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Back to the Futura

As a copywriter, one of my most valued possessions is the collection of Communication Arts Advertising Annuals (CAs) I’ve accumulated over the years. To this day, I credit my first exposure to CA during an interview as the singular most impactful “Eureka!” moment of my fledgling career. It was the moment I knew for certain I could do this.

 

Since that monumental day, I’ve hoarded CAs as if they were gold bullion. To the point, I’m drawn to used bookstores like Miner 49ers were drawn to California. Only, the gems and nuggets I’m prospecting are found lodged on bookshelves and hidden within the pages of CAs. I recall working for a mid-sized agency in Chicago, when they announced they were ridding their shelves of old CAs to make room for the new. They didn’t have to ask twice. Blame it on gold fever, but I was down in the library in a heartbeat, throwing elbows and thinking, “you fools! Have you any idea of the wealth in these pages?” as I scooped them up by the armful.

 

Now don’t get me wrong, theoretically, I can understand the general notion of not wanting to corrupt creatives’ thinking by exposing them to the worn and tired ideas of yesteryear. But after amassing a collection of CAs with volumes dating all the way back to the early 1970s, I’ve learned there is no better way to anticipate where advertising and creativity are going than by thoroughly understanding where they’ve been.

 

Flip through CAs long enough, and a clear pattern begins to emerge. Nostalgia, as it turns out, is entirely predictable—and cyclical. As one decade overtakes another, consumers of the new decade inevitably become nostalgic for the one that preceded the one they just left behind.

 

So, for instance, in the ’80s, retro meant trying to revive the counter culture and unadulterated creativity of the ’60s, a time of unprecedented disruption and change that heralded in everything from the Beatles, the Apollo Moon Landing, the Vietnam War, and a penchant for exceptional design with an eye toward the future. Likewise, the ’80s retreat to the ‘60s was brought on by its eagerness to set itself apart from the ’70s and its granola back-to-nature meets psychedelic colors and macramé everything culture.

 

Following this theorem as it plays out in the pages of CA, you can reliably predict the ‘90s throwback to the look and feel of the ’70s, the ’00s retreat to the ’80s, and the Twenty-teen’s reinvention of the ’90s.

 

Here is a decade-by-decade breakdown of observable trends, throwbacks, and design styles as told by the pages of my CAs, beginning with the ’70s:

 

1970s “The Decade Taste Forgot”

They called the 1970s “the Decade Taste Forgot.” Everything was flashy, from disco balls and bell-bottoms to big-collared silk shirts and shag-covered appliances. Design in the ’70s was a reaction to the sleek modernism of the ’60s, offering in its stead, lava lamp-inspired typestyles, bellbottom jeans, wall-to-wall shag so deep your lawn would be jealous, along with wood paneled everything. In the ’70s, austerity and decadence, hippies and high-tech futurism, and drab earth-tones and unnatural psychedelic colors harmoniously coexisted amid the era’s “live and let live” ethos.

 

The pages of CAs in the ’70s were a showcase of illustration, puns (“No one makes pasta fasta” was an award winner), and copy. Lots and lots of body copy. If you’re a writer learning the ropes today, the ’70s is the perfect place to start for some really well-written long copy. As for the puns—forget them. They are one relic of the decade that likely will never return to fashion. Disregard my advice and expect to be punished to no end.

 

In the ’70s, television was just beginning to come into its own as an advertising medium, boosted by the addition of color in 1972. One thing that strikes you as you flip through CAs as late as 1977, as much as half the print ads toward the end of the decade were printed in black and white.

 

CAs in the ’70s include categories for everything from the best print, editorial content, TV and radio, as well as annual reports, letterheads, trademarks, folders and announcements, and record jackets.

 

Some of best TV of the 1970s:

1970’s Compilation Reel

 

1980s “The Me-First Decade”

The advent of cable TV, the perfection of color TV, and the VCR helped bring television advertising to the forefront in the ’80s. The proliferation of cable channels meant advertisers could get their messages out cheaper and to targeted audiences with greater specificity. Since cable wasn’t regulated as strictly as network TV, advertisers could push the envelope in ways not tolerated over the airwaves. Further fueling advertiser’s creativity was viewers’ newly acquired habit of recording TV shows with their VCRs and fast forwarding through the commercials. As a result, advertisers took it upon themselves to make their spots so entertaining that it’d be the ads themselves viewers fast-forwarded to and saved for posterity.

 

The ’80s also saw the advent of the personal computer. It started with basic computers like Radio Shack’s TRS-80, Ohio Scientific’s C248, the Commodore 64 and the Apple I and Apple II — and culminated with 1984 and the introduction of Apple’s first Mac. That Macintosh 512K and the personal computer revolution that followed would revolutionize more than just IT. Desktop publishing put entire industries out of business. No longer did art directors and designers have to have linos (high resolution printouts) made of their headlines and copy so they could cut them out with an X-ACTO knife and then run them through a hot waxer to be delicately positioned on a page before the wax could harden. After the copy and imagery were in place and the wax dried, the artwork would be sent to a vendor with a stat camera.

 

CAs from the ’80s serve as a time capsule and mirror this phenomenal period of innovation. The ads created by Chiat/Day for Apple’s Macintosh were every bit as innovative and fresh as the new technology itself. Apple’s iconic “1984” television ad—aired only once, during the Super Bowl—is remembered to this day as being not just the most memorable Super Bowl ad ever, but the greatest ad of all time. It was this visionary ad placement—at the time—that has led so many marketers to believe simply buying time during the NFL championship game will launch them to success—losing sight of the sheer stroke of genius and creativity, both in ad and in placement, that ensures 1984’s not likely to be repeated any time soon.

 

Some of the very best TV of the 1980s:

Nike

BASF

Henry Weinhard’s

Macintosh

 

1990s “The Dot Com Decade”

While CAs of the 1980s captured the PC revolution as it evolved from new-fangled to old hat in less than a decade, CAs of the ’90s capture the emergence of the digital age, as personal computers began getting social as they cautiously ventured onto the newly opened information superhighway and access to the global market on the worldwide web. Email and digital marketing became a thing, and before the decade was over, integrated marketing became all the rage.

 

Meanwhile, the pages of CA are filled with down-to-earth earth-tones and grunge to counter the glam and opulence, shoulder pads and moussed-up hair, wine coolers and extravagance of the ’80s. CAs from the ’90s capture the move from the “see-and-say” headlines of the ’70s and ’80s, where often the headlines simply described what was already readily apparent in the visual, toward more conceptually driven pieces, where neither the headline nor the visual can work independently on its own.

 

Some of the very best TV of the 1990s:

Levi Strauss & Co

Nike

Fay’s Drugs

Nissan

 

2000s “The Noughties Decade”

What is old is new again in the ’00s. The gritty, grungy down-to-earth ’90s is countered with bright, unnatural colors, and a return to the glamour and over-exuberance of the ’80s. As if on cue, Steve Jobs and Apple return to claim the decade with transformative technology that will change marketing, advertising, and society itself with the introduction of the iPod, allowing users to put “1000 songs in your pocket,” followed by the iPhone. The age of social media and platforms is born, as Google, Facebook, eBay, YouTube, Twitter, and Skype not only disrupt traditional pipeline business models but put many asunder.

 

Reflecting the faster pace and preoccupied consumer, the pages of the award winners in CA are highly conceptual, nearly devoid of copy. Unlike the long-copy days of the ’70s and ’80s, ads of the ’00s are very posterized, often with little more than a headline, tagline and visual.

 

Some of the very best TV of the 2000s:

Washington Mutual

PlayStation

Nike

World of Comedy Film Festival

 

Twenty-teens “The Decade that Defies a Name”

The Twenty-teens saw the onset of difficult and divisive times for America. As the nation emerged from the Great Recession, polarization gripped America’s politics as its middle ground all but vanished. As often happens in times of turmoil, consumers yearned for a return to happier times, and marketers were quick to oblige with a retreat to nostalgic typestyles, clean design and glam popularized by the ’80s. Tech savvy consumers became less trusting and much more discerning and selective, demanding to be shown rather than sold.

 

Some of the very best TV of the Twenty-teens:

Honda

JCPenney

Walmart

Whistler Film Festival

 

Full circle back to the Futura.

 

Futura is the one typestyle that seems to never go away or out of fashion. It was the go-to font of the 1960s (made famous by Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign), came roaring back in the 1980s, resurfaced in the ’00s, and, as we edge towards the ’20s, is making yet another comeback today. In fact, it is probably the most imitated typestyle in history.

 

Yet, when in was designed in the 1920s as “the font of the future” by German designer Paul Renner, it was dead on arrival. Snuffed out by none other than Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer himself, because, he feared, it’d erase Aryan heritage by displacing the Nazi’s preferred gothic-style Fraktur typography.

 

Fortunately for Futura and art directors and designers everywhere, by the time of the Nazis’ purge, the typeface had already been distributed worldwide and earned international admiration—even becoming a favorite typeface of the Allies, who used it prolifically on many of the charts and battle plans that ultimately led to the defeat of the Nazis.

 

Ironically, towards the end of World War II, the Nazis once again embraced Futura, after discovering their beloved Fraktur typestyle had Jewish origins.

 

Ultimately, it all goes to show that, in marketing as in life, the clearest path to the future is often the one illuminated by the past.