In recent times we have witnessed a progressive trend in consumer markets towards modern product designs that are informed directly by classic design frameworks. From automobiles to electronics, retro design motifs have been reimagined with streamlined, new age aesthetics to produce some of the most compelling consumer goods to hit the market in decades. These new products have not only reshaped the visual landscape, but they have provided us with a deeper sense of reflection regarding the evolution of consumer culture, as well as the application of form and function as they relate to the material composition of everyday life and its various artifacts.
In the quest for market leadership, strategists must attempt to set the trends of tomorrow by first analyzing the past in order to either A.) predict the next major transition or to B.) break with the current momentum by introducing what are often idealized as “disruptive innovations”. But how does one gain the positioning needed to set the next trend, and what is the method for activating innovations that will disrupt the status quo?
Form & Function
As form follows function, the evolution of industrial product design follows closely in tandem with the development of new technologies. Yet, technological breakthroughs of the revolutionary sort can often be far and few between. Consequently, we find ourselves in a postindustrial consumer market that is in many cases dictated by the mercurial symbolism of the fashion cycle rather than the grounded sense of demand that is driven by functional usage values. Under such conditions superficial trade dress and design motifs have not only gone a long way towards establishing a popular understanding of brand status, but they have become the dominant signifiers of performance-based valuation in the popular conscience as well.
From electric guitars to digital cameras, many modern iterations of consumer products have retained vestigial features in their form factors that serve little value other than to inform us, semiotically, how those products are used or what brands they represent, through the employment of visual references. This phenomenon has been well documented in the work of Gary Hustwit, particularly in his treatment of the subject, titled Objectified (2009). There is substantial evidence in support of the assumption that industrial product design of all sorts travel along the cyclical continuum of prevailing social norms that we understand to be the cycles of fashion.
Theorist James Laver once posited that fashion trends existed on a 150 year cycle, which very well may have been the case at the time that he authored his analysis of the subject. But since that time the duration of that cycle has been reduced as a result of multiple factors, including technological advancements in manufacturing, distribution methods, travel, and communications, which have resulted in a virtual compression of time and space as barriers to, what Everett Rogers termed, The Diffusion of Innovations.
As strategists remain in constant pursuit of market domination through the assertion of trend leadership, it is important that we analyze the market for recent trends in order to discern the most effective ways that brands have anticipated the momentum of social preference and found ways to effectively deviate from its trajectory. In this way we might provide informed insights about design philosophy as a keynote of innovation, the role of the fashion cycle in the direction of the current market’s trends, and the possibilities for future trends that may be forming on the horizon.
Pronounced vintage patterns have become a mainstay on the palettes of interior décor suites ranging from custom studios to upscale boutique chains to mass-market big box department retailers and DIY designers. Modern producers have taken a likeness to updating these design motifs with more brilliant color hues than the traditional tones found in the originals.
In August 2016 Nike released the Air Jordan XXXI sneaker. In honor of having issued its marquis shoe for a whopping three decades, the brand chose to return to the roots of the line’s design philosophy by taking direct references from the Nike Air Jordan I and integrating them into the new shoe’s design, which incorporates the use of high tech fabrics and cushioning to maximize performance. The shoe is most notable for reintroducing the prominent Nike swoosh and original Air Jordan ‘Wings’ logo into its design—both of which had been largely absent from Air Jordan sneakers over the past two decades.
Rocket Skates introduced a line of lithium-ion battery powered, motorized, strap-on roller skates reminiscent of the vintage strap-on roller skates popularized in the first half of the 20th century. In recent times roller skates have taken on more sophisticated design, culminating with in-line ‘roller-blade’ design formats, but the old model has recently resurfaced in this wearable tech line which has gangrened great enthusiasm.
Coming out of the 1960s the Super 8mm camera was a classic tool for amateur film production that was largely displaced by the coming of magnetic video cameras, which was followed ultimately by digital video recorders of all sorts (e.g. DSLR cameras, MiniCams, Drones, Smart Phones, etc.). Since that time, the “old Super 8” cameras became celebrated for their rich use of analog technology and their vintage quality. In 2016 Kodak responded to the market’s sentiments by introducing its renaissance Super 8 camera, which uses Super 8mm film stock and a digital interface to produce DIY motion picture footage using an enhanced version of the classic Super 8 perspective. More importantly, the camera’s form factor took direct reference from the old cameras with its lateral brick-like body and its trademark grip handle for diverse camerawork.
Polaroid’s pioneering of the instant camera made its products all the rave throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Around the 1990s the instant camera lost some popularity to less expensive, higher clarity, 35mm film with the rising support of1-hour development found in drug stores and big box retailers everywhere.. Later digital cameras and rich media communications ate the core out of amateur analog photography altogether with instant, high resolution, digitally editable, -transferrable, and -mass-publishable technology—leaving the instant cams of the old days as little more than afterthoughts and party gimmicks. However, ‘all things analog’ have lately fallen back into favor among creative professionals and enthusiasts, largely due to the realization of the value of subtle distortion and other natural artifacts with comparison to the pristine yet ‘sterile’ output of digital systems. Polaroid has taken advantage of this trend by issuing modern instant cameras with updated features using many of the vintage design motifs of the old units from the 60s.
Leica recently introduced its line of Sofort Instant Cameras, which take design inspiration from the classic trade dress of its highly renowned rangefinder cameras, but in a miniaturized form factor. Leica has spiced up its new instant line with a vivid color selection including mint, orange, and white.
Many manufacturers have introduced USB powered vinyl disc turntables for vintage music listening pleasure. Some of the designs follow antique design schemes down to the suitcase form factor, save for the digital components. However, others take inspiration from these retro product designs and flip them with brilliant colors, streamlined angles, and innovative layouts.
Whirlpool front-loading laundry machines were an early leader of the reimagined retro trend at the beginning of the millennium. Since that time, manufacturers from Kitchen Aid to Kenmore have had substantial success with lines of vintage inspired household appliances, which offer a strong complement to any modern or retro interior designs.
The trend of reimagined retro has been especially extensive in the automobile market, as these goods are more durable, with higher levels of conspicuousness, and broader audiences. We see this trend in stylish compact family cars like the rebooted Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500, and the Volkswagen Beetle. It has also shown up in sporty classic pony, muscle, and performance cars like the revamped Ford Mustang Shelby GT, Dodge’s Challenger, and Chevrolet’s Camaro and Corvette Stingray. Car manufacturers have had much success in revitalizing classic design frameworks to inform retro inspired body styles that break with the current trajectories of automobile evolution because these disruptive designs stand out from the redundant body styles that currently dominate the roadway. These classic designs speak to the legacies of their makers and have been lauded by tastemakers, fashion-conscious consumers, and car-enthusiasts alike for their significance in paying homage to car culture at large and the brands that brought that heritage to market as an enduring lynchpin of American society.
On The Horizon
What we find in the market’s current affinity for vintage design motifs is more than a mere exploitation of consumer nostalgia—it is the recapitulation of the ‘classic’ at the conclusion of a fashion cycle. The reimagining of retro is an apparent progression from the “devolutionary” stagnation in fashion noted by Kurt Andersen as characteristic of the timeframe roughly between the early 90s and the first decade of the new millennium. It is reasonable to assume that we might have a ‘return to origins’ across industrial design in the wake of this dormant period. As these recycled themes regularly find themselves laced in a layer of postmodern sensibilities, it is also reasonable to suggest that, given the timing, context, and ‘temperature’ of this retro trend, we might expect to see a dramatic shift towards some rejuvenated version of futurism as a reaction to the prior half century. Though nothing is for certain, the current revisiting of the past has been intriguing to say the least.