The secret power of nostalgia: How you can use it to fuel your creativity and enrich your design

Remember the good old days? Let me jog your memory.

Nostalgia makes us crave the past. It is a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former time or place, whether it’s for a living memory or experience, for another country, for family and friends, or for era that is perceived as being a simpler time.

Used in design, nostalgia can appeal to the audience on a sentimental and emotive level. No matter how much technology advances and the modern world progresses, nostalgia—the notion of longing—remains an essential human condition. Here’s how to harness the psychological and emotive power of nostalgia in your design.

The Psychological Power of Nostalgia

As Jessica Helfand describes on Design Observer, nostalgia privileges memory and perception over reality, and favors a utopian and imagined past over the real one. Indeed, nostalgia can provoke positive emotions of happiness, connection, confidence, and optimism, and when people feel down nostalgia can raise their spirits.

The psychological phenomenon of nostalgia is triggered physiologically from sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. A particular song might remind you of your wedding; a smell might take you back to your grandmother’s cooking; or a photograph might have you recalling the heady days of summer vacations past—or even reliving as Expedia did for its Thrownback Thursdays campaign, which used nostalgia to engage its social media audience. Participants had to post and tag a picture of a favorite past vacation and the lucky winners received a travel voucher to recreate their trip.

01. Expedia
Marketing Land

Nostalgia can stimulate a wistful desire for an era before your lifetime that in our collective imagination—from photos, television, and films—is one we perceive as being simpler. Think Mad Men and the 1950s and 1960s; it wasn’t all happy housewives and simple suburbia, as much as our cultural memory might have us believe.

So how does this apply to design, you ask. Well, in a couple of ways. The first is that nostalgia directly stimulates creativity; the second is that nostalgia can enrich your emotive appeal to your audience. Let me explain.

Nostalgia and Creativity

Research has found that nostalgia can heighten creativity. Nostalgic memories may give people a greater sense of belonging, meaning, and security, and this enables them to be more open to future experiences, which ultimately encourages creativity. According to educational psychologist Jonathan Plucker, nostalgia helps people access more information in their brain, which provides more material for creativity. As we contemplate past experiences in the context of today, this combination of two divergent concepts—‘then’ and ‘now’—stimulates creative ideas.

Britt Davis united ‘then’ and ‘now’ for her MFA Thesis about nostalgia in sports design. She created a commemorative campaign celebrating the 1924 Colored World Series with the tagline “Take Your Seat in History.” For this bus-stop ad, Britt dug out an historic photograph of the dugout and cleverly positioned it so passengers are sitting right amongst the players.  

02. Britt Davis
Bēhance/Britt Davis

Nostalgia and Design

Designers can use nostalgia to appeal to their audience on a feel-good level. By tapping into people’s desire to feel a sense of belonging, meaning, and security, designers can endow their creations with emotion and sentimentality that connects with their audience and elicits a pleasurable feeling.

According to Dr. Filippo Cordaro, a researcher of nostalgia and consumer decision-making: “On a basic level, recalling these positive memories simply puts us in a more positive mood. On a more complex level, recalling these experiences makes us feel a stronger sense of social connectedness with others.”

In 2015 nostalgia-fever broke out when #InThe90sIThought started trending on Twitter. People and businesses jumped on the hashtag-bandwagon and shared their memories of popular brands and cultural references.

03. Paramount Movies
Twitter/Paramount Movies

So what does this mean for you? It means it’s time to start mining your nostalgic memories. While graphic design is constantly striving for something new, there is often something old at the heart of the change. Thus, reinterpreting nostalgic memories can bring a sense of genuineness, realism, and connectivity to your design or campaign.

Be inspired by these 25 designs that have looked to the past to design for the future.  

01. Reinvent childhood memories

04. Grown Up
We Are Grown Up

People love to be reminded of childhood games or great moments in sporting history. These colorful pieces of design by Grown Up do just that. The print on the left is for LA gallery IAM8BIT’s exhibition on Retro-gaming and it conjures up memories of gaming arcades, while the print on the right is for the charity Willow and it celebrates cricketer Ian Botham’s 1981 Ashes win in a style evocative of the early 1980s.

02. Bring back the days of summer

05. Chelsea Pritchard
Bēhance/Chelsea Pritchard

Chelsea Pritchard’s design evokes days—or daze—gone by when summer seemed to last forever. Her sun-kissed color palette and imagery of iconic summer essentials encourages the audience to yearn for the days “when sunburns were your biggest worry,” Chelsea writes.

03. Flashback to simpler times

06. Saturday MFG
Saturday MFG

This clever cookie packaging for Thelma’s Treats, designed by Saturday MFG, recalls ovens and stovetops from yesteryear, and appropriately so given they’re named for great-grandmother Thelma who is more than 100 years old.  

04. Celebrate the holidays

07. Cherry Bomb
Cherry Bomb

Design agency Cherry Bomb created their annual Christmas like an ugly Christmas sweater—although really not so ugly in this case. Ugly Christmas sweaters have taken on their own ironic nostalgia in recent years with parties and a national day dedicated to the knitted phenomenon.

05. Contrast then and now

08. American Express
Twitter/AmericanExpress

American Express compares vintage and modern credit cards in this Twitter post showing how the color palette and fonts have changed but the Roman Centurion and border remains the same.

06. Create a look that feels ‘local’

09. Helen Lopez
The Dieline

Living locally and supporting local producers is becoming an increasingly important part of the modern lifestyle. The light color palette, old-school fonts, and plenty of white space are perfectly suited to the small and organic Best Creamery. “I wanted to create a look that was fresh and friendly with a touch of milkman nostalgia,” designer Helen Lopez explains.

07. Create a feel-good character

10. Mr Nicecream
R Design

For Tesco’s range of ice cream accompaniments, R Design created a character called Mr Nicecream using color, typography and a naïve, almost diagrammatic illustrative style. “We shied away from the obvious clichés and introduced an infections sense of innocence and nostalgia to put a smile on people’s faces,” writes R Design.

08. Dig out historic photographs

11. Eesti And
TBWA

The packaging by TBWA for Eesti And (Estonian Gift) integrates a vintage black-and-white photograph with an illustrative logo that highlights the moment of giving. The effect instills a sense of nostalgia for family and cultural traditions.

09. Mix vintage fonts

12. Bombay Circus
Bēhance

This poster for the famous age-old Bombay Circus incorporates imagery typically associated with the circus—the big top and the ringmaster—and mixes an array fonts traditionally used on vintage circus posters. The eclecticism represents the variety, eccentricity, and extravaganza of the circus itself.

10. Color it sepia

13. Feld
Designspiration

Sepia is a reddish-brown color associated with monochrome photographs of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Applying a sepia filter or color palette can instantly give an image a vintage feel and induce nostalgic notions.

11. Use wistful photographs

14. Mercedes
Use wistful photographs

André Josselin road-tripped across the west of the States taking a series of stunning and sentimental photographs for a Mercedes Benz & Visit California campaign. Lighting, signage, landscapes, and the positioning of people—often seen from behind—evoke a sense of wistfulness and even homesickness for the past.

12. Highlight heritage

15. Tasti Foods
Brother Design

This tin by Brothers Design for kiwi-brand Tasti celebrates the company’s heritage with illustrations depicting classic baking favorites and iconic New Zealand imagery, such as the pohutakawa flower and the kiwi itself.

13. Celebrate a golden age

16. Waitemate Pale Ale
Designworks

Staying in New Zealand, this packaging for Waitemata Pale Ale celebrates a cherished ‘pioneering beer’ to commemorate eighty years of brewing history. Designworks created a screen-printed aesthetic with overlapping blocks of bold color and a redrawing of the original roundel to evoke a golden age.

14. Make it friendly

17. Donna Roggi
The Dieline

Donna Roggi and Jacqueline Etsay’s packaging for their Oscar Mayer Collector’s Edition student project is also designed to evoke a golden age—this time, the 1950s. The playful illustrations, colors, and fonts are in a friendly mid-century style to promote the sense of nostalgia associated with the company.

15. Use a mid-century color palette

18. La Loteria
Channin Fulton

This game-kit designed by Channin Fulton is intended to introduce Americans to a cherished Mexican pastime. Fulton uses a vibrant and eclectic color palette to reference the mid-twentieth century, while the grid layout of the textured typography is suggestive of Mexican paleta cart graphics and street advertising.

16. Collect past ephemera

19. Abraham Lule
Bēhance/AbrahamLule

This Mexican gin is infused with the spirit of 32 Mexican botanicals representing 32 states in the Mexican Republic. Abraham Lule took inspiration from a collection of objects from the past, such as postage stamps, cantina facades, folk song books, photo albums and books covers, which served as an analogy for the 32 spirits. The result is a label that is fresh and airy with a sense of nostalgia.  

17. Be inspired by vintage artwork

20. Pavement
Pavement

Cooperstown Distillery in Cooperstown, New York, has a heritage of baseball-themed spirits and it introduced Spitball Cinnamon Whiskey to commemorate the 2016 Major League Baseball Season. Designed by Pavement, the label is inspired by the artwork of vintage baseball memorabilia such as ticket stubs and baseball cards.

18. Keep it simple

21. Leitaria
Bēhance

Leiteria Lisboa (Creamery of Lisbon) is a venue designed to evoke the golden days of Portuguese creameries. The feeling of a seemingly simpler time is captured in the logo that features a traditional milk bottle and striped straw in a duo-chrome palette. The colors and minimalism are designed to elicit the purity, simplicity, and freshness of the brand.

19. Inject some retro style

22. Ridna Marka
G Studio

Ridna Marka (Native Brand) is a range of Ukrainian juice for which designer Yurko Gutsulyak took his inspiration from the Soviet style of the 1960s and 70s. The retro colors, pattern, and imagery are suggestive of the look and feel of old Soviet groceries; this is for the older generation who remember the stores and the younger generation who hear about them from their parents.

20. Add a good dose of romance

23. Mousegraphics
Mousegraphics

The packaging of Mez pastilles by Mousegraphics is intended to appeal to the older generation that purchases and consumes the product. A romantic black-and-white photograph has been colorized, as was common in the days of yesteryear, and the overall effect is tender and sentimental.

21. Have some holiday fun

24. Beardwood
Beardwood

Who doesn’t get nostalgic around the holidays? Beardwood designed Bath & Body Works’ Limited Edition Signature Holiday line with illustrations of fun northern-hemisphere activities such as ice skating and skiing to remind audiences of the heyday of the holidays.  

22. Make it feel familiar

25. Pams Flour
Brother Design

Brother Design is at it again with the packaging for Pams range of baking flour. Cooking, and especially baking, has lots of nostalgic connotations and these paper packages feature bold and crafted illustrations of familiar and wholesome baking icons.

23. Go old-school

26. Under the Bridge
Telegramme Paper Co.

This poster is one in a series of five that celebrates the fifth anniversary of Chelsea music venue Under the Bridge. Put together, the five posters create a full panoramic scene of old-school dance styles such as the jive, the jitterbug, and the Charleston.

24. Reintroduce fan favorites

27. Crispy M_M
Twitter/mmschocolate

In 2015, Mars Inc. reintroduced Crispy M&Ms in response to its market’s request to revive a fan favorite. By popular demand, the “Crispy is Back” campaign saw the return of the 90s candy with a Twitter Party to celebrate.

25. Merge two disparate ideas

28. Cory Etzkorn
The Dieline

This fresh packaging designed by Cory Etzkorn unites two disparate ideas: peppermints and coins. Rolls of candy are wrapped in brown paper with a red or blue design that recalls the packaging of coins.

YOUR TURN

As nostalgia evokes a warm and fuzzy feeling it can be used as a sentimental appeal to your audience. Identify how your brand can connect to an aspect of the past and reinterpret your memories or the collective imagination in an abstract way. However, be sure to know your target audience because different generations have different associations and experiences, and to use it in appropriate situations for best effect.

Now go #throwbackthursday and #flashbackfriday to your nostalgic heart’s content.

Rebecca is a freelance writer, researcher, and design historian. She has a Masters in the History of Decorative Arts and Design from Parsons The New School for Design, New York, and studies cultural history through the lens of architecture, design, and decorative arts.