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4 Ways to Approach Design Trends

posted by Matt Ward on May 8, 2010.

One thing that gets discussed a great deal on various blogs across the design community is the idea of the various trends that exist throughout the industry. In this article, we are going to look the four different ways of approaching these trends, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

One of the common types of posts that we see on various design blogs around the internet is a discussion of popular trends – whether in web design or some other area. These are especially popular at the beginning or ending of any given year, outlining the various trends that have emerged out of the past twelve months. Sometimes these posts can be really interesting or enlightening. Other times, they can be nothing more than the much discussed “list” post.

4 Ways to Approach Design Trends

4 Ways to Approach Design Trends

Regardless, I sometimes think that, for many designers, the very term “trend” seems to cause an almost knee-jerk, and entirely negative reaction. There seems to be a prevailing sentiment in some quarters that trends are some evil to be avoided, a horrid plague on all things creative.

This shouldn’t be the case. Trends aren’t something to be afraid of at all. They aren’t some sort of creative leprosy that will wreak havoc on your artistic integrity. Nor are they (necessarily) shortcuts, cheap knock-offs or charlatans.

In the end, trends are nothing more than data – plain and simple. They track a particular occurrence or series of occurrences over a period of time. And, like any form of data, they can be used as a tool, to help guide and direct our own designs.

The kind of trend that we are talking about here always finds its roots in a humble beginning. Someone starts doing something, wearing something, creating something in a certain way or with a certain aesthetic appeal. The reason for this could be virtually anything. It could be useful. It could be counter-cultural. It could simply be a ton of fun. Whatever the reason, though, the “thing” begins to attract a following who adopt it themselves. Eventually, this following grows to the point where the “thing” becomes so widely recognizable and recurring that it gets labeled as a trend.

The Real Issue

The important thing to note is that, while some trends can come under attack as certain members of a community begin to resist their growing influence, the trends themselves are never the real issue. The real issue emerges when the subject of those trends begins to lose its meaning or value. Where it may have once been a solution to a problem, a visual statement or even just an experiment, it may seem to become nothing more than the thing to do, for no reason other than its own popularity.

For example, one trend that has become really popular is to use some sort of vector character or mascot as the focal point for a website. This may be a great way to establish greater brand recognition, but when everybody is throwing a cute vector character onto their sites – regardless of what their site is actually for – the technique starts to lose its effectiveness. Soon, you start to see such characters popping up on sites where it just doesn’t make sense to have them.

Imagine a cute little vector character on the website for a university or medical school. Somehow it just doesn’t seem to fit the idea of academia and higher education surrounding these institutions. And that is the real issue. It is not the use of a trend that is the problem, but rather its misuse.

So, with that in mind, how do we react to trends? In my view, there are really four main ways that we can approach them. We can reject them entirely, ignore them, embrace them, or ultimately try to advance them. Each of these reactions have their own advantages and disadvantages and can all be valid responses in the right circumstances.

Embrace

Though you may shudder at the thought of embracing a design trends, it happens all the time. In fact, if something isn’t embraced at some level, it would never become a trend at all. Embracing a design trend is not a bad thing, either. Remember the real issue is about the misuse of design trends, not the actual use themselves. In some cases, embracing a particular trend and incorporating it into a design may actually be the most appropriate course of action.

Embrace design trends

Embrace design trends

One obvious example of this would be when the client tells you that this is what they want, especially if they are clear about it right from the outset. If you accept a contract to design a website in which the client has specifically asked for the popular trend of an abstract graphical header, chances are you should probably deliver with an abstract graphical header. Just make it a good one.

Of course, if they come back with that request near the end of the project cycle, after you have designed a beautifully minimalistic looking site, that’s a different matter entirely, and unless the client is willing to pay for a while new design, I would suggest sticking to your original brief as much as possible.

Sometimes it can also be wise to embrace a design trend simply because it works. For instance, you might elect to use a wood panel background on a site for a cottage resort. This would help to create a thematic connection with with the subject matter, as many cottages contain some form of wood paneling, either on the inside or the outside. In this case, using the trend makes sense, because it contributes to the overall theme and intent of the design.

Reject

In direct opposition to the idea of embracing a design trend, we can also react by rejecting that trend entirely. In some cases, this can be little reactionary, with the designer refusing to use a particular design technique or visual element simply because it has become a popular trend. In many cases, it may be rejected without even an cursory consideration of it own merit.

Reject design trends

Reject design trends

Generally speaking, I would caution against this sort of reactionary approach. If you are going to choose to reject the use of a particular design trend entirely, it should be because that trend will not support a design, or might even hinder it. Otherwise, you are simply not exploring the full range of possibilities, and may be rejecting what could very well be the best solution for your particular project.

There are, however, circumstances in which rejection may be beneficial. For instance, if you are designing a website for a client, and find that all the other sites in the client’s market look almost identical or function in the exact same manner, it could be worth your time to analyze the trends that you see in those sites and then reject them, building an entirely new kind approach from the ground up, to help differentiate the client from the competition

Of course, with this kind of approach, you need to make sure that what you create is actually a superior product. This kind of rejection is about designing something better, not about creating something different simply for difference’s sake. If you reject the trends within a particular industry, the new direction that you take should translate into higher visibility, better usability and a superior user experience. You never want to undermine any of these things simply for the sake rejecting trends!

Ignore

Another way to approach design trends is simply to ignore them. At first glance, this may seem to be very much the same thing as rejecting them, but there is actually a significant difference. When you reject a design trend, you are making an active and conscious decision not to incorporate it into your design.

Ignore design trends

Ignore design trends

Ignoring is not nearly so intentional. When you choose to ignore design trends, you may be aware that they exist, but you don’t that existence effect your design one way or the other. This type of approach tends to emphasize the concept of approaching each and every design project as a completely blank slate, with few (if any) preconceived notions of what the final product should be or look like.

This certainly has the advantage of placing the emphasis back onto the project itself, which is of course where the emphasis should be. By ignoring design trends, the designer doesn’t get caught up in issues of trying to make their work conform (or not conform) with all the latest techniques and/or visual tendencies. Nor do they get caught up in similar issues of trying to break those same techniques and tendencies. Instead, the emphasis is placed on achieving the best possible solution for a given project.

There is no doubt that this is admirable approach, but it too has its drawbacks. By ignoring trends, the designer runs the risk of alienating themselves too much from the market for which they are trying to design. Always remember designers are not the only people who are aware of design trends. The customers and site visitors see them too, and in many cases these very trends can also lay the foundations for a certain expectation.

Perhaps one of the better example of this is the whole industry that has built up around iPhone (and now iPad) apps. I’ve seen dozens of different articles that roundup some of the best iPhone app websites out on the net, and there are a few things that are common to almost all of them – or, at the very least, common enough to have become trends in their own right.

First, and understandably, there is always and image of an iPhone, usually displaying a screenshot of the app itself. Second, there is also an emphasis on simplicity, and a somewhat minimalistic interface. Really, this only makes sense, since the iPhone’s interface is also somewhat simplistic and minimalistic. The product itself has established a certain expectation within the broader iPhone (iPad) culture. As such, it only makes sense for the various app sites to make sure that they fit somewhere within the score of those expectations, thereby branding themselves as a “natural” application that just seems to belong on the iPhone.

If a designer was to ignore these trends and then take on the task of designing the website for a new iPhone app, that designer runs the risk of creating a design that does not fit into iPhone culture as well as it otherwise might have. This, in turn, could have a potentially negative impact on the overall response generated by the site. Because the site doesn’t have that expected look, visitors may be less inclined to consider including the app in their library.

Advance

The fourth response to design trends that I want to look at is the concept of advancement. In some ways, this is similar to embracing, in that the designer acknowledges the trend and sees value in its use. However, in this approach, the designer is not content to simply translate the trend into his or her own design. Instead, they seek to take it one step further and actually advance the trend.

Advance design trends

Advance design trends

Quite frankly, this is probably the most challenging of all the responses, since it involves genuine ingenuity and the ability to see beyond the design trend as it currently exists, into ways that trend could be improved or modified to create a better overall solution.

I won’t claim to be one of the more ingenious web designers out there, but I do think that it might be possible to advance the wood paneling trend that we mentioned earlier, moving it away from a simple, static background and into a more complex navigational or content framing technique.

Because the wood panels have a nice, rectangular shape to them, it would be easy to build individual panel blocks within a website. With the addition of a little jQuery, these panels could easily be made to slide across the screen. A clever designer could potentially use this concept to create an interesting and creative navigational system for a website. Or, perhaps they could use it to frame content, making it manageable (with hide/reveal functionality, for example) by the reader.

Obviously, the concept would need to be expanded upon a great deal more than what I am able to do in this article. It would also have to be informed by the context of the project for which it was being used. Still, I think it works as a very basic example of how a design trend can be taken and advanced beyond its current or popular manifestation.

In addition to being the most difficult of our four design trend responses, this may very well also be the most productive, since it does more than simply repeat a technique of visual tendency that already exists. When properly executed, it actually pushes the trend further, potentially delivering a superior or more interesting design solution.

There is Still Danger

By this point, I certainly hope that you recognize that – whatever response you choose to take to design trends – understanding them is vitally important to your work as a designer. This understanding can be a truly valuable tool, and can provide a starting point entering into any design project.

That being said, however, it’s still important to underscore that there is a certain degree of danger surrounding the blind use of trends. You’ve probably already picked up on it, but throughout this article, I have been working to emphasize the fact that, like anything else, design trends can never be taken as a replacement for good design practices. This means that the emphasis must always be on producing the strongest possible result and/or solution.

If you choose to embrace or advance a trend, that choice should always be made on the basis of the value it will bring the design.

If you don’t, and if you find yourself blindly adopting design trends simply because of their popularity, you are flirting with disaster as a professional designer. Sure, you may have a few happy clients to start, but you’ll also be running the risk of becoming known as that designer who only ever works within the current trend. Over the course of time, such an approach could very well harm your reputation and possibly even limit future opportunities, so always proceed with careful thought and consideration.

What do you guys think? How to you react to and/or approach the various design trends that naturally emerge in design? Do you embrace, reject, ignore or attempt to advance? Or, is there an entirely different approach that I have not mentioned? Please share your thoughts!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

May 9, 2010

Brian McDaniel says:

Excellent post, Matt – well-written, thought-provoking, and challenging. You have made me reexamine my own attitude toward trends in design and helped me to better identify where I stand and why. I must admit that the rebel in me wants to buck trends – reject or ignore – simply for the sake of rebelling, and I’m grateful for your illuminating reminder of how wrong this can be. I completely agree with what I see as your bottom line: “design trends can never be taken as a replacement for good design practices” and should only be utilized when the context is best served by them. Therein lies one of my main issues with trends in general: they make it far too easy for the less-talented and less-original to appear as though they know what they’re doing, thus diluting the true functionality and purpose of the trend. I hope that doesn’t sound too elitist or snobby, especially since I am certainly not the most original or talented myself, and am definitely guilty of using trends when I shouldn’t for those very reasons. But I hate it when the bandwagon becomes so overloaded with all the mediocre quick fixes to the point that those who are using elements of trends correctly are overlooked or misinterpreted as unoriginal themselves.

Great points and ideas, Matt. You have given me much to chew on.

May 9, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Hey Brian! Thanks for the comment. I’m glad the article provoked a bit of thought for you. I think I am in much the same boat, what with my own inner rebel. I actaully wrote the first draft of this article a few months ago, after some serious thinking about design trends, and just got around to polishing it up and putting it out there now. It came out of just out of something I read where someone just said that following any trend was bad, which just struck a chord in my that seemed really narrow minded. As I thought about it, the skeleton of this article started to come to mind!

I also like your comment about diluting true functionality. I don’t think it comes across as all that elitist or snobby at all – at least not to me. That raises a really interesting question, though (and possibly an entire other article!) about the issue of elitism in design… maybe in some ways a certain level of tasteful and un-arrogant elitism is truly necessary for the better designers to rise above the rest? Something to think about…

Thanks again for the comment. Always nice to know you’re reading my stuff!

May 9, 2010

Radu Chelariu says:

When I started reading the post I thought your position was in defense of trends, but as I read through it I realized that this is probably the best post about design trends I have yet to come across. Great, great job, Matt!
I find myself bouncing in between various categories. Sometimes I reject a trend that would be appropriate for a project because I feel that deduction and reasoning are better funnels for design output and other times I find myself researching trends. I guess it depends greatly about the project, for me. Every now and again I try do experiment a bit by taking a small, almost minuscule element of a trend and applying it for a project that isn’t in that trend’s niche, though I always consider a logical reason as to why I should. I guess this is my own, simple, way of advancing a trend.
Again, great post, Matt. Keep up the good work!

May 10, 2010

Aidan says:

Hi Matt,

I think that most designers love to follow trends in their own preferable way. But why would they want to do that if they themselves could be the trend-setter?

Following popular trends is a safe bet but it will not stand you out of the crowd. More often the real trends followers behind the scene are the clients, the designers just have to abide to their calling.

So the question is, does it matter if designer follow or reject design trends when in the end the mastermind is usually the client.

May 10, 2010

Ilie Ciorba says:

Ignoring or following current design trends in’st quite correct. What is really important to do, is екнштп to be a step n front of them and to be personalised as much as possible.

May 10, 2010

Carlos Perez says:

I wouldn’t paint trends as such bad things. Yes, blindly following a trend is reckless. However, it’s also important to understand the value of a trend. When you understand a trend, you are understanding what is popular amongst your audience (or perhaps someone else’s audience) and what the state of the current marketplace is. It might be something that is out of your comfort zone, but tackling it may help you grow as a designer. Using it in the right way and the right time, of course is the challenge, as you point out.

The problem with ignoring trends is that you may wind up missing something that isn’t just a trend, but perhaps something that becomes a longer enduring best practice. And really, identifying something as a trend is very difficult in its own right. If you don’t have a true understanding of trends, you might not realize that what you think is a trend really isn’t one at all!

Regardless of following trends or not, you must stay current, because even a ‘timeless’ design made 5 years ago, will likely start to look a little aged. :)

Thanks for the article!

May 10, 2010

Scott Corgan says:

I think having numbers or counts in the title of your blog posts is a trend…

May 10, 2010

Matt Ward says:

touché, Scott.

May 11, 2010

Logo Design says:

I agree with the reply that “ignoring or following current design trends isn’t quite correct.”
–waiting for some one to ask explanation from me.. :)

May 11, 2010

Lucas Cobb Design says:

I always try to advance a trend. Ignoring a trend will leave you behind the times and embracing a trend is like leading sheep to slaughter.

Trends come and go which is a good thing. Imagine if design stayed the same forever. I don’t think we would all be designers for long. We would have no creative outlet and I see trends as the “spice” of design. They give you new challenges to overcome or something new to skoff at. They lead to articles like this that provoke thought and induce change in the way we all design and think for that matter.

Great article Matt as always.

I’m also looking forward to the redesign.

May 11, 2010

Rachel says:

Excellent article.it’s help us like me learner.

May 11, 2010

Jon Phillips says:

Man this is a great post! ;)

I don’t think trends are a bad thing or something you should avoid like a lot of people seem to think. Like you said, it’s just data – and like with everything else if you have some date on a particular topic you can gain better knowledge of that topic, same goes with design trends.

Again, really nice post!

May 14, 2010

Robert Leeper says:

Interesting article, Matt. I think you’ve covered the topic pretty well.

It’s a good reminder that trend data is little more than a measurement of the design environment and should be treated as such. They are not going to always be the way a design should go, but they shouldn’t be discredited just because they’re trendy.

Every design should be shaped by all the available information for a project, taking into account what would serve it best – not by picking a design trend and forcing the project to fit the mold.

Jun 30, 2010

48hourslogo says:

Good discussion. I think people takes different approach largely based on their personalities. For me I like to take it in and adapt. keeping up with the industry is part of this game and to me it is really fun too.

Nov 22, 2010

Tony says:

Great article !

Dec 7, 2012

John says:

Very good post. Really helpful.

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