The design industry is infatuated with trends. Everyone is looking to spot the next big thing in design, so every year we write "best trends of 20XX posts".
But this obsession diminishes the everyday practice of design.
I know this is a strong statement.
The intent behind design trend posts is innocuous; people write that stuff to give you a little dose of inspiration. We designers are always looking for more ideas to incorporate into our work. Design blogs do a great job of this, and the end-of-year design trends posts get lots of traffic for a reason.
But the rest of the year, when you are in the trenches practicing design, trends are insidious.
Another new design trend seems to start whenever someone sees 3 shots on Dribbble that share a minor visual quality.
This in itself, while maybe a little silly, isn’t especially harmful.
However, obsession with trends shifts conversations away from whether aspects of the design are effective, usable, build trust with the intended audience, or make an element’s function apparent, and instead, towards personal opinion and fashion.
The issue is that, now, we judge designs by whether they are fashionable, and not their success.
Further, by placing so much emphasis on trends, unqualified critics can invalidate proven techniques overnight. What were simple tools designers used to make interfaces easier to understand are written off completely without even an attempt at justification.
These developments have real implications in a designer’s daily work. When popular writing about design trends pretends to invalidate useful techniques, or when clients learn from us that design is subjective, we have more difficulty earning a living as designers.
Following design trends is like free lunch to new designers. (I actually wrote that in my first book.) To those who are learning or just starting out, trends serve as a standard to aim for. You can learn to create that specific style and use it to build a portfolio and get hired. Learning one style is much easier than learning to command multiple styles, so I always recommend that new designers try to spot trends and follow them while they are still building up their skills.
But the usefulness of trends ends with learning.
As you climb through the ranks of the design profession, if you can only deliver the latest kind of design style, you’re going to hit a compensation ceiling.
So many of us try to sell our work by explaining it is “modern” or “fresh”. But those qualities are highly subjective, and, as you gain experience, you will meet clients who are hesitant to pay for something they can’t quantify.
So, you need to learn to quantify design for your clients. If you want to earn more money as a designer, you need to learn how to connect your services to results.
And, to be blunt, if you get hired on the premise of creating a unique, fresh, and different design, and then deliver something that looks just like every other on-trend site, you kinda seem like a liar. Sorry, but it’s true.
Are you tired of having every single person you work with (who isn’t a designer) act like they know more about design that you do? It’s a common complaint.
We have earned that treatment from clients, developers, and others, because of the way we discuss design in public.
Your clients are watching.
While we debate which version of Flat Design is correct, whether skeuomorphism is bad, or whether 45 degree angle line patterns are passé (yes, that is actually a real design trend debate from a decade ago), your clients are still watching.
And they are learning how to talk about design from you.
They observe designers in these superfluous debates about style, and they learn that the correct way to discuss design is to offer up one’s own personal opinion. So the next time they talk to you about your design work, they do so.
And you get frustrated.
It’s crazy to me how we designers haven’t made this connection yet.
The way we talk about design in public affects our daily work. If you are tired of getting petty change requests from clients, stop writing petty comments and articles about design in public.
Our job has always been: deciding how much ornamentation and which aesthetic style is appropriate for each project.
So, while for new designers I do recommend learning by following trends, I only offer that advice with a qualifier:
Don’t put the creative process on autopilot because you read a fun post about a hot topic in our profession.
Not every audience will respond well to the latest style, technique, or trend. It’s your job to figure out who the target audience is and which approach will appeal to them best.
And, we have to make that decision again for every single project. Blanket advice from people advocating various trends and other design soapbox preachers (including me), while offered in good faith, is still blanket advice. Design should never be a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Instead, you’re looking for the right fit for one project at a time.
We do this because the designs we make are not just table settings. We are serving up the main course.
Our slang has evolved. ‘Relevant’ no longer means ‘pertinent’, but instead, ‘fashionable’.
This is the perfect symbol of how segments of our industry have abandoned success metrics and function, and have given in to less substantive topics.
Perhaps because we designers have a palpable desire to make things that are relevant, fun, and exciting, our industry is doomed to repeat itself. We can’t break our addiction to coolness.
More than half a decade ago we abandoned the practice of making Flash websites because they were often plagued with usability and accessibility problems. The design industry embraced web standards, hoping to improve the quality of websites across the board by making them equally usable on every device for every user.
I was one of those designers making Flash sites who dove into the world of web standards, HTML, and CSS, and found there incredible, lasting value for clients and users.
This return to the unusable is more evidence that we have allowed trend-based design to infiltrate professional discussions in the design industry. We got bored with standards and usability, and now we’re back to animating buttons. (P.s. I animate buttons. But I hope you find substance in my work, too.)
Maybe you are one of those designers who wants to spot or start the next big design trend. I get the prestige of that, and I also can’t blame anyone just for being excited about the design profession and wanting to read everything they possibly can about it.
Designers are a hungry bunch. We need inspiration and fresh ideas.
I won’t judge you if you indulge in the little guilty pleasure of reading a design trends blog post every once in a while. We can even talk about it over caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, just like we do Mad Men, Mr. Robot, or some other entertaining cultural phenomenon.
But let’s leave the entertainment where it belongs, and reserve some place for serious design talk. Our profession needs it, and our clients and businesses deserve more than passing fads.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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