Retro = Stealing

rob_luciani's picture

Hey Everybody

I'm doing a school project on the retro design movement and since it's based on getting
ideas from past styles and artwork, I've come across a little question of my own.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to calling something "retro" and then blatenly stealing
an idea from a past piece of work. Most notably would be the Paula Scher "swatch" ad in the 80's replicating a work done in the
20's. Also and most recently the Franz Ferdinand cd cover taking the same image from the "Swatch" ad recently mentioned.

What is Retro and where do you draw the line.
also if you can point me to any good reference material regarding
this issue, that would be sweet too!


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franz Ferdinand.jpg3.82 KB
Mark Simonson's picture

According to Scher, the Swatch poster was a parody of the Matter poster, not a rip-off. The story about the poster and the "controversy" that followed it (only after it started appearing in design annuals) is chronicled in Scher's book, "Make It Bigger." The title of her book apparently comes from something the Swatch marketing director said to her when she was working on the poster.

ben_archer's picture

Hi Rob

The convention in fine art and illustration is that when you do a piece in a known style you sign it in such a way as to acknowledge the original source i.e. Peter Saville after Fortunato Depero, Paula Scher after Herbert Matter, Franz Ferdinand after Alexandr Rodchenko.

For reasons that are not too clear, this has never been rigourously applied to the 'plastic arts' and entire reputations have been built on careful appropriation. I guess the critical thing is whether or not the new piece slavishly copies the existing style or merely references it.

Two (old) articles about this come directly to mind; 'The Age of Plunder' by Jon Savage in The Face No.33 January 1983. and 'A Dearth of Typography' by Malcolm Garrett in an early Baseline magazine (the Bodoni issue I think). Historical pastiche and parody would be other aspects of contemporary design (and advertising) practice worth looking at here.

How does your instructor define 'the retro design movement'?

jonsel's picture

I think you are slightly confusing the idea of "retro" with "homage". Lots of things are retro, simply by using stylistic cues from previous art movements. The best retro stuff is actually very contemporary and would never have been produced back in the day.

The dispute here is between homage and theft. The Paula Scher case has long caused much debate as it definitely straddles the line. Homage (and parody) usually depend on the audience getting the reference (or joke). One could argue that Scher's true audience was Swatch, and not their customers, and they probably understood what she was doing. She has even said that she had permission from Matter's widow to use the original artwork. This makes this a non-issue, in my opinion. Once she had permission from the originator (or his estate), then there's no theft.

I'm not sure if they still run this, but Print Magazine has run some columns from the encyclopaedic Steven Heller chronicling instances of curiously similar designs - very often magazine and book covers.

Nick Shinn's picture

John Downer's Call It What It Is draws some fine distinctions between categories of "derivation", as related to type design.

When will you stop identifying with what defines you? -- Vaneigem.

Mark Simonson's picture

See also Steven Heller and Julie Lasky's "Borrowed Design" (1993, Van Nostrand Reinhold).

Paul Cutler's picture

Retro is the death of idealism.


elliot100's picture

This webpage (in French) has good examples of Franz Ferdinand artwork along with the Rodchenko (and other) originals.

Termopolium's picture

The exact same poster made in the eighties would be a very different statement than the if it was made in the twenties, since the context has changed so much. In the twenties it was hyper-modern, even futuristic, while in the eighties it was retro-ironic. If it had been made in the same era, it would have been a ripoff, I mean, they're practically identical.

It's like that short story by Borges ("Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote") where somebody writes an exact copy of Don Quixote, word by word, but Borges argues that it's a much better book than the original since it was written in an era where writing a book like that meant something more profound.

I would call this type of thing a "pastiche" or a "homage", and it's not like it's anything new. I mean, the idea of posing models just like God and Adam in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, shooting a model in a Mona Lisa pose or depicting somebody like the Uncle Sam on the "I want you" poster has been done to death. It's not like they're ripping Michelangelo or Leonardo off, just using their work as a part of a statement. Context changes the message just like medium does.

And anyway, I've always found Scott Adams's statement that originality often starts out as nothing more than plagiarism coupled with a lack of the necessary skills to make an exact copy. In other words, people set out to be the new Michelangelo (or Zapf or Frutiger or whoever), and end up doing something much more valuable and original than that.

dezcom's picture

In the Scher/Matter case, Paula was using a very well known Swiss poster design to try to make Swatch associate with it and become well known as Swiss as well. It was paying homage. She knew that at least everyone in the design community would know the original and know she was spoofing it. The difference was intent. She did not intend to pass off Matter's work as her own and even paid his family to use it.
Retro is going back to an old style that we may now think of as quaint or charming and trying to follow that style. I think retro may fail when it is all about the style and the quaintness and not about the current communication issue facing the designer and client. The reference to that specific bygone era must help valiate the current communication objective to make sense. Making an ad for some hi tech product in art deco style would not help the communication, even if it were aesthetically pleasing.


Nick Shinn's picture

...where do you draw the line.

I draw the line by drawing the line.

In the past I've traced over older types, as the basis of new designs, but I've moved on. I don't think tracing is necessarily plagiarism or theft, but there's only so much copying an artist or designer can do before losing their voice, and if you want to be unique, you work from scratch. That applies to individuals and eras; a certain amount of retro is cool, but it's unfortunate that the most popular typeface of the 2000s dates from the 1950s.

dezcom's picture

There was a time when designs from older times and older technologies needed to be redone in current technology to be usable. This is fine, valuable, and admirable. Most of this has been done by now but there are probably a few more out there that should be redrawn for digital use and skilled typographic design historians to do it. Type design that is to represent our current time is something else. There is no need to redraw what has been done for that purpose. We do not need to model our work after previous times to make it valid. We just need to sit in-front of our tools of choice (be them paper or digital) and design what comes out of our heads instead of what already came out of our ancestors heads. We make marks and then make judgments about them again and again until we are either satisfied with the result or spent from the effort. Doing something reflecting what already exists gives us a sense of familiarity and a known set of rules to make our judgments easier to approve of. Remember that the people we admire from the past we admire for their innovation, not their duplication skills. Taking a stare at a blank screen or piece of paper may seem off-putting at first but the challenge is a reward in itself. That is not to say that whatever we do will be looked upon by future generations as something to emulate. We just need to do our own designs today for their own sake and let the generations to come think what they will of it--just as we did those who came before us.
So as Nick said, "draw the line" your own line.


Nick Shinn's picture

I should add that the work of many retro font designers is highly interpretive -- especially when inspired from lettering, rather than type -- precisely because they are drawing their own line. House Industries, Nick's Fonts, Font Diner -- the irony is that new, unusual typefaces from those foundries are "retro" while genuinely old typefaces such as Helvetica (1957) or Frutiger (1968) are considered "modern".

dezcom's picture

I thought Frutiger was 1976?


PS: Not that my memory can be trusted :-)

Si_Daniels's picture

>I thought Frutiger was 1976?

Charles de Gaulle opened in 1974 - so for two years passengers wandered around like lost sheep ;-)

William Berkson's picture

1. I think the line between old and new is rather broad and fuzzy in type design, particularly the design of text types. Erik Spiekermann said that a text face can only vary about 5% from the past and still work well as a text face. I don't know where he got that number, but I think the basic point is valid. This means that almost all new types to a greater or lesser extent draw on the past.

2. I do believe in the validity of "Classics" in type design and in every other field I can think of. That is, there are some things of great excellence from the past that are worth preserving and using in the present. But in the case of type, you can't do the equivalent of putting a copy of Shakespeare on your shelf, or a great 18th century table on your living room floor. Loss of old materials and changes in technology mean that the Classic type design has to be interpreted. And this means even a deliberate revival has many decisions about what to preserve and what to change. And generally the older the type the more decisions that need to be made. Thus in interpreting the designer is creating something to some extent new and with the eye and hand of that designer in it.

Also there is an extent to which most would not want to revive in old type, such as the splotchy inks and uneven height to paper of early printing. And there are issues of spacing. So the reviver is faced with what to keep and what to change. When the design is closer to a particular original it is a 'revival'. When it is farther it is not. But where to draw the line is not easy to say. Is Electra a revival? No. Is Caledonia? Well, not so easy to say.

I think new text face designs are just great, but I believe there is also a legitimate place for classics, and hence revivals that are deliberately reminiscent of the originals.

We need new plays, but every generation also benefits from revivals of Shakespeare--presented live, today.

pattyfab's picture

Not just Shakespeare revivals but new interpretations of the same themes, e.g. West Side Story.

pattyfab's picture

And back to Franz Ferdinand - their cover is definitely an homage, not a rip-off. If you look at their other covers

you'll see they are going for a distinctive look to their cover designs.

But musically... anyone else think of Frankie Goes to Hollywood?

dezcom's picture

"so for two years passengers wandered around like lost sheep"

They still do in the Dallas/Ft Worth airport--well maybe more like lost cattle :-)


Si_Daniels's picture

>well maybe more like lost cattle :-)

A good wayfinding system would help 'steer' them in the right direction. ;-)

dezcom's picture

as long as it didn't horn in on their right to wander aimlessly.


Nick Shinn's picture

I thought Frutiger was 1976?

I got the date 1968 from the Frutiger page at
The definitive version of a work is always a source of debate for scholars, but I tend to think that the design is most expressive of when the author created it, more so than when it was published or updated.

Loss of old materials and changes in technology mean that the Classic type design has to be interpreted.

1. That's a circular argument, Bill. It only remains classic by being reinterpreted.

2. I don't believe the "technology change" argument to be valid with phototype in the offset era, unless someone wants to reinterpret a Diatronic face with all the ticks and traps, before setting, or after with the corruption of repeated imaging (eg Blur). Helvetica Bold today is no different, in print display usage, than it was in 1969.

William Berkson's picture

>Not just Shakespeare revivals but new interpretations of the same themes, e.g. West Side Story.

Right on target. The analogy to plays--especially realized in performance--seems to hold up pretty well!

dezcom's picture

"especially realized in performance"

It depends on how you interpret performance. If you liken performing a play to using a type in a layout, there are many new performances daily. West Side Story is a great example of extension with a very new realization. Performing the Romeo and Juliet as originally written is just a performance in modern time.


William Berkson's picture

>1. That’s a circular argument, Bill. It only remains classic by being reinterpreted.

No, it's not circular. The revival of Caslon in 1844--the first revival--was of the actual types, though admittedly with better inks. It was then *recognized* as a classic. And people actually look at the old types as printed, and that inspires them--something like reading the original play and giving a new performance. The point is, they could have just done a new typeface,but they chose to revive one they felt was classic, using the new technology--pantographic punch cutting, linotype, monotype, photo, digital.

Because admiration for the original design inspires the revivals, my argument not circular. The revivals do help to keep memory of the original alive, but they don't define the classic status. For example, people have been dissatisfied with early digital revivals for example of Baskerville and Electra, because they admired the letter press versions. It is the admiration of the originals as classics that makes people revive them.

Furthermore, you seem to be conceding that 'classic' is a valid category, whereas before--at least as I have read you--you seemed to hold that good old types are never to be preferred to good new modern types. The analogy in plays would be to say that we should only perform modern plays and never perform Shakespeare. To perform Shakespeare would always be a 'cop out' and an inferior product. But there have been in fact great revivals--both in plays and types.

William Berkson's picture

>Performing the Romeo and Juliet as originally written is just a performance in modern time.

Your qualifer 'just' seems to minimize the creative effort involved. Every performance of Romeo and Juliet, even of the same text (and Shakespeare is usually cut) is an interpretation by the director and the actors (and the set and costume designers, any music, etc.) And this interpretation of Shakespeare is a serious creative effort, about which many books have been written. If you compare different films of Romeo and Juliet or of Hamlet--and these with performances you have seen--I think it becomes pretty obvious that it ain't so easy to do revivals, and some are great and some are flops.

Same with type, I think.

kegler's picture

Performing the Romeo and Juliet as originally written

Interesting analogy considering Shakespeare derived most of his plays from earlier works.

dezcom's picture

Operas are often previous works, books, stories, plays, converted to the "new medium" of opera. Then you get the film version, then the DVD :-)


William Berkson's picture

>considering Shakespeare derived most of his plays from earlier works.

Another good point on the importance of the past, of tradition. Philosopher of art R.G. Collingwood pointed out that in the most creative historical periods artists borrowed freely not only from the past but also from one another: the Renaissance, Elizabethian England.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

"It's hard enough to be clever, you don't have to be original."
— Attributed to David Bowie (singer/songwriter)

Nick Shinn's picture

The revival of Caslon in 1844—the first revival—was of the actual types,

My understanding is that the Caslons had kept the old matrices (not the type) for sentimental reasons, and recast fresh type. Either way, it's not the kind of revival you're talking about, where a change in technology requires reinterpretation and redesign. In fact, Miller & Richards' Old Style of 1844 (Phemister's "Franklin Old Style") -- sort of Caslon modernized, cleaned up with vertical stress --prompted by the Caslon recasting, may be considered such, motivated by the perceived shortcomings, ie roughness, of the Caslon types to Victorian eyes.

This was not the first revival, as blackletter had been oft revived over the years, particularly finding use in newspaper mastheads since the 1712 English newspaper tax.

Because admiration for the original design inspires the revivals, my argument not circular.

A designer admiring something old doesn't make it a classic. You would have us believe that anything which is revived or kept alive is a de facto classic. Monticello, for instance, is old, and has long been available from Linotype, but is more curiosity than classic. Then there are quite a few instances of genuine classics for which nobody has decided new technological reinterpretatons were needed. Where is the digital Elzevir (French Old Style, that is, which was an early 19th century French face revived in the 1880s, and popular in the US from then until the 1930s, not the DTL version), for instance, or the digital Franklin Old Style?

you seemed to hold that good old types are never to be preferred to good new modern types.

There's always room for a good new Caslon :-)

duncan's picture

I have a question that I believe relates to this topic. If someone designed a typeface that used characters from an existing face -- for example letter shapes cut out of circles -- would that be infringing on copyrights or creating something new?

Would or should something like that offend the original typeface designer?

Another case that I think would fall into the same category but I am unclear on would be if someone created a distressed version of an existing typeface...?


Si_Daniels's picture

Legally this would depend on the font's EULA. In the case above (Myriad?) the Adobe EULA says you can't modify the font to do this (their font FAQ says you can for private use). Same goes for distortion. Adobe won a legal victory over a vendor that was distorting (scaling) their fonts and reselling them.

Offending the type designer is a separate issue - some type designers are easily offended (try setting one of Nick's fonts in orange) and some are not. You only know what would be offensive to a particular designer by asking them.

Nick Shinn's picture

some type designers are easily offended

Good job I'm open-minded.

dezcom's picture

Holy Shazolly, THAT is a scream!


William Berkson's picture

Gives a whole new meaning to the type designer's call: there goes one of mine ;-)

>A designer admiring something old doesn’t make it a classic.

One type designer, no. But many type designers for over a hundred years, and readers who respond positively to it, yes. That makes it a classic. Not me or any single person saying so. Designers, manufacturers, and readers together have made Baskerville, Bodoni, Caslon, and Garamond classics.

Nick Shinn's picture

Yeah, that's cute, but the best condom font has to be Cocon.
I forget which country the packages are from, but I saw the sample in the FF15 exhibit.

Joe Pemberton's picture

I like to ask myself... is the person who's idea I'm using dead? And if not, do I think I can get away with it? =P

Seriously, if I were to undertake anything like the Franz Ferdinand "homage" to Rodchenko, I'd have to ask myself if I were adding anything to the conversation. Or am I just benefitting from an aesthetic/style from another time?

Thanks Jonsel, for putting the context behind retro vs. homage.

Si_Daniels's picture

>is the person who’s idea I’m using dead? And if not, do I think I can get away with it?

I believe that for the US the stats are one in five murders remain unsolved. As most criminals are not that bright - I'd give your odds 50/50.

Cheers, Si

rs_donsata's picture

On many of the given examples the original images and graphics have actually become icons which are used by their value in an original semantic exercise by the designer, I don't think most of them are actually homages.


Mark Simonson's picture

One thing to consider about "retro": Most of what is called "retro" would not be mistaken for an authentic period design. There is almost always some modern sensibility to it that becomes more apparent with time. Looking back at "retro" designs from the seventies, when they were doing what they thought was Art Deco, to our modern eyes it usually looks more "seventies" than anything else.

dezcom's picture

What happens when everybody is retroing prior retros of prior retros? Somebody has to do something new once in a while just for a change of pace! :-)


Linda Cunningham's picture

Gee, Chris, you mean actually be original? The only problem with that is it takes a long time for people to actually figure out that it's "worth" "something" -- however one wants to define "worth" and "something."

Don't forget, when "Star Trek" (TOS) came out in 1966, it was pretty much a bust. Our "instant gratification" society these days isn't even willing to give a show (even a good one, if any do indeed exist on American television) much of a chance.

[OTOH, at least now there's DVD for those of us who need a fix of the older shows that were flashes-in-the-pan. Now, where is my collection of Season 1 of "Wild Wild West"?]


dezcom's picture

Linda, I guess that means I either have to design a "Reality" typeface or do a retro of Trajan :-)


Linda Cunningham's picture

Paul, I'm a little stranged-out by a website lamenting flash-in-the-pan stuff that has ads for the new shows, aren't you? ;-)

Chris -- Given that even "Survivor" (as the first of the recent crop of "reality" shows) uses a retro typeface, I think you better stick with a remixed Trajan! (rofl)

humming "Everything Old is New Again" off into the sunset....

privateortheris's picture

Your font is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

With appologies to the rather stuck-up Samuel Johnson.

Choz Cunningham's picture


"What happens when everybody is retroing prior retros of prior retros?..."

Then you are trapped in the newest retro movement, emulating the 1990's.

Choz Cunningham
!Exclamachine Type Foundry

dezcom's picture

or just retroing 2005?



Nick Shinn's picture

It's a lot, lot harder to do original work than it is to do revivals and retro, and people are not as receptive as they were 10 years ago. Just check out MyFonts best sellers, which are scripts, mostly retro, and mid-20th century sans serif faces, which I would also classify as retro. After all, in the postmodern era, modernism is retro.

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