The 10 biggest design trends of 2021

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From visual nostalgia to expressive type, we break down the top trends of the year.

8 min read

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2021 was a year spent in flux. Time seemed to move slow and fast all at once; new technologies, spurred on by COVID, created novel ways of interacting, but left us feeling nostalgic for the past.

That sense of duality also appeared in design; the year’s trends, while disparate, were unified by a distinct theme—a clear desire to move away from the rigid perfectionism of sans-serif fonts and minimalist aesthetics of previous years.

Designers, like the rest of us, are asking what the world will look like post-COVID. As we try to return to some sense of normalcy, do we even want to go back to the way things were? We spoke with ten industry creatives who gave us their takes on how 2021 shaped the design trends for the year.

1. Vibrant color gradients

Color gradients and soft blur effects were some of the most ubiquitous design trends in 2021, appearing everywhere from Biden Harris campaign social graphics in late 2020 to Instagram wellness creators. Spotify featured unique "audio auras" as part of its yearly Wrapped Playlist, and Dame Products debuted a gradient-filled ad campaign on the New York City subway.

“Moving away from the crisp, slick, clarity of graphic forms that dominated design trends pre-2020, the visual world now seems to favor something more truthful, less perfect, unfinished graphic forms that are moving and in flux,” says Emma Berliner, art director at Look. She explains that while these aren’t new visual tricks, designers are using them “with new energy and urgency,” swapping optimistic pinks and blues with vibrant, complex, fluorescent oranges and greens.

Images 1-2 courtesy Dame. Image 3 courtesy: Spotify. Image 4: @votejoe Instagram account.

2. Hand-drawn, DIY aesthetics

DIY aesthetics cropped up throughout the year, referencing a youthful punk rock attitude and celebration of nonconformity. Photography duo Luke & Nik shot a collage-filled analog campaign video for Stella McCartney’s new genderless capsule collection. Nylon magazine and pop star Olivia Rodrigo revamped and embellished their respective sites with hand-drawn pen marks, torn paper textures and photo treatments reminiscent of photocopied zines and journals. Marvel series Loki employed glitchy, ransom note style lettering for the show’s title sequence, and Pentagram set handwritten type in motion to brand this year's Independent Spirit Awards.

“After so many months of isolation and seeing people only as small boxes through a screen, we felt compelled to lean into an element of the hand to show the humanity behind the awards show,” says Laura Berglund, associate partner at Pentagram. “Something softer, something warmer, something more personal to meet people where they were after a very hard year.”

Images 1-5 courtesy: Pentagram. Image 6 courtesy: Luke & Nik.

3. Contemporary serifs

An influx of classical serif fonts appeared throughout 2021, modernized with unexpected and organic flourishes that felt both futuristic and referential to the opulence and luxury of art nouveau, baroque and rococo movements. Type designer Margot Leveque’s bespoke typefaces graced the title and end credits of music videos by Lil Nas X and Ariana Grande. Nike's Play New campaign employed the action-oriented Migra by foundry PangramPangram, and design studio Mother drew on nature-inspired motifs in their complete rebrand of NYC hotel Park Lane.

Joanna Tulej, creative director at Mother Design, says the shift toward organic forms is a way for brands to be expressive while maintaining the elegance of a serif. It's also a pushback against the homogenous sans-serifs popularized by tech over the last decade, she says: “Having rushed our way through the Silicon Valley explosion, where messaging was focused around convenience and speed delivered with a smile, I think we’re seeing a re-focus within the design community on slowing down and taking time to craft."

Images 1-3: Title card by Min Kim for Lil Nas X's Tales of Dominica, directed by Saad Moosajee, using Romie typeface by Margot Lévêque; titles for Ariana Grande’s 34+35 remix using ABC Marya, designed by Margot Lévêque with Dinamo. Courtesy: Margot Lévêque. Images 4-5 courtesy: Mother. Image 6 courtesy: Nike.

4. Audio UX

Audio UX has become increasingly important as brands continue to create more interactive, multisensory user experiences. With cardless and touchless checkout options now the norm due to COVID safety protocols, sensory branding strategies from companies like Paypal and Mastercard became even more useful for confirming successful transactions. Meanwhile, social audio apps like Clubhouse, which gained and (lost) popularity during the pandemic, integrated audio branding “earcons” that help listeners differentiate notifications in environments cluttered with multiple speakers.