Last year saw some explosive design trends bursting onto the visual scene, some of which were hugely popular, and some of which will likely see even more usage in 2021. From visuals inspired by trends from over 100 years ago to completely new and controversial ways of creating graphics, have a look at the design trends that will undoubtably see prevalence this year - as well as which ones you should choose.
Recently, in design spheres, there has been a resurgence of what was once called the “Swiss Style” or “International Style” of graphic design. This style has recently been combined with fine art, and in particular explosively colourful Abstract Expressionist pieces, to create some brilliant results. The Swiss Style actually emerged in Europe about 100 years ago, but has somehow (almost magically) continued to look “ultra-modern” for over a century. The Swiss Style, originally referred to as the “International Typographic Style”, was directly produced by the Modernist movement, which craved objectivity, cleanliness, and order in a devastated post-War Europe, whilst Abstract Expressionism is pretty much the exact opposite; rebellious, chaotic, and anarchic. When the two styles are combined elegantly, which seems counterintuitive, they seem to complement each other perfectly. The International Style elements provide grids, order, and legibility, whilst the Expressionist elements provide colour, interest, and appeal.
This is a perfect style for usage in posters, book covers, or other graphics aiming to concisely convey information. It is efficient in appearing elegant and modern whilst still giving across a clear message.
Psychedelic and surreal designs are the antithesis of the typical “big tech” graphics and layouts that you would usually see in social media advertisements. They’re definitely not for everyone, but they are a brilliant way to create designs that instantly intrigue. This style derives from Hippie Movement art styles that arose from Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, as well as from Surrealist collage styles that evolved in Europe after World War One, as well as taking inspiration from earlier styles like Art Nouveau and Pop Art. Oversaturated and chaotic colour schemes, often mimicking the same colours that would have been used by the Hippie Movement, as well as multi-layered and maximalistic layouts are sure to stand out from absolutely everything else. No inch of the canvas should go without some amount of trippy pattern, bold color, or wavy texture.
This style is definitely not for everyone. Taking its roots in rebellion and socio-political upheaval, neo-psychedelic and surreal design is probably not suitable for corporate content. Psychedelic design has decades of history linking it to political activism and counterculture, so its usage is perfect for settings that want to identify with that level of movement. The visual designs themselves are also suitable for more artistic settings, such as craft beer cans or other creative packaging.
With society in general trending increasingly more towards "green" lifestyles, diets, and products, the design scene (especially when designing for these products) is also trending towards organic and earthy tones, palettes, and textures. These designs are the sorts of things that you might expect to see on the packaging of a vegan ethical soap, or on a paper bag of artisan coffee beans. They are heavy on pale reds, browns, and oranges, as well as textures like torn paper, cardboard, clay, or even stone.
These sorts of designs are very suitable for brands - particularly anything that might align itself with a "healthy" or "sustainability" perception; foods, restaurants, clothing, cosmetics, soaps, and so on.
This is a new style that mostly developed on Instagram, and saw particular popularity in 2020 through its usage by progressive educators discussing social issues such as racial tensions, intersectional feminism, and police brutality. This style is almost exclusively used in carousel posts on Instagram, almost always filled with educational content or links to other resources, and is strongly tied to vocal supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. The style generally makes use of relatively simple symbols, and colourful yet equally simple backgrounds, so as to be engaging and eye-catching without drawing attention away from the important content. With this style seeing so much use on social media in 2020, there is no doubt it will continue well into 2021. This is also a design style that should not be used for corporate content, as it is problematic to co-opt this means of visual communication to raise capital instead of awareness.
Whilst this style itself should not be co-opted by businesses, that doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant. Last year saw huge social movements across the world, and it’s important for any business, large or small, not to be tone-deaf. That doesn’t mean just declaring support for something in theory, but rather using your business platform to make meaningful contributions.
A trend that has also seen increasing popularity in recent years is the tasteful use of digital blurs, grains, and textures to create designs that have an instant gritty appeal. There’s no clear origin of this technique, but I believe that it’s a bit of a reactionist trend amongst designers going against the clean, flat, minimalistic style of modern-day corporate graphics. Blurs and grains are also often used in tandem with other heavily textured elements, such as glued paper, film scratches, or iridescent fabrics. This particularly suits a brutalist approach to design, which is quite an ideological approach to visual communication. It aims to distance itself from the artificiality and sterility of modern-day corporate communications, and attempts to intentionally look raw, unprocessed, and honest.
This style can be used in combination with other design trends and is perfect for businesses aiming to differentiate themselves from a sea of Canva template posts.
Whilst this is a style that certainly isn’t new, heavily distorted typography is seeing increasing usage, and is similar to the blur-and-gain style in its brutalist origin. Distorted text has seen heavy usage for a while in “edgier” settings, such as in promotional material for EDM events, but last year saw increasing use of melted, twisted, or otherwise deformed lettering on promotional material, and even in logos.
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