Image by Tala Safié

Welcome to Spotted, Eye on Design’s column that turns an eye on the styles and graphic trends you’re seeing everywhere.

What are you seeing?

Ovals, but more precisely: Vector-drawn ovals with a small amount of text inscribed within the elliptical perimeter. Sometimes the ovals get sprinkled into a bigger, more complex layout; other times they float along as the primary design element. The simplicity of these little decals makes it easy to interpret them freely, transposing your own experiences onto their meaning. To some, they look like those ubiquitous black-and-white bumper stickers printed with stuff like “26.2” (for marathon runners) or “DC” (for proud residents of the capital). To many others, these decals resemble produce stickers found at the grocery store—Chiquita banana stickers, with a lot less flair.

Human NYC, design for orthodontics company Two Front

Who’s using it? 

Anyone looking to convey an unstudied air of validity. The decals look like stickers, or as Rachael Yaeger puts it, “seals of approval.” A co-founder of Human NYC, Yaeger often builds brand identities for science-focused startups, where certification matters. For the soon-to-launch orthodontics company Two Front, for instance, Yaeger and her team used an oval decal and Messina Sans font for the primary logo. “Bayer, the old school aspirin, its logo is encompassed in this seal, and it evokes a real trustworthiness,” Yaeger says. “But it’s funny: The oval gives it a ’90s skate brand feel, so it also feels like a sticker I would’ve had in eighth grade.” 

The decal has seen a surge in popularity during the pandemic, popping up repeatedly in the Isolation Ideation poster project on Instagram, and in Need Supply’s promotional spots for its “Staying Creative” series on Instagram Live. But it predates the pandemic: Fisk Projects in Portland, Oregon uses a bumper sticker iteration of the oval decal for its logo. New York designer Colin Smight used ovals in a scheme for cannabis company Sackville—on the company’s website, you click on an oval decal to verify that you’re over 21 years old. (We’d be remiss if we didn’t note that Eye on Design also likes its ovals.)

Why do designers love it?

From a purely functional standpoint, oval decals can tidy up a design by keeping information from floating unharnessed through white space—like the graphic equivalent of putting your toys in their bins. But much of the appeal is tied to its undesigned quality. “It’s taking the stock default tools that graphic designers who aren’t quote-unquote graphic designers will use,” Smight says, pointing to the embossed oval logo on Dart styrofoam cup lids. “You’re glorifying the standard appearance of default typography.” 

Logo for Fisk Projects in Portland

Relatedly, Benny Moore, the Melbourne designer behind the Isolation Ideation series, says he likes an oval for its close resemblance to a grocery store sticker—another humble design. “Stickers on fruit have always fascinated me,” Moore says. “They’re literally everywhere, and I’m not speaking strictly about the design world right now—take a walk down your local high street and you’ll find no less than 100 iterations of the humble fruit sticker highlighting words, prices, housing logos, and contact details. They’re everywhere, and always have been.”

It’s a salient point. Oval decals aren’t just familiar; the design is closely associated with a price and fine print facts, at a time when, collectively speaking, both of those things feel elusive. When the coronavirus started to sweep across the globe, newspapers issued daily notifications about the stock market’s precipitous fall. The upshot there? The New York Times questioning the stock market’s very existence. For everyone else, the job market went into freefall, and unemployment claims hit record highs. Amid such calamitous uncertainty, perhaps the clarity of the simple price tag sticker appeals to the subconscious, offering reassurance. 

Ashley Yalaju designed Need Supply’s graphics, and says she likes the decal for its “poppy, approachable” quality, but they also evoke a memory: “This is super specific, but they remind me of those PAID stickers the cashiers at the grocery store would always give to me when I was a little kid,” she says. “I liked to stick them to the back of the seat of my mom’s minivan.”