Top 16 Design Trends for 2021. The definitive guide to effective UX design

Design trends for 2021

2020 and its unwanted and unexpected protagonist COVID-19 marked a year that we really want to forget.

However, the need to re-create ourselves in confined contexts gave rise to new forms of communication. These forms generated creative user experiences, with services that we would never have thought to consume online. And perhaps unconsciously, the confinement and despair gave rise to the creative explosions typical of times of crisis.

Anyway, this year was one of transition to new experiences. And design could not be left out of these new looks. More so: we can say that design in all its areas flexed its creative muscles to make the big leap.

After an analysis of thousands of sites and hundreds of design agencies, UX agencies and freelance designers, we have found repeating patterns. These design patterns are evolving in recent months, which indicates that they will be the dominant ones in the coming year.

Without further ado, this is the analysis of the top design trends for 2021, with an infographic in poster format.

Colorful minimalism

Minimalism is perhaps the dominant trend in recent years. The search for layouts and designs with few elements and larger white spaces is increasingly common. In addition, this sobriety of resources generates cleaner and more sophisticated designs. It is a very popular option in the different areas of design, marketing and advertising. This is why we can find the minimalist style on websites, advertisements, applications, architecture, clothing and much more.

When we think of minimalism, it is very common to think of designs that use white backgrounds and black text (or vice versa). Fortunately, trends are changing and renewing over time. Today, designers redefine the concept of minimalism and expand its limits to new color palettes. Thus, we can see more vivid color palettes mixed with traditional minimalism, even reaching brutalist design.

Colorful minimalism design trend
Colorful minimalism: few elements and basically the same color with different shades (exception made of red). Image from UX Personas article

Bold and custom typography

Between the design trends for 2021, we can affirm that fonts and tipography will play a stellar role.

Within this typographic design trend, the use of bold letters as a focal point for other design elements will be more common. Since bold fonts capture the viewer’s attention more, the use of “heavy” fonts will be predominant. This use of fonts creates a really striking effect in advertisements and marketing campaigns. In 2021 we will see designs where only bold fonts are used, without resorting to supporting images. In this way, the focus of attention will be oriented to the messages, which will stand out with the use of backgrounds with vibrant colors.

Bold and custom typography design trend
Brand design for Volume Studios by Brandelk. Huge bold fonts are the most important elements in this ad design

Another technique for simple fonts with great personality will be script or modified fonts. The fonts will be creatively modified to stand out from millions of messages competing for the user’s attention. For this, the use of script fonts, kinetic fonts and other types of resources will be extended to attract attention.

Finally, the classic serif fonts will continue to be used, with a greater predominance of combinations of fonts from the same family. Fundamentally, we will see the re-emergence of bold and italic serif. Serif fonts evoke classicism, elegance, and confidence; This is why they are almost irreplaceable for certain industries such as financial services, legal, government websites, etc.

Example of Kinetic Typography by Matthew Rogers

Subdued, pastel and muted colors

Among the design trends for the year 2021, there will be a lesser preponderance of bright colors. Thus, we will see less bright colors and more subdued colors, with a return of pastel colors. Muted colors are associated with a sense of confidence and nostalgia and also provide tranquility and organicity as a whole. These palettes are common to brands related to health and wellness because of their lower friction and cognitive dissonance. But in 2021 we will witness new industries that will bet on these color palettes.

Of course, we’ll always have the perfect duo: black and white. This combination is the perfect wildcard of any design, especially in minimalist designs. As always, we can see it in more sophisticated sites and applications, usually related to art, design or creativity. From the fashion industry to advertising agencies or branding studios, from news sites to art galleries. The combination of black and white provides a perfect framing for any product to stand out.

Muted colors
This brand differential infographic uses a combination of pastel colors and transparency (big SWOT letters are pure black with reduced opacity)

Hand drawn illustrations

Brands will begin to avoid generic illustrations and focus on more personalized and organic illustrations that appeal to the user. Thus, we will see new ways to creatively dazzle the world of business and design.

Personalized illustration is a trend that is here to stay. Although at first these illustrations could be (or appear to be) completely digital, the trend for the year 2021 is the use of hand-drawn illustrations. In other words, the abandonment of “geometric perfection” to enter more artistic fields, with very complex and creative illustrations, often animated. A great example of the use of this type of design resource is MailChimp and its beautiful illustrations, often bordering on the verge of surrealism or psychedelic art.

Hand drawn illustrations 2021 design trends
Mailchimp front page is a paramount example of branding and design creativity

A very interesting and extremely beneficial side effect of this design trend is that the resulting product will be truly authentic. Thus, it is extremely difficult for a brand to imitate another without falling into the copy or direct relationship with the brand image of its competitor. In other words: if brand A copies brand B, brand A will be adhering to the brand guidelines of brand B, reinforcing it.

Complex gradients

As in recent years, gradients will be one of the design trends for 2021. This trend, much discussed by graphic designers dedicated to printing, is a recurring tool in a cyclical way. In digital design, designers use gradients to add more complexity and depth to flat images. In this new year that begins, we will see how the concepts of “flat design” will give way to richer and more complex forms. And the use of gradients (as well as hand drawn illustrations) will be an important part of that process.

Design trends for 2021: Complex Gradients
Between the design trends for 2021, complex gradients will become the norm. Experiments with gradients by Carli Papp

The use of gradients will abandon the classic linear or radial gradient to enter highly complex gradients, where the starting and finishing points of the colors will be unclear. This is achieved using overlay techniques with different types of blending, which generates much richer and more realistic gradients.

Duotone design

In addition to gradients, a design trend that will break through with great force is the use of duotones. The enrichment of minimalist design requires new forms and techniques that allow originality without losing the essence of that style.

Duotone design
Duotone design is one of the most beautiful design trends for 2021. This duotone brand board by Matt Plays is a great example

In this way, the use of duotones is a way of preserving simplicity and sophistication, while leaving aside the black-white duality. As with the aforementioned trend for softer colors, duotones bring the extremes of the light spectrum closer together. This allows you to soften the nuances that make up an image and generate a complex play of light and shadow.

Augmented reality

This is a trend that always seems ready to surprise us, and yet it never really “kicks in”. And this coming year we believe that it will finally be the one of the definitive takeoff. With the new advances in technology, augmented reality allows us to generate interactive solutions for everyday problems. Especially when it comes to entertainment UX and user experience in eCommerce.

With the pervasive state of the global pandemic in 2020, 2021 will be fertile ground for creative remote solutions. An example of this are the possibilities of trying on clothes to buy online, or anticipating what a home or architectonic design will look like.

Augmented Reality (AR) allows us to interact with our environment and narrate situations in a quasi-magical way. This makes it an ideal tool for architectural design and interface design. But as we mentioned above, big brands and designers know that augmented reality design allows adding value to product presentation.

The combination of design and augmented reality generates great possibilities when designing experiences that affect the user’s psychology. These experiences unite reality with the virtual in an amalgam of sensory stimuli, mainly visual and auditory, but also haptic. And there are even some experiences with olfactory and gustatory stimuli (although we will have to wait a little longer).

The augmented reality design trend will be an ideal tool to create marketing campaigns, in which the consumer is the main protagonist. They will be able to interact with sensory stimuli that generate immersivity and engagement. Examples of these stimuli are: video, audio, texts, kinetic elements, interactive infographics, etc.

Mix of realism and flat design

This trend will be one of the strongest in graphic design and UID (User Interface Design). It is not exactly new, as a matter of fact it emerged a couple years ago. However, it started as “realism VS flat design”. This year, we started seeing projects where both are combined and go hand in hand.

On the one hand, realism takes objects from real life and places them in projects, which creates an authentic and identifiable design. On the other hand, flat illustrations add an element of modernity and playfulness. The contrast between these opposing extremes in tune creates an innovative blend with a more striking design style. We can see this design trend in packaging designs, website design, editorial design, UID, and more.

A 3D model over a flat UI design

Data Visualization (DataViz)

DataViz is a set of techniques that allows the visualization of complex data in a simple way. This tool or paradigm is common in financial applications, but it is also applied in very diverse cases, from health to journalism. Data visualization will be THE design trends for 2021, especially when it comes to interactive data. Animation and movement, micro-interactions and real-time interactivity will be a fundamental part of data-based design.

The goal of any data visualization should be to make complex data easier to understand. This is accomplished through images, infographics, interactive charts, and diagrams based on robust design for more effective communication.

Data Visualization (DataViz) UX trend
DataViz example for one of our clients

To convey the message effectively, you must be careful not to get lost in the purely aesthetic side. Poorly thought out data visualization will distort your message and create cognitive dissonance. In this way, the friction caused by excessive aesthetic elements will make the user not pay attention to the main message. We must generate a good balance between information and data and design aesthetics, where aesthetics and interactions must be tools, never protagonists.

Note: please be aware that this will be one of the top design trends in 2021… when it comes to print and web design! For UX, DataViz is not a trend, but a tool we have used for decades.

3D and Pseudo 3D Design

3D design is another trend that is gaining strength with each passing year and each technological advance. Threedimensional design is already common to us, since it is becoming increasingly popular in different facets of our lives. 3D design allows us to preview product design and is fundamental in industrial design as well as architectural design. By its very essence, Three-dimensional design allows us to imagine and access new environments and dimensions. So we can achieve really fascinating results and even test products or prototypes without having to physically create them.

When it comes to web design and mobile applications, the combination of 3D design with other two-dimensional techniques will be very common. On the other hand, there is a great use of 3D in typography, since it works perfectly in any typeface style. In addition, 2021 will be the year of interactive 3D for user engagement purposes. In other words: 3D tools will no longer be merely decorative to become part of the interaction. UI designers who handle 3D will benefit the most from this new trend.

Interactive 3D and Pseudo 3D Design
Interactive 3D layout by Claudio Guglieri. Click here to see it in action (includes tutorial)

Regarding pseudo-3D design, this will be a trend that will gain strength as it takes elements of flat design but plays with levels of depth. In other words: it detaches itself from the “flat” to become pseudo-3D. This technique is “pseudo” because it is actually 2D design. But it simulates moving away from the two-dimensional plane by using techniques such as the use of depth and movement.

The great advantage of pseudo-3D design is that it allows its use in user interfaces without the need to create 3D artifacts. This makes it more accessible to all types of designers. But on the other hand, it is a great help when it comes to page speed optimization. Flat design can use SVG shapes and animations that don’t take a long time to load. Thus, pseudo-3D design allows us to achieve that interesting appearance that 3D gives us, without the associated costs.

Animations

Another of the design trends of 2021 that will gain momentum is the use of animations. From small micro-interactions to complex animations, from character animation to shape morphing, movement will take center stage. Although this trend is not necessarily new, in 2021 it will gain traction among designers and users, with more risky and artistic proposals. Users will always be more attracted to a moving image than to a static one, and the designs will reflect this.

If a brand wants to live up to expectations, animation is an excellent option to revitalize the brand image. The animated sequences generate an immersion of the user in the content of the site in which he is. This reduces the bounce rate as it causes the user to stick around and take a longer journey.

UX design trends for 2021: 3D and SVG animations
Example of SVG animation by Cassie Evans. Follow the link for full preview and tutorial

On the other hand, we will see this technique as one of the branding trends that will prevail the most. The use of responsive logos has been increasing in recent years, and animation is one of the ways to create responsiveness

Geometric and abstract shapes

Last year was characterized by the use of abstract and fluid shapes in design projects. In 2021, rigid, straight-edged geometric shapes and patterns will reappear.

Geometric shapes allow you to play with many variables such as a Bauhaus retro look, chrome, glitch effects, 3D, and much more. Through the intelligent use of color palette, innovative designs can be achieved that provide a brand differential value.

Another of the design trends based on geometry will be self-generated shapes through code. Fractals, shape morphing, interactive shapes, 3D particles and other mathematical techniques will gain more and more prominence. If you want an example just go to our homepage and you will see self-generated shapes that morph into other sel generated shapes as you scroll.

Skeuomorphism

Skeuomorphism was an almost dominant trend for much of the internet’s first 10-15 years. Skeuomorphism is a design style used in HCI and UI that faithfully represents the appearance of an object dedicated to certain specific functionalities. Therefore, it transmits its affordance more directly. A practical example is calculator apps. Although they don’t need to have a particular interface, most mimic the look of pocket calculators.

top design trends for 2021: Skeuomorphism
A calculator app using neumorphism to create skeuomorphism. Credit: Eilsgraff

In 2021 we will see a limited but growing return of this trend. Just as flat design replaced skeuomorphism, it will gradually replace flat design, mainly due to the emergence of 3D design. Even in 2020 there was a quasi-skeuomorphic trend (the neomorphism style). It has serious usability problems, but it caught the interest of many designers nevertheless. This shows the gradual interest of designers in moving away from simple forms to adopt more complexity in designs.

As originally happened, Apple is going to lead this comeback, of which we already have some clues in Big Sur. There are millions of designers creating interfaces that compete with each other for the interest of users. And in this context, skeuomorphism is an almost infallible technique to differentiate yourself from others.

UX antipatterns

For those who do not know what an “UX antipattern” is, we can define it as follows:

A UX Antipattern is the use of design patterns that are intended to solve a certain problem, but that prove ineffective once they are tested.

fabio Devin, Dorve UX

The simplest and most classic example is the button that says “Click Here”. Why? What will happen if I click?

The example above is very obvious and hardly an expert UX designer is going to fall for it. But with the profusion of new design elements and tools, plus the combination of 3rd party APIs, it is going to be very difficult to maintain consistent design systems. And in general, only large companies and design agencies will be able to do so. Which implies that there will be millions of sites using third-party tools that cannot be controlled within the ecosystem itself. And therefore, we will see very inconsistent user experiences, with lots of features but very poor usability.

The dark mode conundrum

Without a doubt, 2021 will be the year of “dark mode design” … up to a point. Although “dark mode” was announced as the “next big thing” for the year 2020, the reality is that it has not yet turned on as believed. Even though major brands like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Windows jumped on the dark mode bandwagon, there are very few sites or apps that have joined the giants.

dark mode, skeuomorphism and neumorphism playing nice together
In this example by Vishnu Prasad, we can see a smart use of skeuomorphism, neumorphism and dark mode. All together! The result is fantastic and quite accessible

It is possible that the reason for this lack of adoption is the perception that “dark mode” is difficult to implement, or represents an additional code load. Although this is not the case, it may be one of the reasons.

Another reason is that there are many studies that show that dark mode has a much lower interaction, especially in e-commerce. The “light mode design” outperforms “dark mode” conversions by up to 400%, which is obviously not good news for those who handle ecommerce.

Finally, even when a “dark mode” design is intended to rest the user’s eyes, this is affected by a certain lack of accessibility. In a way, it is reminiscent of the time around 2000, when thousands of sites with black backgrounds and completely unreadable fonts in dark gray emerged. This time the trend is not so exaggerated, but it can be seen in some places where designers opted for form over usability.

Super fast sites

Internet, and fundamentally eCommerce (or rather: SEO for eCommerce) is a numbers game. Hundreds of millions of sites fight for the interest of an audience that grows every day. And the prize is trillions of dollars. Even so, this large number is insufficient. And while the internet ecosystem has created new forms of economy, it has also globalized competition.

In this context, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a game that must be mastered to generate higher income with lower costs. And within SEO there are different factors to consider. One of them is the speed of loading sites and user experience.

Google announced that in 2021 user experience will be one of the main metrics to consider. And since it is impossible for Google to know what the user experience of a site is like, it is limited to what it can measure. Which, fundamentally, is the loading speed of web pages. The higher the speed, the better the user experience (theoretically).

Because of this, we are going to see a lot of sites, with super optimized images, abundant use of SVG and sprites and extremely simple styles. Page speed optimization services will have a great year! And therefore, this is one of the top design trends for 2021!

Conclusion

As we can see, there are quite a few different trends, which can increase when combined with each other. However, it is clear that in 2021 there are certain recurring patterns among design trends. Fundamentally, movement, geometry, depth in space and slowly moving away from flat design. Organic forms will converge with the most rigid geometries, always hand in hand with movement and depth in space. As for the color trends, they will lose a little intensity to give an appropriate frame to the most important elements.

On the other hand, websites will become more complex in code, even if they appear to be simpler. The connection with external services, Big Data and analysis tools will be the core of the most successful sites. And these tools are already available for small companies, so they are not exclusive of large companies.

Ultimately, all this hyper-technological irruption will be balanced with a return to simpler images and designs. Hand-drawn illustrations, skeuomorphism, simplicity of styles, and desaturated colors will be an integral part of new designs and user experiences.

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