7 design trends for 2021

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From new skills to the surprising resurgence of VR, here are the design trends to get ahead of

Dallas Budde

The past 12 months have been unpredictable, worrying and confusing. But for some, it has been a time of reinvention and transformation and a rewiring of how we approach the world. Here I look at how the pandemic may have influenced graphic design going forward and what trends to look out for throughout 2021.

1. New digital skills 

Many designers have been out of work or their hours reduced during the pandemic. As a result, smart designers will have used downtime to upskill and embrace new technologies and developments. 

For example, I’ve been learning about Adobe’s creative suite updates and features highlighted by 2020's Adobe MAX seminar

We are likely to start seeing designers adopt an array of new tricks unleashed from software updates for Adobe After Effects and Photoshop. Designers will also start using Adobe's new artificial intelligence tool, Sensei. This development will bring the power of AI and machine learning to enhance creative expression, accelerate tasks and workflows and reduce the need for outsourcing. Prepared to be amazed by clever social media posts and high-end animated concepts.

With the sudden rise in remote working, we’ve had to adopt digital workflows, work across the cloud and rely on collaboration tools.

As restrictions ease and we return to the office, it’s likely we’ll continue using these systems and honing how we use them. Designers will, more than ever before, gravitate towards digital tools that allow teams to more easily access files and assets, without necessarily relying on traditional systems and hardware. 

The efficiencies met by working remotely throughout 2020 will help reshape the future.

2. Inclusive design

The Black Lives Matter movement grew to a fever pitch in 2020. News organisations showed us alarming police brutality and violent protests followed. The words “I can’t breathe” haunted us all. 

The chaos and emotion of this time could have been translated into a harsh graphic design trend where typography and design could be chaotic, abstract, unfinished and sometimes difficult to read. We saw this in the David Carson grunge designs of the 1990s featuring Ray Gun and Beach Culture magazines. While this “grunge” style of design reemerged to a lesser extent throughout 2020, the Black Lives Matter campaign will instead give rise to a completely contrasting level of design.

Black Lives Matter will prompt designers to be better and also more accountable. Designers will slow down to ensure that designs do not carry racial bias and that they properly correct any unintentional assumptions. 

Designers will address cultural diversity, equality and accessibility and this will result in better design. Band-Aid have demonstrated that this is necessary and have embraced diversity with their products. Nike has even created its own anti-racism campaign. Others will strive to do the same and will revisit product lines, marketing campaigns and design in general to better reflect our world.

Black Lives Matter is not a design trend but as a consequence of this movement, design will improve.

3. Calm colours

If there's one thing we've all established this year, it's the concept of cherishing the things that are most important to us. Our homes became the epicentre of our lives, and it’s this space that will influence our colour choices for 2021.

Calm colours will rule, particularly those that provide a sense of renewal, optimism and comfort. Dulux has developed a group of potential palettes for their 2021 Colour Forecast that reflect this sense of calm. 

Pantone’s colours of 2021 are grey and “Illuminating” yellow, which are also calming choices.

While these relate to our home design colours, we anticipate these being reflected back into design work in social media posts, advertising, magazine layouts and books.

Dulux's soothing palette is in line with the calming graphic design trend of 2021.

4. Illustration

As we couldn’t send photographers out during lockdown periods, our designers at Hardie Grant Media needed to find new and inventive ways to bring portraits to life. 

For Australian Unity’s Flourish magazine we reached out to illustrator Sara Hingle for a range of realistic portraits. Sara was able to illustrate subjects for the issue at a time when we weren't able to enter aged care facilities and private residences for photography.

And for Dan Murphy’s Magazine, we had various staff portraits illustrated for the same reason. The results in both instances were refreshing and gained positive responses from the clients, to the extent that these publications may keep using portrait illustration in future.

We expect this design trend of illustration, particularly for portraits, will continue throughout 2021 as designers embrace this creative style and continue to benefit from any cost efficiencies.
An example of the 2021 design trend of illustrated portraiture as seen in Flourish magazine. There's an illustration of two women.

The 2021 design trend of illustrated portraits as seen in Flourish magazine.

5. Minimal product photography 

When it comes to product photography, clean lines, hard shadows and simplicity appears to have dominated in 2020. 

Dan Murphy's has embraced this simple approach, along with bold colours for many of their magazine and social shoots to create a strong identity. This design trend was also seen by brands such as Four Pillars and Good Pair Days drink subscription service. 

Expect similar effects throughout 2021, with the variation of more natural lighting and shadows applied. And look out for levitating objects: it’s thought that this effect is on the rise (literally), too.

Product photography by the Brand Good Pair Days. A glass of rose wine is being poured. There's a pale orange background and plates of oysters and antipasto. There are deep shadows from the products.

Good Pair Days' product photography features clean lines and deep shadows.

6. Natural design

In line with the calm colour trend, natural design elements will blossom throughout 2021. 

After the year of being mostly at home, it’s not surprising that many have had the sudden urge to get out and experience nature.

Commercial designers may reflect the tone and mood of natural elements. The idea of mimicking nature, whether it be earthy colours and tones, or natural gradients and patterns, will come as a deliberate way to provide calm and encourage regeneration. 

This graphic design trend may be delivered via our online experiences or in the products on our supermarket shelves.

The 2021 design trend of natural elements as show on food packaging for poppy seeds. It features illustrated plants and seeds.

The 2021 design trend of highlighting natural elements as seen in food packaging.

7. AR and VR

Before the pandemic, the market for VR headsets was expected to decline 6.7%. But in 2021 it’s expected to grow to 46.2% in 2021, according to the International Data Corporation.

5G is coming and the power behind this technology will greatly enhance augmented reality and virtual reality capabilities. 

While the jury is still out about whether 5G will be affordable, the idea of using VR and AR away from wi-fi access changes the ballgame. AR can already be used in live, outdoor environments but its speed will be improved. 5G will allow for better VR experiences with fewer latency issues too.

The release of untethered headsets has also been important, and means that VR hardware is now closer than ever to being more commonly adopted in the everyday home.

And if you’re not excited about untethered headsets, then surely Tesla’s release of the Teslasuit must excite. This is a full body enclosed device that mirrors human interactions, meaning VR experiences will become more real than ever. 

Vodafone demonstrates the potential of the Teslasuit, in line with the VR design trend of 2021.

VR has been picking up pace in creating innovative solutions to design problems, especially as a prototyping tool. Already, VR is being used by Transurban to assist with the review process for the Westgate Tunnel Project and to allow the public to experience sections of the project.

Virtual reality appears to be lagging in the commercial stakes, whereas augmented reality is already a commercial success. Faced with diminished international travel, many believe that COVID-19 might be the watershed moment for VR for tourism marketing. 

If the time has finally come for commercial use of VR technologies, creatives will need to find ways to build and enhance user experiences that lean into gaming experiences.
We may even begin to see the influence of VR-related haptics extend across to our other everyday experiences, for example how we interact with our devices.

If you had thought VR was never going to fully come to fruition, 2021 will demonstrate that you were wrong.

The wrap up

Predictions are not always easy to deliver, and never more so than now. But the world doesn’t stop and neither does the need for anticipating the next big thing. These design trends of 2021 may not pan out but they could provide inspiration for your own work.

We can’t wait to embrace 2021 the design trends of the year. If you'd like to have outstanding graphic design on your business's own projects, get in touch.

Dallas Budde, art director