, fictional space. But it also reminds us that change is something humans have been grappling with since our ancestors first sharpened a stick or fed a fire. Designers can use retrofuturism to remind consumers of the power of idealism, and make feel like they’ve found a safe harbor in the storm.

 

This stout can uses a steampunk robot to suggest both ingenuity and a painstaking, hands-on production process by WintryGrey

Getting the retrofuturist look

So how can you bring retrofuturism into your designs? You might take your cues from templates such as steampunk or the space age. But you can also work in general retrofuturist features such as:

  • a focus on machines or technology
  • classic or vintage design features
  • a mix of historic and futuristic objects
  • a postmodern fusion of styles from different eras
  • smooth geometric shapes such as spheres and ovals
  • sharp, clean polygons
  • the vibrant colors, neon and shining chrome of new technology
  • the grime, dust and dirt of old machinery

As we can see, retrofuturism can have some contradictory features, with space-age shine contrasting with steampunk grime. But what these approaches have in common is tech, and it’s a tech that has a very physical form. Retrofuturist art tends to focus on function, with great pistons, gears or thrusters and exaggerated lines that suggest movement. That’s even true of cyberpunk, which tends to avoid wireless technology and instead give its technology solid form, via people equipped with robotic limbs, or cities that seem to squirm with cables. In an age that can seem increasingly virtual, retrofuturism offers something you can touch.

Quantum computing is a technology of the future, but the faded colors and organic curves used here associate it with the wonder and awe of 1950s and ‘60s sci-fi by Kuziola

What this does for your brand

So how should brands use retrofuturism? As we’ve seen, it can look beautiful, but it’s also hugely varied. Packaging that majors on space-age optimism will carry a different message to a noirish, steampunk vision. This freedom makes retrofuturism harder to define, but allows brands to build visuals that suit their products. There’s plenty of inspiration online—check out the joyous parade of images on Reddit, see the highways of your dreams on Ferrovial or feast on Paleofuture’s wide-ranging analysis.

It can be worth matching different types of retrofuturism to your audience based on age: space age for the boomers, cyberpunk for gen Xers and so on. But retrofuturism’s appeal is wider than that. These ideas and images have been reused by modern culture again and again, with Gen Z in particular known for their love of culture and products made long before their birth. Ultimately, retrofuturism is for anyone who’s ever dreamed of what could be, or what might have been: you just need to find a vision that fits your brand and speaks to your target market.

This advertisement shows both the style of the 1950s and the glamor of new technology via Reddit

How designers can use retrofuturism

Retrofuturism is a wide-ranging style that offers plenty of inspiration for brands and designers. Whether you follow one of the classic templates such as steampunk or raygun gothic, or work in more subtle touches that evoke past visions of the future, it can help you craft designs that will resonate with consumers. Retrofuturism is a compelling mix of optimism and pessimism, but at its heart it celebrates beautiful objects and human ingenuity. And what brand doesn’t want to get on board with that?

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Believe it or not, anything we call ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ owns an undefinable charm, be it an old cuckoo clock, Mercedes-Benz 280 SL, 50’s Polka Dot Dress or Gramophone. Digital arts is no exception, especially the graphic designs. Let’s have an insight into the retro design and the best ways to incorporate retroism in your own design.

What Is Retro Design?

“Retro style is a style that is imitative or consciously derivative of lifestyles, trends, or art forms from the historical past, including in music, modes, fashions, or attitudes. It may also be known as “vintage-inspired”.” (Wikipedia).

Loosely stated, retro design is a genre of “throwback” design, in which it incorporates elements of design from decades past.

Retro design also goes by the name “modern retro”, excels at giving the viewer a feeling of nostalgia. More specifically, it tends to focus on designs from the eras of the 60s and 70s, though there are “niche” genres of retro design that are stirred by other decades, from the 20s (art deco) to the 90s (blues, pinks, mint greens, and blocky shapes in arrangements that are best described as “unconventionally attractive”).

Why Is Retro Design in Vogue?

The feeling of nostalgia is a powerful force when it comes to influencing how your design is perceived. According to Nostalgia and Its Value to Design Strategy: Some Fundamental Considerations, a paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tsinghua-DMI International Design Management Symposium, “Cognitive theorists believe that emotions have a strong influence on human behavior, that is, people will be attracted by the objects that evoke positive emotions and forced away from those things that evoke negative emotions. Nostalgia, like other positive emotions, when it is evoked by certain stimulus (e.g. products, brands), will incite people to approach (e.g. to purchase or to interact with) it.”

Emotional investment in design is a powerful force for motivating consumers to buy, investors to invest, and audience to keep on watching, reading, or participating.

Even though the industry is constantly bearing new design trends, the significance of retro design is increasing. Things—that were once obsoleted—are new again; old trends and designs are now brought out, dusted, and put into use, thus proving their own point.

Retro design is popular with both the people who are already familiar with the style, and those who are experiencing these designs for the first time now. Drawing multiple demographics (that retro designs are famous for), retro effects make it easier to engage the audience instantly and make designs recognizable and remembered for long.

How Do You Execute Retro Design?

When it comes to retro design, there is a variety of elements to consider. This also depends on what you’re designing and the elements available, whether it be an object, a website or blog, an email, or any other form factor. And when you have the right elements, in the right order, the process of taking your audience down the memory lane (through retro design) can go smoother.

Here are the elements you need to consider when adding a retro flair to your designs:

Element One: The Throwback Decade of Choice

First, for obvious reasons, you need to pick the decade that you wish your viewers to reminisce through the use of retro in design. But it is not that simple. There are tons of options to select from and it is easy to get confused when picking a decade to ruminate. Sometimes, the 20’s design looks like 30’s design, and certain elements that were popular or common in the 60’s might be echoed in the 80’s or 90’s. Design comes from design; inspiration begets inspiration.

So, even if you choose a deliberate historical reference, such as art deco, it doesn’t mean that other elements won’t bleed through. And rest assured, there’s really not a problem with that unless you’re a historical purist.

Here is a brief glimpse into different eras:

But it is a good idea to go with styles that mesh well with each other, rather than retro choices that clash. Don’t forget the purpose of your design: create something effective and memorable.

This is especially important when it comes to logos, which are the frontrunners for your brand and which will be the first contact for new customers.

Element Two: Retro Shapes

Shapes follow the decade choice in our list. The right choice of shape depends a great deal on the decade you are trying to evoke.

The 20s, for instance, tended toward Art Noveau style, with clean lines and basic geometric shapes. The 30s echoed the 20s in this regard.

By the 40s and 50s, the shapes were a little more blurred, with hand-drawn comics-style lines.

In the context of logo design, classic choices include diamonds, both horizontal and vertical, and triangles. Both of these shapes lend themselves well to logo design. Circles are also smart choices for retro logos and can be incorporated as “frames” for logos, which include diamonds or other shapes within.

Element Three: Retro Lines

It’s easy to pick out art deco as an example of line techniques in retro design. Art deco featured geometric shapes are often paired up with lines to highlight the shapes themselves.

When using lines as separate elements in your design, you can incorporate them both parallel to the basic shapes within your logo, and perpendicular to the shapes (cutting across them) to help text and other elements stand out.

Element Four: Retro Textures

Art deco is famous for its use of polished, mirrored, or golden metallic textures paired with black or silver. The basic effect of retro design tends to be almost overwhelming in terms of shine and sheen. Which is why, it looks very smooth and slick, as though the design was a floor that you could slide down on your socks.
Other decades of retro design may have a very different feel, however.

“Vintage” designs, typically, have a “lived-in” or “grunge” texture, giving the design the appearance of having been around for a while. This is an easy shorthand for making your retro design look older than it is, but it doesn’t usually pair very well with the afore-mentioned art deco style.

Element Five: Retro Fonts

Fonts are fun to play around with at the best of times, and investigating what style is most appropriate for your retro logo design is no exception.

Some designs, like Cheque, are clearly following the mold of art deco, with straight, classic lines based on geometric shapes.

Jocker also has a vintage look and feel, with a vibe that is perfect for a retro circus poster design.

For every decade, there is guaranteed to be a handful of fonts based on the fonts in use at the actual time. Many of them are free to use and easy to find with a simple Google search.

How to Create a Retro Design?

So how will you piece all your elements together?

It’s always a good idea to sketch things out ahead of time, to get an idea of what you want your finished product to look like.

Thanks to technology, there is a varied assortment of helpful programs to use; designers can also get inspiration from tons of helpful videos available on YouTube. For example, check out this step-by-step guide to designing retro logo by LogoDesign.Net:

Here is another great resource on how to design a retro poster in Photoshop by Design Cuts:

If you’re using elements from different eras, it may take a little playing around with different versions to make sure that your design meshes well and presents a coherent, effective whole.

Retrospection

Keeping all of the above elements under consideration, it’s also important to remember that retro design itself is retro design. In other words, people have been doing and re-doing the same thing for decades. What about the current popularity of “vintage” design? It certainly isn’t the first time that it has happened.

With that in mind, certain elements of retro design may in themselves actually be repeated from former designs. They may have been altered to fit the then-modern sensibilities, or they may just have been copied completely. But either way, the odds are that your retro design is going to end up incorporating throwback design elements from multiple eras, whether you intend to or not.
And this does no harm.

The things that were popular in past times trended for a reason, and there’s no reason why they can’t be popular now. Retro design, even if somewhat muddled and widespread, can be just as effective and appealing now as it was back then.

About the author: this is the quest article by Ayesha Ambreen, a Creative Content Strategist, Top Author on Quora, Featured SlideShare Author, and Graphic Designer. Best known for her creative visuals and viral content ideas, Ayesha’s work has been featured on blogs such as Entrepreneur.com, LifeHacker, CreativeBloq, Hubspot and more. She holds a degree in telecommunication engineering with extensive experience in writing, outreach, strategic visuals, and search engine marketing. 

Read the article about history and present of poster design, check the hot prospects on digital illustration and check the collection of free vector software

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