Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Shock Of The Old: Rethinking Nostalgia

Nostalgia has always been a bad word for designers. Like "retro" and "vintage" it smacks of a sort of been-there-done-that ennui — looking backward instead of forward, nostalgia presents as the very antithesis of the new. Even hard-core historians resist its emotional lure, which can, in an instant, dramatize the truth and distance it from fact. Nostalgia skews by privileging episodic time over chronological time: in this context, "memory" is cast as a curious, dangerous and rather unreliable lens.

Or is it?

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia was seen as a disease, an ailment to be cured. (One doctor described it as "hypochondria of the heart.") Over time, it came to typify the porous romanticism of bygone eras — Victorianism, for example — conjuring visions both sentimental and ornamental. The streamlined reserve of the International Style obliterated such decorative excess, inaugurating an age of uncompromised neutrality: later, we called it modernism and applauded its appeal to functionality and its celebration of formal rigor.

But the notion of longing never really went away because at the end of the day, it remains an essential human condition. Equally human is our need to mark time: so we keep calendars and agendas and diaries and albums, all of them gestures of physicality and permanence, tangible, graphic reminders of our own evolution, participation and engagement with the world around us. (My current research has revealed, among other things, evidence of an astonishing range of visual imagination from civillian diarists proving, rather conclusively I think, that DIY began a long time ago.)

It is easy to classify such efforts as lacking in authority since they are, by their very nature, autobiographical: if they're the micro, then the macro — the big world vision — would seem to require more public forms of expression. As designers, we tend to orient our thinking to the broader demographics, visualizing messages that are read and recorded by multiples. But multiples are made up of singulars: in other words, in order to truly understand how to reach people visually, why wouldn't we start smaller? Why aren't our efforts more centralized, more specific to one person at a time? And in the spirit of such inquiry, why wouldn't we consider, as the grass-roots cultural anthropologists that we really are, what makes people feel and notice and care and think — and remember?

The short answer is that in principle, memory is a fairly unreliable serach engine. And while it has received substantial mileage in televised courtroom dramas, where witnesses are asked, under oath, to recall events "to the best of their ability," it is generally thought to be deeply personal and highly flawed. Yet it's those personal flaws — the ones that our logic tells us should be overlooked — that sit right up there with nostalgia as qualities we typically resist, loosely on the assumption that our work needs to read to a wider audience rather than resonate with a smaller one.

Nostalgia is fuzzy and utopian, privileging an imagined past over a real one. And indeed, nostalgia can be kitsch — playing on the collective recollections of a generation and teasing the psyche through the occasional retro replay — but why can't it be more than this? Big branding conceits — Old Navy bringing back '60s hip-huggers, for instance — is one way to mobilize nostalgia as a catalyst for sales, but it's a collective memory and besides, we're all sort of "in" on the irony. Can't the use of personal memory in the public realm be more transcendant, more emotionally raw than this?

A potentially controversial new report released this week claims that sleep, often maligned due to its its obvious link to idleness, might be another opportunity for understanding the role of memory: more sleep may actually bring about more clarity — not less. 'In different stages of sleep," writes Kate Ravilious in this morning's Guardian,"our brains piece together thoughts and experiences, then file them in a structured way, giving us clearer memories and ultimately, better judgment." File and structure might not be the first words to come to mind in this discussion, but to the degree that point-of-view remains a key ingredient in so much of what we produce visually, why would we disparage the role of memory in our work? Human memory is more than merely fallible — it's intangible, difficult to pinpoint, virtually impossible to quantify. And yet, bearing witness lies at the core of a very particular kind of history: it is a history that, more often than not, depends on the collective stronghold of a series of highly individualized stories. (Consider the tradition of oral and visual histories — The Shoah Project, for example.)

I've had a growing concern over the past few years that designers in general — and design students in particular — seem predisposed toward a kind of virulent antihistoricism. It's as if a bow to history precludes innovation, that looking back prevents you from looking forward. Such analytical disparity is perhaps deserving of its own post — but for now, I'd like to suggest that the tension between nostalgia (old) and novelty (new) is one of authenticity (personal) versus authority (public). The designer, as maverick, maker and visual missionary, is perhaps culturally predisposed toward The Next Big Thing. But it's the last little thing — and maybe the thing before that — that really interests me. And which, for that matter, makes me rather nostalgic.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History

Comments [18]

poowerful thing-thinking of tarkovsky and sebald (as always).

just reading iain sinclairs 'edge of the orison'. nostalgia as tradition unfolding, melancholy the touchstone while still the future lies ahead.

If we don't remember the past we're DOOMED to repeat it.

Without looking Backward we never go Forward.

What technology (the Internet) has done is open the Flood Gates to everyone that has an Opinion Authority or Not.
That doesn't mean that said opinions don't have value if their iterated from First Hand Information.

Whenever I write, I write from First Hand Information. Either the information was given to me by an Design Luminary or
the Information was collectively gathered from research of various sources or articles.

If I'm understanding the JUST of your Editorial Correctly you're alluding to Criticism vs History; Truth vs Fabrication; Opinion vs Fact. Somewhere in that neighborhood.

If that's TRUE, technology has made everybody the EXPERT. Whether or not Information is Disseminated Accurately or Not.

Which is why I play the role of Commentator. Neither Historian or Critic a Designer that Participates in Group Discussions. I am Guilty on Occassion in Personal Communication of Taking the Position of Expert.

The TRUTH is in what can be Documented and Proven.
Truth can come from various sources of Information, The Historian, The Critic, or The Commentator. Ultimately the latter two should never GUISE themselves as Historian. Unless they have the alphabets behind their name.


Nostalgia can act as a mnemonic device. An emotional weighting to an event thus giving one stronger recell power. Diverging form and function in this way to allow the shock of the new to be absorbed in an understadnible framework can allow work to push boundaries further than might otherwise occur. It can prevent a closing off and reactionary response which is death to new ideas.
Lucas Krech

Why is so much design criticism about bringing exceptional intellectual prowess to bare on easy targets? In this case, students lack of nostalgia. Nostalgia generally comes with time and experience, something not on the side of young students. Expecting students to crave, with wistful enthusiasm, knowledge of times that they never experienced first hand is a little misguided.

I don't know whether we live in nostalgia rich times, or dangerously nostalgia deprived times, because there really is no way to measure nostalgia. However, if I had the space I would argue that graphic design is in full nostalgia mode, gobbling up ideas from the past with voracious appetite. Most progressive designers I meet "now-a-days", (hissss!), brag about the rock poster they are making on a rusty old screen printing machine- or how little they use their computer.

But really what I think is interesting about Helfand's article is teh point that it is incredibly hard to teach history. Reading about nostalgia makes me think that perhaps a tactic helpful in battling the history-phobics would be to teach the horrendous mistakes of graphic design's past.

Where do you read about historic graphic design failures of the past that caused bodily and intellectual harm? The benefits of graphic design history are all around us. What we see now is in part the survival of the fittest from the past. Maybe we are doing students a disservice by not interspersing lessons of histories failures. ...are there any? ?

Perhaps the dangerous trend that Jessica is observing re: students' lack of historical interest(?) is due to a lack of awareness (no less alarming), a condition that stems from the fact that many programs don't prioritize history in their curriculums (if they even have it at all).

I made the false assumption that just because my under/grad programs emphasized history that this was the norm... unfortunately not, as I'm learning.
tracy kroop


The kind of design failure you refer to (bridges falling down in particular) was covered in depth by Henry Petroski in To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. The first chapter of Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things also deals with design failure in great (although not historical) detail.
dmitri siegel

Zander and Dmitri,

Graphic design failures seldom rise to the level of the kind of engineering failures described by Henry Petroski.

When one does, though, it's a doozy.
Michael Bierut

Permit me to state the obvious: no one designs in a vacuum.

There are always antecedents to what you design in the present moment. Even if it was something you saw when you were two and you don't remember it, it registered indelibly in that primitive brain of yours. Every sight, every smell, every taste, every impression marks an experience that is uniquely yours and makes you who you are, and you design consciously or unconsciously from this platform of assimilated culture (artifacts include: hairstyles, wallpaper patterns, soda bottles, lipstick colors). And because the sensory stimuli for this experience all have their own antecedents, the chain stretches backward in time farther than we can see.

How arrogant to insist upon "pure" design. Design is innovation that lies in reinterpretation and reinvention.
Meg Dreyer

etymologicaly broken down, nostalgia means a longing to return home. nostalgia, and the self-conscious states associated with it like ennui, boredom, and melancholy, is the empty condition of the post-religious world we live in; its a mark of our alienation from the divine and wholeness. it also implies a sense of community, a home is shared with those one is closely tied to. its interesting that jessica brings up the point of the need to mark time with calendars; it sits squarely with benedict anderson's theories of time as 'homogenous', something measureable that moves from the past and forward into the future, and can be marked by a calendar (as opposed to the idea that the past, present, and future exists as one, simultaneously, and is linked by the will of the divine). loosely interepreting anderson, i would say that media, and inherently the distribution of graphic design, allow a sort of 'collective nostalgia' to occur: it creates a fixed language of a defined world that gives the possibility of an assumed association (or 'imagined community') with others who share similar longings, and thus an imaginary shared past experience.

what interests me is the idea of a nostalgia that is entirely mediated. i read in newsweek some years ago (unfortunately, i can't find the reference) john sayles commenting that at american family holiday get togethers, talk is more likely to be centered around television shows and movies, the imagined experiences of others, rather than personal experiences. a key characteristic of 'generation x' is a nostalgia for a mediated past: memories and connections with others in ones peer group (now in our thirties and fourties) are made through the recalling of characters in commercials, obscure brands of soda, obsolete technology, lines from old movies, and toys based on characters in those movies. web communities like this one are in some ways the ultimate realization of anderson's 'imagined communities', people linked in immediate, responsive conversation based solely on the printed (or, more approriately, displayed) word, without any physical or visual link. in extreme examples of web communities, like friendster or myspace, in which the primary purpose of the community is to see how people are linked to one another, it is interesting to ponder how a sense of nostalgia and the passing of communal experience will play out.

another twist on the idea of nostalgia is the living, through lifestyle choice, of a past that never was. an example of this is the clothing company polo ralph lauren. the brand uses as its 'mood board' the lifestyle of old-money, country-clubing, yacht-owning new englanders of the past and brings it to the masses. however, ralph lauren was born ralph lipschitz to working class jewish immigrants in the bronx. one can now participate in cultures that one's ethnic group or economic class has historically been excluded from. it is now a normal practice to nostalgically participate in, through purchase, a fading, genteel world that one has never actually lost.

I think that the comments regarding historical disconnection on the part of this generation is quite right. Fuse that with the ubiquity of web 'expertise' and one problem becomes clear: The internet moves at such an alarmingly faster rate than any other media type that it forces history as a concept to become more and more shallow (think 'archived' news items shallow). I often wonder if the number of printed books will be significantly smaller in 10 years than ever before as many turn to the web not simply to learn but also to express (i.e., why read a newspaper/magazine/book when the web will offer something more 'current;' why go through the labor of publishing when we have blogs). Perhaps it is not the how we understand history that distances us from it, but the speed with which we push ourselves forward, demanding the future now?
human progress landscape

Designers are not just passive harvesters/spectators of nostalgia. They participate actively in the process of turning history into nostalgia. In their school years, designer's instincts are honed to that purpose. They learn to feel the shame of the recently outmoded style, the thrill of recovering a previously shameful fad. This is a cycle that is embedded in every designer. The objective is, of course, to help turn history into consumption.

Mario Wrote:
Designers are not just passive harvesters/spectators of nostalgia. They participate actively in the process of turning history into nostalgia. In their school years, designer's instincts are honed to that purpose. They learn to feel the shame of the recently outmoded style, the thrill of recovering a previously shameful fad.

Well put, Mario. If anything, I would say that modern design — and indeed modern pop culture in general — suffers from an *Excess* of nostalgia. There is an obsession to mine the recent past which has overwhelmed us in the last couple decades, so that now, so much of what passes for "avante-garde" is merely the ability to mine pop-culture fads, clothing, music and haircuts from the recent past and turn them into contemporary designs. This can occur because of our lack of historical perspective, the inability to percieve or remember history going back any further than 2 or 3 decades as even remotely relevant. But again, I wouldn't call this a lack of "nostalgia".
david v.

A friend once commented, "nostalgia lies". He many have been right. We long for the "good old days", when in essence, they weren't that good, but definitely old.

We all want something better, simpler, more unique, but we probably won't find it in the past, but we may find our roots and some meaning. I'm reading "Time and time again" in which another spin and view of history and our place in time is reassembled. "The devloping mind", by Daniel J. Siegel is another great read on how we form our memories and how it can define us.

Nice post, thanks.

I think your description of Friendster and MySpace as the "the ultimate realization of anderson's 'imagined communities" is a fundamental misreading of Anderson. These websites do not create anything like a national identity. Instead they further reinforce our idea of individuality, they allow us to build a tomb out of our own preferences where every link and song title is a reflection of our own personal tastes. There is no collective identity involved—no immersion into a shared identity. This kind of mass customization stands in direct contradiction to kind of collective identity that Anderson was describing.

Anderson does emphasize the role of the printing press and the ability of designed artifacts like maps and exhibits to imbue a false past with authenticity. But it can be argued that design is only a passive participant in this kind of social change. It is an age old question whether culture is shaped by producers (read: designers) or consumers. Critics from Adolf Loos to Virginia Postrel have come down on the side of consumers. If so, then design is a symptom of nostalgia and fundamentally incapable of "creating a fixed world" or anything else. What is interesting however is that this impotence is entirely consistent with your idea of a "mediated" or inauthentic past. Design does not impose or monumentalize the past, it manifests the unconscious, immaterial longing of the consumer.

dmitri siegel

I do suspect, though, that "mediated" nostalgia is precisely what gives it such a negative tilt: and if designers are by their very nature primed to "package," then the moment the nostalgic idea becomes a collective commodity, it's all over.

Conversely — and this is the part that really interests me — why are we drawn so indelibly to vernacular forms — the handmade, gestural, rough-hewn one-offs that fly formally in the face of mass produced material? And how does this more authentic evidence, this physical proof of one single person's interpretation of history as it is happening — suggest a different kind of nostalgia: not so much imagined as impassioned?
Jessica Helfand

i made the disclaimer that it was a loose interpretation of anderson's theories, though i didnt claim that those websites themselves were the prime examples of anderson's theories, but rather the example of the formation of on line communities in general. a more political example would be al qaeda, as well as white power groups in the u.s., which have used the internet as a decentralized medium of communication in their 'nation-building'. through webcams, chat, messageboards, and email, the building of an 'imagined community' exists in real time, through a sort of instant , interactive, and omnipresent version of print. in a more commercial, american sense, witness the version of diasporic ethnogenesis, through on line dating, occurring on ethnicity-specific community sites such as Asian Avenue and Black Planet (note the spatial references in their titles).

of course, i dont think this is altogether positive. in one sense i agree that a site like friendster is, ironically, alienating, but i contend that its point of existence is to show how people are connected in the real world. however, regarding the lists dmitri refers to, of song titles and movie titles and such, a key aspect of those lists is that each item listed links to the thousands of other people on friendster or myspace who also list those items. though it might seem superficial, the lists demonstrate alignments of people based on consumer tendencies. one of anderson's points was that nationalism arose out of a declining sense of religiosity. as the sense of nationalism erodes amongst educated people in multicultural, post-industrial societies, a sense of a shared history becomes replaced by an alignment with people of similar consumer tendencies and brand loyalty. fundamentalism (or revolutionary resistance) arises within groups that either don't have access to build those consumer identities, or fear the threat that that way of being poses to their sense of nationhood.

to return to the idea of nostalgia, i think the resistance to a mediated nostalgia and a favoring of the handmade points to the desire for the pre-industrial authentic. but why can't a mediated nostalgia be impassioned (as well as tinged with alienation and absurdity)? i know a few americans of various ethnicities who grew up believing they were part of the manchester / british post-punk scene, even though they've never been to england. but the passion with which people hold on to their identifications with this scene, experienced only through cassettes, records, and cds and their accompanying artwork (and nostalgically revisited through limewire and mp3s) is very strong. in a similar sense, although occurring in a very different historical context, arjun appadurai, in modernity at large, offers the example of the affinity for american music in the philippines:

"... not only are there more filipinos singing perfect renditions of some american songs (often from the american past) than there are americans doing so, there is also, ofcourse, the fact that the rest of their lives is not in complete synchrony withthe referential world that first gave birth to these songs. in a further globalizing twist on what frederic jameson has called 'nostalgia for the present', these filipinos look back to a world they have never lost... here, we have nostalgia without memory."

appadurai's passage articulates the complexity of nostalgia and memory with a more globalized attitude. in a reversal to appadurai's anecdote, chains such as pier 1 imports and anthopologie (is that name meant to be ironic?) play to the american, suburban desire for the authentic, which usually must be imported from poorer countries. does proof of a single person's interpretation of history exist more strongly in the handmade? doesnt history imply not only the personal, but the political as well?

a key characteristic of 'generation x' is a nostalgia for a mediated past: memories and connections with others in ones peer group (now in our thirties and forties) are made through the recalling of characters in commercials, obscure brands. . .

What would an unmediated collective past be? No recollections of where we were when we learned that somewhere was bombed or someone was shot. No memories of operas or symphonies. No literary references. No Shakespeare or bible phrases. Or were past media experiences unmediated?

Yes, indeed. Nostalgia used to be so much better. Today's is just a shabby imitation.
Gunnar Swanson

a humble person that inherits something is not nostalgic, which is a symptom of alienation.

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