Graphic Design & the 20-Year Trend Cycle

Posted in: Branding and Graphic Design | Content | Culture

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The year is 2022, and Y2K fashion is back with a vengeance after a 20-year leave of absence from the world’s runways. No matter how you feel about the return of low-rise pants, the trend is here to stay (for a while, at least). However, it’s not just clothes that are subject to being “in” or “out.” Analyzing the fashion industry can help us understand trend cycles at first glance; however, these patterns are present in all creative disciplines, including graphic design.

What Is a Trend Cycle, Anyway?

If you’ve never heard the term “trend cycle” before, don’t worry—it means pretty much exactly what it says. Trend cycles are most commonly used in the fashion industry to chart the rise and fall of particular clothing trends. These cycles can be short-lived and niche, spanning only a season or two, while others can last decades or longer, becoming beloved classics that never truly go out of style.

Trend cycle diagram split into 5 phases: introduction, rise, peak, decline, and rejection.

What Causes Trend Cycles?

Broadly speaking, trends are driven by the complex struggle between the forces of nostalgia and anticipation. The most common length for trend cycles is roughly 20 years, which is coincidentally about how long it takes for a child to be born, grow up, and enter the workforce. These young professionals are in a unique position to make work inspired by the media environment of their early childhoods, encouraged by the pulling force of nostalgia. However, they are also positioned to reject trends that were popular during their later teen years, and push towards the as-yet undesigned future.

Here’s a quick example. In the early 2000s, many American children had a shared cultural experience of staying up late to watch reruns of the 90s sitcom The Nanny on Nick at Nite. Fast-forward 20 years, and these children have become the adults who determine what’s fashionable, whether they’re designing clothes themselves or purchasing these products and posting about them on TikTok. This is why items like heart-shaped handbags are currently having a moment—right now, looks inspired by Fran Fine’s wardrobe on The Nanny are having an even bigger moment.

How Do Trend Cycles Manifest Outside the Fashion World?

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with graphic design. Why should we care what type of handbags are popular if we’re not the ones marketing them? As graphic designers, I believe we stand to benefit from keeping tabs on what’s trendy, whether it be in our own line of work or in others.

If we zoom out from the fashion world to examine today’s media environment, we can see that the essence of the early 2000s is dominating visual culture right now. For example, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air now has a dramatized reboot, as does popular 2000s cartoon Winx Club. Samsung, Google, and Apple are all bringing back pastel colorways for their flagship phones. Pantone’s color of the year for 2022, Very Peri, is another pastel shade that’s explicitly inspired by our current circumstances:

“…our physical and digital lives have merged in new ways. Digital design helps us to stretch the limits of reality, opening the door to a dynamic virtual world where we can explore and create new color possibilities. With trends in gaming, the expanding popularity of the metaverse and rising artistic community in the digital space, PANTONE 17-3938 Very Peri illustrates the fusion of modern life and how color trends in the digital world are being manifested in the physical world and vice versa.”

For those of you who’ve been working in graphic design since the early 2000s, I’d imagine this emphasis on the possibilities of digital design sounds very familiar. Whether you were introduced to design software as a professional using the first iteration of the Adobe Suite, or as a child playing around in Microsoft Paint, there’s no denying that these themes have re-emerged at the forefront of our industry’s collective consciousness. In fact, software upgrades to our modern graphic designers’ toolkit are allowing us to recreate the aesthetic of authentic Y2K graphics, which were often a byproduct of early 2000s software limitations. Neat, right?

How to Harness Our Current Moment in the 20-Year Trend Cycle for Graphic Design Inspiration

All creative fields follow the 20-year trend cycle, and graphic design is no different. Graphic designers know that we never create in a vacuum. Everything we produce exists in a context that’s unique to the time period and media environment we’re living in. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that the original Y2K aesthetic didn’t exist in a vacuum, either. In addition to clothing, countless magazines, websites, ad campaigns, and other artifacts were made during the late 90s and early 2000s which can provide us with graphic design inspiration today.

Check out webdesignmuseum.org to view some authentic Y2K webpages, along with helpful timelines for different companies’ sites and overall web design trends. For typographic inspiration, browse the 2000s tag on fontsinuse.com. If you’d like more modern ideas, try searching for Y2K on behance.com to see how the 20-year trend cycle is being applied in real time.

One word of advice for the aspiring trend-savvy designer: remember that modern interpretations of past trends will never be 100% authentic to the time period they’re inspired by. Therefore, when searching for ideas, it’s helpful to research why certain artifacts were created and how they were received by the public in addition to their aesthetic value. If the meaning of an artifact has changed over time, I believe that can tell you as much about it as the artifact itself. With that in mind, any piece of historical media is fair game—let your imagination run wild!

The Takeaway

We’re currently over two decades out from 2000, so it’s no surprise that aesthetics from that time period are being revived and adapted to fit current tastes, as well as shaping what those tastes are. Next time you’re approaching a project for a particularly cutting-edge client, don’t discard everything you liked about the look and feel of 2010s design, but do take the 20-year trend cycle into account. If they’re really, really cutting-edge, consider creeping into the mid-2000s for some inspiration, as well. And if you’ve got a brand in need of a fashion-forward refresh, look no further than the Content Marketing Team at Go Fish Digital.

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