HomeHero‘s Product Designer Karl Koch explores the emerging trends in Product Design, detailing what we can expect from designers next year.

As a designer or design-watcher, it’s easy to look at Dribbble and think that what you see is reflective of current design trends. Whilst that is sometimes true, it’s better to look in a wider set of places including industrial design and architecture too.

Dribbble is a sort of design bubble that in some ways helps shape the trends of the year but also tends to focus on form over function.

Dribble Product Design Homepage

Our list, whilst not exhaustive, is focused on describing the top five trends we believe you’ll see a lot more of in product design for 2021. We’ll focus our attention on trends that are both form and function related.

Remember though, trends are trends for a reason. By their very nature, they’re temporary and cyclical. Don’t allow a design trend to dictate your product design entirely, or, follow trends too closely. If you do, you’ll risk not having a timeless design. Let trends guide some decisions you might make in ensuring your product belongs in the current time but don’t allow them to be your guiding principles.

Trend 1: That looks Super Real

Realism in 2021 will be the rebirth of 3D elements in UI design.

Uber Design Research Page

Now we’ve stripped everything back to flat, it’s time to add in more expressive 3D elements again. But this time more carefully and with more consideration. Where skeuomorphic design left us with a bad taste in our mouths, this trend of bringing in elements of realism is about providing a contrast between layers within a UI’s design.

3D and realism are likely to be experimented with as part of making the UI experience more immersive. Creating depth and layering within more two-dimensional spaces. This is, in some instances, thanks to the rise in VR and AR technologies too as we’re starting to see the merging of these worlds across multiple devices. You only need to look to current hardware trends around LiDAR and Depth Sensors to see where mobile devices are headed.

By having these elements of realism, we’re allowing our previous flat designs to have some additional personality and a distinct multi-dimensional interface.

Trend 2: Things are getting a little soft

Some are opting to avoid 3D and utilise a softer approach to introducing non-flat elements. Instead, they’re opting to introduce textures inspired by how lighting impacts objects and materials. This started to come out of the flat trend back in 2014 when Google provided their big shift from the more skeuomorphic trends of prior. Material Design was built around the concept of materials casting different types of shadows depending on their hierarchy in the layer stack.

a Neumorphic/mimic interface

Neumorphism was the divisive trend of 2020. With it came inaccessible use of shadow and light to create the effect of materials being part of a single continuous sheet. With different depths being shown by how deep the shadows were around them.

In 2021 we’ll see a lot more use of softer shadows and softer colours but not in the neumorphic sense. Whilst neumorphism lacked accessibility, it did provide more of a push towards a reintroduction of soft shadows as UI and softer pastel colours. Pulling the trend out of the extremely flat design that preceded it and pushing towards the trend of a combination of minimalist and realist trends.

This new softness, considered by some as ‘mimic’ design, also brings with it a stronger use of blur and glass-like layers. Providing ways to obscure content whilst maintaining a sense of place. Think about Apple’s new iOS 14 layerings in apps like Apple Music where the full-screen sheet takes elements from the album artwork and uses blur and softness to provide context and delight beyond the more flat design of the wider UI.

Trend 3: Sometimes you Have to Frame it

Framing elements within shapes is another trend that we’ll see more of. We saw the start of this with cards in apps and on the web, framing images and text inside the body of the card. 

An example of framing objects inside shapes on a website to create a more app-like experience on the web

This containerisation/framing is being scaled up to larger interface elements. For example, hero images that appear at the top of most websites or, images framed inside a circle or other shaped containers when displayed within an interface.

Framing is part of a wider trend around designers looking for ways to break up the traditional rectangle/square grids. Bringing some more excitement to their interfaces without them looking messy. This is also part of an effort from Product Designers looking to their contemporaries in print design and taking those same magazine-like approaches but applying them across different digital interfaces.

Framing is also acting as a way for designers to create more app-like experiences on the web. Apps often require objects to be contained due to the constrained screens of mobile devices. Bringing this to the web brings greater harmony across devices, particularly when building multi-platform applications.

Trend 4: Minimalism

Minimalism is the art of simplification. Removing clutter and noise to focus in on the core essence of something. It started out as a backlash against modernist art but has since been revived many times across product design, architecture and interior design-alike. When it comes to modern UI design, that started happening back in 2013 when Apple released iOS 7. This radically simplified take on the iOS 6 interface that preceded it was stark and flat in comparison.

Hoverstat.es homepage

In 2021 however, expect to see more examples of designers stripping back interfaces to focus on singular moments of joy on cleaner canvases, rather than the flat minimalism of 2013. Designers are no longer afraid to have three-dimensional elements on their canvas or multi-colour gradients if it helps tell a compelling story (as we saw in the earlier trends).

Minimal interfaces also help reduce load times which is particularly important now we spend more time online browsing. It’s equally part-driven by the rise in VR and AR wearables, which take up large amounts of our available data resource, so keeping other parts light helps to reduce overall pressure on your network connection and battery life.

Trend 5: Designers Doing What’s Right

Finally, we land at Ethical Design. Sparked by a rise in consumer consciousness around ethical businesses and privacy concerns. Designers are also becoming more conscious of their actions and thinking more carefully about how to best design their products. 

ethical Designer’s toolkit

In 2019 and 2020 we saw a lot of individuals highlighting the use of dark patterns in interface design. Dark patterns are when consumers are driven towards a decision that they may not actually want to make by deliberate design decisions such as making cancel buttons hard to find. Ethically this is a major issue and designers are starting to stand up to these negative business decisions and realise that they’re the protectors of their customers more than they ever have been before.

Many designers and design leaders have written books in 2020 that call out the importance of designers owning their position as the guardian of the customer and it seems to be having an effect. We’ll see this become more and more prominent as the anti-trust situation in the US takes further shape in 2021 and designers take more of a stand.

To Conclude

So that’s it, that’s our trend report for 2021. In conclusion, we’re expecting to see the next evolution of minimal design, bringing in more three-dimensional elements with nature-inspired light and shadow and a lot more use of translucency and glass-like elements. We’ll see interface elements framed by a multitude of different shapes and containers to encapsulate them and mimic the print-world, and finally, more ethically-minded decisions being made by designers across the world.

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