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7 Innovative practices shaping the design world in 2021

It’s set to be an exciting time for design. The end of the pandemic is in sight and with that will come new perspectives on what’s important, what we need, and how we create it.

As designers enter a new workplace, it’s important to sharpen the skills that will be in demand in the short term, while taking a long-term view of where the world is heading.

And we’re totally bullish on all these changes! Some trends that we made mid-range predictions on have been bumped up the line, mass remote working and innovations in AR among them. Problems that industry leaders didn’t think much about will need solving by smart designers, and the world’s appetite for playfulness, imagination and creativity will soar.

While it’s difficult to predict much of anything at the moment, the ideas below will guide you on what future-focused design leaders are thinking about, investing in, and looking forward to in 2021 and beyond.

  1. Digital sociology will be essential to design
    Design has always been both a driver and a reflection of society. But design and tech are growing even more intertwined and concerns will continue to grow over how much the digital world impacts our social reality. Because of that, designers need to understand the sociological effects. This is especially true of UX designers, who will be massively in demand in the coming years (in fact, Adobe ran a survey in 2017 where 87% of managers said hiring more UX designers is the top priority for their organization). Enter digital sociology, which looks at how digital experiences impact social structures over the long term.  While you don’t have to hire a qualified digital sociologist for your organization (there are less than 40 on LinkedIn – we checked), taking time to understand and be empathetic to short-term, long term and implicit effects on people’s lives is not only competitively advantageous, it’s an ethical must. To quote UX designer Jonas Engkvist, “There are very few boundaries of how designers decide to shape interactions with the Digital and how everyone can be affected by it. That is a huge possibility. And it can potentially be a problem — unless designers start taking the same ethical responsibility as any other professional should, in shaping other people’s reality.”
  2. The future of seamless design, in sneakers
    At the beginning of this year, two major wow moments in product design came from the footwear teams at Adidas and Nike. Adidas unveiled its new FutureNaturals sneaker, a “one-piece shoe mould” fused like metal into the world’s first seamless design sneaker. Then Nike launched Go FlyEase, a hands-free shoe that will change the game for those with disabilities.Both used data-driven technologies, but both products are grounded in the principles of seamlessness — ensuring that design is tailored to remove the frictions of everyday use. This year, designers across all fields should look at seamless thinking when approaching any work that engages with everyday consumers, from digital to service to business design.
Adidas N3XT L3V3L Futurenatural
Nike Go FlyEase
Left: the Adidas N3XT L3V3L Futurenatural, Right: the Nike Go FlyEase.
  1. Inclusive design is in
    Companies in Europe and the States are growing wise to the need for products, services and platforms that are accessible to a more diverse group of people — think physical impediments, different languages and cultures, or everyday situations that make the user experience more difficult (like pushing a pram around New York City, but in digital). We’ve already spoken about Nike’s latest unveiling, but for designers, this is not about reinventing the sneaker so much as a series of small but important decisions that expand your audiences in positive and powerful ways. This could be improving your colour contrast on sites, using CamelCase for better reading, adding subtitles and alt text into designs, or just designing for uncommon use first.
  2. Public conscientiousness will rule again, as will information
    The public appetite for sustainable and ethical design boomed last year as people really got over overconsumption and its impact on issues like human rights and climate change. This year we’ll see that in digital design, with teams thinking constantly about digital carbon footprints (if you’ve read anything about Bitcoin in the last three months, you’ve heard about the outlandish amount of energy the cryptocurrency draws on the daily). We love designer Laura Air’s guide on improving your digital design footprint by making your page lighter through choices in font, multimedia, and simpler user journeys. Another conscious design trend that will rule into 2022 is designing for information-heavy content, thanks to an early-pandemic scramble to replace promotional content with authentic information sharing. The result is set to be a rollout of interesting data visualizations, smart ways to display copy, and designers finding imaginative ways to play with dense information in a compelling way.
  3. AR is getting closer…and seriously fun
    We can’t really do a design trend roundup without any mention of augmented reality. While AR is more of a slow-burning, gradual trend that will reach the public piece by piece, 2020 saw AR special effects become significantly more accessible to everyday creatives (thanks TikTok and Adobe Aero!). We saw this in a massive rise in social AR, particularly Gen Z content, that will continue over the next year. As Tom Emrich of 8th Wall points out: “AI + AR is a powerful combination and in 2021 we will see more developers make use of dedicated machine learning models to make their filters, lenses, video effects and AR experiences beyond social AR even more sophisticated. In turn, we will see content creators use these tools to create stories, videos and social posts which will be nothing short of feature film.” Grab your Aero and start playing.
Adobe Aero AR
Adobe Aero via Dami Lee
  1. Moving away from minimalism
    The Scandinavian aesthetic is out, South Korean irreverence is in. After a pretty meh 15 months, consumers are losing their lust for flat design logos and millennial pink, while design leaders are pushing more playful, expressive visuals. Cut to Pentagram’s “playful, joyful” reworking of Virgin Money, with the goal of helping consumers feel happier and more engaged. It’s not rocket science to see that much of this is about brands trying to get consumers excited about consuming again, but frankly, we really needed something fun to get our minds off the last year. Other examples set to dominate this year? We’ll see plenty of animation, 3D icons, the continuing rise of delightful illustration, and surrealism-inspired visuals as we continue to find ways to escape reality.
Instagram 3D
VoteVoteVote libbyvanderploeg
Left: Alexander Shatov via Dribbble. Right: Libby Vanderploeg animated illustrations.
Leo Natsume Design
Leo Natsume via Dribbble
  1. We’ll be rethinking how we design, together
    Not exactly a trend within design, sure, but with 2020 launching an already trending remote work experiment into a global norm, design teams will need to learn, or at least think about, how best they can adapt. Tools like Figma, Slack, Mural, and Zoom will all become commonplace, as will new methods to ensure that remote workers feel included and engaged at all stages of the design thinking process. The challenge for design leaders here is to foster a company culture across these tools, one that can grow organically through social chat threads, regular meetings and collaborating on passion projects as a team. Another challenge here is to make sure that tacit knowledge –  what you learn by observing the day to day activities of an office –  is not lost, especially on new hires. This means taking time to check in with individuals on your team for off-project conversations and Q&A’s.