Vintage design is everywhere, if you think about it. For centuries, we’ve been drawing upon trends from previous eras to shape how we want new designs to be perceived. Take a look at the US Capitol building or the White House to see how 18th century American architects drew from Greek architecture. In fact, you’ll find throwbacks in every design category—from decorative arts to fashion design to music. Although many call vintage design a trend, we’ve been doing it forever.
Vintage design is highly emotional because it belongs to the history of each of us. It evokes nostalgia in people of all ages.
Collectively, vintage design looks back to earlier eras based on specific style elements, usually those that were made popular during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Other terms, like “historic,” refers to even older design elements.
If you’re thinking of working with vintage design, you’re in good company—because you’ve got loads of inspiration around you. Incorporate subtle vintage bits into your contemporary work through font choices and imagery. Or design something that looks like it was actually made a hundred years ago.
Vintage and retro—what’s the difference?
Let’s get nerdy for a moment: there’s a difference between retro and vintage design.
The term vintage is often understood to mean actual designs and items that were produced in the past, whereas retro is typically used to refer to modern designs that emulate these older designs. So most of the designs in this piece are actually vintage-inspired, rather than actual vintage designs.
But in practice the transition between retro and vintage design has become fluid. Nowadays the two terms are often used interchangeably or to refer to different styles and eras that are emulated in a design.
Looking for a specific kind of vintage to emulate in your next design? Here are some great vintage styles to know about:
The types of vintage design
Art Deco was popular in the 1920s and 1930s and took architecture and design in a deliberately modern, man-made direction. It’s characterized by geometric shapes within symmetrical patterns and idealized human figures.
Art Nouveau emerged toward the end of the 19th century and remained popular until the 1910s. This design style is characterized by curved lines and intricate details inspired by flowers and plants.
Natural beauty is the key to Art Nouveau, rather than intentional embellishment. You’ll notice highly contrasting colors, ornate patterns and a heavy emphasis on plants, trees and young women.
Badges and stamps look like they’ve literally been stamped onto paper, a throwback to the days when graphic images were created with carved wood and rubber.
Often, this kind of design is used to evoke a sense of the late 19th or early 20th century.
Letterpress designs look like they were pressed with moveable type—like a printing press.
When you look at letterpress designs, you’ll see they vary from each other…a lot. What ties them together is their relative simplicity. Letterpress designs have limited color palettes and fonts.
You should be able to run your hand across a letterpress design and feel its indent into its paper, or at least look at it and imagine feeling the texture when you touch it.
Think Mad Men. Think modern in a vintage way, but not retrofuturistic. With mid-century modern, you’re capturing what “now” meant in the middle of the 20th century, not how pop culture depicted the future.
Its straight, clear lines pair with gently curved objects, striking a balance that often looks like softer, rounder shapes encased in direct, unwavering cases. With mid-century modern, there are lots of wood tones and thin supporting structures for oversized objects.
Punk rock was born in the 1970s as a response to what many saw as excess in mainstream music. Punk design is similarly dismissive of the mainstream.
Punk design makes the viewer a bit uncomfortable. Harsh lines, clashing colors, juxtaposition and mundane images reused to make new statements are all what translate punk rock into punk imagery.
Steampunk is hard to explain, but here it goes: it’s the future, but with Victorian technology. Think steam-powered spaceships and coal-burning computers. Steampunk falls under the umbrella of Retrofuturism.
Another kind of Retrofuturism, Atomic Age imagery shows an optimistic, modern world based on a 1950s and 1960s vision of space exploration.
Swiss style, also known as International Typographic Style, is a graphic design style developed in Europe during the first half of the 20th century.
By the 1950s, designers in Switzerland standardized design elements that had emerged in Russia, Germany and the Netherlands in the previous decades into the cohesive Swiss style.
Swiss style is bold, block letters against solid backgrounds. It’s heavy blocks of color and text overlaid on each other that often creates an effect that feels like you’re looking at a 3D picture.
Vaporwave is a relatively new type of vintage design that emerged on the internet. Initially a music genre, Vaporwave’s aesthetic of smooth 1980s and 1990s elevator music coupled with pastel color schemes found its way into visual design.
Vaporwave design uses vectors and color schemes reminiscent of that era along with imagery one might see in a video game or a surrealist photograph.
So why go with a vintage design?
The primary reason to go with a vintage-inspired design is to evoke nostalgia. When consumers are familiar with a product and fondly look back on their relationship with it, a vintage design is a way to capitalize on that relationship.
A vintage design can also highlight a specific feature of the product—like how a product is made using an older recipe or manufacturing method. Vintage designs are popular with artisan and handcrafted products for this reason.
Vintage-inspired branding can also communicate that you’re established in your industry. When a brand reaches a certain level of industry clout, changing its branding can undermine its popularity.
There’s a lot of validity to the phrase “don’t mess with success,” and that’s the thought-process that keeps certain brands using the same designs for decades. For these brands, using vintage designs wasn’t a conscious choice; rather, it came out of the choice not to change their designs and allowing the designs to age alongside them.
Why is vintage design so trendy?
We live in an uncertain world where technology and culture advance at a faster rate than it ever has before. Looking at vintage imagery feels comforting. The past might not have actually been simpler or safer—the world is safer now than it’s ever been before—but that doesn’t matter here.
Successful marketing burrows into the consumer’s mind, so you’ve got to meet consumers inside their heads. That’s the gateway to their hearts and guts, which are the end of your journey. To many, the past feels safe because there’s no uncertainty. Like watching a movie you’ve seen 100 times before, replaying the past in your head is comforting because you know how the story ends. A design can put viewers into a state of mind where they’re walking through their favorite parts of the past, creating a positive association between your product and the consumer.
And vintage designs can be a lot of fun! They’re a refreshing contrast against our digital, minimalist, modern world.
To me, vintage design feels eye catching and unique compared to other designs. It conveys a feeling of nostalgia that connects with the people looking at it.
You can use them to stand out and be a bit quirky. When nostalgia’s done right, it reminds consumers of happier times in their lives, like when they were children or young adults with fewer responsibilities. Always remember, too, that if you’re taking the nostalgia route, you’ve gotta tailor your design as specifically as you can to your target audience. Vaporwave works with millennials, but not so much with Baby Boomers.
How you can use the vintage design trend
Now that you’ve decided to work with the vintage trend, let’s talk about how to make it happen. You don’t have to go full-on vintage in your design—your brand might be represented better by a blend of modern and vintage elements or by elements from a few different eras, like a font that would feel at home on a Steampunk video game cover and graphics that look like you cut them out of an 80s skate zine.
Translating from pen and paper to a digital design must be done carefully to show a design’s “age.” That’s why lights and shadows are the heart of the vintage design.
There’s another side to the “how” of working with vintage design, or any trend for that matter: visually representing it.
If you’re going for a certain look, you have to play by that look’s design rules. Research designs in that style and pay attention to color palettes, fonts and construction.
Use a color palette from the era you’re aiming to evoke. Look at actual designs from that period to see what colors and combinations were popular. You can also find color palettes from specific periods online. Don’t stop at recreating color palettes, though. Get into the theory of color psychology to choose colors and combos that support your branding goal. Find your colors, then figure out how to fit them into the vintage design mold you’ve selected.
Want to create a vintage-inspired illustration like the Düsseldorf poster below? Designer vectro explains how he chose his color palette: “I started off by deciding on the background color. In this illustration I wanted a joyful vibe, so I chose blue. I then used an earth-colored palette for objects in the background, mostly sticking to the same gradient palette. Lastly, I added a bit of contrast color to the main characters to finish the illustration.”
Choose a font from the era you’re evoking to add to your design. When you’re looking for the right font for your vintage design, think about the technology in use during the era you’re calling back to.
Your Vaporwave design might use pixelated text or a fabulously neon 80s font. Your letterpress design would use a font that looks like it was made with an old-fashioned printing press. Do some research on fonts used in actual designs in the era to find inspiration for your perfect font.
How you construct your design can also play up or play down how vintage it feels.
When you’re designing something that looks like it belongs in the Victorian era, you’re not going to use 3D graphics and high-res photographs; you’re going to use embossing, sepia tones and delicate details.
When I start thinking of a design, I immediately start with picturing the illustration. I find it easier to build the layout around the illustration.
Carefully combine the different elements of your design—illustration, typography, colors, layout—to achieve the look you’re going for.
If you’re going to juxtapose design elements with construction styles, do so carefully and purposefully. Steampunk is full of purposeful juxtaposition, as are its derivatives like dieselpunk and cyberpunk. Dive down these rabbit holes to see vintage and modern juxtapositions done right.
Find the right balance between vintage and modern
Play with your vintage design. You can keep it subtle by working a few vintage-inspired elements into an overall fairly modern design, or you can go full retro and make your design look like it was created 20, 50, or 100 years ago.
The most important part is that the logo represents a business to its target audience. You want the audience to relate to the logo itself.
Don’t ignore necessary modern design considerations, like responsive design and web-safe fonts, when you’re creating a vintage-inspired design. Your design still needs to work for modern consumers, and that means making it work with their devices.
Don’t do vintage if…
If you’re in an industry where most of your competitors use modern-looking branding, choosing a vintage design can make you stand out.
Be careful taking this route, though. In some industries and with certain products like tech and medicine, vintage just doesn’t work because it goes against the consumer’s expectation that the product is on the cutting edge. In these industries, using a vintage logo or branding can make you look outdated instead of established. Outdated technology is slow, inconvenient and incompatible, and outdated medication is, at best, less effective and, at worst, dangerous.
Similarly, avoid a vintage design if there’s no nostalgia for your product/industry. Choosing a vintage design is a deliberate choice, and if there’s nothing to be gained by playing with nostalgia in your design, the design will just feel pointless. And similarly to how consumers want the latest when it comes to tech and medical purchases, they want products that fit into our fast-paced modern lifestyle. Don’t remind your audience of chores they used to do or inconveniences they used to have to put up with by using a design that reminds them of these unpleasant memories.
Make your work timeless with a vintage design
Vintage is timeless. That’s why people have been loving it for so long. And there’s no end to this trend in sight.
Every time I find myself in a supermarket, I pay attention to the gourmet food and spirits products. Those vintage labels carry with them the history of the product and make them memorable.
Beyond evoking nostalgia, it works because it’s an easy way to guarantee your design never ends up looking outdated. Which might feel weird at first, since you’d think that choosing an old-looking design is the fastest way to look outdated. But since you’re making the intentional choice for your design to look old-school, it will be just as old-looking next year and five years from then as it is this year—which, in a way, keeps it looking fresh.
Remember, vintage doesn’t work for every brand. If you’re not sure if it works for you, ask yourself a few questions like:
- Who’s your core audience?
- What are you trying to communicate with your vintage design ideas?
- What are the potential downsides to using a vintage design?
- What are your competitors doing with their designs? Why are they making those choices?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, so give yourself time to work out the right answers for your design. Vintage is quirky and fun, but successful branding goes beyond quirky and fun. It’s got to mean something. Take a look at actual vintage imagery for your type of design to see what they communicated. Sometimes, looking backward is how you’ll find the greatest inspiration.