Let’s explore a few topics considered essential in the design community and see how they’re influencing design trends—and changing the world.
Design is constantly in flux. Things change quickly, and paradigms that once typified the industry fall out of favor and are replaced unceremoniously by others. It’s an industry that lives on the bleeding edge, constantly reinventing how our world looks and works.
It’s easy to believe that all this creativity bubbles up from an infinite sea of ideas, but ideas are hard-fought, wrought from the needs and desires of humans in the here and now. Design impacts society, and society affects design.
Let’s look at a few trends rooted in timely topics considered essential by the design community and explore how they’re changing the ways designers change the world.
1. Diversity and Inclusion: Designing a More Representative World
It’s easy to dismiss diversity and inclusion as mere buzzwords but, in design circles, they are now fundamental pillars of the industry.
The community is acutely aware of its past role in designing a world that wasn’t always as inclusive or diverse as it should have been. Now, it’s making significant inroads into righting that wrong.
The journey isn’t without hurdles; unconscious biases, a lack of diversity in leadership roles, and traditional hiring practices have hindered progress. Facing these truths will invite a richer tapestry of opinions and viewpoints, ensuring that user experiences accommodate the needs and perspectives of a much wider audience.
Examples of change are beginning to surface across the design landscape, such as AirBnB’s “Project Lighthouse” initiative, which sought to route out discriminatory guest requests on its platform.
2. Sustainability in Design: Ensuring a Greener Tomorrow
The industry is embracing sustainability. Sustainability in design isn’t just a passing trend, it’s a commitment to a future for all.
You can communicate the most succinct message possible in your designs, but if it’s done in unsustainable ways, then what’s the point? A considerable effort is underway to reduce waste, use more environmentally friendly materials, and move to a more circular design methodology.
Traditionally, as with many industries, “take/make/dispose” has dominated work practices. However, real thought is given to how products can be designed to last as long as possible and how any materials taken from the earth are recycled or replaced.
This isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Designers have found that moving to this model significantly increases their bottom line and preserves the planet (and the industry) for future generations.
Apple, the world’s largest design-oriented company, has long committed to sustainability. Its HQ in Cupertino is powered on 100% renewable energy and has dedicated its entire production line, including all of its suppliers, to produce all of its products using 100% renewable energy by 2030.
3. AI’s Influence on Design: Where Human Endeavor and Technological Progress Intersect
AI is no longer just a tool. It is now considered a creative partner. There are many challenges with AI, and we are still in the infancy of determining AI’s place in the creative landscape.
Yet, it’s already freeing designers to focus on higher-level design decisions rather than bogging them down in more menial tasks. With this could come a sense of greater responsibility, more meaningful workloads, and the ability to be even more creative.
However, as with any new technology, there are legitimate concerns that harnessing AI incorrectly could concentrate entire creative industries into the hands of the few, further creating barriers to entry for those wishing to get started in design.
A bright example of the advantages of AI is Shutterstock’s move to support designers and creatives in efforts to create more quickly. Their AI-supported search and AI-generated imagery are just the beginnings of products that could significantly impact the lives of designers in positive ways.
4. COVID: The Enduring Impact on Our World
The height of the COVID pandemic may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean its effects are no longer felt.
First off, it forced us to consider the way that we work. Traditionally huddled together in creative groups, designers found themselves unable to meet their colleagues and exchange ideas freely.
Equally, the pandemic made us all more aware of our health and how important it is to design products that ensure better health practices.
Zoom and other video conferencing technologies gained serious ground during the pandemic era. They have become bona fide methods of bringing people together over vast distances.
Additionally, products now focus more on touchless interfaces, and spaces are now designed with breathability. Designed so well, these changes endured as the pandemic ebbed.
These innovations are now steadfastly mainstream and have enriched and improved our lives and health, allowing for more flexible working conditions and greater freedom.
5. Mental Health in Design: Nurturing Creativity and Clarity of Mind
Although the high-pressure design industry espouses “your first idea is never your best” and talks about how allowing ideas to take their own course is vital to the best outcome, it has never treated itself as well as it should. Due to inexplicable deadlines and the constant pursuit of perfection, burnout is all too common.
As mental health has evolved into a mainstream topic, many initiatives are now beginning to prove their worth, allowing designers to work more in tune with their bodies.
Employers are seeing the benefits of a healthy workforce and, although this may be coming too late, it is finally starting to pay dividends for employers, designers, and their clients.
Equally, it’s no secret that the design industry harbors an outsized number of neurodiverse individuals; thinking differently is a prized skill in a creative environment. As these individuals find they have a voice in the industry, the industry is beginning to understand that these voices should be cherished and supported.
6. User-Centered Design: Where Humans Reign Supreme
Although user-centered design is a perennial subject, its application is constantly changing, and designers spend much of their time thinking about how the user can be better served by the designs they create.
How we ensure that users are the main focus of our designs, and that those users find our designs easy to navigate, is something designers will discuss until the end of time.
There are, of course, bad actors in any industry, and not all designers are focused on the needs of their users.
As the industry becomes more honest about bad design practices (and examines ways to eliminate them), debate now turns more frequently to how design can be employed to make things easier, rather than just pad the bottom line.
7. Design for Social Good: Creating a Better World
Our world is fraught with challenges, and design plays a considerable part in tackling them. Ultimately, design is about communication. So, how do we design experiences that help users understand, learn, and derive meaning from the world around them?
Design for social good is a powerful movement, one dedicated to confronting societal issues such as climate, accessibility, conflict, racism, and education and medical care for all.
These initiatives transcend aesthetics. They tackle huge design problems such as how to create safer spaces for transgender individuals, how to accommodate disabled users’ needs in the physical and digital realms, and how to ensure that underserved communities get the medical care they deserve.
These are communication, industrial design, and educational problems, and how designers tackle these spheres has a massive impact on changing lives. By embracing these subjects, rather than seeing them as obstacles, designers become better members of society and ensure that we wield our skills for the betterment of all.
8. Design and Conflict: Bridging the Gaps of a World in Strife
World War II was supposed to be the “war to end all wars,” yet in 2023, we are surrounded by more conflict than ever.
Communicating the needs and desires of conflicting factions in a time of war is paramount if we are to de-escalate tensions and build back a more peaceful place to live.
As a communication device, design plays a considerable part in how conflict plays out. Chiefly, designers can convey the colossal toll of suffering, focusing on the humanization of war rather than the political decisions that drive it.
By repositioning society’s understanding of war, designers can bring about significant change.
Some see design as a benign force that is endlessly neutral and always conveys the middle ground. Yet, throughout history, there are endless examples of how design has been anything but.
Now, in the sphere of conflict more than any other, design needs to continue communicating decisively and transparently to ensure we become more tolerant and accepting of others.
9. Ethical Advertising and Marketing: Shaping Trust in a Digital World
Exaggeration has always been a part of advertising and marketing. The existence of simple disclaimers such as “serving suggestion” on food packaging intimates that the beautifully designed meal you’re confronted with is probably unachievable just by sticking it in the microwave for twenty minutes.
So, the tension for designers has always been between creating their best work and communicating the company’s needs, versus misleading consumers and ultimately selling them an experience that doesn’t exist.
However, in the modern world, where misinformation is rife and the very notion of truth is threatened almost daily, designers often (unwittingly) create designs that allow these practices to flourish.
In response to these challenges, the design community is asking itself soul-searching questions about the challenges of ethics. How can we create our best work and ensure we do not lead customers down the garden path? How do we convey clear and succinctly our messages and intent? How do we ensure that we allow customers to make informed decisions? What can we do to provide real choices and not back customers into corners they cannot escape?
10. Design Education: Nurturing an Abundance of Wonder
The notion of what a designer truly is is evolving. What would have traditionally been a whole complement of craftspeople is now distilled into a single occupation: the designer.
Frequently, job descriptions include requirements as far-ranging as print design, UI, UX, animation, web design and development, AI prompt generation, content creation, social media expertise, personal branding, and more.
This begs the question: How does the next generation, looking earnestly at their first job, hope to develop all those skills before entering the work world?
To answer this, educational institutions are forging intrinsic links with industry professionals to ensure they teach the right skills for the here and now. The evolution of design education highlights the growing need for adaptability, technological savvy, and even business acumen.
We haven’t yet nailed how best to do this, but as each generation begins its journey, the design industry continues to mold itself into a new image to cater for the ever-increasing demands of design and its place in the work world.
The topics explored here aren’t just design rends, they’re the transformative forces shaping the future.
The design community is delving into diversity, sustainability, ethics, and the profound impacts of AI and technology.
It’s responding to the challenges of remote work, advocating for mental health, putting the user at the center of everything, and dedicating design to social good.
Designers are redefining their role as peacekeepers and problem solvers amid conflicts and crises.
Design is evolving, pushing boundaries in ways that transcend aesthetics. It’s about creating inclusive, sustainable, and ethical solutions that respond to our world’s pressing needs.
As we ponder the implications of design on mental well-being, education, and industry collaboration, we’re reminded that design is about more than just visual appeal, it’s about making a difference.
License this cover image via VISTA by Westend61.