I’ve heard a lot of young designers talking about trends lately and I must admit I don’t get it. Where in school did you learn that it was vital to create something so new and original that it serves as a harbinger for a new graphic style? On the other hand, I’ve noticed a plethora of very familiar visual styles and concepts coming out of design programs the last few years. I’m not sure how many more hipster craft logos, nonsensical ad campaigns, or swirly, flourished typographic illustrations I can endure.
But here’s the deal: Who cares? No, really. The bigger question is whether these examples of design style work for the clients and audience. Right?
I asked Young and Rubicam associate creative director Dave Tupper this question, as he recently addressed this topic for a student talk in Toronto. Tupper argues that while referencing or working within design trends isn’t always a bad thing — even sometimes appropriate — it’s foolish to try to innovate or create something new or different that will go viral. “You can’t just start a trend!” exclaims Tupper. “Good ideas founded on solid rationale, purpose and craft is what wins the day.”
Trends are an intrinsic part of society and we’re all influenced by them. Why then, are trends considered such a faux pas within the design industry? Or are they really? Shifts in technology, culture, fashion, even politics and economics all result in visual manifestations of style — also known as trends — that stand as an archive of the zeitgeist. (Yes, I said zeitgeist, I’m sorry.)
A common goal for most communication design is longevity, so following any graphic trend immediately introduces the risk of a shorter shelf life. Not to mention that trendy design is often gimmicky and inauthentic, and when it comes to brand identity design in particular, much of what is visible to the public is only the tip of the iceberg, the rest of the foundational work unseen beneath the surface.
So what? Where’s the wisdom here? The point I’d like to make is that creating a new design trend is about as futile as trying to light a match under water. That’s a designer’s ego getting in the way of problem solving, and with it comes risks you may not be seeing past the project at hand. Let me explain.
Briefs like “Draw us one of those flourishy monograms like you did for Saks Fifth Avenue” can wear a designer down. Suddenly being at the heart of a new visual trend can paint you into a style box — most successful professional designers work hard to constantly reinvent themselves and their craft, avoiding the curse of style.
Consider the difference between a quick hit consumer facing campaign that has a shorter shelf life than, say, a corporate identity system. One might be born of the visual vernacular of the day, while the other needs to be longer lasting. And frankly, I doubt many of you will meet too many clients who can afford or are willing to take bold design risks anyway; those are rare opportunities. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be practicing this type of design thinking.
I love what my passionate designer friend Valerie Elliott from iD2 said to me while discussing this topic recently, saying her firm “almost always provides the futurist option, while the majority of clients don’t choose this option. We always feel it is appropriate that we are PRACTICING communication design in all our work so providing the options make this happen and keep us creating. We don’t settle for less.” Did you catch that? She says that when a client comes to her for design solutions — and remember, clients are always in pain when they arrive — she always attempts to create something new, something different, something forward-looking, even though the majority of her clients typically choose the more conservative option. Probably the option that feels more familiar.
There are of course situations when a client will allow designers to lead them into unchartered waters. The 2012 London Olympics identity system comes to mind as an obvious example. Was it successful? If the goals of the design brief included bucking trends and striving for unexpected visual language in order to spark conversation and get attention, well then it was a smashing success! (Please don’t let it become a visual trend though…)
If you’ve done real research to understand how best to connect with an audience by developing solid ideas and visual language to communicate them, then problem solved. Following trends or pulling your hair out trying to create new ones instead of focussing on solving problems are both rookie mistakes.
Oh, and one more thing: if you’re looking for a job, then consider how many portfolios we potential employers see. If yours is filled with hipster craft logos, flourishy monograms, shiny Apple knock-off websites, and quirky ad concept crap, you’d better be ready to explain exactly why they were the best choice.
What are your views about design trends? Do you track them and allow them to influence your work? Have you had a client specifically ask you to design something in the style of a current trend?
Mark Busse is a founding partner and managing director of the Vancouver-based strategy and brand design firm Industrial Brand, a past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada [B.C. Chapter], and a design writer and educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarkBusse