Retro-Inspired Design is The Way Back Machine That Gives You All The Feels

By: Bill McCool

Everything old is new again.  

But in the world of design the truism might actually be that everything new is old again, because whatever particular trend that just so happens to be sweeping the industry today will be redundant and overused by the time you’ve had your coffee the following morning. With retro-inspired packaging being as incredibly appealing as it is to consumers, it’s no surprise that designers often look to the past.

“Nothing delivers that element of humanity more than the nostalgic feeling you get when you experience something familiar,” Island Cannabis Co. COO Brandon Mills says. "Retro is simply one way to deliver familiarity, and tends to remind people of a time when more products were hand-crafted or small-batch.”

Designing the branding and packaging for their artisanal cannabis, Island looked to coastal California in the 1970’s for inspiration so that they could capture the essence of that time period. Even just looking at their logo makes you feel like you’ve been magically whisked away to 1977, stoned and roller skating down the Venice Beach Boardwalk.

When Brandon talks about how Island was able to successfully used retro-inspired designs, he mentions the father of industrial design, Raymond Loewy, and his theory of MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable). Basically, consumers tend to gravitate toward two extremes where they’re curious about new things while also fearing anything that’s too new and shiny (neophilia and neophobia, respectively). For Loewy that meant if you want to sell something surprising, you need to make it familiar. To sell something familiar, you need to make it surprising.

“We're striving for that balance,” Brandon says, “between familiar and surprising, curious and fearful, by delivering a new product in a familiar, retro-inspired package. Cannabis isn't a new phenomenon, but to many consumers, it's a new experience purchasing it legally via the packaging. It's a new delivery mechanism. We can make that entire experience more appealing by delivering it in a welcoming package with friendly, honest, transparent and fun messaging and branding.”

The best of those retro-inspired designs lean heavily on the familiar, so much so that it creates a sense-memory experience that still feels utterly unique and personal—it’s about as homey as the wood paneling from your childhood bedroom.

Recent award-winning work from design agency Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR) does just that while also really honing in on Loewy’s theory. Decidedly elegant and modern, JKR’s glamorous redesign for Heinz Baked beans harkens back to the cans from the late 60’s and yet seamlessly places it in today’s marketplace. Even their 75th anniversary M&M’s packaging eschewed the usual balloons and birthday cakes and relied on some of the playful designs from yesteryear while mocking up the ampersand to look like a 75.

Still, a design needs to come from an authentic place.

“The key to not being kitschy or cliche,” Brandon says, “is to deliver an authentic story, and for us, the story has to be continuous between the product and the packaging. We pay attention to every detail, and have extremely high standards from our raw materials to our internal and external packaging, which translates into a holistic experience that doesn't feel disjointed.”

“We deliver on our promise of a hand-produced experience,” Brandon adds, “which delivers on the nostalgic storyline from start to finish.”

Look at it this way: you could argue that Netflix’s Stranger Things is nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the actual world they’ve created. Yes, there are some deeply analogous Spielberg vibes coming off the show and just seeing Eleven’s prized Eggos recalls every rushed breakfast you scarfed down while trying to catch the bus in elementary school. But style over substance never wins the day. It’s the characters, the heart of the story that makes it feel timeless and fosters a connection with the audience.

The same works for design—there has to be something tangible and meaty there, there has to be a feeling of warmth that runs alongside the deeply familiar.

Target understood this as well with their recently released special edition of the 1st season of Stranger Things inside a faded VHS box. Sure, it’s a fun design, but you can’t help but recall every trip you made to your local video store on a Friday night when you were a kid.

“There are trends,” Brandon says, “in many industries away from mass-produced goods, and toward more custom, craft, or small batch products. Consumers love to feel that they are purchasing something special, limited, and especially something carefully crafted just for them.”

What is that feeling, that sense of comfort and home that comes from looking back at the past and why do we feel it as intensely as we do? It’s almost as if it’s an old love from long ago, one where the memory of it feels lost in some way that you can’t get back, but you’re reminded of it nonetheless, and you can see the promise of it anew despite the fact that you can’t truly ever get it back, not really, not now.

But maybe.


Bill McCool
Bill McCool is a freelance writer based out of Los Angeles. Though new to the world of design, he has always been a storyteller by trade and he seeks to inspire and cultivate a sense of awe with the work and artists he profiles. When he's not winning over his daughters with the art of the Dad joke, he is usually working on a pilot, watching the Phillies, or cooking an elaborate meal for his wife.