The biggest trends in graphic design for 2021, as predicted by leading creatives

The biggest trends in graphic design for 2021, as predicted by leading creatives

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As we reach the end of this tumultuous 12 months, it seems (fingers crossed) like there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. So it’s time to look to the future. But what exactly does it hold for graphic designers?

To answer that question, we’ve teamed up with Shillington, which knows a thing or two about the graphic design profession and where the discipline is heading. In this article, we share six broad trends we expect to see in 2021, with insights from some leading lights in the creative community.

Obviously, no one can predict what will happen in the new year to any degree of accuracy right now. So don’t take any of this as gospel. Instead, we hope it will give you some idea of how to navigate the year ahead, and help keep you looking forward, in optimism and solidarity.

Obviously, no one can predict what will happen in the new year to any degree of accuracy right now. So don’t take any of this as gospel. Instead, we hope it will give you some idea of how to navigate the year ahead, and help keep you looking forward, in optimism and solidarity.

 

&SMITH's designs for East African herbal tea range Kib are inspired by circularity

Trend 1: Sustainability

The idea of developing a new, more sustainable relationship with our environment has been growing steadily throughout the 2010s. But in 2020, a year when many of us got to spend more time outdoors, enjoying wide open spaces and plane-free skies, it all started to feel a little more real and achievable.

“Behind all the suffering and economic hardship of the coronavirus pandemic, international lockdowns have helped the environmental cause,” says Astrid Stavro, partner at Pentagram. “We’ve all had a glimpse into what a greener world might be like, and hopefully, 2021 will be the year in which we heed lessons from the collective action used against coronavirus to effectively respond to climate change and other social inequalities.”

 

Practical action

“The global awareness towards sustainability has led to a huge shift in how we think about design,” says Eve Warren, designer at Robot Food. “And it’s now more than ever that big brands have to step up and lead the way. Consumers are more mindful of their social responsibility, and this extends to packaging design.”

Most importantly, such words are now being matched by action, at both a personal and macro level. “In a lockdown, I made the shift from bulky plastic cleaning and laundry products to the amazing eco-friendly detergent subscription service Smol,” Eve adds. “They claim to use the world’s first 100% plastic-free, child-lock packaging for its washing up and laundry products.

“With this move, the company saves over four tonnes of plastic waste each week as compared to its competitors. I predict 2021 will see more brands following suit, and many consumers will be seeking out more sustainable products to detox their homes further.”

Reconnecting with nature

OMSE's identity for Grounded a sustainable packaging brand that decomposes

This isn’t just good for the planet, but good for us as people, believes Damian Graham, designer in-house at Pentland Brands. “Consumers are going to need to obtain some form of physical connection with nature and with fellow human beings to improve mental health. Apps could aid this. The cyclist movement of ‘Burbing’ is another trend that points in this direction.”

More broadly, the concept is going to influence our design work across the board, predicts Shanti Sparrow, a graphic designer, illustrator and Shillington New York lecturer. “Following a year of social distancing and isolation, I expect to see design embrace a more humanistic and organic tone,” she says. “This will include tasteful textures mimicking hand print techniques, grain, brush strokes and organic shapes that connect the person behind the design with the person who views the design.”

Trend 2: Retro vibe

After the year we’ve had, it’s no surprise that we’re looking back to what seem like easier times right now. Nostalgia, in short, is at record heights. Consequently, we see a lot of retro fonts and colour palettes over the last few months, acting as a kind of graphic comfort blanket.

This approach can be seen clearly in, for example, Koto’s identity for Mutable, which aims to be the first company to produce harm-free meat efficiently and sustainably at scale. It’s also evident in Alphabetical’s branding for Five Films for Freedom, an LGBTQ+ festival held this year, and in Everything Will Be Fine’s dramatic photocopier-Esque identity for Conviction Records, a social enterprise for former inmates.

Koto's identity for Meatable

With the pandemic likely to continue dominating headlines for some time yet, we believe retro and vintage designs will be in demand everywhere throughout 2021. “I think it’s really interesting how many people jumped on Traf’s colour-less iPhone icon set,” says creative director Ric Bell. “Designers are often looking for a new RGB colour for their app icon or a gradient colour combination for their brand that no one has used before. But maybe after the madness of 2020, people will want to take respite from this bright, multi-coloured world and retreat into a more muted environment, similar to that of the printed page; easier on the eye, with a reassuring feeling of nostalgia.”

Trend 3: Optimism and playfulness

While the pandemic’s by no means over, the arrival of both the first vaccines and a new presence in the White House means that the unremitting gloom we’ve suffered through 2020 is starting to give way to something more optimistic. Whatever happens, people will be looking to the creative industries to help uplift them in 2021, and we’re predicting positivity, playfulness, colour and vibrant patterns will all make a big splash.

“People are pining for life to be freer again, from both the physical constraints of lockdown and the mental overload of the Trump era,” says Creative Director Louiza Rabouhi. “My clients are excited about designs that reflect a more open and inclusive future.” Illustrator Michelle Solomon agrees. “2021 will be all about finding ways to be positive despite challenges, in contrast to the darker vibes of 2020,” she predicts. “We all need uplifting art and design at this point!”

 

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