Sunday, May 30, 2010

Can Retro Design Be Great Design?

It appears that Spyker (the high-end Dutch sports car company) is making plans to develop a car based on the original Saab 92 (1949-1956). If you've been following the tales and travails of the Saab brand you'll recall that Spyker saved the car maker from almost certain liquidation after GM cut the Swedish niche-brand loose last year.

Having been a Saab loyalist for nearly 20 years, I'm thrilled by the idea of a resurgent Saab entering the market with a new direction and focus (most Saab fans look on the GM years as time lost in the wilderness). And while I've always understood the 92 to be a lovely little post-World War II car (and quite innovative for its time), it raises an interesting question about what constitutes great design. Namely, can retro design be great design?

It's a question worth asking since we're clearly living in a time when re-manufacturing the past has become a common practice. Whether it's cars (like the MINI Cooper, VW Beetle, and Fiat 500), cameras, bicycles or appliances, designers are looking back to classic mid-century forms as they develop many of today's newest products

I remain conflicted on the question. Part of me recognizes the challenge of re-imagining something like the Fiat 500 for a modern audience, but part of me also knows that design moves forward by solving problems in in new and innovative ways.

What do you think? Can these new "retro" designs ever achieve the iconic status of "great" designs in their own right, or will they always be seen as pale imitations of their predecessors?


  1. Form following function was the modernist design mantra, but what was not emphasized was the emotional attachment to form.

    Physical objects and 3 dimensional forms are infused with the same kinds of meaning as letterforms, logos and other forms of communication. So it stands to reason that a designer (especially a smart one who wants to profit from the formal vernacular of 60 years of automobile emotional attachment) would appropriate those forms.

    Now, I realize that doesn't address your question about blatant appropriations of style being able to stand on their own as great design.

    Perhaps the phrase is these new models are "damned with faint praise" and doomed to live as mere iterations on a concept - a much over-hyped version of "this year's model".

    There is, unfortunately a strong impetus in mass market fabrication to play to the center. This in architecture, product design, web design, and so forth.

    What we had in the mid-century was a fertile culture that, like-it-or-not was influenced by a communist design ideal. This being that there was one design for the people and it will suit them as a gander. See: Volkswagon Bug.

    This communist-influenced design thinking promoted single solutions to a problems, thus raising the single accepted form to iconic status.

    Fast forward to present day when competing market forces are planning in vehicular obsolescence into their design and fabrication processes in order to shorten their product's life cycle and extract as much capital from customers over the long-term.

    Iconic "great" design just doesn't have as much of a home in our culture today as it did in the 1950's.

    Perhaps the conservation - "reduce and reuse" market influences will capture the hearts of america for great, new, iconic design again. So instead of buying 8 cars over a lifetime, we can adjust our mindset to just get one.

  2. Thanks Daniel. That's great stuff. I'll admit to being a little sceptical of the idea that design alone (communist or otherwise) was the biggest factor in fostering the iconic designs of the mid-20th Century.

    It seems to me that the confuluene of mass production (which allowed many things to be made uniformly and cheaply), a more global economy (which allowed goods to be sold more easily the world over), a growing middle-class, and mass media (which allowed for designs to be shared and disemminated quickly) all contributed to certain designs becoming truly iconic.

  3. I realize that we have all those things now, but as has been pointed out in The Long Tail, markets are much more fragmented and niche oriented these days. Perhaps the days of the iconic design that everyone can rally around are gone.

  4. Imitative design has been with us since the second wheel was put to use. Whether in art, music, architecture or consumer goods it has been a steady progression of refinement and adaptation.

    Technological advancements in materials and assembly allow for ways of conceiving new solutions in already existing fields. It would seem that truly ground breaking design can only happen in areas where there are no previous examples.

    As to whether or not a 'retro' design can stand up to the 'original' is hard to say. The original is allowed to exist on its own terms and the later version will always be seen within the context of its predecessor.

    Maybe its all in the naming of things. If the Mini Cooper had been released without any attempt to connect it to the Austin Mini how would that have impacted critical and consumer reaction to it? It is after all a completely different car.

    This of course gets to the marketing part of the equation. We are all to one degree or another nostalgic for known pleasures. Retro designs directly target these buttons in us. Some succeed better than others.

  5. Well said Bill. This might be the kind of knot that's impossible to untie. Intellectually, it's easy to recognize the original and redesign as two separate things (made in separate times with separate influences and separate processes). In spite of that, they remain very much connected. It makes it very hard to judge them on their own merits.