Design Trend Report: Retro Futurism

By on May 22, 2019 in Design Trends
Design Trend Report: Retro Futurism

Retro Futurism is a term that refers to how predictions of design from the future were depicted in an earlier era and how some modern-day aesthetics combine futuristic technology and old-fashioned design. That makes Retro Futurism a truly intricate design trend that has many layers of interesting panache to display.

The conflict between the styles of the past and the future are deeply explored in this design trend. Think of it as an exploration of the way that technology has impacted the human race over the last several decades. Over the years, it has seeped into our collective consciousness so much that it’s gone well beyond the world of graphic design and into areas like entertainment, fashion and video games.

Get ready for a tour-de-force look at the origins of Retro Futurism, its design traits, and how it’s been applied across various disciplines.

The History of Retro Futurism

The word itself is a portmanteau of retro and futurism that was first coined in the 1980s, making this a recent acknowledgment of a concept that has, however, been in existence for far longer. In general, though, when we use this term, it’s a reference to pop culture design and graphic design from before the 1960s. This era was filled with many imaginative predictions of what the future would hold regarding technological advancements. Science-fiction, as a genre, had only become popularized in the 1940s and 1950s.

As just one palpable example of this, Atomic Age design can be considered a textbook case of Retro Futurism. Atomic age design, which itself rose to prominence in the 1940s, explored the sinister themes of nuclear war and out-of-control technology in a quirky, memorable style. To achieve this aim, its designers and visionaries had to rely on a lot of predictions and wild imaginings of what 20th-century technology would eventually turn into. The end result was a distinctive style that captured both the paranoia and euphoria of new technology in a vivid aesthetic.

Here’s a handpicked selection of some our favorite, retro-infused design assets:

Even works produced before the 20th century can be considered contributions to this style, if they included speculations of the future that, for their time, were radical and hard to believe.

On such example would be H.G Wells’ classic tome, The Time Machine, published in 1895. Though it’s more a work of science fiction—since the protagonist comes from and the plot takes place in Victorian times instead of the future from the standpoint of when the novel was published—it nonetheless paved the way for Retro Futurism proper. This is where artworks produced in the early- to mid-20th century attempted to predict future technology.

One area that frequently bleeds into graphic design is comic books. During the Golden Age of Comic Books—which is a timespan that runs roughly from the late 1930s to 1950—predictions of the future were rife. This can be seen in the settings of various storylines from different characters involving futuristic cities. Naturally, all those predictions, depicted in design, were mostly wrong, but this underscores how this design trend was an active influence, very early on, in one of the most impactful mediums in publishing.

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Image Credit: Cover Browser

The best way to understand where Retro Futurism is coming from is to realize that it’s obsessed with exploring ideas about the future that are in constant flux at any given time. After all, who’s to say that what we as a society believe will take shape, technologically, in the future will even be close to what will actually transpire?

By the time of the 1970s, this design trend had progressed even more rapidly, as phenomena like the first test tube baby and the popularization of the personal computer forced society to contemplate these aggressive, technological changes.

Also, around this time, Retro Futurism began to develop its second interpretation: the intentional use of old-school designs in more recent aesthetics to create entirely new genres. Whereas traditionally, the term revolved around earlier eras making predictions of future technology, now the term also includes new design aesthetics incorporating elements from past design trends.

For an even deeper understanding of how this trend incorporated so many layers, have a look at some interesting creations from our marketplace:

Examples are anything from cyberpunk and steampunk to dieselpunk. In fact, cyberpunk was a phrase rooted in the 1960s and 1970s New Wave science fiction, while steampunk was a term coined more recently, in the late 1980s. Dieselpunk is an even newer genre of Retro Futurism, as it was first used in 2001 to describe a role-playing game by Lewis Pollak, a game designer.

The Characteristics of Retro Futurism

By now, you have a decent idea of the telltale visuals of this style, but now, we’re going to delve specifically into the design traits at work behind this trend, so you can pick it out anywhere you see it.

The most notable trait is the dichotomy present in the name itself: retro fused with the future. This touches on what’s actually common among many design trends, namely their tendency to overlap and borrow from other styles. In this trend’s case, the fusion creates a very stark contrast that leads to many interesting possibilities.

Here’s what to look for with this style:

  • Retro, vintage or otherwise classic design touches
  • Grungy, faded aesthetics
  • The presence of futuristic themes in retro settings
  • The presence of retro elements in modern-day settings
  • Futuristic design touches
  • A plethora of smooth and rounded geometric shapes (circles, ovals, etc.)
  • Vibrant colors
  • The presence of machines and technology
  • A blending and overlapping of distinct design trends (for instance, elements of Art Deco design in dieselpunk, itself a genre of Retro Futurism)

It’s important to note that you’re always going to be dealing with the characteristics of one of two versions of this design trend. The first kind is an examination of—almost a nostalgic look back at—all the mostly erroneous design predictions of the future that were found in the artworks of the early- to mid-20th century. This includes everything from science fiction novels and the aforementioned Golden Age of Comic Books to graphic design. The second kind is reverse: It begins with a fond appreciation of vintage and retro elements…and then incorporates present-day or futuristic technology into it.

With its celebration of vintage and futuristic in the same design, you can’t miss it when you see it.

Retro Futurism in Graphic Design

The aesthetic has produced some highly memorable contributions to graphic design over the years, both from a standpoint of the future seen from the past and the past seen in the future (read: modern day).

Captain Marvel Jr. #17

The epitome of the future seen from the past, the cover of this 1944 issue of the Captain Marvel Jr. series showcases futuristic buildings in the background as Captain Marvel spreads his arms and flies intrepidly into battle. Note the design touches on the buildings in the background, especially their sleek, rounded, and geometric shapes that symbolized how artists in the early- to mid-20th century imagined the future.

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Image Credit: Comic Book Plus

Other noteworthy design elements on the cover include the blocky, slab typeface in the title of the comic book, the copious use of white or negative space, and the sense of balance displayed in the foreground elements.

Diesel Forces

A great example of a modern-day take on Retro Futurism as the past seen from the future, this piece of graphic art depicts dieselpunk in its truest sense. Though created by the artist in 2010, what you’re looking at is a flying locomotive, imagined as though straight out of the 1940s. As such, the hints of Art Deco design, which was highly popular in the 1930s and 1940s, are unmistakable in its presentation.

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Image Credit: stefanparis

Note in particular the sleek, aerodynamic lines that tie this whole graphic together. The focus on the machine aspect is also a hallmark of Art Deco, along with the geometric shapes and angular designs noticeable both in the flying locomotive and typography of the title.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Poster

If you can’t remember the 2004 movie, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, don’t feel too bad. This box-office bomb didn’t impress moviegoers, but it’s developed a cult following based in part on its stylistic aspects. An example of Retro Futurism done from the standpoint of the past seen from the future (present day), the plot is a technologically ahead-of-its-time 1939. Not only does the feel of the entire movie exhibit love for this aesthetic, but the poster also makes this clear.

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Image Credit: All Posters

Note the theme of machinery as shown in the sleek and shiny aircraft in the top left of the frame. Alongside that, you also have the spotlights that further enforce Art Deco’s theme of straight, geometric lines and typography that features minimalist, sans serif fonts that were popular in the 1930s.

Retro Futurism in Web Design

The Internet is a great place to find visually engrossing examples of this style. Here’s a short roundup of some of our favorites.

Ferrovial Blog

The blog entry of this Spanish provider of urban services and transportation infrastructure takes an in-depth look at how tomorrow’s highways were supposed to turn out (from the standpoint of 1950s and 1960s artworks and magazine covers). Of course, the guesses were way off the mark, but that’s only one of the many fun things about studying this design trend.

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Image Credit: Ferrovial

The webpage is filled with highly idealized images of a utopian future, all based on the mass-transportation scenario of well-organized superhighways. Also included are images of classic covers from well-known magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, which, as it turned out, devoted quite a few covers to this futuristic speculation back in the day.

Paleofuture

Paleofuture is a project run by writer and speaker Matt Novak; the blog chronicles everything about past predictions of the future spanning graphic design, comic books, pop culture…you name it. Now housed at Gizmondo, the blog formerly had a home at the Smithsonian’s website.

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Image Credit: Paleofuture/Gizmondo

The beauty of looking through this project is all the visuals you get, including old illustrations of how the clothes of the future were supposed to function, how gardening was supposed to be in the 21st century, and even how grocery stores were thought to evolve (drive-through grocery stores, anyone?). For an in-depth, visual treat of how the future was imagined all throughout the past, be sure to check out Paleofuture.

Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Search for the tag “retrofuturism” on this site, and you won’t be disappointed. Stuff to Blow Your Mind contains several pages (just try going through the pagination at the bottom of the page) of content devoted to this design trend. The topics it touches on are almost as limitless as the imaginations of those in the past trying to conjure up their best guesses of how the future would turn out.

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Image Credit: Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Here, you’ll read and see all about predictions concerning self-driving cars; suburban saucers; cars that are made for both land and sea; robot lawn mowers; something called a “railplane”; and The Control Box (which was going to let you control everything in your home right from beside your bed; think of it as a very early and immature Internet of Things concept!).

Retro Futurism in Interior Design and Architecture

If you want to deck out your home so that it looks like what society envisioned the future to be some 50 or 60 years ago, you can! Here are some actionable tips to turn your interiors into a retro-and-future-infused retreat.

Metallic Meets Lighting

Two style touches that can turn your interiors into something futuristic from the standpoint of the past are metallic elements and the right lighting. A classic design strategy, this one-two combination gives instant personality to any space. You’d be surprised at how simple design changes can make a big impact on perception.

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Image Credit: Vintage Industrial Style

Metallic elements—such as chromes, brass and steel—give your room a sleek and silvery touch, which reads very futuristically due to the pop-culture association with these colors and spaceships as well as machinery of all sorts. As for the lighting, a warm (reddish, orangish or yellowish) glow that shines directly on metal accents only serves to magnify the sense of the futuristic in your home.

Geometric Forms and Lines

To turn your home into a retrofuturist masterpiece, it’s also vital to pay attention to the forms all around you, not just the furniture that you put into your home. Since this design trend is well-known for its geometric forms and lines, it makes sense to add these touches to your interior architecture as well.

Staircases should have hard, well-defined edges that make a statement to anyone looking to climb them while their handrails should be curved and smooth (almost like the bodies of futuristic machinery), allowing people’s hands to effortlessly glide along as they make their way up or down the stairs.

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Image Credit: Architecture Art Designs

Even the edges where the walls meet the ceilings should have extra character. Therefore, they shouldn’t be one, straight line, as you’d expect in a normal design. Instead, these edges should be diagonals, representing the progression of different heights of interior space.

Radisson Shanghai and Skyline

The Radisson Shanghai, in China, is a splendid example of Retro Futurism found in architecture. Located in the biggest city in China, this hotel and its surrounding buildings display both old and new design characteristics for a truly well-balanced take on this trend.

The Radisson Shanghai—with its round, crowning dome and tall spire—looks ahead to the future of architectural design. Simultaneously, the body of the hotel is closer to something out of Art Deco in the 1930s, with its neat rows of windows and ornamentation.

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Image Credit: Jakob Montrasio

The buildings nearby seem to share this interesting dichotomy. Some display tall antennas that make them seem like they’re from the future, but others embody an older, more classic design that makes them appear almost gothic with their arches, layers and massive facades.

When the Past Contrasts With the Future, Design Magic Occurs

The strength of Retro Futurism lies in its captivating combination of old and new to make an entirely new concept. The versatility of this trend is what sets it apart from any other: What other trend can you think of where the past can be viewed from the future just as much as the future can be viewed from the past?

It is this contrast—two ways of looking at design—within the same aesthetic that makes us stop, stare and contemplate each time we see a design, picture or piece of architecture that shows off this style.


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