The Romance of Tangibility

In light of the recent movement for “vintage” innovation, Bergmeyer Graphic Designer Ariana Piacquadio reflects on the romanticization of the analog world. As the tables are rapidly turning backward with tech so commonplace, real-life experiences you can engage with using all your senses start to embody a new kind of nuance and exclusivity.
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I only briefly remember a time before the digital world completely took over our lives —our family had dial-up internet, my first phone had a slide-up keyboard, and I can recall browsing the aisles of Blockbuster with my mom on a Friday afternoon. I carry a lot of nostalgia for these multi-sensory experiences because of the intentionality and patience required to search for something online, send a T9 text, or even rent a movie.

Yes, these examples hold their inconveniences, yet there’s something so much more active and complex about them. As a designer, I’m constantly thinking about how we move through the world, and as a creative, I’m always seeking inspiration. The richness of these tangible experiences makes me feel excited again. It’s a sense of Oh, I forgot about this. I’ve missed this. And I don’t think I’m alone here.

In the wake of the pandemic, I believe many of us realized that an entirely digitized life is generally isolating, and our desire to be stimulated through experiences had many of us longing for the things we took for granted in the past.

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This is most recently evident in the way classic online dating apps have shifted their focus to live events. Bumble's The Hive launched in 2017, creating a space to host events, meet up for dates, or even network in a more casual environment. Not surprisingly, the desire to move from online platforms has only increased since then, especially after experiencing what a world without human interaction feels like. The self-titled “offline dating app” Thursday is gaining in popularity, where matches are limited to one day per week and additional features encourage users to take their digital interactions into the real world. Business Insider Urooba Jamal writes:

"Like other popular apps, people can swipe through profiles of others and land matches. As soon as the clock rolls into midnight, though, the app locks out until the following Thursday, erasing any matches or conversations. It also lists the events happening across the city that Thursday, enticing users early in the week with a notification of the current week's locations."

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While the concept of dating online is nothing new, perhaps we'll see apps like Thursday become more prevalent. By creating barriers (like usability being limited to one day per week), we're able to integrate tech as a tool (in this case, to meet real people & form real connections with them) while avoiding the endless scroll and paradox of infinite choice that lends earlier apps like Tinder so much criticism.

As we hurtle into a seemingly tech-forward future, I find a sense of hope in this: something in the collective spirit recognizes not everything is better when digitized. Tech can be useful, but it's these in-person experiences that often bring unexpected richness and complexity into our lives in meaningful ways. This doesn't just apply to dating. Gen Z, who have grown up inundated with technology and digital tools are launching viral campaigns demanding a revival of "vintage" tech and analog media like the flip phone back to the mainstream. Marc Saltzman from USA Today reports:

"Thanks to many high-profile TikTok personalities talking about flip phones, the hashtag #bringbackflipphones has more than 25 million views on the social media platform, along with other related and trending hashtags, such as #y2kaesthetic…. While sales data isn't yet available, Google tells USA TODAY searches for "flip phone" increased by more than 140% over the past five years."

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And big-name cell phone brands have taken note — Motorola rereleased a “smart” version of their iconic Razr in response to this trend while Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip has been growing in popularity over the past few years. While still 'smart' phones, these products blend the new and the old — proving that in our rapid digitization, there might have been something lost. Even if that is just the privacy of being able to actually close your cellphone.

Then there are the brands answering the call for ”vintage” innovation on another level. Take the Light Phone for example, a product born out of our desire to disconnect from the digital world and tune in to the physical one. Its selling point has less to do with what it is (the phone only has very basic tools and an e-reader interface) but rather what it is not. In other words, people have begun to pay a premium for more simplicity stripped of the digital intricacies and fewer distractions.

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The Takeaway

And it's not just the phones. Disposable cameras, vinyl records, and even wired headphones (yes, the cords are back) are seeing a big resurgence, especially in this younger demographic, almost as a revolt of the digital revolution. There's something decidedly cool about disconnecting. Maybe it's the mystery factor in an era where we're constantly encouraged to broadcast our lives, or maybe it's the nostalgia for a time that those of us in the younger generation barely got to experience (if at all).

In light of this recent movement, the analog world has become romanticized, rare, and special. The tables are rapidly turning backward -- with tech so commonplace, real-life experiences you can engage with using all your senses start to embody a new kind of nuance and exclusivity.

I think of the first post-COVID concert I went to following two years of no live shows, and how unbelievably special that felt. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Spotify, but there's nothing like singing your heart out in an arena full of people, blissfully lost in the moment.

What could this mean for the future of design? I personally think it's an open door for experiences. Technology is here to stay. The convenience and accessibility it provides can't be ignored. Yet, while the virtual world is building momentum, promising digital experiences that may eventually rival those IRL, we'll always have parts of our lives that are meant to be unplugged.

There must be opportunities for in-person connection, sensory experiences, and genuine discovery. Even as cavemen, we expressed ourselves by creating art about the world around us. These tangible experiences are not just romantic notions; they are the heart of what makes us thrive.

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