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Why have 70s-inspired designs gained popularity recently?

What do Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror cover, Chobani yoghurt packaging, and the comforter startup Buffy’s logo all have in common? The answer is poofy, curvy, 70s-inspired typography. The 20th century style has reemerged as we enter this next decade, infiltrating seemingly everything from corporate branding to freelance artwork. So, why have the 70s come back now?

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Design, in its myriad forms, is cyclical. More often than not, it’s a reaction to what came directly before it in terms of style and ideology. This recent influx of inflated letters reflects this ebb and flow within the field. In contrast to the affinity for sleek minimalism in the 2010s—think Outdoor Voices’ Signature Tote—the 2020s have reintroduced a sense of community through 70s-inspired designs. Cooper Hewitt design curator, Ellen Lupton, wrote that by 2009, after a flashy entrance into the new millennium, fonts and branding had calmed down to evoke “a sense of order and sobriety.” The 2010s championed polished, spaced letters that reflected the rapid technological and digital growth of the period. During this time, looking computer-generated was preferred.

In the late 2010s and now in the early 2020s, however, this has changed. The distance mirrored by the typography of the last decade has been replaced by a closeness and familiarity evoked by fonts such as Simula, Cheltenham, and Chobani Serif, (the last of which was created specifically for the yoghurt company). This intimacy within the more rounded letters can be attributed to the handwritten quality of the typefaces, or a reaction against the often rigid predictability of computer-generated designs. Simula, for instance, was created by artist and designer Justin Sloane. The final characters that are used today are the result of four years of drawing and redrawing by Sloane, the attention to detail yet human quality of which is seen in every stroke.

Rather than the digital look of minimalist fonts, these trendy 70s-inspired typefaces have a handcrafted—or hand-drawn—look to them. This aligns with the current, predominant movement back to appreciating the local and the handmade (or at least the aesthetics of it). At a time when large corporations and tech startups loom heavily in our zeitgeist, consumers seem drawn to the appearance of the unique, which is often associated with the handmade rather than mass-produced. This is mirrored by the skyrocketing popularity of preloved and deadstock Y2k Cop Copine and Custo Barcelona tops on Depop. Buyers want something that’s one-of-a-kind and has a story behind it, in contrast to enormous, tentacular companies that pump out more of the same.

Connected to these romantic notions of responsible consumerism is an increasing awareness of Mother Earth. Notably, the first Earth Day took place on 22 April, 1970. The typography surrounding the growth of this holiday became a defining aesthetic of the movement; these fonts became symbolic of an appreciation and fight for nature. Today, as we grow more and more conscious of the impact we have on the Earth—and as the sentiment has infiltrated the mainstream, think IKEA’s latest TV ad—a revival of the thoughts and feelings surrounding the first Earth Day have reemerged. By aligning a brand’s aesthetic with these ideas through 70s-inspired typography, they visually appeal to certain demographics—largely millennials and gen Zers. Effectively, in some cases, companies are able to announce their support of sustainability without actually having to make a statement as a brand. The shapes of the letters speak loud enough for them.

Even though social media and online shopping are still prominent now more than ever, consumers are pining for products that feel more analogue rather than algorithmically generated and easily able to fit into a grid. The movement towards fonts that feature bubbly, full characters reflects these societal attitude shifts and ideas looming largely on our collective mind, or subconscious. Their curved, bloated edges seem to press up against or move outside the lines of our rectangular screens or square social media platforms.

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However, Natasha Jen, partner at the design firm Pentagram and creator of Buffy’s logotype, sees the rise in popularity of these designs differently. Rather than mirroring the “multi-voice, multi-identity, highly inclusive moment” that these 70s fonts and their diverse shapes represent, the resurgence of these designs has led to “quite the opposite thing, because everything starts to look the same.”

Despite symbolically opposing the minimalist typography that dominated the 2010s, these puffy fonts continue to demonstrate how much of what we see on and offline is influenced by algorithms. The homogeneity expressed between the Chobani yoghurt packing, the Buffy logo, and more instead reflects how social media reductively condenses new ideas into one, easily marketable visual grounded in familiarity. Much like the sleek, Silicon-Valley-esque fonts they seem to visually withstand, they actually are representative of widespread, profitable trends. But, unlike the 2010s, instead of virtue signalling in Aperçu or Gill Sans, brands now do so in Bookman and ITC Clearface.

Why is Y2k fashion still trending in 2021? It’s more complicated than you think

As late 90s babies are entering their 20s, early 2000s clothing has come back in a big way. “Y2k” was one of Pinterest’s most searched terms in 2020. This popularity was reflected on Depop, where top sellers such as Isabella Vrana have made impressive careers out of flipping deadstock apparel from bygone decades. This new millennium saturation on both social media streams and online marketplaces has led to and reinforced a resurgence of bedazzled, over-the-top styles within high-end and high-street fashion. But, is there a more entrenched meaning behind all these mini-pleated skirts and knee-high leather boots than simply gen Z nostalgia?

The cause behind never-ending fashion cycles is often boiled down to nostalgia, but no one usually takes this reasoning any further. Pan Lü—Urban Studies professor at the Harvard-Yenching Institute—notes that the Greek word literally “means a longing for a faraway home that no longer exists or has never existed.” This translates into a type of generational homesickness that crops up as various demographics enter new stages of life. Lü suggests that “nostalgia becomes a collective symptom beyond the individual level. It is […] a result of a new understanding of time and space.”

Beneath the low-rise dark-wash denim and mesh tops lays the urge to return to a simpler time and space. Not just to plushy, snack-punctuated youth, but one where the internet was an untraversed, private landscape, rather than a space where you have 24/7 access to a former president’s disturbing stream of consciousness in the palm of your hand.

This renaissance is deeply embedded within internet culture of the past and present. Claire Reidy—my 15-year-old sister—for instance, noted that in her age group “y2k style is much more common online than off.” She admits that because she “was so young when these clothes were originally trendy, I don’t get that same feeling that someone a little older may get” when engaging with the garments.

By dressing in the clothing of the early 2000s, the design of the early digital sphere has been resurrected. Its glitchy, clunky ease has become a symbol of a more straightforward, less polarised time. Many popular Instagram users edit their photos of Nicole Richie-inspired outfits to recreate images that seem like they were decorated with y2k ephemera rather than taken on a £900 smartphone. Forget rose-tinted glasses; gen Zers are looking at the world (or rather, their phone screens) through rimless Chanel ombré sunnies.

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While the left hand jingles in a chunky charm bracelet, reaching for a pair of patchwork pants, the right hand is now retweeting AOC and flipping through reams of Instagram Stories all ardently supportive of their side. 20 years ago, that right hand would have been perfecting a Myspace playlist on the family’s computer, or quite possibly not on the web at all.

In Jia Tolentino’s essay titled The I in the Internet, the New Yorker writer states that “the everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of [its] architecture, which positions personal identity at the centre of the universe.” Through social media profiles, algorithmically targeted ads and cyber bubbles which catalyse and hyperextend our offline perspectives, the self has become the small prism through which we view the internet and, by extension, the world.

Some designers have chosen to co-opt this madness in updated reiterations of 2000s silhouettes and textures to remind consumers just how expansive the internet truly is. Caitlin Yates, for instance, has revamped the mesh, graphic-printed y2k top with pertinent social issues through her label C8Y8S. Low-fi, grainy footage taken from Google Earth satirically comments on our ever-vigilant technology, allowing buyers to wear images of truly candid moments.

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In September 2020, Marc Jacobs’ Heaven launch also capitalised on the reemergence of y2k patterns and palettes. However, the clothing label amplified its adoption of the era by including ephemeral objects in its release. The collection showcased models standing with bored expressions in maximalist teenage bedrooms: baby tees and plaid pleats hovering ‘angstily’ above a 1999-edition DVD of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides or a VHS tape of Aphex Twin’s cult-classic Windowlicker. This time capsule full of analogue gems, however, reveals the desire to return to our insular spaces full of personal interests that weren’t perpetually infiltrated and subtly manipulated by the blinking, opinionated outside world.

For decades, nostalgia has reemerged prominently in cyclical fashion trends as a source of comfort rooted in the rising generation’s youth as well as a way to separate oneself from the current zeitgeist. Why wear fast fashion apparel when one can buy unique, secondhand Cop Copine tops from Berlin on Depop? Why stream The Virgin Suicides on your laptop—which simultaneously is now your office, television set, shopping portal and social space—when you can watch it, uninterrupted, on DVD?

These physical reiterations prompt not only a replication of the material culture of one’s youth, but also its actions and routines. The popularity of these previously obsolete trends lies in its invitation to reenact these old, mundane rituals of rewinding a VHS tape or pulling the rhinestone zipper of a velour tracksuit top.

That being said, next time you reach for a bejewelled thong or add a fuzzy bucket hat to your online shopping cart, consider whether or not you could be grasping for this larger, earlier context of relative ease and uncomplicated internet interactions as well.