Trends can be ephemeral and trivial, with designers selecting colors or typefaces based solely on what they see on Behance. At worst, a trend can be insincere and fluffy, an accusation that’s been thrown at Pantone for their combo of powder pink and baby blue (excuse us, Rose Quartz and Serenity) for 2016’s Color of the Year.
Yet trends can also say a lot about the times. A new technology might create a stir around something unexpected (emoji taco, anyone?), or, on the other hand, a trend might reflect a nostalgic reaction to what’s new and current. For example we’ve recently seen a lot of distorted scanned and photocopied type recently—from an identity designed by Anagrama, to Ruben Montero’s pre-digital-esque posters, and Shellsuit Zombie’s moaning magazine cover. In a world where we can Ctrl+Z our way out of anything, these distortions fetishize the possibility of making a permanent mistake and celebrates a medium that we no longer regularly use.
We hesitate to call this an outright trend for a few reasons. While most designers would love to become a trending term on Twitter, they’d probably curl up and die if someone used the word “trendy” to describe their work. No one likes to feel like they’re following the crowd; it’s always better to be the one leading the way.
The Trend List blog has been hunting through sites like Behance, Tumblr, and a host of other design streams since 2003, documenting and collecting the patterns they observe in art, culture, and graphic design. Michal Sloboda and Ondřej Zita, the minds behind the blog, organize trends by categories like “Neon Colors” and “Wiggles,” and chart how popularity peaks and troughs over the years. They don’t take a negative view of the word “trend,” though. Slobada and Zita know that the greatest graphic designers are aware of what’s going on and subvert and reference popular tropes in equal measures.
Through running their blog, the pair have observed that a trend never simply emerges for a single year and then disappears in a puff of smoke. Instead, an aesthetic becomes popular gradually, even mysteriously, over time before fizzling out slowly without much notice at all.
So what did they pick up on in 2015? Strong accents on typography and the use of bright, secondary colors, to start. “A lot of new, grotesque fonts also emerged, typefaces that intentionally break the rules of standard letterforms in order to make something extremely recognizable,” says Zita. For posters, prints, and covers, the technique of breaking a headline into single letters and peppering each character up, down, or around the page also became more popular than ever, a trend they matter-of-factly call “Left, Right, Up and Down.”
In terms of what’s going to be popular in 2016, Sloboda and Zita are less sure. Experience has taught them that it’s impossible to predict trends, as they often materialize out of strange, unknown corners of the internet. Yet since 2003, they’ve noticed that trends in general seem to be based around “two main principles that constantly clash.” On the one hand, there’s the very calculated and organized graphic design that’s often laid out on grid, and on the other hand there’s design that’s more expressive and anarchic.
“The last few years have been dominated by the grid, so we think 2016 will definitely be more punk,” says Sloboda, “However, the change isn’t going to happen from one day to the next, or by the pressing of a magic button.” It might happen so slowly that we won’t even notice it till well into 2017.
After Trend List started to look more closely at trends born online, trend spotting and analyzing in itself became a popular pastime, with young graphic designers following suit and pitching in their own commentaries. Harrison Park’s I’m Trendy So What? , which often quotes Sloboda and Zita, satirically questions what it means for something to be trendy in 2015. “We are part of what I call ‘A Thumbnail Society,’” Park suggests. “For young designers, our first port of call for visual reference is usually the internet, and what we see first are popular designs without any context. It’s so easy for people to replicate the aesthetics of design trends, but with little or no context at all.” Without any information or even captioning on images trawled from the web, appropriated forms dangerously lose their sense of meaning.
Park’s publication set out to be as “on trend” as possible—so on trend that it even predicted Pantone’s 2016 pastel palette. “I first came across the paper color in office environments,” Park recalls. “Then it was used for zines at art school. Now, large restaurants use the same paper for their menus. It really is everywhere at the moment.” This isn’t an uncommon trajectory for a trend; what begins as an art student’s pick from the office supply store’s bargain bin sooner or later becomes the darling of commercial design.
Like Trend List’s Zita and Sloboda, Park noticed a lot of bright, bold colors in 2015, as well as playful sans serif typefaces. The colors might have something to do with the popularity of Risograph printing—a trend that seems to have stemmed from London’s Ditto Press and Hato Press and their search for cheaper printing techniques. Almost in the way that Polaroid once sped back into the mainstream, ’90s-era Risograph has been gathering a lot of momentum over the past few years. “It really came into its own in 2015. Every man and his dog seems to be doing something Risograph-related at the moment,” says Park.
If we really are living in a thumbnail society where what’s “trending” changes both faster than any sane human can handle (just refresh Twitter a few times) and mysteriously over time, and where entire businesses are devoted to trendspotting and trend following, considering current trends and tracing their origins is certainly warranted. But instead of spending the final days of the year guessing about what’s up next, perhaps we ought to think instead about why it’s next and what that says about where we are now and where we’ll be in 2016 as designers, artists, consumers, and followers.