5 years, 5 trends: A look at the past and future of design

4 min read
Sacha Greif
  •  Sep 7, 2017
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Confucius is the source of a lot of wisdom in Chinese culture, and one of his best-known aphorisms is wenguzhixin (温故知新), which can be roughly translated as “keep the old (‘gu’) warm to know the new (‘xin’).”

In other words, if you want to know the future, start by looking at the past.Twitter Logo

Now it so happens that I run Sidebar, a daily newsletter of fresh design links. Which means that every single day, I spend at least 30 minutes looking for the latest design news, trends, and resources. And as you can imagine, that gives me a good perspective on both the recent trends that have affected design over the past few years, and how they might shape design in the near future.

So as Sidebar’s fifth anniversary approaches (time flies!), I thought I’d take the time to reflect on 5 trends I’ve noticed over time, as well as how they might keep affecting us all in the coming years.

1. The rise of Medium

One aspect of my daily link-finding routine that has changed drastically over the years is where these links come from. When I first started Sidebar 5 years ago, my trusty RSS reader would aggregate content from a variety of sources, and I would pick the best.

Now, my RSS feeds have dried out, and I instead find the vast majority of design content in a single place: Medium.

As you can imagine, this has both pros and cons. It can be dangerous for any community to rely too much on a single service, as Facebook’s outsized impact on major social events is quickly teaching us. And it’s also a shame that so many personalized blog designs have all been wiped out and replaced by the same minimalist black-on-white layout.

Then again, there’s no denying that Medium’s design is pleasant and readable, its authoring tools are pretty good, and moreover that it’s brought attention to many new voices that didn’t have a platform before.

Sure, designers were always encouraged to write, but the added exposure brought by a successful Medium post can’t be underestimated. Look no further than Julie Zhuo as someone who’s built a large following on the back of a solid body of popular Medium stories.

So where is this trend going? First, it’s important to realize that not everybody is equal on Medium. The most successful authors tend to join publications, which snowball their readership and let them reach much broader audiences.  

Also, there’s been questions around Medium’s profitability and long-term sustainability lately. If for some reason it’s not around a few years from now, we can only hope all these up-and-coming authors end up finding a new home—or it could lead to a second boom for personal blogs.

2. UX writing becomes a thing

Back when I was a freelance designer, site copy could come from 1 of 2 places: either the client, which meant overly long sentences that always broke your layout, or—more commonly—your favorite lorem ipsum generator.

But thanks to writers like John Saito, we’ve since realized good writing is an integral part of any successful designTwitter Logo, and copywriting is no longer the exclusive domain of marketers trying to figure out which variation on “Sign Up Now!” converts best.

A good UX writer needs to find the best way to write clear and concise UI text, but stopping there isn’t enough. You also need to inject life and personality into your messages, as well as try and anticipate and match the user’s state of mind. After all, there’s nothing worse than a perky alert joyfully announcing that you just lost all your data.

I only see this field gaining more importance in the future, with its own books, case studies, events, and more. After all, the rise of new UIs like mobile or VR also means finding new concepts and new words to describe them.

3. VR finally arrives… or does it?

Speaking of VR, any list of trends should probably include it. There have been lots of announcements in that space over the past couple years, and it’s also become abundantly clear that old design patterns can’t apply to these new environments.

Related: How to get started with VR interface design

Whether it’s the display, input method, vocabulary, or use cases, when it comes to VR nearly everything is new and different.

Photo by Nan Palmero. CC BY 2.0.

So as a designer, should you be reading up on VR design patterns and saving up for an Oculus Rift? I think it’s still too early to tell.

While VR is certainly becoming more popular, it remains to be seen if it’ll go mainstream. Until then, unless you’re truly interested in the field, your time might be better spent perfecting your current design skills.

4. The design tool explosion

Let me put on my old man hat for a moment and tell you about a bleak time when the web design market was so underserved that the industry standard was Photoshop.

Yes, even though it had “photo” right there in its name, that’s still what everybody used (although its many filters and effects did come in handy to make those shiny mid-2000s-style buttons).

How things have changed! In 2010, the first version of Sketch was released, and while it flew under the radar at first, it slowly began to gain market share as more and more designers started to appreciate the advantages of an app specifically made for UI and web design. Since then, even more competitors have cropped up left and right, some even generating your HTML/CSS code for you.

And that’s not even mentioning the plethora of feedback and prototyping tools that we now have access to, such as InVision (you might’ve heard of it?).

In 2017, if you’re still using Photoshop for web design, you either just haven’t taken the time to take a look around, or you must really like those shiny gradients.

Over the next few years, though, I expect a narrowing down of the field as designers stick with a small handful of essential tools that each do many things, instead of tons of tools that each do 1 thing.

5. Welcoming our AI overlords

Finally, the last trend that got everybody obsessed in recent years is AI, or more specifically chatbots and conversational UIs.

Related: The ultimate guide to chatbots

Conversational UIs are the perfect example of a design fad: barring very specific use cases, they’re generally unnecessary and harder to use than regular user interfaces. And yet, if you read design blogs circa 2016 you could be forgiven for thinking a chat window was the perfect user interface for everything from ordering pizza to doing your taxes.

I think we’re mostly over the chatbot fad, but that doesn’t mean AI itself has disappeared. Instead, it’s going back to doing what it does best: subtly improving and influencing the user experience without calling too much attention to its still numerous flaws.

For example, maybe leveraging AI and machine learning means you can follow Netflix’s example and land users on a page tailored to their own tastes. Or take a page out of Instagram’s playbook and sort their feed using a personalized algorithm.

But don’t make the same mistake as the ill-fated The Grid design tool and try to put AI front and center. For the next couple years at least, AI should be treated as one more tool in your toolbox, not as the whole entire toolbox.

Looking to the future

We often feel like we have no choice but to try and keep up with what the cool kids are doing, even though trying to follow all the latest design fads can be exhausting.

Yet if Confucius’s centuries-old wisdom can still be relevant today, surely your current design skills will still apply in 2018. The trick here is to always come back to basic design principles, and keep a critical mind.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with following trends—as long as you don’t let the bandwagon carry you too far down the wrong path.

Pssstttt… If you’d like to keep up to date on said trends, don’t forget to try out Sidebar! It’s completely free and you can unsubscribe anytime.

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