Angela Riechers, writing for Imprint, questions the use of nostalgia and skeuomorphic elements in design:
Maybe we pine for outdated mechanical items because featherweight digital objects and applications lack soul. Quickly obsolete (the average lifespan for digital products is 18 months before a new version becomes available), they acquire no patina, remaining devoid of the gentle signs of wear and tear that prove they were used and even loved. The Singer Company’s 160th-anniversary limited-edition sewing machine—made mostly of plastic, with digital components—borrows its look from the company’s iconic cast-iron machines from decades past. There’s no significant downside, looks-wise; the anniversary edition is a lovely homage to the Singer heritage. But consider how many Singers from the early part of last century are still in use today, working flawlessly—then try to imagine this latest version still operational in 2112. Its nostalgic design is tinged with even more sadness than usual; it becomes an unintentional memorial to a vanished age of durable products.
This is an interesting thought. One look at a few of Apple’s iOS apps and you’ll see old desk calendars, spiral bound address books, old school microphones, and leather notebooks. As we transition more and more of our interactions to screens, we design those screens to echo the analog way of doing things. This provides an interesting challenge for designers. We’ve been given the opportunity to develop new modes of interaction, new standards and iconography, new reference points, yet we are largely relying on the past to dictate where we go.
I’m reminded of an old article by Michael Bierut on the design of baseball stadiums, pieces of architecture steeped in tradition and nostalgia but lacking any sort of innovation in recent years:
We all know that baseball fans love their nostalgic ballparks, and I certainly like the human scale and sense of place that the best of these venues provide. But do those values always have to arrive smothered in old fashioned wrappings? Sooner or later someone has to take a risk on something new.
Perhaps the problem is that we stopped believing both in a better future and in design’s ability to further it. The thread is broken; terrorists have shoe bombs and bioweapons, and we’ve lost hope in the promises of flying cars and glittering cities hovering in the sky. The world’s climate and environment seem headed on a crash course to ruin. And so we cling to design that relentlessly references days gone by because we know what to expect—the scary challenge of the new has been removed from the equation. We seem to want design to give us the reassurance found in the recognizable.
Design is about movement. It’s about building a new future and a better tomorrow. I long for the past — the easier times, the vintage photos, the classy suits, the sound of a cassette rewinding — just as much as the next person but is this longing preventing us from moving forward, from developing new systems in which to interact?