Your design here: a timeline exploring graphic design template trends


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Let’s be honest here template mockups are a ubiquitous, but very vital, part of every graphic designer’s working practice. Yet, despite them being so necessary, it’s an area of graphic design rarely discussed. You could almost assume that designers might be shy to admit to their use of templates. No designer needs the help of a computer after all do they…

But in reality, templates are an aid to make a project appear to exist in the real world. The importance of templates is most obvious when you consider the trends it has introduced. Think about the past ten years of graphic design, the use of templates has shape-shifted every so often and designers — and their Behance profiles — have followed suit.

But how is the next generation going to present work and how can they do it best? To evaluate this we’ve reached out to a range of studios to find out how and why they use templates, compiling an exploration of trends. Below, we speak to TwoPoints.Net, Bureau David Voss, Studio Feixen and Marc Armand of Tu Sais Qui™ about the trends they’ve experienced, and discuss the future for every creative director, budding graduate or solo freelancer’s best friend: the template mockup.

The hands

It’s around 2005 and it appears the obvious way to present a poster is to hold it up with a pair of hands clasped over the top. When has anyone, ever, in real life, promoted an event or exhibition by holding up a poster? But regardless, a trend followed.

It’s an approach TwoPoints.Net adopted when making its first online portfolio around this time. “I took a picture of Lupi, holding up a blank poster in our first office in Barcelona. I let the film develop and scanned it, then cut her out in Photoshop and replaced the background,” Martin Lorenz of the studio tells us. “Pretty absurd,” says Martin, “but more entertaining than the clean mockups available at that time.”

This was over ten years ago but now if you search for “hands holding up poster” on Adobe Stock, almost 2000 relevant results pop up. TwoPoints confess they fell for this trend, admitting, “We always try to be timeless, original, and true to the project and ended up so many times following, unwillingly, a trend. As mentioned, we started with the person-holding-up-a-poster-trend, although we did our own weird version of it.”

However photographing someone to then mockup as a template takes time, and is troublesome to get right if you’re not a professional. This is why Marc Armand of Tu Sais Qui™ began to use templates themselves: “Some printed works are really difficult to photograph, and I feel lazy asking a photographer or putting up a whole photo set myself,” Marc Armand of the studio explains. “Then, sometimes, doing a mockup would look even better than an actual photo.”

The bulldog clip

Skipping forward a few years, graphic designers were sick of fingers and thumbs and reached for bulldog clips instead. A studio whose use of clips goes hand in hand with the work they create is Studio Feixen. For them, once they settled on the clip in 2009, “it was always the same,” explains the studio’s founder, Felix Pfäffli.

What bulldog clips offered the studio was the ability to portray scale, and it didn’t have hands getting in the way either. “I guess during the time, it was maybe 2009 when we defined this, these clips were what people used back then, it was always like the work was clipped on a wall for instance. We decided instead that we’ll have the clips in the air somehow, which actually makes no sense,” Felix laughs. “But, it gives you a feeling of size without disturbing the work.” Take a look through Studio Feixen’s vast poster library and you can see this thinking in action. Clips vary in size dependent on the project, a visual representation of its design thinking.

Marc Armand also began ihis relationship with templates by flirting with bulldog clips: “I think the first time was for my very first website, a fake wooden set-up to hang posters with bulldog clips. Pretty bad actually, it looked really fake,” says the designer. However, this first iteration was a springboard into thinking about how the studio could present work as a whole: “In the end, my Photoshop mockup crafting improved,” he tells us. “I would even use it in image creation as an element of the graphical work, and not only as a tool to present my works on my website and/or portfolio. It became a part of the creation process!”

The physical object

As mentioned, the most common use of templates is for ease, particularly if a studio has been art working for a physical object. A template can help a designer get a taste for what form those InDesign files will take as a tangible object.

Take Marc’s work for Please magazine where templates aid decisions around the publication’s layout creation, “as the format is quite big it helps to look at spreads as mockups,” he explains. It’s the same when the studio is designing a record sleeve, allowing designers to evaluate “how the cardboard sleeve can interact with the paper inner sleeve and the disc round centre,” and can avoid any mistakes or mishaps when the final design has gone to print.

Bureau David Voss agrees, mentioning a scenario where the studio is designing a book for someone else. In order to bring it to life the studio uses template mockups in pitches, particularly “when there is no presentation in person so we can provide potential project partners with an idea of how the final result will look.” This continues for the studio when designing too, sticking to the template as "it’s good to have that kind of problem visually in front of you when you do a draft.”

The background

One of the simpler iterations of templates is to place a studio’s work on a plain background. Black, as we’re sure most of you are aware, is the obvious choice it seems. But for Studio Feixen, its design team has always leaned towards grey instead. “We are control freaks,” it admits. “Whatever we do is controlled to the millimetre but in the end, everything is on grey, even in our earlier projects.”

The studio’s reasoning for choosing a plainer background is due to the work it creates. “It’s because everything is super colourful, it’s always loud, it’s a lot of fun. For us, it was obvious that if we show our work it has to be calmed down a little bit to show that we can also be serious in a way.” This thought process has also allowed Feixen to create an almost template style branding for itself. Now, if someone “sees a picture of our work, they’ll always see it on a grey background".

By making such a considered decision on its use of templates, the studio has never had to provide much thought about changing it since. Still, temptation seeps in explaining that “we are again and again thinking about it and trying different things but nothing sticks,” the studio admits. And so it seems, the same rule of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” applies to template mockups too.

The billboard

This is your classic use of templates really isn’t it. Bus stops, banners, a billboard featuring your designs, it’s an essential template and an initiation test for every junior designer.

It’s a regular application used by TwoPoints, particularly with clients, explaining that it "helps us to imagine how the finished deliverable will look at the right scale and sometimes even in the right context… Mockups also help our clients to imagine what the design will look like when produced, especially when we use special production techniques, materials or inks.”

Marc Armand recently did this too on a campaign with the French football team and Nike, designing posters as if pasted onto a wall physically. “It was really helpful to use ‘fake scratched and textured’ poster mockups to see how the visuals would work as big posters in the streets of Paris. In the end, I figured that the simpler they were, the best impact they would have,” Marc of the studio explains. For Studio Feixen giving context via a template is also key: “The client doesn’t work on this stuff, we do,” it explains. “They have to have a feel for how it looks in the end to understand it. The better you can show a client, or give them a feeling, the sooner they’ll understand what it is you’re working on.”

Using templates in this way is also an ideal way to show how designers want the work to be presented as Bureau David Voss explain for its work I’ll Be Your Mirror, a poster for an exhibition at GfZK in Leipzig. As the studio was also tasked with “dealing with the outside appearance of the museum,” it explains, “mockups were needed in any case, otherwise, none of the guys who installed our work would know where to put the letters.” This example leads into one of the studio’s main pieces of advice for template users: “beware of the circumstances”.

The future?

After looking back at the current and past trends of graphic design templates, it feels like the jury is still out on what shape the future trends will take. What has come to light, however, is that really, it’s solely dependent on the work in question. This is possibly the reason why more paired back templates, using single colour backgrounds, or even the infamous variation of a floating poster, have become more popular.

But, what each studio does suggest, is some brilliant advice about the thinking behind using templates in the future, but each studio’s advice differs because they each create such different work. TwoPoints, for instance, suggests to “not always use the same mockup” but “choose the mockup depending on the type of project and audience it is developed for.” Whereas Studio Feixen has more than proved the benefits of having a cohesive graphic style for templates. Its general rule is that the template should be heavily considered and “You shouldn’t stop after making, you should put the same energy and the same love of detail in the presentation.”

In turn, the templates that stick and are saved to desktops for all eternity, are the ones which are apt for the job at hand but are also a natural fit. Your template mockup of choice has got to be believable because that’s why you’re doing it in the first place. Take Bureau David Voss’ advice as a key takeaway from this too: “If one can see that a design is a mockup, it might not be a good one ;-).”

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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