Is graphic design too trendy?
Whether it’s chrome lettering or outlined type, we’ve all heard someone say: “Ooh, that’s a bit trendy!” Here we question what’s wrong with that, what’s right about it too, and the unexpected significance design trends have.
We all have our own opinions on design trends (will motion design really take off? Who knows! I hear great things), but is the industry too reliant on these swanky fads? Do they undervalue design and the role of the designer? Put simply, is graphic design too trendy?
“The word ‘trend’ is perceived so negatively,” says Mike White, the creative director of London-based design practice Studio Lowrie. “No one wants to be perceived as trendy.” Searching for a definition of trendiness, the art director and designer Lauren Harewood offers her own personal benchmark – “basically if I’m sick to death of seeing it on my timeline!” Meanwhile, UAE-based graphic designer Shamma Buhazza claims that a trend can be seen in a more positive light as “something popular that people accept”.
Here, Shamma highlights the surprising democracy of trends, how they are not something that is prescribed or commanded, but rather something that the designer and their audience decide and dictate. Why is it, then, that we have such an adverse reaction to the notion? Are we afraid that by liking a trend, we undervalue our own practice, or belittle our creative individuality, or disregard our own unique selling point? Or do we just want to like things before they’re cool?
With the lightspeed dissemination of content on Instagram, we are exposed to design at an unbalanced rate, with plenty of content that is created exclusively for the feed. As the life expectancy of a meme has shrunk from the months it might have enjoyed in 2013 to mere minutes today, so design trends seem to come and go rapidly, akin to a solar supernova – a cataclysmic expansion followed by an immediate collapse. Shamma thinks this might be a cause for concern, telling us, “I do not necessarily think that following trends is a bad thing; however, I believe that seeing too much of anything really can be an overkill.” Trends can even apply in the presentation of work, such as sharing work on a plain black background. “There is nothing wrong with presenting work in this manner,” Shamma adds. “However, I can’t help but think of the endless other ways of presenting design work.”
As Mike of Studio Lowrie suggests, another downside to the rapid stream of new and trendy design on Instagram is its confusion of the research process within one’s design practice. “People don’t know where their reference points are even coming from, because they don’t do the research,” he says. “So it’s like you see pastiches of really interesting creative directions and design.” This results in a diluted, devalued reappropriation of someone else’s starting point, rather than an original insight.
The similarity between work also comes down to the “industry standard” tools. With the near-monopoly of Adobe software within the design industry, folks often have the same systems to work with, and are therefore naturally working within certain limitations and able to recreate particular styles. With the ease of sharing content, as soon as a free tutorial for rotating-tubular-black-and-white-kinetic-typography becomes available, for example, it’s no surprise that online you see a thousand different brand expressions that look like OMSE’s Printworks identity.
It begs the question: Is it even possible to work outside of trends? For Mike, it’s not clear you can. To have a completely clear-sighted opinion on trends, he says, “You have to be completely devoid of any sort of influence or completely trend-neutral.” He suggests that the work one would have to make in order to have a genuine opinion on the subject would need to be so completely abstract as not to relate to any sort of trends. That doesn’t seem feasible considering the ubiquity of design work and trends today.
The fact of the matter is that, as Mike suggests, “you can have different starting points and you can move in your own direction completely and then one day that becomes a trend.” This comes down to design not being the unchanging biblical deity that some make it out to be. In truth, design is constantly evolving and far from a set methodology. Perhaps trends are the constantly bombarding, all-singing-all-dancing proof of that truism – totally unavoidable in our digitally connected, restless world.
The curse of mass exposure to this torrent of design also has its blessings. “Using a design trend can sometimes make the work feel somewhat accessible and relatable to people,” Shamma explains, “as it is something they have seen recently, which makes it feel familiar.” Familiarity breeds recognition and accessibility, which can be both supportive and communicative.
Mike agrees with this idea. “The more a trend flows, the more exposed it is to other people, and in turn they can rally those individuals or groups of people to feel connected to that moment,” he says. In showing people more content and allowing them to find their groove, it encourages a sense of exploration in their creative practice, encourages them to experiment and try new things. The sheer volume of design the industry is exposed to drives a rapid rate of change, where there is a balance between those finding their footing within trends and those trying to act against trends altogether. At the same time, everyone is sharing their work and exposing each other to fresh techniques and new ideas.
This has only come about through social media levelling the playing field somewhat. It also provides comfort, as Shamma explains: “I believe that it is often a safe bet, because the work is familiar.” Similarly, Lauren notes that a trend can be more valuable if the project calls for it. “When you’re designing things like merch, they can be great,” she says. “You know what will sell, what people are looking for right at this exact moment.” The issue, however, arises when the project’s scope is less timely. “When it comes to bigger branding campaigns, it can get a bit tricky,” she adds. “Is this latest trend really going to last for the next five years? Or is it going to date like hell?”
Another issue more recently surfaced concerning design trends is the role they have in relation to activism, protest and political movements. Whilst certain causes have intelligently and successfully adopted design trends on social media – using the latter to share information with as large an audience as possible – there is the concern with bigger brands adopting and appropriating the movements as trends themselves. With enormous conglomerates hopping onto the bandwagon in a show of support towards movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, it can often be the case that their support is surface-level – and instead, they treat these movements as a trend to cash in on, as they might with repeated outlined type or a Bernie Meme.
As Shamma describes, a further negative side of jumping on trends is losing an element of “timelessness,” whereby the work that has been done “still feels new and fresh years later”. This becomes painfully obvious in the context of difficult clients, as Lauren suggests, when they too want to follow the crowd. “Clients try and jump on, often too late, and by the time it’s been watered down by the sixth round of amends, it already looks dated and tired before it’s even dropped,” she says, recalling when she saw a kinetic type advert for the Conservative party and thought, “Ah well, that’s done now.”
The development of trends and their subsequent death when they are used by a conservative political party, as a totally random example, can seem like a tedious cycle. But it’s weirdly within this that the beauty of the design industry lies.
“What I love about the industry is that it feels like it’s constantly in flux and like there’s always new things happening,” says Mike. Whether that be new, easier-to-use tools or the development of new technology, this encourages creatives to craft things we’ve never seen before specifically in order to avoid trends, to challenge the design we accept because we now have new ways to approach things.
“Form versus function, for example,” says Mike. “Design is about form now, I would say.” He is coming from an education that preached the Swiss-esque modernist approach to design, whereby a design outcome was the result of the function. “There are some people who would argue that is still the case,” Mike tells us, “but really things aren’t that way now.”
The current general trend of design, Mike seems to suggest, is more about catching the eye of an intended audience. “In a way, I wonder if graphic design has become more like illustration or more like art,” he muses, suggesting that “ultimately, it’s about whether that thing is beautiful or not.”
It used to be the case of the designer as the artist with the likes of Peter Saville, where heavy-hitters built their career to the point where companies would come to them to get their interpretation of the problem, and their design solution to it. This work was founded more on the artistic expression of the designer as an individual, rather than the designer’s work in the wider context of design trends.
“I think what’s happened over the past ten years is that this approach wasn’t good enough for clients who need a return on interest,” says Mike. Instead of the design solution being determined by the designer, the emphasis now is placed on a strategy providing the foundation for design work, led by information from marketing teams that can justify the business expenditure. This can now be achieved through calculable responses to trend-based design decisions – considering audience engagement, likes, clicks, shares, saves and more.
What this leads to, however, is a misunderstanding of the contextual relevance of trends. As Shamma explains, “In terms of trends undervaluing a design, it really depends on the context of what the design is about.” She uses the recent rebrand of the CIA as an example. “It has a rave-like aesthetic to it, something that perhaps a techno club in Berlin would use as their logo,” she notes. “This is an example of hopping onto a trend without understanding the cultural reference the aesthetic is associated with.”
In turn, it led to a significant backlash when the identity refresh launched. The lack of contextual understanding for design, as demonstrated by the CIA rebrand, is symptomatic of the nuances involved in defining the significance of trends. “What some people do is go on Instagram and scroll through until they find something they like, and then they copy it,” says Mike, rather than trying to understand something and then communicate that new understanding.
It’s important to consider this because, in the end, trends have a more significant role to play than we think. “Ultimately trends define our definitions of culture and what’s happening in culture,” says Mike, “and a way of understanding culture is by defining it.” After all, Swiss modernist posters that are so revered in the graphic design discipline were revolutionary at the time they came about. Were they not simply a trend that stuck? Is that not what a “style” is – a piece of swanky new design or a prominent design trend that stays around?
“That’s what I find really exciting about new trends evolving,” Mike adds. “It pushes graphic design in different directions.” And with the scale of the design world, there is so much opportunity. Suggesting that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to design, Lauren argues that there will always be a new generation coming in to turn the rulebook on its head. “If you’re sitting there designing your 100th chrome type post and it’s working for you, then go with it, you do you, just do it loud and proud,” she says. “Trends are always coming back around anyway.”
About the Author
Hailing from the West Midlands, and having originally joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020, Harry is a freelance writer and designer – running his own independent practice, as well as being one-half of the Studio Ground Floor.