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Design Trends, Product Design

Designing Nostalgia: Creating the New by Recalling the Past

Boston 03.04.13, 11:36AM by Pietro Chiera and Christina Bianchi

Nostalgia Blog Entry Img

“Nostalgia for a simpler time when people had fewer choices, perhaps, can help anchor modern consumers in a shifting world. Objects that refer to the past bring with them a sense of authenticity that is not found in digital solutions. The food we eat, the music we listen to, the objects we buy—we all look for craftsmanship.” —M. Astella Saw, Lifestyle Journalist

In many of the projects we have been conducting here at Continuum—whether investigating trends in the kitchen, people’s lawn care habits, or their attitudes towards new technologies—we have repetitively come across a widespread sense of nostalgia for the past.

The research we’ve undertaken suggests designers and companies have interpreted this phenomenon in different ways. Some of them mask new products with a distinctive taste that aspires to be reminiscent of an earlier time. Their products, communications with customers, and service environments are evocative of styles that have historically been proven successful—therefore benefitting from “universal awareness, latent affection, and retro coolness” [1]. Others seem to refer to the past by drawing on a “genuinely useful” [2] spare design. They create this by reducing a product’s functions to just a few tasks, while still operating with the highest performance. By reducing technology and using high-quality craftsmanship and natural materials, they inspire a feeling of authenticity. The shapes, textures, and colors all tell us familiar stories of a mythical era, during which everything that surrounded us was simple and cozy.

Both these interpretations have apparently gained large approval among modern consumers. But why are products that awake our past remembrances so appealing? What makes us so eager to seek them out?

Nostalgia for the Good Ol’ Days is itself not a new phenomenon, but these days it seems omnipresent. We have cyclically witnessed it in the car industry (e.g. the new Cinquecento, Mini Cooper, VW Beetle), advertising, fashion, music and film industry, food trends (e.g. Grom) and social media (e.g. Facebook).  However, it has not been in the spotlight as subject of formal open discussion. As recent studies also point out [3], design researchers have too often disregarded the importance of nostalgia. Possibly the imperative that designers should constantly be contemporary and create new revolutionary experiences has induced them to turn away from it.

Although associated at times with the negative feeling of loss, nostalgia results in an overall pleasurable event because it provides an “aesthetic and emotional experience of meaning” [3]. It is said to occur through a retrieval of personal meaningful memories, which, filtered through time, are romanticized, softened and perceived therefore as delightful—as something better than the present condition. Moreover, experiencing nostalgia provides positive sensations of stability and belonging, which enhance people’s general well-being [4].

Because of these implications, designing for nostalgic experiences can be a very successful strategy. If designers carefully introduce evocative elements in new contexts, they can simultaneously provide both originality and continuity. In addition, the emotional bond these products trigger can generate a strong attachment, which can increase their endurance and make them more sustainable over time. On the other hand, it must be also stressed that if nostalgia is wrongly employed, it can encourage rejection for change, idealization of the past, and cause consequent discontent [3].

Given the large success that nostalgic communications and products are gaining among consumers, does this mean that we are inevitably heading towards a future of re-mixed phenomena? Not necessarily. While both of the strategies companies have employed to evoke nostalgia may suggest lack of imagination, their future success depends upon their ability to exploit our heritage cautiously, and offer the necessary human dimension by reinventing the way they connect to our collective imagination. Thus, they can provide that glimpse of ‘authenticity’ that people today look for and value. We are not just consumers. People today have become very informed, demanding, and extremely skeptical experts, who cannot be deceived for long by recycled refrains. Any future-facing design project needs to take this into account.

Even those brands, products, and experiences built upon the most innovative and revolutionary technologies should be able to render the shared values and familiarity that nostalgia provides.  In that way, they offer people the necessary reassurance to fantasize about the future.

[1]”Back to the future” (2012), Viewpoint 27, pg.78
[2]“ Out of the Ordinary”(2012), Viewpoint 26, pg. 1
[3]Xue, H., & Wolley, M. (2009) Collective memory and Nostalgia: a new market perspective on affective design strategy for the Chinese market. Paper presented at the IASDR 2009, South Korea.
Xue, H., & Wolley, M. (2011).The Charm of Memory: examining nostalgic experience from a design perspective. Paper presented at the IASDR 2011, The Netherlands.
[4]Rutherford, J., Shaw E.H. (2011).What was old is new again: the history of nostalgia as a buying motive in consumption behavior, US.


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