Watch Your Step Or You’ll Trip Over Design Trends

Mark Busse – No Comments

Designers have been dealing with the issues of trends and style since the inception of graphic design. And anyone reading this will no doubt be familiar with the many trends in brand  identity, web, communication, packaging design, as well as print, advertising, photography, and illustration over the past few years. I’ll skip you the “trends to watch” list and leave that to others, but I am curious about when trends are something to track carefully, even let influence your work, versus when to ignore them completely, instead trying to create something entirely new—maybe even starting a new trends yourself!

Many argue that it’s our duty to stay on top of trends, which I understand, but I say if it works, do it. If it’s beautiful too, even better. And if it looks just like what everyone else is doing, then go back to your brief and research and really ask yourself if it’s still the best solution for the problem. As I wrote in a recent article, while there is clearly benefit for a designer to know what their clients’ competitors are doing, spending excessive time on competitive analysis too early as a way to stand out in a crowd can lead to mediocre solutions. Similarly, trend awareness is certainly part of the designer paradigm, but shouldn’t be relied upon for inspiration for graphic means to make your clients stand out against competitors. That’s reacting, not problem solving.

Design educators (myself included) encourage students to emulate the masters and create designs in their style to give them practice and exposure to visual language styles of the past, but I believe we have to do a better job of deflecting our students away from falling too deeply in love with a popular aesthetic style. We must demonstrate the value in seeing past current visual trends, lest we get buried in logos filled with crosses, skulls, birds, and sans serif everything. Oops, too late.

So when is trailblazing with edgy design solutions the right choice for a client? Or when is falling in-line with expected visual language the better choice? Sorry kids, the answer is “it depends”. Consider the difference between a quick hit consumer facing campaign that has a shorter shelf live than say a corporate brand identity system. Big difference.

Trends happen when good ideas are at the root of a design solution, and even the best ideas or styles are influenced by cultural and socioeconomic tenor of the day, more often than not when employed by clients who have significant following, popularity and influence. Obviously an edgy design aesthetic or idea employed by Nike or Old Spice has a greater chance of becoming somewhat of a movement than the identity, advert or website design you produced for a small business. But does that mean your innovative concept isn’t worth exploring? Not at all.

You know who comes to mind when I consider this topic? Bill Moggridge. Moggridge, who sadly we lost this month, would’ve laughed at these questions. I doubt I have to remind readers of this site about what a design innovator Moggridge was—he created the first laptop and co-founded IDEO for crying out loud. Moggridge scoffed at trends and didn’t waste any time on them in his process, arguing that the audience should always be the centre and focus of all design choices. His “human-centred design” approach strikes me as the only one that makes sense. If you haven’t read Designing Interactions and Designing Media, then your education isn’t complete.

Muriel Grateau’s famous words “I hate the word ‘trend’ because it is something everyone follows. This means there is no more creativity left in them.” may be a bit extreme, but her point rings true. Getting caught up in trying to create new trends is as foolhardy as blindly following the current trends. Neither choice really does our clients any favours, and ideas based on a solid understanding of client and audience needs, priorities and preferences are what win the day.

Here’s a recent article published by Design Edge Canada on this topic called You Can’t Start a Trend. Focus on Ideas. that digs a little further into this subject.