From Cyberpunk to Pop Art to Neumorphism, let’s take a look at what’s sure to be hot in the world of graphic design for 2021.
As 2020 heralded the turn of a new decade, the world decided to take a long, hard, look at itself, re-examining everything from racism via the Black Lives Matter movement to our renewed preservation and appreciation for the environment. As we move to 2021, we can only hope we continue to define our world as one of rejuvenation, reflection, and growth.
With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that many of the design trends we predict for the new year follow some of those bigger world themes. Today, I take a look at what’s hot for 2021. We’ll predict the most likely design styles to come through, starting with the outliers and ending with what I think will be the most prominent.
This high-concept design style is by definition a juxtaposition of ideas collaged together in a way that makes you think about things in entirely new ways. As a movement, surrealism was huge at the beginning of the 1900s. However, there are murmurings that it’s on its way back, given its ability to capture the current zeitgeist of things feeling a little off-center.
Things have certainly been a bit wonky this year. So, it wouldn’t be a massive surprise if we saw surrealism on album covers and event posters as a way to capture that tangled feeling we’ve all been having of late.
A contradiction in terms, and yet, one that makes perfect sense for the crazy times we’re living in. Futurists predicted that by now we’d have flying cars, hoverboards, and holograms. So, to our surprise, when we woke up in 2020 we found that robot butlers weren’t even on the horizon, never mind installed in our home.
Despite this, retrofuturism draws on the concept of an idealized future, where we can overcome anything. Given the current global situation, we could all do with a bit of that. Also of note is the resurgence of the space race. Just weeks ago, Elon Musk sent astronauts to the International Space Station. All the signs predict a lot of futurism to go around in the months ahead.
I’ll just come out and say it straight away—I love this style of design. It reminds me of many, many festival posters I’ve admired, and even designed myself, and I’d be over the moon if it made a comeback. Wonkiness, or psychedelia, is bold, brash, and brazen. With lush, sometimes insanely intricate illustrations, I imagine this is the visual representation of what most designers’ brains look like. From a time when psychedelics and creatives went hand-in-hand, it could certainly be seen as a paradigm for the world we currently live in, as we try to make sense of the craziness that surrounds us.
A number of beverage companies, especially independents, have also started to wake up to the style. I can definitely see it hitting new heights in 2021.
Another personal favorite is cyberpunk, though that’s hardly surprising given its prominence at the moment. You could be forgiven for thinking the world is a little more dystopian than it has been for a while. What’s more, that feeling is reflected in the art styles that we’re now seeing. With the release of big video game titles such as Cyberpunk 2077—incorporating some of the most beautiful art I think I’ve ever seen in my life—it’s no surprise that the genre is making a full-fledged comeback at the moment. This will undoubtedly seep into the new year, and I, for one, cannot wait to see where designers take it.
With its emphasis on the merging of man and machine, this style is the antithesis of retrofuturism, with a decidedly modern, more realistic feel of how our futures could be. Used in everything from game design to the rebranding of companies, it’s everywhere.
6. Art Meets Design
Traditionally, design and art have always tended to be distinctly separate. However, as technology advances, the ability for designers to create more intricate pieces is becoming more and more accessible. With that, fine art is finding its way into design circles more frequently. Currently more abstract in composition, these pieces are being used across a whole swathe of high-end brands to further emphasize a more luxurious or upmarket feel. From clothing to packaging, the lush, beautiful fluidity of fine art is a solid contender for next year’s higher-end design trends.
You see the title and think—yea, yea, whatever you say, we’ve tried this a million times before and it’s never worked. And, you’d be right. However, if you’re expecting 3D holograms, or entire worlds described in 3D, or even some form of 3D glasses, then think again. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
Much like fine art, 3D design is becoming more and more accessible through the advancement of technology. Now, traditional graphic designers can become 3D designers without much barrier to entry. That means 3D rendering is becoming ever more commonplace in unexpected situations. From product rendering to hero images on websites, everywhere you turn, 3D is lighting up otherwise flat designs.
4. Pop Art
Everything that is old is new again, right? Just outside the top three, pop art features so highly given its ability to reinvigorate any design. As flat design begins to fall out of favor, designers are looking at ways to give some depth to their designs all over again. 3D rendering might be a little too far for some people, but pop art—with its reliance on halftones and dot shading—could be just enough texture to bring an old design from 2020 right up-to-date for 2021. It’s ironic, really, that the technologies of yesteryear are now used to create a feeling of modernity in our designs—yet, here we are.
Okay, so now we’re coming to the final furlong! In third position, we have our new friend, neumorphism. Why the crazy word, I hear you say? Well, you may remember the skeuomorphism craze of a decade ago, especially around the release of the original iPhone in 2007. Back then, designers were crazy on the idea of making digital things look physical. Well, as flat design becomes less popular, skeuomorphism has been given a facelift.
Neumorphism takes the beauty of skeuomorphism and simplifies it. What we’re left with is a beautiful and engaging design style that has the added bonus of being super-easy to recreate yourself. The fact that Apple is using it as the basis for their latest macOS—Big Sur—makes it a surefire design trend for 2021.
2. Blur, Grain, and Texture
In second place is another design style that was once very flat but has been given an in-depth makeover for the modern age. Gradients have been on-trend for a couple of years now. And, although their popularity waxes and wanes probably more regularly than any other design tool, their recent iteration through the addition of blur, grain, and texture presents gradients with less vibrancy and candy-like feel, and gives them a much more utilitarian and practical application. These grungier gradients, if you will, feel much more mature, with a cadence that’s perhaps a little more appropriate for the times we currently live in.
Create interesting shadows, backgrounds that merge and extrude simultaneously, and center geometric shaping for any modern product design. These new styles will no doubt extend the humble gradient’s shelf-life for yet another few years.
1. Design Diversity
And—drumroll please—we finally make it to first place. In choosing this particular style as my strongest prediction for 2021, I did wonder if it were a little too obvious. However, I quickly reinterpreted that thought as: If it’s that obvious, then undoubtedly it’s the winner.
2020 was the year when we finally decided (again) to get our acts together and re-examine some darker parts of our society. Global systemic racism is by no means solved—far from it—and there’s plenty of tragedy that many have had to endure for us to even get to this point. But, I’m thankful that the conversation has swung back to doing something about it.
Design has an important and powerful role in getting that message across and constantly beating that drum. Given the significance of what was unleashed in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, I don’t see that waning anytime soon. The design industry has a huge diversity problem itself—we also have to look at ourselves in this conversation—and with the rapid uptake of design diversity, that will allow us to do just that.
You can already see the changes that are happening. Stock photography has become much more diverse. Meanwhile, design styles from more diverse backgrounds are being employed to highlight and support messages across a wealth of applications. And, in 2021, I foresee a real push from inclusivity to acknowledgement, recognition, and celebration of the never-ending diversity within our species, showcasing all our strengths, flaws, and uniqueness for what they are. This is less a design style and more a mood, one that’s being interpreted by designers in many, many ways, from the subtle to the blatantly obvious. Long may it continue.
The New Year Is Looking Bright
As we move forward to a whole new year, vibrancy and color will make a huge comeback, with the use of a wider range of colors within a single project. Texture, grain, and depth will ramp-up in new and exciting ways as we swing back toward describing our digital lives with a greater sense of feeling and purpose. Design styles that push us closer to our future, while taking cues from our past, will continue to stretch design in ways we have yet to understand. Hand-drawn styles will edge into the limelight also, as newer technologies support our ability to draw what sits in our heads directly onto a screen. And 3D, more so than ever before, will add another dimension—literally—to the way we think about design.
There’s a real sense of optimism bursting from these design styles. Taken in combination, they demonstrate a collection of approaches that focus, above all else, on the positive nature of the human spirit. We may not be able to solve all our problems with design, but I have no doubt that in 2021, we can at least rediscover a sense of enthusiasm for our world.
Find more freebies, growing trends, and design inspiration:
- 2021 Font Predictions: Trends in Type to Know and Use
- What Is Neumorphism: Its History, Present, and Future
- From Masks to Bubbles: FREE COVID-19 Clip Art Pack
- From Moody to Retro: Modern Flower Patterns and Backgrounds
- Discover the 2021 Color Trends: Fortuna Gold
Cover image via Zamurovic Brothers.