Less Isn’t More. It’s Boring.
January 16th | 2018
by Lindsay St. Clair

If we learned anything in 2017, it’s that people make decisions based on their emotions.

In the context of products and brands, that means we need to understand what's going on (emotionally) in culture so we can connect with people. As designers, it's largely up to us to make that emotional connection at first sight.

In the past decade, design conversations have primarily centered around business processes and product innovation — design thinking, human-centered design, user experience, design sprints, and rapid prototyping, just to name a few. We’ve proven that good design is worth the investment, that it’s valuable to the average Jane, and that it can drastically improve a customer’s relationship with a product or brand. Since products like Nest have entered the market, there’s been an awakening of design thinking that’s focused on making the mundane and stressful parts of our lives intuitive and simple.

So, in the name of simplicity, products and brands stripped out their extra design elements. In the process of perfecting the user experience, designers put expression on the back burner.

Fast forward to the past year — now, we’re finally starting to remember that we have the ability to make people feel when they interact with what we’ve made. We’ve connected with our own desire to express ourselves and the emotions of the people we’re designing for. We’re ready to stop calling people users and start calling them people.

Let’s talk about some of the mindsets that are currently permeating culture (see Adrian’s article for an interesting rundown), and consider how those attitudes impact visual trends.

Escaping from reality.

We’re supposedly more connected than ever before, but there’s an increase in loneliness in adults and teens alike. Our anxiety levels have skyrocketed, and talking about depression is less taboo and now a common conversation. Keeping up with current events is frustrating and can seem hopeless. The most popular blogs and influencers are regularly posting self-care tips and night-in guides.

So, it makes total sense that our natural response is to escape from this reality. And that means, in our design work, we’re creating surrealist environments and visuals that allow our brains to take a break from our frustrating newsfeeds. Bold colors, playing with scale, and unrealistic scenes allow our brains to relax and feel creative, even if it’s just for a minute.

Going back to move forward.

Do you remember when the internet felt like a vortex of fun? When you could get sucked into YouTube for hours watching videos of miniature food items being cooked or listening to a kid read a book about kittens? I think we'd all like to bring back the time when our biggest annoyance was the fact that our friends posted too many 'grams of the food they were about to eat — especially if it would mean taking a break from the current political climate. This feeling is the primary mover for the trend of looking back to inspire something new. We've brought back glitch art, quirky animation styles, and websites that feel more experimental than optimized.

The second contributor to this trend is access to tools through our smartphones. With design apps, a camera, a video editor, and a sketchbook at our fingertips, we no longer have to buy expensive equipment to make cool art. Putting the tools in everyone’s hands does two things: allows for innovation via millions of people constantly experimenting, and feeds curiosity about the analog tools that inspired their digital counterparts. And that combination of innovation and curiosity means that we’ve started to look back at older styles in order to pair them with new ones. We’ve brought back scanner distortion, collages, and film photography styles and paired them with modern gradients and typography. Because, after a couple decades of simplifying and minimizing design, we’re looking to break the rules again in a way that brings old and new together.

Making More with More.

Until now, luxury brand design has been influenced by European design, where clean and minimal often means sophisticated. More diverse voices in our culture have led to rejection of restraint and monotony, and we’re protesting what feels stark and detached. Artists from around the world are included in deciding what’s “on trend,” so together we’re exploring new color combinations, patterns, and textures from different eras, countries, and subcultures.

A step farther — with the tension in politics, economic disparities, and marginalized groups continuing to fight for equity — our collective need to rebel against tradition manifests visually in creating bolder and expressive styles. Typography mimics protest art, colors are saturated and bright. Our reaction to feeling stressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed is to create excess and obsess over beauty. The more we want to express ourselves, the more enthusiastic and expressive design becomes.

So we’ve entered into the world of maximalism. Thanks to our digital tools, creating ornate and extra design doesn’t necessarily cost more than minimalist design.

Embracing a new aesthetic.

If you're in marketing, you might be wondering how this applies to you, especially if you've recently gone through a rebrand. Instead of doing an entire refresh every few years, start by loosening or making small changes to your brand standards guide. Modernize colors, explore expressive patterns, and work with an artist or photographer who’ll give you a new take on how you're showing yourself to the world.

People love to be surprised, to be inspired by something new, to feel connected in some way to the objects or services they choose. And in a highly visual world, paying attention to culture and keeping your brand current with design trends is a fairly easy way to keep connecting with the people you’re talking to.