Vintage or Nostalgia

I had a terrible experience this weekend. Not terrible for the wrong reasons of pain or suffering but terrible because it was one of the moments that one can experience only by simply getting older; and it got me thinking.

We took a walk over to a vintage clothing store that a friend was showing her collection in. My assumptions around vintage are, always, the 50s through 70s. But this was a different era. This was a collection of 80s and 90s kit highlighted by Huxable sweaters and ladies leather pants. The mixture was fit for both a scene from Juice and, oddly, a Poison video all at the same time. And here's the thing. If you're reading this and have any clue about those last three references (without clicking the links) then you're in the same boat as me. These clothes aren't actually vintage for you.

This is the thing about style and design.

The difference between something that's "vintage" and something that's "nostalgic". The nostalgic object has a memory attached to it. You or I as older people from that decade have a certain surrounding image attached to that object. It's like metadata. There's meaning in it that isn't physically part of the thing. I'll give you an example.

Back in '96 when I was living in Boston there was a local crew that hung out downstairs from my apartment. They were tough, they wore all black and I don't pretend to glamorize whatever they did for cash but it was probably pretty different from jobs my friends back in Portland had. My roommate and I were cool with these guys after bonding over a Redman track one night. They even saved me from being mugged by a crackhead on my way home, sending him sulking away just with a look and nod.

At this store was a Black Leather jacket with a big white, worn-out, X on the back. This is the memory that came to me when I saw that jacket. These guys, dangerous as they were, getting my back just because we listened to the same music.

That's nostalgia.

By simply having a memory I automatically wasn't the target audience for this shop.

This is what's important to remember and why the demise of skeuomorphism is so good for so many users. Creating software that connects to a previous experience can be a powerful connector when the designed interaction is the same as the old product. But when you're trying to assign new meaning you, as designer, run head first into the far more powerful force of nostalgia.

Vintage, in contrast, is something different.

Vintage isn't just about reassigning something old and tattered into something rare and desirable. "Vintage" is providing a blank slate for people to assign new feelings into an old object.

 The rareness of the object gives deeper meaning. It connects the user to a perceived past. For interfaces this is why some skeuomorphic designs worked. Apps for music are a good example, there's a perception of being connected to the "masters". By wearing vintage or using products that are vintage (or feel vintage) we get the feeling of looking down upon the shoulders of those giants that came before us. 

If that experience is truly authentic, then the feeling will be honest it will connect with the user in the long run. But if the experience is false or faked or inconsistent with the past it's attempting to evoke, well, it'll be like all those Urban Outfitter and Hurley clothes from the 90s that people are desperately seeking out … oh wait.

Vintage is the co-opting of the past to define the present. Nostalgia is the re-living of the past to escape the present.