The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, by David Sax, is a contrarian take on the triumph of the digital technologies that surround us. The book contains a lot of intriguing examples of the ways in which analog technology still influences our lives today. It’s very challenging to write about the resurgence of analog, as we search for overarching reasons for the trends we see. What becomes apparent is there isn’t a single reason why certain analog technologies are surviving and thriving today. What Sax’s does show is that this return of tactile technology is alive and well as his book is filled with intriguing examples of analog businesses swimming upstream including vinyl records, Moleskin notebooks, film, board games, and small-batch magazines. To paraphrase a Marshall McLuhan quote: digital is constantly encroaching upon analog technology, but analog media is constantly evolving to do things digital can’t.
There are multiple theories as to why this return to analog is happening in so many dramatic and unexpected ways. Chief amongst these is that we are tactile creatures, that from our earliest development we learn to navigate the world around us through sight, sound, and touch.
As a designer, I am tied to my technology. It’s through my Apple Macbook and a plethora of software tools that I do my work. I may get lo-fi enough to sketch ideas out in pencil and ink, but these are not by any means my finished designs. Sax actually writes about the appeal of writing and drawing on paper among designers, writers, and other creatives. So what is the trend to analog in design? How does the past inform both modern design aesthetics and the tools and practices we use today?
The Long Tail
If there is a theory that can come close to explaining the enduring appeal of analog technologies, it might be The Long Tail written by Chris Anderson in 2004. Anderson argues that products in low demand, or that have a low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the best sellers or blockbusters if the store distribution channel is large enough. Selling the most unusual items can be as profitable as selling the most popular items. The long tail effect might also contribute to the fracturing of popular culture into lots of little tribes. For designers, this means that you can, in theory, create your craziest ideas and see if they find an audience online. Anderson’s theory could help explain the popularity of obscure products in today’s economy. Niche products are brought to our attention by the algorithms at work in curating our aesthetic experience online. In Instagram for example, who you like, what you like, hashtags you follow, and the images you post all dictate the content you get shown in your feed.
Analog, and how it impacts what we make
This return to analog opens new pathways for design, both in support of these new products and in how the analog movement influences the aesthetics of what we design. Kevin Kelly writes in 1,000 True Fans, “You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers,” to be a successful creator. What you need is a direct relationship with your customers. That means using the Internet to aggregate demand, but selling analog products directly to customers. Musicians have figured out that uploading their music to Spotify or iTunes won’t bring in meaningful royalties and it means that the streaming services control their relationship with their fans.
Instead, musicians could book more live performances and sell vinyl records directly to fans through their website. Sax quotes Russ Crupnick explaining that digital downloads might require a label to sell over 127,000 singles to break even whereas, “You could sell a lot less vinyl to a lot fewer people and make higher profits.” Ironically “the previous disadvantages of vinyl records now became attractive. Records are large and heavy; require money, effort, and taste to create and buy and play; and cry out to be thumbed over and examined. Because consumers spend money to acquire them, they gain a genuine sense of ownership over the music, which translates into pride.” Makers can use Kickstarter to gather funds and aggregate customers. Photographers could explore selling hard copy prints of their work through their website. Designers could sell posters, t-shirts, or prints of their work.
For indie publishers, this means writing and creating niche content and using the internet to educate and subscribe consumers but selling a physical magazine instead of releasing the content online. This adds to the exclusivity of the item, and, as such, its value. As Sax writes, “Analogue solves all kinds of problems that are albatrosses to digital publishers–engagement, stickiness, discovery, etc.” Sax interviews Rob Orchard who explains that “… people will pay for print.” He sells his magazine for more than it costs to produce and readers of these small-circulation magazines are willing to pay a premium for the privilege to own these limited edition prints. Designers have an opportunity to be a part of this exclusivity, to create covers, layouts and curate the content of these small-batch editions.
The revival of analog camera culture is another space where designers can utilize their skills. As Sax writes, “Lomography’s customer is not a nostalgic one, holding on to film out of fear or stubbornness, but a photographer looking for new experiences that differ from the digital standard without getting too technical.” Lomography has blurred images, saturated colors and a randomness that digital cannot match. Lomography cameras have become design icons, combining a vintage aesthetic with modern features. Lomography is also one of the few examples of effectively combining the community-building potential of physical retail stores with a vibrant online culture. Where the aesthetics of the cameras, and the images taken with them, are celebrated.
How analog affects how we make things
The analog influence on designers extends into tangible products the have a throw-back appeal. Designers have been reaching back in time for inspiration in car design with cars like the Ford Mustang, furniture design with the Mid-Century Modern craze, even in movies and television with the appeal of period dramas and all the sequels and remakes.
Aaron Draplin, of Draplin Design Co., has a huge following on YouTube for his logo and brand design work. The allure of Draplin’s process is how he repurposes and draws inspiration from vintage signage and corporate brand design. Draplin will cruise thrift stores and flea markets collecting books, magazines, flyers, patches, pins, postcards, and any other branded items from decades ago. Draplin creates new designs from analog design elements. The popularity of Draplin’s work is based on his ability to interpret these analog influences and give them new life.
The attraction of analog
Today every designer has at their fingertips endless digital tools, but sometimes the best option is to start sketching with a pencil and paper. As Sax wrote about those who still favor Moleskines, “They took to the Moleskine not out of any sense of adventure or an affinity with Hemingway, but as the best, most efficient tool to organize their thoughts.” It’s true that “the constraints of a blank page present certain creative freedom” for designers. The movement to analog is a special opportunity for designers who increasingly work exclusively in the digital world to get ink on their fingers. The Revenge of Analog is a good reminder that old tech can prove to be a ripe playground for new ideas.