If there’s one coherent thread that truly permeates the articles throughout the RDA this year, it’s this: trends … and how they’re a plague upon the house of visual culture.
We all say we want original work—work that strays from trends, work that doesn’t feel derivative, work that’s fresh.
But if you Google “graphic design trends,” what comes up is not an admonishment of trends to avoid because they are, well, trends, but rather endless lists of the year’s “hottest” trends—and how to replicate them in your work for graphic design success.
So why are we told to stay on trend, while simultaneously being told to embrace originality and buck said trends? At what point are we keeping up with the Joneses, versus keeping up with the Kardashians? And where the hell do trends come from, anyway?
It depends whom you ask.
Trendsetter Malcolm Gladwell brought a great deal of attention to the “Influentials Theory” with his 2006 book The Tipping Point. The core of the theory, a canon to many marketing pros: A handful of key tastemakers are responsible for setting in motion the Rube Goldbergs that vault ideas into the minds of the masses. (Or, in my lowbrow, less Gladwell-y explanation: Pamela Anderson gets a barbed-wire tattoo in the ’90s; the population soon follows. Bonus! Laser tattoo removal grows by leaps and bounds in the next decade.)
Meanwhile, the anti-Gladwell set, such as Microsoft’s Duncan Watts, hold via oodles of research that the entire thing is bunk—that a trend can begin anywhere, even from the smallest fish in the pond.
Less clear: Regardless, are trends good or bad? I’ve long been obsessed with the RDA for the fact that it provides a catalog of the year’s trends (for lack of a better word), consciously or not, from the collective mind of today’s design practitioners. It’s a snapshot, a moment, a mirror.
And for better or worse (depending again on who you ask, of course), said trends are moving the field, in one glacially slow wave, to the future. So at what point does a trend become a fad—and why is a fad, by nature, bad?
Moreover, how do you create good work in the face of all this, graphic design’s Trend Paradox? What if your creation becomes the trend, and by definition your “style” goes stale? If we find originality by bucking a trend and doing the opposite of it, via a reaction, then technically the trend is still impacting our work, still present in our creations, still haunting us like a ghost whose intentions we cannot precisely understand as it floats about the room.
It’s all enough to make one go mad.
But while you’re going mad, you begin to realize that what you’re not doing is this: Creating. Designing. Producing.
So here’s to today’s trends, that mass of unstoppable visual culture we’ll inspect under a magnifying glass like some forgotten creature decades down the road (and perhaps resurrect). Here’s to non-trends, those exotic little fireflies we catch in the wee hours of the night if luck and skill are on our side. Here’s to the present, and the brilliant work featured in these pages, and the brilliant people who created it, on trend or off.
Here’s to the RDA.
It may not be a barbed-wire tattoo, but that’s something I’ll wear on my sleeve.