Image by Katharina Brenner

We’ll start this story with a disclaimer: It’s hard (impossible, really) to encapsulate all of the aesthetic whims that happen over the course of the year. Yet, as design writers part of our job is to think about the stuff we see and make connections to figure out what it all means, as best we can, anyway. Trends occupy a particularly fraught place within that remit. For starters, what does a trend even mean? Must a critical mass be achieved before the anointing happens? Does it have to tie into culture at large? Who gets to decide what qualifies as a trend, anyway? 

We like to think of trends as a snapshot of a visual moment that’s swelled to the point of semi-ubiquity—at least in our small corner of the world. It’s not always easy to define. Sometimes trends are limited in scope but expansive in significance. Other times they feel almost omnipresent. This year, we charted a handful of aesthetic moments that felt ripe for calling out. Dive into them below.

Image by Katharina Brenner. Illustrations are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Illustrations by Pablo Stanley, via humaaans design library. All illustrations have been edited.

Don’t Worry, These Gangly-armed Cartoons Are Here to Protect You From Big Tech

In the same way technology is inescapable, so too are these illustrations that populate so many of the digital interfaces we see on a daily basis. In this piece, Rachel Hawley explores the ubiquity of the Alegria illustration, which she aptly describes as follows: “The incessantly joyful cartoon people are never static. They’re always in motion, dancing, painting, running, or hugging one another with the expanse of their oversized limbs arching away from their bodies like giant wet noodles.” Hawley tracks the rise of the trend, which likely started with Facebook, to its current day prevalence as the common visual language amongst technology companies. She also digs into the why these flat illustrations are everywhere—is their popularity a byproduct of replicability? Is it about the “everyone welcome” nature that technology purports to promote? You’ll have to read the piece to find out.

Image by Tala Safié

The Futuristic Gleam of Liquid Metal is Everywhere Right Now—Here’s Why

Not every trend deserves a deep cultural analysis. Sometimes something is deemed a trend by its sheer aesthetic qualities and the number of people who deploy it. In our new series “Spotted,” we take a breezy look at some of the graphic trends we’ve been seeing everywhere. The first installation was on “liquid metal,” a distinctly computerized look adopted by everyone from Jessica Walsh to Jonathan Castro. The look’s origins are hard to trace, but it’s definitely part of the acid graphics scene (keep reading for more on that). We’re betting that liquid metal has already reached peak popularity—give a trend a name, and it’s bound to die—but log onto Instagram, and there’s no doubt you’ll stumble across the shiny metal effect that runs like water.

Image by Jonathan Castro

“Acid Graphics” Are the New Psychedelia—With a Heady Dose of Cynicism

Speaking of Acid Graphics, our all-things-music-and-design editor Emily Gosling penned an eloquent ode to the genre in the “Distraction” issue of Eye on Design magazine. In it, she takes us through the cultural history and etymology of the word “acid,” tracing its visual lineage from the 1970s to rave culture to our current fascination with blending futurism and nostalgia. Emily notes that this new style, popularized by people like David Rudnick, is “tinged with irony and a darker sense of humor.” And indeed, the style does evoke a rave-like feel with all its bright colors, contrasting backgrounds, and illegible type. The style is found most often in the music world, on record sleeves and posters, but it lives just as naturally in editorial design, branding, and pretty much anywhere that wants to speak “youth culture.”

Bryant Wells, Julia Schäfer, and Orysia Zabeida for Yale School of Art Open Studios

Want to Know What the Hot New Design Trend Is? Look to Grad Show Identities  

Graphic design’s aesthetic intent is often watered down by client concerns. You know, things like legibility, consistency, and other practical factors that determine its return on investment. This isn’t the case for design grad schools, where every so often the expressiveness alone is enough to validate a design’s existence. In this piece, Emily Gosling looks at how grad school show design often leads the way for a trend to break into the mainstream. Free from the grips of consumerism, students and faculty are allow to play with ideas and form. What comes out of those explorations is often visually exciting. In the case of Yale’s Open Studios event, students Bryant Wells, Julia Schäfer, and Orysia Zabeida hit a trifecta of on-trend design choices with their monochromatic identity that Emily describes as “blobby and kinetic.”

Image by Tala Safié

It’s Not Just You—Terminal Green Really Is Ubiquitous 

Pantone might say the color of the year is classic blue, but we’d wager otherwise. Lately, it seems like the neon green hue, dubbed “terminal green,” is everywhere—across books, posters, and editorial spreads. Once you see it, it’s hard to miss. To be perfectly honest, this trend is hard to miss period thanks to its eye-searing brightness. The acid shade of green has its roots in technology, though it feels utterly modern. As designer Sarah Boris told us of her choice to use the color on a recent book design: “If neon green helps us get the message across then it’s a winner.”