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The Future of Nostalgia

How the cultural ornaments of childhood continue to appeal to us in our devices.

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.

- George Eliot

While the recent release of the much anticipated Windows 8 was on the minds of most throughout the technology world, a major shakeup within Apple was unfolding in Cupertino. As reported in The New York Times this past week, the company fired longtime Steve Jobs enthusiast, Scott Forstall, the head of Apple’s mobile software development. Mr. Forstall was responsible for the nostalgic design features throughout Apple’s mobile operating system. From the gray linen background on iPhone’s notification screen to the faux veneer bookshelves of iBooks, Mr. Forstall’s signature has been ever-present. In his place, Apple has installed industrial designer Jonathan Ive, the lead hardware designer of many of Apple’s best known products, including the MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPod. In contrast to Mr. Forstall’s ubiquitous references to the past (like a reel-to-reel tape recorder that can be seen operating in the background of the Podcasts app), Mr. Ive is known for his minimalist, sleek, and functionally clean designs.


Before dismissing this as simply a bit of provincial silicon valley gossip, consider the following: As the standard bearer when it comes to product design, Apple’s shift from Mr. Forstall to Mr. Ive represents a likely shift in an overall aesthetic to which we have become accustomed (if not wearied). Industry insiders–particularly software designers–have long complained about Apple’s obsession with retro gimmickry. There is even a term that describes the design philosophy that has characterized Apple’s approach: skeuomorphism. A skeuomorph, according to the OED, is a “derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” As Nicholas Gessler has said, it is making new designs look “comfortably old and familiar.” Hence, the suede desk calendar of iCal (complete with the remains of ripped off pages), the casino-like atmosphere of Game Center, or the gratuitously nostalgic templates in Pages, Keynote, and other Apple wares (seriously, a chalkboard background?).


By all accounts, the design aesthetic that Mr. Ive will bring to Apple is one of clean lines, flat surfaces, and obvious functionality, and we are likely to see the retro throwbacks begin to disappear. The just-released Windows 8 shows very little of the nostalgic design of Apple’s iOS, and may be (gasp) paving the way into the future.

How can we account for the appeal of nostalgic, skeuomorphic design? Surely we can apply perspectives ranging from marketing to social psychology to cultural algorithms. Consider the fact that the specific retro design features commonly found on iOS are from a particular time and place. We have circa late 1970s reel-to-reel tape, gimmicky rotary telephone ringtones, and numerous references and throwbacks to late 20th century American culture. The appeal of such imagery to likely consumers of the iPhone and similar devices is probably as much related to the age of such consumers as anything. We haven’t seen many steam-powered, wind-up, or horse-drawn references on iOS (and if we did, it would only be due to the recent Steampunk resurgence).

Fire truck

From the perspective of cognitive psychology, we might imagine that nostalgic design could appeal to our sense of ease. We bring cognitive sets to a calculator, desk calendar, or music player. When it is recognizable, we might feel more comfortable with it. If it looks inviting, friendly, and familiar, we may have greater feelings of self-efficacy.

In a psychoanalytic view, nostalgia may reflect fantasies about returning home (or, more specifically, to the womb). The term “nostalgia” was coined by the Swiss physician, Johannes Hofer, to describe a condition of Schweizerheimweh–Swiss homesickness–that was present in Swiss mercenaries on extended deployments. As a concept, the term nostalgia describes a sentimental longing for the past–typically for our home or our childhood. We might be drawn to the ornaments of our childhood–old school telephones, record players, suede textures, floppy disks–precisely because of what is evoked, childhood and its possibilities. Nostalgia becomes a kind of wish fulfillment project.

To look at all of this more broadly, perhaps skeuomorphism is symptomatic of our age–a time when we have access to any old image or old recording. We live in an age of remakes, reissues, and sampled music. Books, movies, and television can all be viewed online. With such changes in the media landscape, the only thing left is to dream of the past. Still, the pre-computer, pre-internet past is quickly fading and soon the earth will be populated with people that never knew a world without a printed circuit board. The metaphors that have stirred our imaginations previously will soon be as anachronistic as the horse and buggy.

© 2012 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved

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