Simpler Times: Why So Many Brands are Embracing Retro

Editor’s Note: The following piece is contributed by Sam Becker, executive creative director of Brand Union.

When Kodak unveiled its rebrand last year, the debut included a curious visual artifact: a seemingly genuine newspaper clipping showcasing a coarse black and white photo of two corporate executives. The man with the chunky eyeglasses, ex-Kodak president Gerald B. Zornow, smiled affectionately at what looked like a vintage Kodak logo mounted to a piece of foam core. While the showcased logo is actually new, the point of the exhibit was that it felt right at home in aged newsprint. This wasn’t just a redesign but rather a return to the glory of film and the heritage of Kodak.

The logo’s nostalgic feeling is achieved by resurrecting the classic film box emblazoned with the Kodak ‘K’ and then, for additional effect, the letters K-O-D-A-K whimsically stacked in a vertical line. No gradients here, just flat yellow and red. In other words, a design still living and inspired by the restraints of traditional printing. Banished is the sleek, corporate wordmark that Kodak had embraced only a few years ago. Without doubt, Kodak is a good example of a brand well-positioned to capitalize on the emergent trend of embracing retro sensibilities in design.

Why Retro Branding and Design is on the Rise

As a culture, we’ve always had an affinity for things of the past. In the famous “Carousel” episode of Mad Men—the show itself a celebration of the golden age of advertising and design—adman Don Draper clicks through a slide carousel of intimate family photos while narrating about the importance of nostalgia as one of the strongest bonds you can make between a consumer and a product. It’s all there.

On the surface, putting the “retro” in a retro brand comes down to a certain simplicity, whimsy and care-free language, created at a time when there was more room for art in design. Colors were uncomplicated and used judiciously because they were costly to print. But when you dig deeper, it’s the ethos that’s important. Older brands have a certain purity. A naiveté that makes them seem honest. When done well, retro brands seem more genuine.

Where’s It’s Working, Where It’s Not

Certain brands lend themselves to a retro approach. It’s not surprising to see JetBlue embracing the golden age of air travel with their Catch-Me-if-You-Can-esque pop-up shop that they recently launched in SoHo. Beer is another category with a perennial connection to earlier times. With its flat colors, bold headlines and simple typography, Miller Lite’s newest ad campaign transports us to another era. Miller High Life is a brand in permanent retro mode. Coors Light traded in their photorealistic textures for flat illustration and simple layering. Even the Most Interesting Man in the World seems like he’s from a different age.

Within the design community, there’s been a resurgence of appreciation for a certain type of retro modernism. Vignelli’s celebrated MTA map has always been idolized by the design community, but now we have a lavish coffee table reproduction of the entire MTA graphic guidelines—something unthinkable just a few years ago. The project was so successful that other guidelines like the original NASA design standards are being reproduced in their entirety.

Not all brands lend themselves to nostalgic revival. A few years ago, P&G introduced a retro version of their Tide packaging briefly. It was positioned more as a stunt and quickly faded in the public consciousness. Apparently, when it comes to clothes-cleaning technology, you don’t necessarily want a vintage, yellowing label. General Mills, on the other hand, introduced retro Trix a few years ago, which went a long way toward convincing parents that it was more honest than a sugar cereal cynically marketed with a cartoon mascot. General Mills has shrewdly migrated some of those retro assets, and promises, into their permanent marketing strategy.

retro tide; Why So Many Brands are Embracing Retro Graphic Design Trends

And then there are brands bucking the trend. Instagram, another photo-based brand, is heading in the opposite direction. For the longest time, Instagram’s visual identity was anchored to an icon depicting an old Polaroid camera and a retro script typeface, to say nothing of their borderline ironic film-based image filters. And what did they do? This past spring, Instagram moved to a radically simple, gradient-heavy depiction of a camera icon while updating the script, making it more modern, polished and less connected to the carefree, retro sensibilities it previously embodied, all while slowly but surely marginalizing the film-based effects and borders that the app was once known for.

instagram before and after; Why So Many Brands are Embracing Retro Graphic Design Trends

Instagram’s continued success, and the generally positive reception its redesign received, suggests that not all brands benefit from, or require, a strong link to their past. And yet, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if, one day in the distant future, Instagram went retro once again and rediscovered their glorious ironic film heritage, much like Kodak did last year.

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