2021 Design Trends for a Changing World

Check out and share our downloadable summary guide on this blog post.

Every year, we see the same smattering of posts throughout the design world talking about the top trends to look out for the following year. These trends tend to focus on specific design techniques that are becoming more popular, but they often don’t involve context as to why those design trends are emerging.

We think this year is different. After nearly a year of socially distancing, fighting for racial, environmental, and political justice, and trying our best to navigate the complications of the pandemic, there has been a tremendous shift in the way we think about and interact with the world around us.

As history has demonstrated, one of the best ways to understand a certain era is to examine the art from that period. From 2020 alone, we’ve been able to observe a wide variety of artistic responses. Because context is so important here, instead of listing off the actual trends we’re seeing in the design world for 2021, we’re going to discuss design-related themes that we see emerging as a response to the events of the past year.

Design Activism

Image Source: alltogethercleanup.org

A silver lining of the pandemic is that it has allowed us to slow down and pay more attention to the world around us. Consequentially, it has given us a clear lens into the societal inequities that have been around us all along. With the striking inequities in healthcare and treatment for the coronavirus, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent push for racial justice, and the movement to combat voter suppression amidst the 2020 presidential election, we’ve noticed a significant change in how we communicate virtually. Because of our need to social distance, we’ve shifted our communication towards social media and increased the use of visuals to get our message across.

Many individuals felt empowered to make their voices heard. We’ve even seen an increase in those with large platforms sharing their public space with those who needed it to get a message across. With this came bold, iconic visuals to communicate power and solidarity. And this isn’t just coming from individuals—we’ve seen many brands taking a strong stance for what they believe in, using empathy to connect with their audience and representing themselves as more human. Beyond the shift in tone and messaging, this has also brought change to the visuals, leading designers to create more “bespoke design assets, such as custom-made typefaces, illustrations and icon sets” in order for brands to differentiate from one another, according to a report by Smashing Magazine.

Because we don’t see the pandemic truly ending soon, and because we expect the fight for racial, environmental, and political justice to continue and grow, we think these design trends are a significant shift and are here for the long haul.


Image Source: stories.kayma.com

2020 was a year chock full of hardship and suffering, especially when it comes to mental health. And because we are still social distancing due to the pandemic, many of us are turning to art as a means of cheering us up—whether it be starting a crafty hobby, watching more Netflix, or just plain old scrolling through social media. We have found that as a response to our mental health taking a significant toll, design has adapted to lift us up, to encourage positivity and confidence in the future despite the challenges we continue to face.

We’re seeing this shift towards positivity manifest in a variety of ways—brands taking on more of a sense of humor or adding softness to their visuals, or an increase in the use of illustration and vibrant color palettes. This helps to encourage optimism and hope when many of us have been struggling to see things that way.


Image Source: theclimatepledge.com

While the sudden and significant shift from our normal day-to-day to an indefinite stay-at-home order has made us feel isolated and cooped up, many of us have taken the opportunity to spend more time outdoors, reconnecting with nature and with one another from a safe distance. Interestingly enough, the pandemic has helped to amplify the importance of a greener world, and many brands are responding in kind.

As a response to this dramatic shift, we expect to see design embrace a more organic, more handmade tone. By utilizing handcrafted textures and patterns and subtle references to the natural world, the audience and the designer are able to share a deeper connection. Not only will these design touches help to remind us that another human is behind the work, but they will also allude to the increasingly sustainable world that we’re working towards.


Image Source: space.airkhruang.com

Even though it’s been nearly a year since the pandemic hit the US, we’re all still adjusting to this strange world that feels drastically different and are nostalgic for the normalcy we had not too long ago. Interestingly enough, we’re finding that this is affecting design through the increased use of retro touch.

Even though the pandemic isn’t necessarily making us nostalgic for the 1950s, the use of retro fonts and color palettes has historically brought us comfort, as it reminds us of ‘simpler’ times. Additionally, the textures and references to retro artwork creates a more material experience, with some websites and apps simulating flipping through printed works, which has been well-received during a time when nearly everything we interact with is digital.


Image Source: dillasdonuts.shop

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world we live in is very, very far from perfect, and that we have a tremendous amount of work to do to fix some of the most fundamental systems that govern this country. We see the imperfection loud and clear, and we’re craving that raw, authentic imperfection more and more from the brands we interact with as well. We’re done pretending that things will be back to normal after the pandemic, and so many of us are sick of the empty marketing campaigns and tone-deaf messaging that tells us otherwise.

In order for brands to communicate this authenticity, we expect to see some strange shifts in design, such as purposefully ugly type and raw, honest imagery. Design frequently strived for perfectionism before the pandemic, which ironically felt trustworthy at the time, but people are craving more realness now. These specific design shifts may be weird and difficult to get used to, but we expect to see a ton of interesting work emerge from this transformation.


Image Source: sapiens.ui8.net/6f3c3w2

Because the pandemic has forced many of us to physically separate for nearly a year, we’ve had to confront ourselves head on as designers and learn to navigate how to design effectively for this unfamiliar world. One of the big losses due to the pandemic has been the loss of community, whether that be through the workplace, school, religion, music, or just seeing friends and family as we normally would.

As mentioned above, this physical separation has us craving human connection, and so human-centered design is going to be a huge trend this year with a focus on mental health and overall wellbeing. We expect to see an increase in interactivity on websites with human-like bots to help users walk through processes, and we also expect to see an overall improvement in user experience when it comes to helping users achieve their goals, especially since getting in-person assistance isn’t quite possible right now.


We may not see such a prescribed list of design trends for 2021, but we absolutely see emerging themes centered around the human experience and what we need as we continue to navigate the uncertainty of this year. We hope our summary guide is a handy reference for keeping these themes in mind.

Categories: Experience Design, Visual Design
Tell us what you think