From cutting-edge toy stores and action-packed movies to out-there fashion, retrofuturism is everywhere you look. But what exactly is it? And given the genre includes grim steampunk, cheerful space-age fantasies and a whole heap in between, where should designers and product owners start? Here, we cover the history, the features and the most important varieties of retrofuturism and offer plenty of inspiration for how to use it in your designs.
What is retrofuturism?
A few months ago, the city of Xi’an—the Chinese starting point of the ancient Silk Road and the resting place of the Terracotta Army—a luxurious new toy store opened to an excited fanfare. The theme of its minimalist, industrial interior? The airship, a great flying inflatable that had its heyday almost a century ago. But why would a futuristic space theme itself around a technology that’s virtually obsolete?
There’s a one-word answer to that: retrofuturism. Officially, retrofuturism is “the use of a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era.” That can mean people in the past looking forward, but it can also mean us going back, and imagining a mix of modern life with older features or ways of behaving.
Solar-powered zeppelins, chrome barstools and space-age diners all fit the bill. Marvel’s visions of Asgard (Vikings in spaceships) are retrofuturist, but so is Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, a cultural-center-meets-flying-saucer above the beach on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Still confused? Let’s go back in time, to the beginnings of this playful, back-to-the-future trend.
When did retrofuturism start?
According to some commentators, the term was coined in a 1967 book called Retro-Futurism, by TR Hinchcliffe. But, fittingly for a genre that mixes the real with the imaginary, there’s very little evidence this book was ever actually written or published. The first reliable mention of retrofuturism comes in a 1983 New York Times advertisement for Bloomingdale’s department store, which describes jewelry with “silverized steel and sleek grey linked for a retro-futuristic look”.
But the trend was gestating long before we found the words for it in the 1980s. Futurism itself began in Italy in the early 1900s, as industrialization and urbanization were transforming our relationship with the world. It fetishized planes, cars and modern inventions, as well as values such as speed, technology and youth.
As the twentieth century went on, we pushed the throttle even harder. Planes crossed oceans and rockets roared into space. Buildings rose higher and higher, and comic book superheroes still leaped over them. Highways, then malls, spread across much of the world, neon lights banished the dark and clothes were mass-produced from fabrics that hadn’t existed a few decades before. Even the food got fast.
People, inevitably, sold products, made designs and told stories based on these changes. American poet Ezra Pound put it neatly in 1920, when he wrote, “The age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace.”
From raygun gothic to steampunk: key retrofuturist designs
Buildings, clothing, sci-fi books and films, art, advertisements and video games moved with the times, and looked forward in both hope and fear to what might come next. When we started looking back on those works, retrofuturism was born. The trend has taken many forms, but here are some of the key types:
- Atomic Age: Nuclear weapons and nuclear power were two sides of the same coin. One killed hundreds of thousands in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the other promised to power the world. This mix of optimism and dread fuels a great deal of retrofuturism. So-called “atompunk” features laboratories, espionage, great factories and classic cars. See: Metropolis, Dr Strangelove, the Fallout series, The Incredibles.
- Space Age: Closely tied with the Atomic Age, the space age generally has a more optimistic feel, summed up both by real trips to the moon and the utopian exploration of Star Trek. An American-influenced culture of chewing gum, roadside diners, surfing teens, comic-book heroes and the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, plus dynamic modernist and art deco design, shaped the space-age look, which is sometimes called “raygun gothic”. See: The Jetsons, Barbarella, Moonraker
- Steampunk: the Wild West and Victorian London are popular settings for this mix of 19th-century tech and science fiction. Steam-powered machines, ornate difference engines (early computers), cogs, gears, burnished bronze and greatcoats are among its features. See: Wild Wild West, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hugo.
- Cyberpunk: when it crash-landed in the 1980s, cyberpunk was arguably pure futurism. Its mix of dystopian settings, virtual reality, drugs and cyborgs came with a distinct look—leather, shades, surveillance cameras and neon lights—that now itself feels retro. See: The Neuromancer, The Matrix, Cyberpunk 2077.
Of course, retrofuturism doesn’t stop there. Try watching the Flintstones (modern tech reimagined for the Stone Age, or stonepunk) or Star Wars (swords and princesses in space), or opening your ears to the mix of analog tools (cassettes, vintage synths) with modern R&B production used by artists such as the Weeknd. Some of our oldest stories are arguably retrofuturist—think of the legends of King Arthur, in which 12th-century poets added then-modern innovations (stirrups, chivalry, plate armor) to the myth of a 6th-century British war leader, shaping the way we see the legend to this day.
Why designers love retrofuturism today
Now that we’ve seen how we got here, it seems reasonable to ask why. Retrofuturism’s appeal is undoubtedly partly about kitsch. Nostalgia is a heady cocktail, and it’s fun to look back at the visions of the future people once had. The results can be funny—like kooky robot butlers, pills that taste just like chicken or the belief that the moon might really be made of cheese. There’s an opportunity for playful, imaginative humor here that will suit many brands.
Retrofuturism can also be stylish. Fashion in particular is known for its cyclical nature, in which looks fall out of favor then come back with a bang. Art, architecture and clothing constantly reshape the old to find a look that feels powerful today: retrofuturism just makes its classic influences obvious. As a designer, you might mix a Scuba mask and leg warmers because they look awesome, but also because they offer an image that you can play with: the outfit above references late 20th-century leisure trends and space-age optimism, but gives it an austere, almost dystopian modern twist.
We live in a world of climate change and digital addiction, not to mention inequalities and cruelties that stubbornly refuse to go away. The more optimistic end of retrofuturism conjures a time when people really thought that gleaming new buildings or nuclear fusion might take us closer to paradise.
Today’s technology also offers plenty of opportunities, but when a transformation like the metaverse is right in front of us, it can look pretty scary. Retrofuturism can help us deal with that fear by presenting transformative technology in a safe, fictional space. But it also reminds us that change is something humans have been grappling with since our ancestors first sharpened a stick or fed a fire. Designers can use retrofuturism to remind consumers of the power of idealism, and make feel like they’ve found a safe harbor in the storm.
Getting the retrofuturist look
So how can you bring retrofuturism into your designs? You might take your cues from templates such as steampunk or the space age. But you can also work in general retrofuturist features such as:
- a focus on machines or technology
- classic or vintage design features
- a mix of historic and futuristic objects
- a postmodern fusion of styles from different eras
- smooth geometric shapes such as spheres and ovals
- sharp, clean polygons
- the vibrant colors, neon and shining chrome of new technology
- the grime, dust and dirt of old machinery
As we can see, retrofuturism can have some contradictory features, with space-age shine contrasting with steampunk grime. But what these approaches have in common is tech, and it’s a tech that has a very physical form. Retrofuturist art tends to focus on function, with great pistons, gears or thrusters and exaggerated lines that suggest movement. That’s even true of cyberpunk, which tends to avoid wireless technology and instead give its technology solid form, via people equipped with robotic limbs, or cities that seem to squirm with cables. In an age that can seem increasingly virtual, retrofuturism offers something you can touch.
What this does for your brand
So how should brands use retrofuturism? As we’ve seen, it can look beautiful, but it’s also hugely varied. Packaging that majors on space-age optimism will carry a different message to a noirish, steampunk vision. This freedom makes retrofuturism harder to define, but allows brands to build visuals that suit their products. There’s plenty of inspiration online—check out the joyous parade of images on Reddit, see the highways of your dreams on Ferrovial or feast on Paleofuture’s wide-ranging analysis.
It can be worth matching different types of retrofuturism to your audience based on age: space age for the boomers, cyberpunk for gen Xers and so on. But retrofuturism’s appeal is wider than that. These ideas and images have been reused by modern culture again and again, with Gen Z in particular known for their love of culture and products made long before their birth. Ultimately, retrofuturism is for anyone who’s ever dreamed of what could be, or what might have been: you just need to find a vision that fits your brand and speaks to your target market.
How designers can use retrofuturism
Retrofuturism is a wide-ranging style that offers plenty of inspiration for brands and designers. Whether you follow one of the classic templates such as steampunk or raygun gothic, or work in more subtle touches that evoke past visions of the future, it can help you craft designs that will resonate with consumers. Retrofuturism is a compelling mix of optimism and pessimism, but at its heart it celebrates beautiful objects and human ingenuity. And what brand doesn’t want to get on board with that?