Evoking Memories: Communicating via Memory in Design

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Thumbnail for Evoking Memories: Communicating via Memory in Design

by Angela Riechers


Illustration by Doug Chayka, www.dougchayka.com

Memory is a powerful communicative device, and many designers struggle to decide when to employ it. These historical examples illuminate why and when it works.

The deeply felt human need to preserve memories presents a curious conundrum to the graphic designer. People have an innate longing to mark the passage of time, to bear witness as the moments and years slide past, and to record for future recall the singular events of their own lives. We strive to keep tabs on the collective culture and its history, a running tally of the day-to-day. The expectations for graphic design’s ability to preserve or depict memory are somewhat low because it has long been considered necessary for designers to separate personal content from professional concerns. Graphic design in its purest definition is meant to be objective in order to best allow the creation of an unencumbered, neutral vessel for communication.

The designer’s mission, simply put, is to solve the problem in a way that will deliver a message effectively and clearly to the intended audience. It’s generally left to the nonprofessional to then create and maintain designed systems for memory-keeping, whether that be in the forms of solid and more permanent items like photo albums and journals, or ephemeral and transient ones like Flickr accounts and blogs.

Unlike mathematicians, designers function outside the pure realm of correct or incorrect answers; any design problem has multiple potential (good) solutions affected by personal intangibles: the designer’s mood, temperament, relationship with the client, educational background, levels of taste, talent and originality, inherent view of the world, whether she got enough sleep the night before … the list goes on.

A fine line for designers, then, becomes how to deploy personal assets to evoke memory in an authentic way that will resonate with a wider audience—to avoid making the project all about me but one that still preserves some of that me in it. A tacitly agreed-upon visual group memory exists, based on popular culture. Graphic designers use group memory as a kind of shorthand, to quickly evoke a certain mood or feeling in their work because emotional subtext is what hits the viewer on a gut level, before she understands a single word of the content. The eyes and heart react before the mind processes.

Typography, one of the basic building blocks of the graphic design profession, is a series of coded ciphers. The choice of typeface on a movie poster, for instance, communicates so much about the film’s genre before an observer reads the actual title. There’s a secret, a clue to meaning embedded in the shape of the letters that we instantly respond to.


The Black Cat movie poster (1934) draws much of its feeling of suspense and mystery from the illustration, and we can easily deduce it’s a horror film based on which actors have starring roles. But the typography provides its own healthy set of clues, too, in the jagged shapes of the hand-drawn title lettering. One wouldn’t expect to see this kind of lettering used as titles for a romantic comedy—it wouldn’t feel right.


The opening title sequence for Alien (1979) makes powerful use of a version of Futura, disturbingly severed into pieces that morph into letterforms that make up the one-word title. Their dismembered state sets up a sense of foreboding and dread and hints at the violent nature of the morphing creature at the center of the film.

Certain images start to serve as visual codes once enough people become familiar with them. Consider the group picture (below) at the Overlook Hotel with a man circled in the front of the crowd. We always know what that means—that person is the serial killer. As an experiment, any random innocent person in one of these group photos could be circled, and most viewers would look at the image and say, “Yep, there’s the guilty man.” No one ever assumes that person is circled because he’s a good citizen.

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Still from The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, showing murderous character Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, circled) in a group photo from the Overlook Hotel.

A subset of typefaces are used in this way almost exclusively, as quick routes to a time and place, or to suggest the culture of a specific ethnic or religious group: Neuland usually means Africa, and the chop suey-style typeface Mandarin, versions of which can be documented back to the 1880s, has been widely used to indicate any Asian culture. In 2012, online grocer FreshDirect used two variations of the typefaces on an ad for their stir-fry kits and frozen Asian dumplings, prompting Jeff Yang to write a blistering piece for The Wall Street Journal titled “Is Your Font Racist?”

Neuland, designed by Rudolf Koch for Klingspor in 1923

Neuland, designed by Rudolf Koch for Klingspor in 1923


Mandarin (originally known as Chinese), Cleveland Type Foundry, 1883

In his definitive 2009 article for Print, titled “Stereo Types,” type and design historian Paul Shaw wrote, “Ethnic type […] survives for the simple reason that stereotypes, though crude, serve a commercial purpose. They are shortcuts, visual mnemonic devices. There is no room for cultural nuance or academic accuracy.”

And in 2007 on Design Observer, Jessica Helfand calls attention to the cultural insensitivity inherent in using such lazy design tropes:

“Granted, unlike people, typefaces have no feelings—so who cares if they’re used without sensitivity and knowledge? But on some level, the line is a murky one: What’s the difference between a celebrity making an unforgivable racist remark and a typographer making a font that clumsily perpetuates a cultural stereotype?”

The other complicated aspect about using memory-activated ciphers in design is that they comm
unicate nothing if viewers don’t know the code or are unfamiliar with the original reference. The fallout shelter sign is meaningful as a symbol for those alive during the Cold War era, but completely unremarkable for those born afterward.

The shelters don’t exist anymore, but for an entire generation, the sign remains a loaded memory of the terrors of the nuclear age. Most elementary schoolteachers didn’t bother to explain why they were conducting fallout drills; the second-graders had no idea what, exactly, they were hiding from, but they definitely felt the undercurrent of menace and danger. What do they mean, “duck and cover”? Why cower under your desk with arms wrapped around your head? (As if that would save lives in the event of a real nuclear attack, anyway.) The drills were scary; for anyone who lived through them, this sign still summons up feelings of fear and confusion.

fallout sign

The fallout shelter sign introduced in 1961 (first image at left) once symbolized the threat of nuclear annihilation for an entire generation. With the Cold War now a distant memory, it has been corrupted for ironic design uses including havens from fictitious zombies and rebellious posters for rock shows.

However, to subsequent generations who never had to take part in a fallout drill, the sign means nothing at all; the memory has a limited audience. The sign isn’t likely to have a second incarnation in design (beyond rebellious rock ‘n’ roll posters and ironic zombie fallout shelter signs) because it’s still too loaded with a threat that we’d collectively just as soon forget.

Each generation has its symbols like this, going back to hieroglyphics. Some, like the fallout shelter sign, are nearly forgotten, unlamented. But designers eagerly resurrect and recycle less-loaded tropes, often with ironic intent. To qualify, the design in question needs to translate easily into other graphic languages and uses. We like old boxing posters because they’re forceful and attention-grabbing. Their distinctive style of typography can now be found on contemporary design ranging from diner menus to store advertisements because the posters don’t carry extraneous negative memories as baggage. Some viewers may not recognize the original reference; those who do may not care that they’re seeing something the second or even third time around, something not remotely fresh or new. No harm done. In the end, it makes for an attractive menu.

Our collective design memory is selective even with the happy stuff we choose to repackage. We prefer not to recall any less-pleasant context for the original work. For example, Old Navy’s Spring 2013 ad campaign made use of Flower Power stylized daisies, recycling visuals from the swinging ’60s when these flowers were seen everywhere: printed on the banana seats of Schwinn Stingray bikes as well as on minidresses, lunchboxes, notebooks and camper vans. They evoke freedom, fun, feelin’ groovy—even though they originally co-existed with a great deal of painful social upheaval and searing news images at the time. These other memories have, by necessity, become detached. No one wants to remember the horrors of Vietnam or Kent State while they’re feelin’ groovy.

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Flower power, a cheerful symbol of the 1960s that was a familiar design splashed across clothing, bike seats and camper vans, was resurrected by Old Navy for its spring 2013 ad campaign. Recent uses like this ignore other social and cultural events of the 1960s that evoke unhappy or controversial memories of the day. Black and white images, from top: A Kent State University student lies on the ground after National Guard troops fired into a crowd of demonstrators on May 4, 1970, in Kent, Ohio (AP). Black Panther Party national chairman Bobby Seale (left) and defense minister Huey Newton (AP, undated).

Trying to tap into group memory often slips into nostalgia, which is pleasant in the same way that a narcotic or sedative is. Nostalgia supplies the rapture of the familiar (or something that feels familiar, even if the viewer never actually experienced what it depicts) rather than encouraging a venture into uncertain new design territory. Nostalgia privileges an imagined past of lost golden moments pieced together from the agreed-upon collective memory over the individual memories acquired during a real life, really lived. It’s no secret that branding, in particular, relies heavily upon nostalgia to drive sales.

Churchkey beer’s brand identity ditches the handy pop-top in favor of flat-topped steel cans that require a separate opener, and each six-pack comes with a strange historic device—the churchkey—needed to get at the beer. (Churchkey’s website features a beer-opening tutorial video.) Yes, fl at-topped cans looked cool with the two little triangular punctures you had to make. But having to watch a video to learn how to open a can doesn’t feel like progress. Creating a wish in the consumer to do so seems like a misuse of the powers of graphic design. Members of the target audience have grown up with pop-tops; they’re too young to remember the dilemma caused by the forgotten can opener at the picnic.

They’ve probably never seen someone’s father desperately open beers by pounding on them with a screwdriver and a rock. It isn’t a pretty sight. The video uses the word “authentic” (as if pop-tops somehow aren’t), along with phrases like “keeping tradition alive in this ode to the past … the most original beer can experience.” Why does anyone need “an original beer can experience”? Or “an ode to the past,” for that matter? A longing memory is being installed in a new set of consumers, but it’s not authentic to their lives nor is it original or even particularly useful in any way.

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Stills from Peroni Nastro Azzurro’s “Primavera / Estate” commercial, designed by advertising agency The Bank, 2011.

A competitor’s advertising sets up a different memory-related paradox. The very beautiful 2011 Peroni beer commercial “Primavera / Estate” takes place at an Italian resort sometime in the 1960s. In the footage shot with handheld Bolex cameras, flirty young women in heavy eyeliner and old-fashioned curlers swan around in structured little bikinis; classic wooden speedboats zip around Lake Como; a seaplane lands gracefully on the calm sapphire water. Handsome, laughing men laze about in swim trunks, looking like Cary Grant on the Riviera. The music, a cover of The Temptations’ “My Girl” by Italian jazz singer Mario Biondi, is perfect. There’s nothing wrong with any of this—except that the world shown has vanished into the past. The target audience wasn’t born yet and has no direct memories of Italy in the ’60s, but still comes away thinking, Wow, I wish I’d been there. It looks so much better than what we’ve got now. The deep vein of infinite longing has been tapped. Of course, it’s a basic principle of advertising to create an aspirational desire in the consumer for something unattainable and then dangle the one thing that’s available—the product— in front of his hungry eyes. The nostalgia is pretty but presents a false equation: No matter what you do, you’ll never have this because you can’t travel backward in time. You can, however, have a beer.

Social media interfaces, curiously enough, are designed s
ystems that have perhaps succeeded best in making it possible to preserve and catalog memories. Facebook’s interface has become almost invisible to us as a visual system because the design mainly serves as a container, one that takes a backseat to Facebook’s collective content. It may not be beautiful graphic design, at least not to most people, but the memories it contains are raw and yes, authentic.

In 2009, Facebook created the option to memorialize a deceased person’s page, keeping it active but closed to new friend requests, and since then, Facebook has become the world’s largest site of memorials to the dead. (Its shared nature also opens it up to participation by trolls whose sole purpose is to cause emotional mayhem by trampling on people’s genuinely expressed grief hung out in public, but that’s another story.) The design provides an effective armature for users to populate with the narratives of their own lives.

From micro to macro sets of information, Twitter excels at preserving absolutely every memory for posterity: breaking news mixed with random personal observations—plus, what people across the country enjoyed for lunch today, and way too many cat pictures. For purposes of remembrance, it represents a raw data stream unlike any other. In 2010, the Library of Congress formally recognized the historical significance of this collective forum by announcing its intention to preserve the nation’s 50 million daily tweets in a permanent archive of the entire Twitter feed since its inception in 2006. Like Facebook, the interface design calls little attention to itself (except for the birdie logo, which draws howls of protest every time it takes another step toward abstraction). If social media design can perform so well as a keeper of memories, delivering them honestly without interference, then surely we can match this kind of functionality in other types of design too.

Design is a living thing, created with love by humans; it’s not something cold and dead. The work is always personal on some level—it’s an unavoidable extension of the designer’s humanity—and we should embrace this simple fact. If designers’ individual memories of times and places and people can find their expression within the work, these lived experiences will provide honest points of commonality and community with others who remember the same things, generating a more powerful emotional subtext. For many projects, this isn’t directly possible, of course: A 25-year-old designer working on a book about the Civil War would have no direct experience or frame of reference. Rather than relying on the expected group shorthand of typefaces and images and sepia tones that we think say “Civil War,” perhaps there might be another approach—some family stories or artifacts that could inform the work and lead to a richer solution.

The ongoing challenge for designers remains how to draw upon their own life memories without defaulting into agreed-upon collective memories or the quicks and of nostalgia, and then present those memories as part of a successful design solution that resonates deeply with the audience. Including the complex and intimate code ciphers of individual memory in design work without veering into the inappropriately personal is by no means an easily achieved goal, but one well worth pursuing.

Angela Riechers is an award-winning writer, art director and educator living in Brooklyn, NY. She writes primarily for design-related outlets, including Wallpaper, Metropolis and Design Observer, and is currently researching the ways in which evolving technology affects the design of systems and objects we create to preserve human memories. www.angelariechers.com

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