I was in Portland recently, where almost everyone there made me feel less cool than I thought I was. The clothes are cool, the speech is cool, the attitude is cool ? Even my hotel was cool, the Ace (there’s one in NY and other locales as well).

But coolness is generally derivative. Sure, new things come along all the time that make you say, “Wow, cool!” (iPhones, robotic insects, shrink-wrapping cancer cells). I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about cool in the deep-down, archetypal, hive-sense way that a thing or a person is cool. At this point in our cultural evolution, we have gotten past the knee-jerk reactionary phase that made, say, new wave better than arena rock, or CDs better than vinyl. Instead, we have a myriad of choices to draw on when it comes to just about anything. Punk rock is no less valid a choice than heavy metal, despite the fact that both were invented 40-50 years ago. Do you like handlebar mustaches? Grow one. Mad Men suits over jeans and T-shirts? There are stores just for that. Vinyl over digital, Atari 2600 over XBox, seventies-style Pumas over modern Nikes… it’s all your choice.

Just don’t call it ironic. Some claim that they wear that 1971 flavor-saver “ironically” ? or bell bottoms, or whatever. So is this to say that it’s a bad fashion choice, but you chose to wear it anyway? If so, you’re both arrogant and dumb. And if not, you are being cowardly. If you think it looks good, stand up and shout, “This is my donut duster, and I love it!” (You can follow up by practicing another invention of an earlier decade: passive resistance, as security carts you off the premises).

How does all of this apply to software interface design? A fair question, since this area of design is more forward-looking that most. I mean, when was the last time you looked fondly back to the design paradigms of Windows 3.1 for inspiration? But, not so fast. You need look no further than recent trends toward larger type and simpler, flatter design overall. These things may be an outgrowth of portable devices coupled with an aging user base. What I mean by that is, simplicity is necessary on mobile devices, and interesting discovery: people like using those more. Add failing eyesight and you need something that was more common in the DOS world than that of the multi-tasking Windows/Mac OS era: modal, single-purpose screens with larger, highly readable type. Add to this the trend toward more minimal color, and we’re starting to evoke an earlier age.

All of this goes to challenge the idea of constant forward momentum. Borrowing from the past is sometimes the best policy. When an idea turns out to be good, even if it came about through a technology limitation that has since been lifted, it should be revisited, updated, and repurposed. Apple worked like mad to get the iPhone to be as small as it could be, while competitors started making larger phones with bigger screens ? and those competitors are kicking Apple’s ass. Counterintuitive, but it worked.

So question, experiment, and borrow from the past ? No irony intended.