Top designers give us their views on 2007 and their predictions for 2008, and tell us why the industry desperately needs a shake-up.
If you speak to designers across a range of disciplines, it's clear that 2007 won't go down in history as a great year for design. "The most conspicuous trend has been conformity - more and more work looks and sounds the same," says Michael Wolff, co-founder of Michael Wolff & Company. He emphasises the point by recalling recent commercials for Saab and Audi that were virtually identical, but didn't reveal any significant reason why someone would want to dream about or buy the cars in question. "There's a dearth of original ideas and a surplus of clever executions," he continues. "Graphic design has become an almost lazy ritual. Websites, too, seem more and more similar. Creativity is retreating into the world of branding, to a surprisingly illiterate, intellectually lazy, impatient, high-pressure, vain, self-serving and boring world - one where process and profit run ragged over authentic quality, resulting in uninspiring and shallow work."
While others don't paint quite such a bleak picture, it's clear there's a need for change to brush away the vacuous and the exhausted - problems seemingly permeating all areas of media and culture. "It surprises me how visual styles that seem terribly tired are able to cling on," says Benjamin Cox of the London-based Central Illustration Agency. "Heavily graphic-design-led vector imagery based on patterns and floral motifs with soft feminine palettes needs to move on. It's almost pure decoration with no substance."
Online, it's the '2.0' look that's outstayed its welcome. Simon Crab of the London-based new media agency Lateral grumbles, "Glossy bevelled buttons, gradients and stupid names for web services should all be gone by 2008, although I suspect they'll linger for far longer." Andreas Pihlstrm, art director of the agency North Kingdom based in Skellefte, Sweden, says, "Web 2.0 sites all look the same, with clumsy interfaces and too much information to keep track of. I hope 2008 brings less of the '2.0' style and more personality, rich with innovative, unique ideas."
Even the area of typography doesn't escape lightly, with Erik Spiekermann of the international design and branding agency SpiekermannPartners noting, "Customers are beginning to expect customised solutions to typographic problems just as they expect specific layouts, photographs and logos." He warns that there's no need to buy off-the-shelf typefaces and reckons the least designers can do is make existing fonts fit a specific purpose by including logos and special characters, and interpolating extra weights to respond to production issues like onscreen use or special papers. Spiekermann adds, "Type is not an obscure medium, but the most prevalent and important one for all communication, and so it needs to be treated with the proper respect and tools."
Ian Anderson of the Sheffield-based Designers Republic hits the nail on the head regarding the attitude that needs to prevail in 2008: "A word to the wise - there will be less swirly, lovely gear and more punk-attitude happiness. There'll be more thinking before doing - and more smarter doing, which is bad news for a lot of candy-surfing designers out there."
Thinking before doing
A move towards a more considered, thoughtful process can take many forms, but a number of designers reckon a return to tradition is on the cards. "I'm noticing a resurgence in the popularity of handcrafted artwork - paint, print and the hand-drawn line are coming back with a vengeance," reckons Cox, even if such traditional media are often replicated using digital tools. This resurgence, he thinks, is down to the general public no longer being blindly impressed with digital work. "Most people are familiar enough with graphics software to see beyond superficial wizardry, and they now hanker for something more human," he says. He adds that while people are often impressed with craft skills that they don't possess, there's an increasingly common perception that overtly digital production is an exercise achievable by many, given enough time.
This concept of care and fine-tuning, rather than cookie-cutter conformism, pervades elsewhere. Spiekermann forecasts that type design will become increasingly complex, a view largely shared by designer and typographer Pihlstrm. He recalls the exploration evident in the 1990s, and thinks something similar is happening today: "With cheaper print prices and more people designing for the web, typography can be explored deeply once again. There are many eyesore fonts being produced, but overall there seems to be a better understanding by digital typeface designers of how to make refined faces. As a result, in 2008 you'll not only see more coherent extreme typefaces, but a better understanding of what made the classics so strong, which will lead to an interesting new crop of more subdued gothic and serif faces." He also thinks we'll increasingly see designers tweaking individual characters to fit designs in unique ways, flipping shapes and overhauling whole letters into something completely new.
More boundary-blurring is also on the cards, thinks Barcelona-based illustrator Pietari Posti: "There's a lot of collaboration between graphic designers and illustrators, and this movement will be stronger in 2008 - the line between doing 'just' illustration or 'just' graphic design will get fuzzy." Style-wise, he echoes others in thinking staid designs will evolve into more organic forms, and reckons flowery illustration may give way to forms based on geometric shapes and grids: "You could summarise next year style-wise as Antoni Gaudi's architecture meets Bauhaus and art deco."
In the online arena, along with video games and advertising, Yates Buckley reckons the boundaries are blurring between 3D, stop-frame, illustration and animation. "The year started with a lot of attention being paid to pre-rendered 3D, and then went back to live action and stop-frame," says the founder of London-based digital production studio unit9. "The tired aspect of what has been going on is that while designers pay a lot of attention to what something looks like, the interactive experience is still not interesting enough."
He's also hoping 2008 will bring more 'thinking', with art direction subservient to the interactive meaning of a piece: "An example is an online banner we made for Nike: you notice the strong, interactive story before you realise it looks good."
For Buckley and others, there's a feeling that 2008 will force designers to move well away from their comfort zones. He comments, "We're re-evaluating the idea of what a 'creative' is and what a 'designer' is. Just as a good developer uses many tools for their craft, a good designer will have to move around in mediums and not be scared to pick up new tools to get ideas across."
While such tools might be new software, they may also relate to traditional methods. Dan Moore of the Nottingham and London-based graphic design agency Studio Output reveals, "Increasingly, work we're taking on and pitching involves more photography, and much more planning and thought." He sees lo-fitechniques being employed in new ways, citing the BRAVIA Play-Doh advert as an example that pre-empts a trend: "There will be more use of set builds, studio photography, and non-traditional materials like Refill's laseretched skateboards." He also mentions mixed-media 3D environments like their own Ministry of Sound campaign, as well as greater use of 'non-design' computer colours and overprinting.
Motion-graphics designer Xavier Oon of the Singapore-based studio CRITICA feels his discipline may follow suit. Although few consider 2007's motion-graphics output as vacuous and bereft of ideas as other areas of design, tired influences are still apparent. Oon says, "Right now, there are still nu-rave influences seeping in from 2006: bright candy colours, aesthetics referencing the 1990s rave scene, centred around psychedelic effects and neon - albeit less cheesy." He reckons the Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket A Series of Unfortunate Events aesthetic will soon be big: "More large-scale stop-motion is coming up, especially in self-initiated short films. There will be more 3D animation that's simulated to look like stop-motion photography." However, Jared Plummer, a motion-graphics designer based in Venice, California, is more cautious about such major changes, noting that technology and new software has been a major driver of recent visual style in his industry: "3D tracking became hot this past year because of apps like boujou and PFTrack. Cinema 4D, with its relatively easy-to-learn interface, has a plug-in called MoGraph, developed specifically for motion designers to create crazy shit!"
Convergence and crashes
Despite the evolution in motion-graphics applications, most reckon the state of software in 2007 was 'more of the same', and this is something else in need of a major shake-up. Underwhelming updates to major applications haven't set the world alight and the rush towards convergence is beginning to grate. "I don't like tools that marry features from different products - it slows everything down and things get buggy," argues Oon. "People need lean, mean, optimised software that does what it does best." Buckley agrees, and reckons there's a shift on the way: "CS3 has become a way of life you have to sign up to - updates, heavy processor loads, long waits during launches and too many features in an interface that's not evolving quickly enough." He reckons that we'll soon see smaller, context-driven tools, driving users away from monolithic apps.
Hardware has perhaps had a better time of it in 2007, and Posti believes touch technology will be the next big thing: "Wacom already has cheaper devices available for sketching, and Apple's developing touch-screen technology in the iPhone and iPods. Portability will play an important role - in the near future illustrators won't need to carry scanners and printers with them, once they have good tablet PCs with Wacom-like pressure sensitivity." And the increasing power of computer chips means that 2008 will, more than ever, see standard desktop machines used for the post-production of digital media. "Effects that would once have needed Flame operators will be reproduced successfully on a Mac with After Effects," argues Dan Griffiths of the digital advertising agency glue London.
But Moore reminds us: "Any new technology won't massively change how we work - in terms of skills for creative people, it's always going to be about getting the basics right and being a good thinker." Given our interviewees' apparent penchant for more thought and less gloss, it's not surprising that predictions for output media in 2008 don't entirely centre on digital. "Print has never gone away and never will - it'll just become more precious, like quality photographic prints," predicts Spiekermann. However, he does concede the increasing importance of digital: "Everything will be available everywhere, any time - perhaps not next year, but soon - which means a dumbing-down of content but mainly better resolution, as every medium tries to emulate paper as the most humane standard. Screens are just bad paper." And print's tactile quality can still give it the edge: Oon comments, "People need tangible CD covers and magazines to hold in their hands. People collect great vinyl covers or posters, but never website splash pages!" In fact, Moore reckons online could suffer in 2008, thanks to myriad unfocused, generic online projects: "The web's obviously still growing, but there could be a backlash against the mass of information out there - the majority of which no one wants."
The money game
Inevitably, though, most reckon 2008 will still see online and digital platforms consolidate their dominance, for better or worse. "We're getting increased requests for digital licences for online and mobile marketing," explains Cox. "More of our poster work is being adapted for digital poster screens, particularly for Underground and mainline stations, and this will continue to intensify; it'll be interesting to see how many high-value poster sites go digital during 2008." He feels that this area of advertising with increased cross-media licences is a good bet for where the money will be, although Plummer warns, "A great deal of advertising money is being clumsily dumped into online and budgets are all over the place." He notes that innovation is increasingly coming from niche companies focusing on business plans not hinged on money - a trend he hopes will continue.
He's not alone in hoping that money becomes less important in 2008. "A conspicuous trend in 2007 has been the way many businesses behave ever more like their clients," says Wolff. "The first thing they'll tell you, when you ask them to describe themselves, is financial information, usually related to size or success. Recently, we've seen the results of narrow-minded macho greed in the banking industry, but before we smile at the misfortunes of others, it may be time to look at our own businesses. What are they for? Is 'our' business merely an engine of selfish wealth creation, or is there a more intelligent agenda about improving the quality and sustainability of our lives?"
Perhaps this emphasis on financial success is in part down to client expectations, since many clients now apparently equate bigger studios with trustworthiness. "I think such thinking is rubbish, but we have to allow for the fact that clients don't know anything about design, and so they go by brand and whatever presents no risk to their careers," explains Spiekermann. There's also a sense in the industry that clients are becoming more demanding, which may explain why they're increasingly keen to engage with designers they think they can trust. Crab adds, "Clients now expect to see an ever-widening range of integrated ideas, rather than the standard marketing forms."
Coping with clients
Some believe clients are becoming increasingly savvy, but others see it as the same old reactionary behaviour creeping through: clients hear buzzwords and want to respond to them, to be seen as cutting-edge and 'in the know'. "I'm glad about this, because they seem to have figured out what to focus on - which parts of a campaign are really worthwhile," says Buckley. He adds that in online projects, clients now appear less interested in pixel-perfect precision within branding sites and more concerned with deep linking, Facebook integration and tracking site usage to link in with current events. He echoes the comments of others when he says that 2007 has seen many projects that have emphasised technical details over content. "In 2008, clients will demand still more technical emphasis, but designers must ensure technology is being used for a good reason, and make sure users have a fun experience with it," he adds.
Time will tell if clients are starting to understand how design works, or if seemingly savvy demands are more or less down to luck. But regardless of client demands, it's what designers can dream up that has the potential to drive the industry forward in 2008. Wolff concludes: "The future is inevitably a re-emergence of creativity. The financially rapacious companies that have come to dominate so-called creativity today will be overtaken by a newer generation of more ambitious creators - ones for whom the driving ambition is not just simply making more and more money. I hope I'm right."