How to know what to pick

are everywhere in life: fashion, music, food, architecture, technology. With all the adages that good design is timeless and that designers should avoid trends, design as a whole is nevertheless filled with trends that have roaring popularity and are then eventually forgotten.

Digital design, in particular, can see them come and go faster than the changes in the technology it supports. As designers, we work to create something familiar to the user and often in the interest of time; in this sense, we lean on trends to supplement, not define, our designs. Is there a way to know which trend to pick? There is, using the creative curve.

The creative curve

Allen Gannett’s The Creative Curve is probably the best book I’ve read this year. Gannett goes into some interesting neuroscience and real-world examples that show how most all creative ideas follow a similar pattern over their lifespan: a bell-shaped curve.

Image courtesy of The Creative Curve (2018)

New ideas don’t often find success overnight; instead, they take time to become adopted and accepted widely, before inevitably becoming oversaturated and their appeal wears off. This is because we as humans are both motivated by the novel and innately fearful of the unfamiliar. The book states that ideas go through five stages over their lifetime: fringe interest, sweet spot, point of clicé, follow-on failure, out of date. Creatives should be aiming to land their ideas in the sweet spot if they wish to achieve success.

You can probably think of a song you loved more and more the first few times you heard it and then grew to hate it as it started to become overplayed on radio stations and in advertisements. Or a quirky outfit that doesn’t come out of your cupboard anymore after everyone else started wearing the same thing. This same lifecycle can be applied to elements in digital design.

The creative curve in design

Website landing pages are often highly susceptible to trends. Software Company A uses a background video covered by a large, centered header and sign-up field. Suddenly Software Company B, C, D, E, and F start using the same design on their landing page, even if they are selling completely different products. Six months later, the sign-up fields and text have been moved to one side, and those videos have been replaced with illustrations of weirdly-proportioned individuals physically playing around with the product.

From left to right down: Slack, Intercom, Coinbase, Shopify

Applying the creative curve to digital design lets us see where design has been and shine a light on where it’s going. Let’s take a look at trends that I think fit into each of the five stages of the curve.

Out of date

Skeuomorphism
Early iPhone users will undoubtedly remember the iconography and tools that intentionally mimicked their real-world counterparts. Its purpose was to help users understand the function of the software’s features, but as smartphones became more ubiquitous the need for drawing these similarities diminished. Today, a digital design using skeuomorphic design elements would be considered outdated.

Image courtesy of Apple

Follow-on failure

Parallax scrolling
To achieve the illusion of depth on a 2D screen, foreground elements move faster than background elements with parallax scrolling. This technique was once common on websites, with the background elements often being images and foreground containing blocks of text.

Image courtesy of Boy-Coy

Point of cliché

Isometric illustrations
Being a graphics student in high school, this trend has been one of my favourites, so it’s sad to see it become overused. Illustrations of almost anything are drawn in an isometric view and often placed alongside text on landing pages, in empty states, or instructional carousels to communicate the product’s value.

Images courtesy of BrowserStack, Waaark, Google, Lyft, Toggl, Fabric, Creddy, and Webflow

Sweet spot

Persistence transitions on mobile
Having content persist in view rather than navigating away to another page is not new to desktops, but has recently come into the foray on mobile. Apple and Google’s Material Design pioneered the trend which has found its way into other applications such as Burberry and Wilson.FM; each tweaking it with their own style.

Image courtesy of WIlson.fm

Fringe interest

Movement-responding 3D content
This one was a little harder to pinpoint, and for lack of better words, I’ve called it movement-responding 3D content. At the time of writing this blog post, Facebook is rolling out 3D photos, which allows users to give life to photos taken on their mobile through depth and movement.

Image courtesy of Facebook

Giving physicality to static elements on 2D screens is at the core of many of the trends I’ve mentioned, and this is the next stage of evolution. Bespoke websites are home to trend currently, but with big players like Facebook giving similar power to the masses, I don’t see it being long until it starts being used elsewhere.

Image courtesy of ToyFight

How could it be used elsewhere in design? Perhaps it will replace still images on e-commerce websites to create a digital experience closer to that of interacting with products like in a brick and mortar store. Or perhaps it will bring life back into the isometric illustration trend by making them more immersive.

for the creative curve

The Creative Curve offers four laws for coming up with ideas that land on the sweet spot of the creative curve: Consumption, Imitation, Creative Communities, Iteration. I’m not going to go into all of them in depth here — the book has explanations and examples of these laws which will help you improve your own creative output in your own way.

Instead, I’ll touch on one I think can be actioned almost immediately by everyone, and helped me with identifying the aforementioned design trends and plotting them on the curve.

Consumption

Consuming content in the design field builds your base knowledge and helps you identify a trend’s level of familiarity. Gannett noted that creatives spend a good chunk of their time consuming content in their field, and suggests spending 20% of your day doing it to develop your intuitive understanding of an idea’s level of familiarity. Thankfully in the age of information, this type of consumption for digital design is a relatively effortless exercise.

My favourite methods of consumption are curated sites and actually using digital products. It doesn’t take long to download a new app, sign up, onboard, and play around with it to get a feel for its novelty and familiarity. Some awesome curated sites are UI Sources, Awwwards, and Dribbble. As a designer/developer, I like sites that showcase real applications/websites as they provide an understanding of what’s immediately possible to design and build, or reverse engineer. I use Dribbble when I’m seeking novelty through inspiration in what may not be technically achievable.

At Tanda, we apply the network effect to this by encouraging designers to share cool things they’ve recently found at the end of our fortnightly design critiques. Twitter, albeit its flaws, is also a great way to engage in this type of sharing on a global scale. Designers and creatives often share their own work, insights/opinions, and re-post work they like. Some of my favourites to follow are Aristide Benoist, Ben Mingo, and Julien Renau.

Conclusion

The best thing you can do to design for the creative curve is to be aware of it. Asking yourself “where does this fall on the creative curve?” will help you understand whether the trend you’re thinking of using has life left in it, or will need replacing sooner rather than later. Keeping the creative curve in mind will help you make better design decisions, faster. Can you think of any other design trends that fit somewhere on the creative curve? I’d love to hear them.





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