Design Eye: Inside Stranger Things' Charming Retro Appropriation

DÉJÀ VU, PART DEUX

Stranger Things: Season 2 is approaching quicker than a Demogorgon creeping on Barb by the pool. And like a lot of other people out there, I can hardly wait.  It’s dropping on October 31st, just one day past my birthday; it’s a great present, thanks Netflix! In my anticipation, I’ve been thinking about what I loved about the first sleeper hit season. Of course, it’s mostly tied to the show’s specific blend of nostalgia and innovative storytelling techniques.  Over its eight episode run, It near-perfectly captured the spirit of a Goonies adventure, took fantastical Sci-Fi elements from E.T. , and told them with the flair of a J.J. Abrams film.  Speaking of the director, I think it took the charm and retro affectations of his Super 8 and made them bigger, quirkier and more flawed in the best ways.

Just as much as its amazing child actors, adult foils and intriguing story, Stranger Things succeed for me because of its design.  Especially in the logo department, which is significant to me as a logo designer.  Like the poster above pays homage to some of the great painted film propaganda of the seventies and eighties, the logo is a wink and nod to two blockbusters of the time.  Namely the horror-master himself, Stephen King, and Lucasfilm, who crafted so many iconic adventure films of yesteryear.

KING OF THE HILL

Stephen King Library | Book Club Retro Commercial

As a testament to Stephen King’s ubiquity at the time, here’s a commercial for his monthly book service.  I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I was a member of this book club.  I got month after month of hardcover chillers for the low low price of 7.95 per book… Or at least my mom paid it.

If you grew up with all those fantastic late-80’s early 90’s Stephen King covers (or just started admiring them now), the chunky serif font that Stranger Things uses in its logo stirs something in you.  It’s a bold reference to the design of Stephen King’s name appearing on some of his most iconic books.  Just seeing the thick, shallow curve of the “S” of his first name with its sharp angular wings (clearly referenced in Things’ logo),  was enough to put some people on edge.

While the author is still a big deal (there are 2 programs based on his work that recently premiered on Netflix at the time of this writing), in the late-eighties not only was his name know but also its shape resonated horror.  By aping these letter forms, the show was loudly calling out that viewers were in for scares.  Specifically, scares as they were depicted in King’s earlier work.

A SENSE OF WONDER

The other emblematic imagery that the Stranger Things logo borrows from is Lucasfilms.  The studio brought moviegoers many of the films that defined Sci-Fi and fantasy films of the late seventies through the late eighties.  Classics like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and E.T. are filmic high-points of that generation.  And also timeless.   For those that grew up with them as they defined their childhood or adolescence, for those that saw them after, in some ways they simply define childhood.

By taking the gleaming outlined look of Lucasfilm’s logo, Stranger things is directly appealing to our filmic notion of childhood.  And this movie childhood is very specific.  It’s not the idyllic adolescence of the Andy Griffith Show or the gritty teenage years of Larry Clark’s Kids; it’s somewhere in the middle.  This childhood focuses on an outcast peer group, thrust into incredible circumstances in a perilous world with real danger where indeed people may die, but the good guys still prevail in the end.  Employing the look of Lucasfilm tells viewers that’s the ride their in for before they even intellectualize it.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK

One ding that I can level against the logo is that it is derivative.  I know, I’ve spent most of this article praising that part of it though in some ways it hits too close to the mark.  As I illustrated a while ago on an Instagram post, the logo can be very quickly broken down into its influences.  While I enjoy the straight-forward way it’s inspirations can prompt a feeling in the visually savvy, I feel it didn’t stray enough from the mark to fully differentiate itself.

Which I’m bothered by only because the show itself, while taking its own inspiration from retro film, very much differentiates itself from those old movies.  In it’s most smart moments it also re-contextualizes their trappings and comments on them in interesting ways.  I wish the logo had visually done the same.  Though in the end, this is a minor quibble, the logo is in my opinion a success.  It does those things a great mark should: pays homage to the spiritual past of this product while standing its own.

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