The best part about going to the dentist—if there can be a best part—is the distractions waiting for us in the front lobby. You know the scene: padded chairs—evenly spaced, with meticulously well placed track lighting shining from overhead. The ambiance of 90’s light rock and the trickle of Costco fountains relax the senses; and to the side, a wide assortment of magazines you would never subscribe to; but in a way, wish you did. On such a trip in March I grabbed a copy Newsweek from the top of the stack and began reading. This was a special edition of the magazine, released to coincide with the return of the AMC show, Mad Men, which revolves around an ad agency in the 1960’s. As I flipped through the pages, I soon realized what made this particular edition so special. All of the ads inside, which work to sell contemporary products, were crafted to appear as though they designed and created in the 60’s. Many brands reverted to their old logos, while still displaying the current products and spokespersons. The effect was very entertaining, but what really grabbed my attention was the parallel the magazine drew with contemporary efforts to implement retro design into modern imagery. This is a trend we have been seeing across the marketing sphere, from logos, to signage, to modern art, and even web design. What is it about the retro look that grabs our attention so effectively?


First off, retro imagery in any visual form serves a specific purpose. While retro design is aesthetically pleasing in terms of the shapes, colors, and—at times—minimalistic appearance, the real reason retro draws us in is not found in the physical realm. Retro design falls quickly into the genre of the abstract, meaning we accept the image as not representing reality; and therefore, our minds begin working to discover the story and meaning in the image. The analysis of abstract art often begins without our intension, and sometimes we will never realize it is occurring until we reach some profound revelation. The process is so engaging for our brains, that we will subconsciously build a connection for the image and feel tied to it and the message it carries.


The use of retro imagery in design and photography also evokes feelings of nostalgia, particularly if the design is minimalist. Our minds wrap around these elements, and we are filled with feelings of a simpler time; a less cluttered age, when life was much easier to live. Similarly to the ideas of abstraction in retro imagery, the nostalgic bonds that form often go unbeknownst to us; yet the ties take hold, making the design very effective in linking us to whatever the image is designed to represent. Nostalgia is often viewed with scorn, as it tends to skew the past—elevating past moments that might not have actually been so great, and ignoring less glorious moments in personal or social history. However critically nostalgia is viewed, it remains a strong draw for human nature, and creating designs capable of arousing such an emotional tie is a powerful technique.


Retro design is nearly always positive. Figures in retro images always appear happy and eager to be doing whatever it is they are doing. While a positive attitude seems obvious for design, the retro appearance perpetuates the emotion through its ties with abstraction and nostalgia—as mentioned above. Bright contrasting colors coupled with the simple, clean edges and shapes are very appealing to the human senses. These are artistic techniques not exclusive to retro images; however they are often associated with one another. There are certain expectations of color and line pattern in retro design, and where the absence of these demands destroys the effect, their presence leads to positive reactions from seeing the expectations met.


Retro design is an extremely tactful method of marketing. For retro images to function to their full ability, they require the interaction of the viewer. Implementing such tactics into your design plan will give you a unique public image that people will enjoy and feel connected to. The ability of retro design to accomplish this on such a base level is truly what draws so many people in on the phenomenon. It can take massive campaigns to create a similar effect with a purely contemporary image; and often, the desired outcome is never fully brought to fruition. Retro design is a recognizable, simple, and a fairly easy effect to create; and in the end, you are rewarded with creating a deeper connection between your image and your target audience.

Written by Edward Stuart : Edward Stuart is an art and decoration enthusiast as well as an online publisher for the framed artwork supplier He frequently blogs on the topics of art, art history, design, and home decor.