• Transform magazine
  • April 22, 2024


Unarchiving rich histories through design

Caspar Lam

Caspar Lam, partner at Synoptic Office and assistant professor of communication design at Parsons School of Design, discusses the importance of businesses unlocking the human stories in their archival data to communicate ideas, build experiences, and cultivate new audiences.

Language around ‘archiving’ and ‘histories’ is usually reserved for museums or hefty academic texts – but these themes are hugely powerful when it comes to elevating, developing and evolving brands.

Design has the power to both tell and unearth a brand’s history. In turn, these histories can prove to be superbly powerful, resonant tools for brand design itself – when used correctly.

Unarchiving histories work well with cultural organisations, but it equally lends itself easily to consumer lifestyle brands. In a liquid modern world, tradition is something that is less tangible but is nonetheless important to a consumer using brands to ground their own identity.

Certain brands have the luxury of a vast archive already that can be mined for evolutions in their identity design, or tangential product lines. Fashion and lifestyle brands are arguably the most fortunate in that respect: think about the likes of Nike, which frequently revive designs of yesteryear to evolve product lines. 

Smart brands capitalise on such histories by evoking moods and ideas from the past – something an increasingly nostalgia-obsessed younger audience seems to yearn for. This idea of grounding a brand (and in turn, its consumers) in the past is a smart move; it concurrently serves to cement that brand in the present, and bring existing and new audiences with them into the future.

The ability to use histories, and the ways in which you do so, is highly context dependent. Arguably, it’s most challenging for tech and consumer electronic companies – from the big guns like IBM and Xerox, founded in 1911 and 1906 respectively, to the newest emerging start-ups in AI – with their focus on innovation and the future. Relying on legacy and ‘traditional’ history conjures negative connotations and seem at odds with their brand values, in which the past becomes a footnote.

However, the increasingly rapid pace of trend cycles means that now, there’s a not-insignificant audience interested in, and collecting, older tech – even that as recent as the late 90s and early 00s. Nostalgia for the recent past is a really interesting phenomenon; there's an interest in computing history that wasn't there even five or 10 years ago. This opens a door to how you leverage history in even consumer electronics brands; and is reflected in the way more lifestyle-led tech brands are responding. Nintendo, for instance, revived its classic games to please today’s audiences – even the Gen Alpha consumers.

But using history and archives in brand design isn’t about latching onto the latest fads and adhering to trend cycles: for brands to do it well, they must do so in a way that’s totally authentic. Getting to the core of a brand begins way before the visual – it's all about the strategy, and the values the brand wants to project and maintain. 

For organisations with a longer history, brand designers can use the design history to evolve those values from the past and make them relevant again. In either case, for old and new brands alike, marrying an audience’s familiarity with those values with their knowledge of a brand’s visual assets sets the precedent for retaining, shifting, or re-imagining a brand’s design.

It ultimately comes down to ensuring those values are consistent and true in the organisations' past, present, and future: there’s no point using a brand’s ‘history’ that’s been post-engineered to fit with whatever you want to say or do in the here and now.