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What Makes Good Retro Graphic Design?

  • November 5, 2020

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What Makes Good Retro Graphic Design?

Retro is always in. The only problem is that what’s considered retro is always changing. If your small business needs a strong graphic identity, it’s hard to resist the allure of nostalgia when creating a brand that will resonate with your customers. But what makes good retro graphic design is more complicated than setting a year on the time machine and jumping in.

Old Sensibilities, New Tools

Throwing back to an era before modern computer design can give people the warm fuzzies, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything by hand. Think of the popular retro baseball stadiums—parks like Baltimore’s Camden Yards incorporate the charm and quirks of old ballparks but still offer modern amenities. Retro graphic design should evoke the feelings of a bygone era, but it still requires modern-day craftsmanship to look good today. Think of today’s vector tools as an opportunity to build on classic fundamentals while eliminating some of the flaws and idiosyncrasies that may have come from the days before Adobe Illustrator.

Be Retro, But Not Dated

Nostalgia is a moving target—looking to the past instead of living in the present requires finding that sweet spot between too old to remember and too recent to miss. Consider popular soda brands that have been regularly updating their can art for the better part of their last thirty years. Right now, Pepsi and Mountain Dew are throwing back to 1980s designs for their “real sugar” brand extension. The effective simplicity and nostalgia of those designs have been effective in marketing those products, especially vis-à-vis the consistently current aesthetics of their mainstream brands. However, going back to a Mountain Dew design from 2001 would not have the same retro connotation—it would simply feel dated. This is the worst place you can land in your attempt to go retro. If your leap back came up short or you’re trying to hang on to a design that’s undeniably showing its age, it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

It Has To Make Sense

Even the best graphic designers have tropes and pet causes they prefer or rely on, which could lead to them trying to shoehorn their favorite retro aesthetics into brands where it doesn’t make sense. Retro for retro’s sake does you no good. If you’re opening a barbershop, for instance, it would make sense to embrace the classic red and white barber pole, throw in some 1950s pastels and checkerboard patterns, and sell the idea of When Men Were Men to customers who feel apprehensive about patronizing contemporary hair salons. On the other hand, imagine a small, carryout-only pizzeria with a new-old design inspired by the Memphis Movement of the 1980s, with all bright colors, shapes, and squiggles. Don’t be afraid to ask why? Is there a specific 80s theme throughout your business, or are you and your graphic designer simply indulging a personal preference for this design style? Always see the forest for the trees in any era you revisit. But when you can make the past work in service of your present-day business, that’s what makes good retro graphic design so great.