This time last year, I explored what was in store for 2016 with future-casting graphic design blog Trend List. Its editors predicted the year would be “more punk” and we’d see a definite departure from grid-based design. They also noted the emergence of new grotesque fonts that intentionally break the rules of standard letterforms to make something strikingly distinct. But were they right? Did they presciently predict this year’s top trends?
For art and culture graphic design projects, it’s not been anarchy or punk that’s dominated, but rather a subtle, deliberate blend of styles. In 2016, Modern mannerisms have met with idiosyncratic fonts, and typography has reigned supreme.
London-based graphic design agency APFEL (A Practice For Everyday Life) thoughtfully blend the beautiful, the innovative, and the understated for its gallery, publisher, and university clientele. For them the most interesting work of 2016 has shifted from clashing colors and aggressive juxtaposition to simplification (although it notes the playfulness of the chaotic and destabilizing is still evident). For the arts and culture sectors, this shift has manifested itself with a focus on typography. APFEL have noticed designers setting aside the geometric shapes of fonts like Circular and Brown, perhaps because of their large-scale commercial applications this year in rebrands for Spotify and the Premier League.
“Lettering is instead being pushed to new extremes, particularly in terms of contrast, with reverse-stress typography gaining popularity,” say APFEL. “We’ve also noticed serif typefaces—mostly Clarendon-style or transitional faces—being juxtaposed with neo-grotesque sans serif type to very striking effect.” Extended, heavyweight fonts have also seen resurgence in popularity, though they’re already being replaced by lighter, more open lettering. “Overall, the friendly and rounded aesthetic that has become popular in recent years is becoming more mature,” which they attribute to an echo of 60s pioneers like Wim Crouwel or Edward Wright.
It’s not news that the commercial world will devour a trend—spotting it, chewing it up, and spitting it out again, dampening its effects and turning a style born from the avant-garde into something as east to digest. And as usual, those seeking to disrupt will have to head into even less predictable territory. Innovation and experimentation often happen most visibly in the art and culture sector, where clients are more comfortable taking risks. But it also happens in the cushioned and encouraging environment of art schools. That’s why we look at these two spaces to spot design trends when they first take root.
On the East coast, RISD associate professor in graphic design John Caserta notes “bold, less intricate compositions” and the continued rise of the “‘21st century poster” amongst his students’ work. On the West coast, co-program director of the CalArts graphic design program, Anther Kiley, has also noticed that with his undergrads there’s a continued interest in an ironic-nostalgic application of Modernist mannerisms as surface style, disconnected from their historical associations.
Like APFEL, Kiley sees this sensibility finding its expression most boldly in typography. “This style mainly announces itself with tightly leaded, over-large, all-cap, neo-grotesque tilting,” he explains. “The celebration of controlled ‘quirkiness’ continues; awkward typographic details, slightly ‘off’ typefaces, studiously careless compositional moments.”
Overall, Kiley says the current that both fetishizes and undermines “authentic” Modernism “seems like a pretty good articulation of the millennial zeitgeist, and I don’t see it going away any time soon.”
The emergence of small, independent type foundries offering bespoke fonts and a select amount of faces has also resulted in playful innovation in the field and might account for a widespread interest in type-heavy composition. Small foundries like Iceland’s Or Type, Germany’s Dinamo, Denmark’s Bold Decisions, and France’s typographic dabbler Benoît Bodhuin are distinct for their fonts that contain playful gestures.
Dinamo’s Favorit has become a top choice for art-based identities in Germany; the country’s latest art publications are rarely released without a minimal spattering of its avant-Swiss styling within their pages. The foundry suggests the emergence of smaller practitioners is a result of programs like Glyphs that have made it faster and relatively less tedious to develop a font. In the past four years, lone type designers have been using it to create quirky and chaotic designs that break the rules. Now, their skills have been honed and the fonts have become more mature and sturdy, evolving from the punk and purposefully jarring. Fonts that contain controlled yet humorous flairs and ironic detailing—or as Dinamo describes it, fonts that are like “a Helvetica that smiles at you”—are the choice typefaces of this past year.
Louise Sandhaus, co-program director with Kiley at CalArts, puts the year’s developments into historical context. Her reading list is insightful and provocative, explaining how the “global design” issue that Jeff Keedy detailed—everyone looking at the same things online and using the same tools resulting in a new “universal design”—was countered by Michael Worthington’s suggestion that the homogeneity of the post-internet design world would fall out of favor and usher idiosyncrasy back into the fold.
“It’s Lorraine Wild’s ‘Great Wheel of Style’ in action,” Sandhaus says. “The polished glitz and gloss is tired and often trying too hard to look good, so stuff with a strong voice—no matter how awkward by professional standards—will reign, and then get quickly ‘eaten’ by the pros looking for the next trend.”
Graphic design darling Jessica Walsh, who’s gamed Instagram with hand-Sharpied lettering and a bright color palette, veers strongly away from the experimental and towards the world of corporate interest, and therefore sees trends as a useful tool to be called on depending on client goals.
“Trendy work doesn’t work well for communications intended to last for sustained periods, like a rebrand of a big company that wants to feel refreshed and relevant for many years to come,” Walsh says. “It’s good to be aware of design history and trends so you’re cognizant of when you’re creating trendy work or not, and so you’re creating work that’s appropriate for your client’s needs.” Walsh plays the middleman; streamlining the provocative into pro-standard packaging.
2016’s penchant for individualistic typography was so widespread that it’s noticeably broken out of the graphic design sector and into other industries, too. There’s been a “type hype” in fashion, with the blackletter typeface on Kanye West merch, and with KENZO and Yohji Yamamoto embracing handwritten signatures in their SS17 collections, not to mention Cyrillic script appearing on streetwear and unisex tees by emerging fashion studios.
In one way it’s a nostalgic resurgence of the ’80s and ’90s brand tee that gave way to the pared-back minimalism of the 2000s (this ’80s resurgence in style is one we’ve also seen in graphic design, with Risograph giving rise to retro colors and ’80s-style geometric flourishes), but it’s also a sign that in 2016 brands are deciding to voice themselves with expressive and decorative letterforms.
In 2017, the current look might be undercut by an aesthetic that bites back into this year’s political unrest; discontent and opposition must find its visual counterpart. Perhaps designers won’t look to Tumblr and Pinterest for clues and queues for new directions, but will draw from the climate beyond the design sphere. Pantone’s 2017 color of the year—that twee Greenery that hopes to encourage connection and unity with nature—feels decidedly out of place; an energetic and defiant red would be more appropriately action-oriented.
We can predict, speculate, list, and contextualize all we like, but MTV’s Richard Turley, king of iconoclastic, glitchy phantasmagoria and a true digital Dadaist, summarizes the life of trends in graphic design best with a concrete poem delivered elusively via email. I wonder if it wasn’t 2016—with its to-the-point type-heavy posters, font-based identities, and playful neo-grotesque letterforms—whether Turley’s reply to my query would have been so emphatically typographic.