7 trends designers should know for 2021

Words by Liz Steelman  •  Dec 8, 2020
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What a decade 2020 has been.

So much of what has gotten us through the year was the knowledge that, despite never experiencing anything as cataclysmic in our lifetimes, history is filled with examples of similar disruptions. A world connected by the Internet allowed us, for the first time, to share our experiences of what was happening writ large, in real time. Though we could do nothing to stop history from being made, every individual could do their part in helping to build a cohesive narrative of what was actually happening through our e-mails, digital whiteboards, Slack messages, blog posts, Tweets, Instagram stories, and more. We didn’t have to wait decades for a historian to splice it together. And we found that, though we were mostly going through the pandemic alone, there was a shared experience.


Each December, Inside Design publishes trend predictions for the upcoming year. But since this year is wildly different than any before, we decided to use the occasion to create a contextual framing for the year ahead, specifically for product design teams and collaborators. The first step was to check in with our community and gauge how those seemingly personal shifts are actually more ubiquitous than we think.

In order to get an accurate read, we surveyed hundreds of our readers, consulted experts, analysts, and those engaged in the most innovative, multidisciplinary work on the ground. We scoured our library to find the most read, discussed, and shared ideas, too.


We found, too, that designers and their collaborators were at the epicenter of the year’s essential technological infrastructure and rapid digital transformation. For this reason, the digital product space has had a unique vantage point in the year’s biggest universal shifts. We also realized this community offers some of the most tangible opportunities to make a material impact as we forge ahead. It didn’t make sense to distill all that change and nuance into a 1,000 word article. So, instead, we decided to put together a report that really dove into these topics.

We also felt it was important to devote more time to these key themes on Inside Design, so from now until February, we are going to publish a new Q&A each week with different subject matter experts that will help us explore the following questions from our report:

Will design systems unlock team potential?

Will design hold its seat at the table?

Will organizations create systemic change?

Will generalists be the key to collaboration?

Will work and life be separate again?

Will digital-first remain a competitive advantage?

Will we continue to focus on what matters?

While all of us experienced a radical shift in 2020, the year ahead promises more change and we have a responsibility to reflect on their catalysts, as well as their likely outcomes.

As Leisa Reichart, head of research and insights at Atlassian shared: “The thing that is on my mind a lot at the moment is, as the world moves on and the pandemic becomes more of a memory for us, how can we keep what we’ve learned and experienced and take advantage of the opportunities that have been uncovered as a result of this process? There is an enormous risk of just going back to the way things were. It’s such a human thing to do—to learn everything and then forget it.”

Digital products have kept the world together during these unprecedented times. But they’ve also revealed deep inequity and exploited opportunities for disinformation and chaos.


As a product design community, we have a responsibility to lean in more. Don’t let the inherent difficulties of our industry stand in the way of learning from, and creating change out of, all that we’ve gained. We hope this series will help provide designers and their collaborators the resources to stay the course. A bright future begins now, but only if we do our part to design it.