The 9 Graphic Design Trends You Need to Be Aware of In 2016

More than the patterns that emerge from the Popular feeds on Dribbble and Behance, design trends can be a mysterious thing.

They’re influenced by culture and media, past and present, technology, fashion, and other industries.

They come and go, but it’s hard to say exactly when.

Madeleine Morley at The American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) says:

“A trend never simply emerges for a single year and then disappears in a puff of smoke. Instead, an aesthetic becomes popular gradually, even mysteriously, over time before fizzling out slowly without much notice at all.”

The design trends we’ll be covering here didn’t magically materialize in late 2015; trends take time to peak, and you’ve likely seen many of them in one form or another during the last couple years.

But even if you’re not one to follow the trends, as a designer, it’s smart to be aware of the shifts going on in your industry—if only to avoid them before they become overused, or to have the opportunity to twist them into something new and interesting.

While forecasting trends with any certainty is a tricky business, many members of the design industry seem to have developed a consensus as to what styles and approaches are most likely to take off in 2016.

We’ve rounded up nine possible trends to keep an eye out for:

01. “Modern” Retro Style

As opposed to vintage or “old” retro—styles that draw from the early 1900s through the 60s—“modern” retro takes its stylistic influences from more recent decades, the late 1970s through the 90s. Think early PCs and video games, pixel art, and space themes: nerdy is the new cool.

Let’s look at some examples:

This illustration and t-shirt design by Ralph Cifra has all kinds of nostalgia going on. The technology theme also ties in nicely with modern-retro influences.

And The Welcome Branding Group’s ad designs for a music store have a retro yet contemporary feel, complete with vinyl records and a solar system:

Some distinctly 80s style from stationery brand Write Sketch & and Officemilano:

And lastly, some limited “pixel edition” packaging designed for Coca-Cola by Erin L. M. McGuire. It features space invaders from the arcade video game of the same name released in 1978.

02. Material Design

Google made quite a splash in the design world when it introduced its material design guidelines. This visual language is characterized by “deliberate color choices, edge-to-edge imagery, large-scale typography, and intentional white space” for a bold, graphic look, according to Google.

Some are referring to material design as “Flat 2.0” because, in many ways, it’s an update to the flat design trend, adding light/shadow, depth, and movement for a more tactile sense of realism.

Though Google created it for web and mobile, you’ll see material design principles popping up in all kinds of design formats.

This website concept from Balraj Chana incorporates many material design principles, including bold colors, large type, and light and shadow effects. Card- or tile-based layouts (see the menu elements to the left of this image) are also part of material design. For more on that, see trend #6.

Some Flat 2.0 illustrations for a weather app from Disky Chairiandy that integrate light and shadow effects for a sense of depth:

Here’s another website, designed by Al Rayhan, that features bright, contrasting colors and some card-based navigation, but with a more traditional design—a good compromise between conservative and trendy.

If you’re looking to try out one material design’s vivid color schemes, check out Material Palette. It’s a color scheme generator that can help you quickly and easily choose a versatile selection of hues.

03. Bright, Bold Colors

Fitting in with both 80s/90s styles and material design, vibrant hues should continue to prove popular picks into 2016.

This trend would be a move away from the more muted, 1960s-inspired palettes to favor bright pastels, neons, and richer, more saturated colors. Pantone’s Spring 2016 Color Report falls right in line with this prediction.

A nearly neon shade of green paired with golden yellow really makes this poster pop. It was designed by In the Pool, a Paris-based studio.

Here, Michael Fangman applied some bright pastel gradients over the imagery in his landing page design:

Finally, a clearly 80s-inspired design from Tron Burgundy with electric colors and geometric shapes, which brings us to our next trend:

04. Geometric Shapes

Geometric shapes and patterns are a motif that aligns with some of the 80s-era trends we’ve already looked at. This one can be applied in all sorts of ways—as individual graphic elements, as backgrounds, as an illustrative technique.

Also keep an eye out for a style known as “low poly,” which got its start as a 3D modeling technique for video games. This angular, faceted look will continue to show up outside the gaming world, in web and print projects (such as the design below by Vivek Venkatraman).

There are plenty of tutorials out there for creating a low-poly effect, either from scratch or taking a shortcut with a tool like this one. Or just pick up a selection of free low-poly textures to try out the trend the easy way.

Here’s another take on geometrics from Tank Design, with layered shapes forming a colorful backdrop for a business card.

Kyle Anthony Miller uses hexagons to liven up an email template and even crop photos into matching shapes:

Colored triangles on this chocolate packaging by Bag of Bees create an eye-catching background and symbolize the products’ flavors:

Lastly, in the following branding package by Simeon, simple circular and rectangular shapes combine to form a versatile visual theme:

05. Negative Space

Negative and/or white space is an essential part of any good design. But used strategically, negative space can be a clever way to add deeper or double meaning to your designs, particularly for logo and branding projects. Or it can simply help give your composition a more minimal look.

In this design for a restaurant called “The Swan & Mallard,” John Randall has creatively managed to fit a swan, a mallard duck, and an ampersand all into one logo though the interaction of positive and negative space.

In a different way, the negative space in this logo by Sameer Ahmed lends movement and context to the word being spelled out:

Look closely at the shapes and spaces created by the violin in Sam Hadley’s concert poster. They form a series of numbers—1, 2, and 3—which are part of the event name.

And a couple more abstract, but equally effective, designs. Both work to support a theme in an unexpected way.

The first, by Andrea Minini for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), takes a minute to appreciate fully. At first glance, you see some abstract, ribbon-like shapes, but then you notice that the negative space formed by those shapes look like animals.

Now you can see that the ribbons themselves also look like animals, and the interaction of the positive and negative space creates a series of figures that blend seamlessly into each other (from left to right, a bird, cat, rabbit, gorilla, dog/wolf, and bear) to form a sort of optical illusion. Can you see them all?

The next, a book cover design by Jason Booher, takes a concept from the title (immersion) and uses only curving lines and the negative space they create to suggest (in an abstract way) the image of a person immersed in water or some other substance.

06. Modular Layouts

Modular or card-based layouts have been adopted by some of the biggest brands for their websites and mobile apps. But organizing designs (of all mediums) according to a grid is nothing new.

It’s the self-contained modules or cards used as the primary organizational principle that has created the twist of a new trend.

This website layout from Balraj Chana fully embraces that trend, including card-style graphics and navigation in multiple configurations:

But layouts don’t have to follow a strict grid where everything is perfectly aligned. They can be a little looser or more freeform and still serve as an effective organizational tool. For example, this design from Natalie Armendariz:

Or this one (sporting material design colors) by Julien Renvoye:

07. Dramatic Typography

According to this trend, typography isn’t just for reading—it’s for making a statement. Look out for big, bold type that’s the center of attention. You can create drama through size, but also through color, texture, or arrangement.

SNASK’s design may use all those qualities and more for its loud and lively typography. The agency handcrafted a series of letters to create the cover art for a magazine.

Though more subdued in style, this entirely type-based design by Brendan Prince juxtaposes different typeface styles and sizes for an engaging, eye-catching composition:

In contrast, this much more minimalistic approach from Ben Schade depends largely on color and shape for its drama:

As our last example in this section, Julie Joanny’s typographic poster features a freeform arrangement of some of the letters plus textures and linear elements to enhance the type:

08. Custom Illustrations

It’s been said that stock is dead. But even if it hasn’t quite breathed its last breath yet, stock photography and graphics are more frequently being replaced by custom imagery or illustrations.

After all, no designer wants their work to look generic, and no business wants elements of their branding to show up on a competitor’s website. So many designers have been putting in the extra work to create one-of-a-kind solutions.

As brands continue to embrace design thinking and other design-centric approaches, this tactic of making imagery more personalized and relatable should continue to grow.

For example, Vlad Shagov at Railsware has updated his company’s website for the new year with a cheerful, custom-illustrated header:

Dropbox also takes a personalized approach to its homepage imagery with friendly, casual illustrations—more like doodles—that support the information being communicated:

Saudade Tea’s packaging takes this tactic in a more traditional direction, with beautiful watercolor illustrations:

09. Abstract, Minimalistic Style

In contrast to the more flamboyant, 1980s-inspired design styles we’ve seen so far, this trend relies on minimalism and deconstructing or distorting recognizable forms.

For instance, Aurėja Jucevičiūtė’s identity for a music school picks apart some of the shapes associated with musical notation and puts them back together in a unique way:

And here’s an album cover designed by Lukas Haider that does feature vibrant colors, but text is kept to a minimum and the primary visual is a blend of abstract, vaguely organic shapes:

Lastly, these two designs from StudioBrave and Kajsa Klaesén integrate geometric shapes and bright colors like some of the other designs we’ve looked at, but do so in a simplistic way, with plenty of white space and a seemingly random layout.

To get started on your own minimalist design project, make sure to browse through our selection of 60 Free Fonts for Minimalist Designs.

A Closing Note

Following trends just for the sake of being trendy usually isn’t a good idea. If you do decide to try a trend, make sure it’s a good fit for your project and audience. Or just save most of your experimentation for personal projects.

Do you plan on jumping on board with any of these trends, or perhaps combining them like many of the designs featured here? Or do have any predictions of your own? Let us know in the comments!

Further Reading

Even the most exciting trends won’t add anything to your designs if you don’t apply them well. Check out some of Canva’s other articles that can help you brush up on your design theory and skills before you become the next trendsetter.

For integrating principles of material design: Designing With Light and Shadow: 10 Highly Effective Tips You Should Try [With Case Studies]

For ideas on using geometric shapes and patterns: 50 Stunningly Beautiful Geometric Patterns In Graphic Design

For understanding negative space: 50 Mesmerising Designs That Make the Most of Negative Space

For creating modular layouts: 15 Reasons Why a Grid-Based Approach Will Improve Your Designs

Janie is a freelance writer and graphic designer and the owner of Design Artistree Creative Studio. After college, she built on her background in art to explore design...and loved it. Now, she enjoys finding ways to combine the craftsmanship of traditional fine arts with the digital possibilities of graphic design.

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