It's About time

So, I’ve spent the better part of my afternoon trying not to start this editorial with a cliche. But there’s no way around it. Some things get better with age. There. It’s done. We can begin what I really want to try to get at. Which is, whether it’s the 523rd time you’ve watched Die Hard on basic cable or the IBM logo, certain things never get old. They feel just as good as the first time you saw them. They are timeless. But how? How is it when Bruce Willis pops on the screen in Die Hard for viewing number 524 I’m sold, I’m completely in? But Hudson Hawk, not so much. The flip side of the coin is what makes something dated? How is it that a good pair of tight Levi’s is forever, but bell-bottoms are pigeon-holed as something belonging to another era? For designers who are supposedly crafting work that resonates and has some sort of staying power, this is a pretty important question.

Timelessness Is Next to Godliness

Part of being timeless is being first. A pretty big part. You’re in much better shape if you originated the thing that seems retro now. So if you’re invoking the Bauhaus, I hope you went there. It’s true in most every creative endeavor that coming in second can seem like trend. Indiana Jones vs. The Mummy, The old UPS logo vs. the new UPS logo just to name a couple of cases.

The Devil Is In the Details
While timing is important, there is something to be said about things being of a certain time. In some cases things that could have been considered timeless become too intertwined with other things. The counterculture movement was such a visual experience (among many other types of experiences) that the design of the movement is stuck there in a little time capsule. It’s specificity as being part of a movement crushes its ability to get anywhere beyond itself. By the way, if anything is part of a movement it’s going down this road, as movements eventually stop moving.

Timeless things tend to be much bigger than themselves. And honestly in design, often much more generic. Most of the logos we consider timeless are entirely non specific. A swoosh, big block letters with lines, a hidden arrow between two words. These are things which not only have meaning, but allow us to infer meaning. They let us fill in the details of the story, and that’s something we humans are pretty good at.

Time Heals All Wounds
Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It’s why the Goonies makes my list of all time great movies. It’s why... But nostalgia is a slippery devil, it’s also the reason the apple pie you make is never as good as your Mom’s – even if it’s better. It seems that things from some eras somehow trump things from others. There are things about the eighties many want to forget. The eighties essentially killed pink and teal for 20 years. Only now are we even slipping those in. But somehow a shield with a bow is a classic. One designer can design two different brands that last decades and use just their colors to evoke their brand (UPS with brown and ABC with yellow). The rest of the designers from an entire decade who used two colors make you think of Don Johnson running around with his forearms glistening under a rolled up blazer. (Please, no comments on great designers of the eighties, I know all four of them existed)

The Rub
So, as designers in the 21st century, what are we to do? How do we avoid the trap of trend, defeat the black hole gravitation of nostalgia and beat back the the everlasting menace of our forefathers’ supposed greatness? We do what’s right. We do what’s appropriate. We design the things that say what they need to say, and only what they need to say. We listen to what the greats of the past said, and then we forget it. We forget it because we already know what we should do. Sometimes a logo needs a gradient. Sometimes it needs a font besides Helvetica, Bodoni or Garamond. And sometimes, in the words of Stefan Bucher, you need to put it on Swiss-flush-right-rag-left autopilot and let it go. Listen to your clients and yourself. Please your clients and yourself. Leave the rest up to time.