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What Does Vintage Really Mean in Pop Culture and Design?


Collectable treasure or unwanted tat? Never has there been a broader or more conflicted term than vintage. In the design world, vintage has a muddied reputation, but designs that reference the past still resonate with nostalgic consumers craving comfort and familiarity more than ever in turbulent times. 

But what actually is vintage? 

In this article, we set the record straight on what vintage really means. We’ll explore its roots in popular culture and design, and separate good vintage from the bad . . . and the downright ugly. 

Contemporary designers and photographers can still find a huge amount of value and creative fulfilment in pursuing a vintage approach. Scroll down to find quick tips for giving your images an instant dose of vintage style, as well as suggested fonts, textures, and graphics to bring your designs to life.

The Meaning of Vintage
Image by contributor Hi-Point.

The Definition of Vintage

The Cambridge Dictionary defines vintage as something to be “of high-quality and lasting value, or showing the best and most typical characteristics of a particular type of thing, especially from the past,” and also an object or item that’s “used but of good quality.”

Vintage Means Quality
True vintage means a high-quality item from the past. Image by contributor View Apart.

Originally, vintage has been used to describe something old that is a superior example of similar things that were created together in the same time period. Traditionally, this has been limited to luxury or high-value products. Take, for example, vintage wine or champagne, or perhaps a vintage car. These vintage items become cherished and collectable because they’re perfected demonstrations of what designers (or indeed winemakers) achieved in past decades. 

Take a tour through our new series Design Through the Decades to learn even more about how vintage designs developed, and to explore the movements that shaped graphic design over the 20th century.


The meaning of vintage has expanded and diverged over recent decades. Our contemporary perception of vintage can be credited to the fashion world. While a teenager in the 1980s wouldn’t have been seen dead in their mom’s throwback flares, the grunge movement and general individualist mood in fashion in the 1990s made clothing of past decades widely popular and aspirational among young people. 

Designers like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano looked to the past for inspiration for catwalk collections. Meanwhile, models like Kate Moss made it cool to wear and customize secondhand fashion.

Vintage Fashion Collage
From travel posters to fashion, vintage products and designs are deeply engrained in our contemporary culture. Left: Poster design by contributor Rinat Khairitdinov. Right: Kate Moss arriving at the Met Gala in a vintage-inspired Marc Jacobs outfit. Image by contributor Everett Collection.

Interior design followed suit. By the end of the 90s, consumers were beginning to turn away from clean and ultra-modern minimalism and furnish their homes with antiques and salvaged products. Businesses adapted quickly to the trend for all things vintage, and began to offer new or refurbished furniture with features that mimicked an aged, rustic effect. A liberal wash of chalk paint and an Art Nouveau poster print was all you needed to transform your apartment into the set of Friends

In the past two decades, the meaning of vintage has been thoroughly diluted and reconstructed, and suffers from overuse in popular culture. Today, the term vintage can describe any type of design or product that references old styles, however loosely.

In line with the growth of hipster culture, vintage has taken on a new meaning. Now it describes subway tiles and rustic stools in a bar, or a stamp-style logo that borrows from 19th century letterpress designs.

In many ways, what most people would recognize as vintage now is a rose-tinted, sanitized, and commercialized interpretation of the past. Where subway tiles once lined the walls of Victorian sanatoriums to promote good hygiene, today they line the counter of your favorite Starbucks branch. Designers recreate aged textures using software, and you can buy a digitally-printed greeting card that mimics traditional letterpress or linocut techniques.

Vintage Stylings
Vintage styling in photography, branding, and interior design can impart a sense of cocooning comfort and familial reassurance, two things contemporary consumers are highly responsive to. Top left: Image by contributor Everett Collection. Top right: Image by contributor CEnTo STOCK. Bottom left: Image by contributor frank_peters. Bottom right: Logo design by contributor igorrita.

Of course, because vintage has become such a broad, catch-all term, it can refer to both the bad and the good. Some designers and photographers skillfully blend vintage references with contemporary style to create images, interiors, and products that have a vintage soul, but are not simply poor replicas of past designs. When executed well, vintage design can showcase the best side of historical design, as well as stimulate feelings of nostalgia and comfort for viewers.


Applying Vintage Style to Designs and Photographs

With hipster saturation having made us all a little weary of stag logos and letterpress textures, it’s tempting to dismiss vintage design as passé. However, some of the best contemporary designs still reference historic styles, refashioning vintage design for the 2020s. 

Vintage-Style Collage
Refashioning vintage design. Image by contributor Cafe Racer.

The traditional definition of vintage, as discussed earlier, implies that vintage refers to something older than the mid-20th century. But for designers today, the term can be used to describe designs that reference later decades, as well—from the 1960s to the 1990s. With such a broad pool of inspiration to dip into, designers working within a vintage framework are spoiled for choice. 

Advice for creating vintage designs that feel fresh and exciting? Don’t limit yourself to a rustic interpretation of the 19th century Wild West. Mix your decades and introduce unexpected and contemporary elements to lift the design into the present. Unusual colors that juxtapose against black and white photography, a blend of Atomic Age graphics with contemporary typography, or present-day subject matter presented in a vintage guise (a case in point—the most iconic poster design of the 20th century was the Obama “Hope” poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey).

Collage artist Joe Cruz reinterprets vintage photographs through clever use of color and annotation, while Shutterstock contributor GoodStudio skillfully integrates contemporary subject matter—from mental health issues to WFH scenarios—into vintage-infused illustrations. 

Vintage-Style Illustration
Contemporary subject matter in a vintage-infused illustration. Image by contributor GoodStudio.

Below, discover inspirational tips and examples for integrating vintage style into your designs and images, plus useful resources for bringing your vintage designs firmly into the 2020s.


Vintage Tips and Resources for Graphic Designers and Illustrators

Graphic design, which was formalized in the mid-20th century, is indebted to Modernism. Many contemporary designers revisit the styles established in this period to create work that gives a nod to the discipline’s roots. In your own designs, pay tribute to the Swiss Style of the 1950s and 1960s, or integrate 80s-inspired neon colors into collages or editorial designs. 

Try these Design Resources to Achieve a Vintage Effect on Print and Web Layouts

  • Grainy, noisy, and dusty textures mimic the effects of aging. Canvas textures lend an instant Mid-Century feel to poster designs.  
Dust and Scratch Design
Image by contributor siloto.
Grainy Design
Image by contributor donatas1205.
  • Marbled paper backgrounds add vintage bookish flair and plenty of color to packaging and websites.
Marbled Abstract Background
Image by contributor Ana Babii.
Marbled Design Background
Image by contributor Natalia Bolotina.
Turkish Marbled Artwork
Image by contributor Orhan Cam.
  • To bring your vintage designs into the present-day, avoid letterpress or circus-inspired type styles. Instead, try a clean and elegant serif to create subtly traditional typography.
Affogato Vector Font
Affogato vector font by contributor geen graphy.
Romaniac Vector Font
Romaniac vector font by contributor Haqqani Slab.
Havena Vector Font
Havena vector font by contributor geen graphy.
  • Create a contemporary vintage collage with a mix of newspaper cuttings, vintage illustrations, and old photographs.
Ripped Street Poster
Image by contributor Cafe Racer.
Vintage Drawing
Image by contributor Nicku.
Vintage Photograph
Image by contributor Everett Collection.

Vintage Tips and Resources for Photographers

Even though digital technology has revolutionized photography, vintage-style images have a nostalgic quality that digital photos are often unable to achieve. Even if you’re not the proud owner of an analog camera, you can still give your photos an authentic vintage mood with a bit of post-editing.

Tips and Tricks to Give Your Photos an Instant Vintage Effect

  • Tint your photos with an era-specific wash of color. A sepia or brown tint mimics the look of early photography, while a blue or gray tint evokes a 1950s feel. Orange and pink tones will give images a 1970s, polaroid-style effect.
Circa 1900s Vintage Photograph
Image by contributor chippix.
Vintage Photo of a Young Girl
Image by contributor Elzbieta Sekowska.
Vintage Photo of Newlyweds
Image by contributor Elzbieta Sekowska.
  • Lighting is key to achieving an authentic vintage feel. Keep in mind that photos taken in previous decades will have been taken in dramatically different lighting to what we have now. LED lighting was only invented in the early 1960s. Before this, electric lights were dimmer, and most American homes still used gas light and candles until the 1940s. As a result, darker photographs are more evocative of past times, so reduce the brightness in your images significantly. Mimic the effect of candlelight with soft, glowing color filters.
Dark Moody Background
Image by contributor Rasa Arlauskiene.
Dark Background
Image by contributor sweet marshmallow.
  • Avoid retouching your photographs. A photo that mimics vintage styles poorly is often betrayed by too much digital retouching. Before Photoshop, images were manually airbrushed, but this still didn’t reduce most imperfections. Vintage photos have more realism than modern images, which adds to their charm. So, avoid the temptation to iron out wrinkles, freckles, dust, or blurring.
1940s-Era Portrait
Image by contributor Katrina Brown.
  • Fade and discolor the edges of your photographs. A simple vignette effect can also give photos a dreamier, ethereal feel typical of early 20th century photographs.
Circa 1929 Vintage Photo
Image by contributor LiliGraphie.
19th Century-Style Photo
Image by contributor Jane Rix.
Vintage-Style Black and White Photo
Image by contributor Milanga_Sam.

If you’re eager to further delve into vintage-style photography, don’t miss this in-depth guide to techniques that bring vintage styles to your photography.


The Ever-Evolving Meaning of Vintage

While vintage might have only referred to cars and wines in past decades, the term has been drastically reshaped by the influence of fashion, popular culture, and design in recent years. In this article, we’ve looked at how vintage is a broad and fluid concept that ranges from sanitized interpretations of past styles to ground-breaking designs from contemporary artists and designers, who continue to find fresh inspiration in exploring the juxtapositions between new and old.


Obsessed with vintage design and historical photography? Don’t miss these articles that delve deeper into the history books:

Cover image by contributor Everett Collection.



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