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.
“The pandemic has made us even more cautious and intentional about how we use sound across our product ecosystems,” says Connor Moore, executive creative director at sonic branding agency Listen. “Seeing that we're currently spending much more time in our homes, surrounded by our devices, we have to be very careful about how, when and where our products become audible. Less is often more with audio UX."
Mastercard's sonic branding in use. Video via Youtube.
5. More inclusive visual representation
Brands were increasingly focused on creating more authentic representation, diversity, and inclusion in their messaging, especially after 2020’s black squares on Instagram. Unilever added more inclusive illustrations to its website, and Patagonia launched a series of murals by illustrator Eugenia Mello, which showcased underrepresented youth in the Rockaways area of New York. Nike’s We Play Real campaign highlighted gender equity and racial justice with an ad campaign and short film, which celebrated the accomplishments of Black female athletes and performers.
While more inclusive advertising is a positive first sign of change, the design industry at large is still lacking in diversity. Nearly 75% of graphic designers in the U.S. are white, so it's essential that more people from diverse backgrounds are in leadership roles if brands want to achieve authentic representation. “While a lot of companies and institutions are prioritizing diversity right now, I hope that it’s not a fad,” says Ramon Tejada, assistant professor of graphic design at RISD, Rhode Island School of Design. “I’m optimistic to see that this continues and we don’t return to ‘normal’ or ‘the way things were.’”
Images 1-3 courtesy: Nike. Images 4-6 courtesy: Eugenia Mello.
6. Augmented reality
Social distancing ushered in a new era of experimentation for AR, and in 2021 we saw broader and more strategic applications of it in commerce. Brands like Burberry leveraged the appeal of immersive entertainment to draw people back to brick and mortar shops. Delivery-driven companies like Pizza Hut explored emerging tech with a retro spin by launching their “newstaglia” campaign, which included AR pizza boxes customers could play 'Pac-Man’ on. And Snap just partnered with advertising agency giant WPP to assist brands in delivering immersive experiences to consumers using AR.
“The pandemic has forced consumers to adopt new technologies, allowing for experiences like AR to become more commonplace,” says Mike Perry, Creative Director at Design Bridge NYC. “This left a huge opportunity for brands to enter the space and expand their reach. Brands that have been most successful at this do not only create AR content rooted in their brand DNA, but expand upon it by gifting consumers an experience, as opposed to pure play marketing.”
Images 1-2: Courtesy Burberry. Image 3: Courtesy Pizza Hut.
7. Expressive typography
Playful, expressive typography appeared in a variety of digital and print pieces, from large brands like Pepsi’s onomatopoeic “PopFizzAhh” campaign to smaller social design projects like BUCK’s Pride zine “Give Us Our Flowers: A Global Archive of Queer POC Rebels.” Websites like thepentool.co, which offers UI templates and assets for designers, applied a delightfully wonky sans-serif font on its homepage, and Uniforma Studio’s rebrand for the Poland-based Short Waves Festival 2021 used expressive type to create an online/offline experience reflective of our current hybrid ways of living.
“When we lean into simple, minimal type, we rely on the viewer's interpretation of the words, whereas with expressive type, we can guide them into understanding the meaning,” says Emily Simms, senior art director at design agency BUCK. She adds, "Across the board, whether it be an individual or a brand, we are standing proudly behind our identity and our narrative—expressive type allows us to do this and becomes another tool to celebrate our story, culture, or journey."
Images 1-2 courtesy Mother. Image 3 courtesy Uniforma Studio. Image 4 courtesy BUCK.
8. Trippy, retro vibes
1960s and 70s aesthetics were also trending this year, particularly for branding in the music industry. Lorde’s high profile release of Solar Power and St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home both played with psychedelic motifs. A24's poster and title cards for Zola featured the extremely groovy Motter Ombra, a typeface originally designed in 1973. Food brands also adopted a retro feel, like Baskin Robbins Korea with its trippy, dripping blue and pink swirls, and Burger King, whose return to their original logo with an updated visual identity and commitment to sustainability made it one of the most successful rebrands of the year.
“The callback to retro and psychedelic styles feels like designers are embracing a degree of deliberate messiness, funkiness, and uniqueness that feels more authentic in this moment—more like real life, more human, more relatable—than the overly simplified gestures of flat clean-lined, desperately joyful-looking design that’s dominated so much of the visual landscape for years,” says Luke Dorman, art director at Meow Wolf.
Image 1 courtesy: DIABOLICAL. Image 2 courtesy: Gustavo Eandi. Images 3-4 courtesy: Jones Knowles Ritchie. Image 5 courtesy: Turner Duckworth.
9. Y2K nostalgia
Visual cues of nostalgia extended into the Y2K era as well, but with a retooled aesthetic that appealed to a younger target demographic. Steve Madden’s revival of the “Big Head Girls” ads of the late '90s returned with new partners like Normani and Sydney Sweeney. Jewelry maker Pandora launched its ME collection, with Gen Z celebs like Addison Rae in 2000s-era styles against metallic pink. The style has infiltrated NFTs. Even Neopets have made a comeback. (It’s also worth visiting the The Y2K Aesthetic Institute, run by artist and designer Froyo Tam, who’s been documenting the Y2K trend for years.)
“Design always echoes fashion, and right now Y2K fashion trends are the ‘it’ thing. From a design perspective, we’re reliving 1999-2006 but through a Gen Z lens,” says David Chathas, design director at Wieden + Kennedy Portland. And that means all kinds of aesthetic fusions. It's "Y2K nostalgia re-invented with open source access to 3D software. It's Nu metal meets the Limited Too and everyone and everything gets a butterfly," he says. "And it's been building for a while. Charli XCX’s video for1999 was released in 2018, and looking at it now, it was almost like a trend forecaster for 2021-2022.”