Some inspiring graphic design trends for 2021

The great thing about graphic design trends is that each year arrives with the opportunity for a reset. And given the challenging shape of 2020, the design trends of 2021 may offer us the biggest breath of fresh air yet. While past trends were driven by the promise of a new decade, borrowing from sci-fi and futuristic tech, 2021’s graphic design trends are putting people first. We sampled opinions from our global community of graphic designers, and their predictions—ranging from classic symbolism to nature elements to analogue painting—signal trends that are grounded in the here and now. 

 Graphic design is all about transforming the plain into something special. So let’s take a look at how the designers of 2021 are influencing the trajectory of this decade. 11 graphic design trends that will be huge in 2021: 

1) Abstract psychedelia 
2) Symbol revival 
3) Retro futurism 
4) Seamless surrealism 
5) Authentic representation 
6) Irreverent characters 
7) Comics and pop art 
8) Fine art infusion 
9) Elements of nature 
10) Blur and grain 
11) Socially conscious design 

1. Abstract psychedelia 

Psychedelia has its roots in the music and art scene of the 60s. It is associated with hallucinogens and creative experimentation under the backdrop of social upheaval: in short, the opening of one’s mind. In contrast from then to now, it seems to fit the times: the chaotic imagery of psychedelia fostering freedom, the sense that designers are no longer bound by traditional constraints.

In 2021, graphic designers will be reviving psychedelia through excessive color and intensely intricate abstractions that would make M.C. Escher himself dizzy. These are designs that take on a life of their own, both in their explosive arrangements and in their complexity—to the extent that no two viewings feel quite the same.

2. Symbol revival — In design, the little things matter. Colored bars on a waving banner can unify a nation, and a shape as simple as a red octagon can save lives at a busy intersection. Historically, symbols like these have been about universality. Whether this comes in the form of conveying warnings or identifying a cause under shared iconography, the power of classic symbols lies in their ability to transcend language. 

Designers are leveraging this power in 2021 to create aspirational icons of resilience, growth and empowerment. For example a Sketch style barber shop logo showing an all-seeing-eye or a Modern illustrated crest showing a knight with a lion 
They do so by creatively incorporating recognizable symbols of power, such as goddesses, the stars and stoic lions. 
We’re also seeing designers modernize classic visual motifs, like stained glass framing. Through classic symbols, designers are expressing history in design. Another example is a design of Celestial Soaps. The idea was to reflect the existence of the natural ingredients through symbols, as if the consumer is feeling the presence of a celestial object. 

3) Retro futurism 

.... the sci-fi dreams of a bygone era, is appealing for the spectacular ways in which the past got it wrong. By now, we were expected to have flying cars, ray guns and robot maids. But through the ages, retro futurism as a visual style has prevailed due to its bold imagination with a surprisingly optimistic outlook—at least more so than our current visions of doom in shows like Black Mirror. The retro futurists believed in human progress, to the extent that even scary green martians in flying saucers would be no match for our scientific ingenuity.

For this artwork we see a cool and strong woman wearing sunglasses with a reflection of a futuristic city. Sun glasses like Tom Cruise has! Why? Because of his sunglasses in “Top Gun”. With his leading lady Kelly McGillis with her retro look, her jacket and her curly hair. Retro design is like recylced stuff - keeping things alive in a new ERA.

4. Seamless surrealism

 ‘Surrealism’ is one of those artistic terms people tend to associate with the inscrutable—imagery that is nonsensical by design. But what people often forget is that it contains the word ‘realism.’ The real is intertwined with the surreal, and in no year was that more deeply felt than in 2020, when the pandemics of bad fiction became our way of life.

Graphic designers are expressing themselves  through surrealist collages, where images that would be normal separately, then become strange when combined. An apple-headed man can be ordinary from the neck down and people sitting on another planet.

5. Authentic representation 

 The Black Lives Matter movement represents an unprecedented watershed moment of global protest. We remain hopeful that it is only the beginning of a reexamination of systemic prejudice and that its impact will continue to ripple through every industry in 2021, including graphic design

"As a designer portraying diversity is the way we can do our part for a better and more inclusive future. By portraying diversity, we inspire & encourage people of all backgrounds on their journeys and that’s such a needed and positive change". - Fe Melo, Top Level designer at 99designs. 

6. Irreverent characters

Good design can tell a story. Great design makes that story unforgettable. For 2021, many graphic designers are looking to ditch abstract visuals in favor of quirky characters. And the more personality these characters embody, the more memorable they become.

Concept illustration lies at the heart of this trend—providing not only character poses but personality in the form of a hand-drawn approach. It’s why these styles can range from detailed cross-hatching to the simplified shapes, lines, and colors of modern cartoons. The concepts themselves—suit-wearing animals and anthropomorphic sushi—signal the much-anticipated return of humor and weirdness in the months to come.

7. Comics and pop art

Like an arch nemesis, the design styles of the past never truly die. And this year, graphic designers are resurrecting the grainy colors, the heavy inking and the action lines of vintage comics.

Born of an era of primitive printing technology, comics often used halftones, or simplified dot shading, to represent color. Nowadays, this approach can breathe new life into modern minimalist trends such as flat design through grainy texture and depth. Similarly, web designers can break the grid with slanting panels and skewed shapes to create the sense of drama and motion. As seen here successfully applied to package design 
Lable Design 

8. Fine art infusion

 There has always been a separation between fine art and design, but 2021 is less concerned with traditional borders. As a result, we are predicting painterly techniques such as acrylic or oil paint brushstrokes with abstract expressionism.  This will make its way onto shelves and screens across the world.

Painting infuses designs with surface variation and depth, making them look real enough to touch. For that reason, this trend pairs well with physical products. Specifically, since fine art is associated with culture and class, it is useful for products that wish to convey an old world elegance—like wine labels and cosmetic packaging

9. Elements of NATURE

— There’s no avoiding it: many people spent much of this year cooped up inside. That would go double for designers who might have experienced their work-from-home freelance lifestyle begin to resemble solitary confinement. It may be no surprise then that the outside world will be making its way inside 2021’s graphic designs.

Whether this trend manifests in the form of leafy patterns, earth-tone color schemes or illustrations of breathtaking vistas, graphic design is going green. The best part about this trend is we are seeing it reach beyond environmentally-oriented products. The effect of nature imagery is to impart serenity, renewal and growth—all of which we’ll be breathlessly anticipating in 2021

"So many of us have felt cooped up in 2020 with COVID, and have a strong desire to spend time in green spaces. Even looking at photographs of these places can feel soothing if you are stuck in apartment. I think we’ll see a greater appreciation for these kinds of visuals coming through in 2021". - Megan Dell, Director of Design


10. Blur and grain 

Gradients and color transitions have been a popular trend for a few years now. In 2021, many designers will be looking to veer off on a new tangent: into even more blurry and blended backgrounds. Add in a grain filter, and these designs manage to walk the line between feeling transitory and real-to-the-touch.

The benefit of this trend is that it allows foreground elements such as bold typography or evocative imagery to pop against a near indiscernible background. It also thrives in gloomier contexts as opposed to the cheery gradients of yesteryear. There is an inherent grunge and grime to grainy textures, and a blurred image can evoke shadows and the unseen. This trend is a mood, and we expect to see it more and more as the tool of choice for designs with a dark side.

11. Socially conscious design

— As the dawn of a new decade, it seems fitting that 2020 was the year the world understood how much it needed to change. From healthcare to environmentalism to Black Lives Matter to pandemic preparedness, 2020 laid bare the many challenges to come. The good news is that this conflict might just be a turning point, provided everyone does their part.

With this in mind, designers from all over the world are stepping up to the plate to contribute their talents for the betterment of their community. We’ve seen this in the rise in creative hand-lettering that delivers messages of unity, responsibility and advice. It comes in the form of protest art. It comes in illustrations that personalize mask-wearing. Whether through charity work or personal design projects, 2021 is shaping up to be a pivotal year in which design gets involved. In 2021 we’ll see more designs and imagery resonating with a movement, or social & environmental issues. I’ve seen more and more brands rallying around issues and connecting with their users on a deeper level. - Tristan Le Breton