Beyond Trend

Trend-hunter Matt Mattus explores the worldwide micro-trends in 2009, and how your design work can stand out.

As a trend hunter, I have surrendered. Around the world, nothing seems truly new any more. Sure, there is mid-century modernism, and lots of craft, and the green movement - but no mega-trend that shakes the soul or evolves from one place to another. This isn't really a surprise given our fast, modern connected world, but how many of us have thought about how this affects design, a discipline that has based its roots on influences and on sparking firestorms? Who do we actually affect any more?

As creatives we're learning a new language, one which sounds more like cooking than designing. Today, what is important is the recipe, which most likely will be served with mash-ups, blends and a whole lot of tracks. A nice result of this chaos is that authenticity really stands out, as does anything considered classic, or pure. Even though it's easy to really screw up a dish, the most brilliant of chefs can now rise from the global sameness. The talented have become valuable.

Our world is almost totally connected now, and we, as designers, must learn to create in a different way. The truth is, our current state of financial chaos is being mimicked by the design world, where, if there is any lone trend left, it is the trend of recycling past design movements and old ideas. The issue was so obvious, I never considered it before now. We are visually globalised. Business became global, the internet became global, so why didn't I imagine that design trends would become global?

You have probably noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell a Target TV ad from a Sears ad. A Tesco ad from an M&S ad. Clothing retailers like J. Crew and Gap, Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers all sell similar merchandise-khakis and polo shirts, worldwide. The democratisation of design is quickly becoming the homogenisation of design. A Gap store in Tokyo sells the same black t-shirt as the Gap in London, or Millbury, Massachusetts. If this is what the goal of the democratisation of design was, then I don't want it.

What does all of this have to do with designers? "This ubiquitousness of design," as The New Yorker architectural critic Paul Goldberger puts it, "is making us, in a sense, numbed by too much design around us, by the sense that it is all too familiar, and that we need what are, in effect, higher and higher levels of design intensity to respond." Sounds a little too much like design addiction to me, but the point is sound, especially if you are a designer in a business that demands excellence and future thinking on your part. In an over-designed world, how does a designer design any more?

We may not yet know the answer to any of these, but, I have identified 10 Trend Enders that not only push the point deeper, but that I hope trigger some internal steering mechanism in our huge, creative minds, to help us both see and avoid obstacles which may, ultimately, kill design forever.

Trend Ender 1: Design addiction
Big business discovers the value of design. Designers and creatives have never been in such high demand. Historically, value has always driven the development of culture and design, so imagine what value such originality has in our world of mass-produced product?

Think about it. What would a business pay for something so completely new and original, an invention so different, so disruptive to conventional thinking yet so "must-have" that it would make the iPhone seem virtually Victorian? What would that be worth? The answer is: a lot.

A sign the game has changed is that the big business schools are opening design campuses, and talent recruiters aren't just waiting for resumes to arrive. Companies like Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and Disney are recruiting at design schools, before graduates even start their senior year. Internships at the most creative corporations are as competitive as medical residencies at the world's best hospitals.

Design is undeniably hot in today's business world. The only thing is, what comes next?

Trend Ender 2: More is more
Can we deal with less? Less isn't necessarily more. Take TV channels - we all want more. But more channels don't really offer anything new, and we're stuck with the same old same old, just more of it.

So, today we're supposed to be more educated than our grandparents. But why do we want more of everything? We demand to be more informed, healthier, and more global. We are more involved, more emotionally in-touch, more responsible, and even more comfortable with ourselves (or at least more medicated) than any other generation before. So, if our generation is so smart, why are we so blind when it comes to the future and ultimate possibility that more just may lead to less? And how are we prepared to deal with less when we expect so much?

Business trends also demand more. More competitive, more meaningful, more responsible and more sustainable. Oh, right, and more profitable. But one hears little about the abundance of visual culture. More devices, more images, more messages and more design. This is a time when less feels old, and in a strange way, even less feels like more.

Trend Ender 3: Fear
Fear and the abuse of originality. Designers have favourites €¦ an Indian restaurant, a special source for paper, a unique cupcake bakery, a breed of dog, or a 15-year-old T-shirt you just can't part with. Have you ever wondered why others don't find such things as wonderful?

The creative craves the sensation of seeing or experiencing something new, yet for others the unfamiliar is not appealing. We all know people who are afraid of things that are new. The reasons are many. It may be a brand your mum never bought, or a style you never felt comfortable with. We humans are trained to like what we're taught, often by the people who raised us. We measure what we adopt against our innate sense of desire and fear, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Designers are a little different. The more creative an individual is, the more 'dangerous' they often are. It might be motorcycles and drugs, or it may be fearless travel and extreme confidence with testing new colour choices.

As designers, we must understand how our audience approaches something new and help them overcome those uncomfortable feelings. You are setting the bait to pull the audience through to the realm of 'something new' without losing them off the hook. It's the age-old quandary of originality.

Now, set that against the current climate of design, where mass market is literally on the heels of boutique originality, where any nascent design movement races straight to public proliferation without a chance to nurture itself into a fully-realised, complex influence. Instead, originality is immediately knocked off by the biggest retailers, who are the hungriest for something new. In short, the design industry is being short-circuited by the race for something new, while the audience is breathlessly trying not to be scared out of their $15 gauchos pants. In short, design is eating its young.

Trend Ender 4: Recycling
What design movement are we in? So, here we are in the 21st century, and I never thought that we would still be buying mid-century-inspired furniture. And where are the jet packs? Our world is recycling trends at a rate reaching warp speed: where once the 50s and 60s were fair game, it seems as if we're discoing through the 70s as long as we can drag it out, and whatever visual icons we can squeeze out of the horrid 80s and meaningless 90s are being used up rapidly. Shouldn't the design community be freaking out about what's next, instead of cycling back to mid-century modernism again in a desperate mode of post-post-recycling?

Since we've been in this never-ending cycle of recycling, started during the mid-80s, we've also been educating a whole new generation who see the older movements with different eyes. It's why a 40-year-old cringes at bell-bottoms and hip-huggers, and a teen demands boot-cut lowriders. The design world has blurred the meaning of trends, as well as destroyed any relatively recent design movement in the process.

What about the seasonal phenomenon of trends? Business is scared stiff at the thought of no apparent design movement, or that there might not be a new look for the back-to-school season. The same thing that is happening to TV news is happening to design - it's becoming sensationalised, and yet there is nothing to say any more.

Newsflash: the 90s are back! ..Now what?

Trend Ender 5: Contradiction
If you're not confused yet, you will be. Call it beautiful, fun, or busy, but today's contradiction in style may also be a warning sign that culturally we might be running out of new visual ideas. As designers search the world for anything to inspire them, they're using up inspiration faster and faster. Trends behave very much like wildfire, and our creative forests risk running out of trees. Sure, great things also come in our visually saturated world, but we creatives should be mindful about what we wish for. In a world where the biggest retailers tout that "design is for everyone," creatives in charge of delivering such hopefulness are finding that real innovation is more difficult to obtain.

Which begs the question that many of us are afraid to ask: Is invention a limited resource?

Today, as the world's most talented designers juxtapose contradicting styles in an effort to achieve exciting designs, you can't help but ask what might be next. Such looks may feel new and fresh, but moving forward, how many new combinations of influence can actually occur before visual deficiency begins? Some bigger questions might be, "Is our culture approaching a point of global creative saturation?" Or on a more positive note, "Will this trend of surprising and unpredictable juxtaposition lead to something even newer, something that we have not even imagined yet?"

If contradiction is what "everyone is doing," could it be our last visual trend?

Trend Ender 6: Visual exhaustion
OK, now I'm numb. What excites you? When was the last time you saw something new - something you had never seen before? I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little bored now.

Becoming culturally stagnant has happened before, but the opposite has happened too - periods of high cultural development that anthropologists call 'cultural fluorescences'. A label first penned by respected socio-anthropologist A. L. Kroeber who, in his 1969 book Configurations of Culture Growth, cites a correlation between "intellectual advancements and aesthetic leaps" . One can see clearly what Kroeber identified, if one looks at a simple timeline of the past 500 years. One can see how such game changers as Darwin, Einstein, and advancements in design and art changed social and cultural comprehension. Such cultural fluorescences are rare enough, three or four perhaps, ever. The nearest to today was the late 1800s when the industrial revolution allowed new opportunities of world travel, electricity, and modernism.

More concerning to us should be what happens when cultures peak. Both ancient Greece and ancient Rome are cited in Kroeber's book as examples of cultural fluorescences that ran out of ideas and became stagnant. Applying his theory on why cultures collapse paints a frightening theoretical picture of our future.

Yet, I feel positive that today we know so much more than his generation could ever have predicted. Most impactful is that we are so globally connected that the definition of culture as undefined by national boundaries has changed everything. Any peaks in idealism need to be measured on a global scale, not a national one. For designers, any of these theories present unprecedented new challenges€¦ a world that craves familiar sameness, yet is moving toward the unfamiliar.

Trend Ender 7: Random influence
Designers work harder to get our attention. Thoughtful influence that appears random is not easy. Successful creative solutions that demonstrate this best are executed by the most artistic of creatives. The danger is that once culture accepts random influence as a model, it is hard to move forward. Behaving very much like shock art in the 60s, such ideas as juxtaposition and contradiction can only catch the attention of the consumer for a moment. A greater danger is the practice of amateur designers exercising random influence use.

Knowing what to use as influence, and when to use it, is not something that can be learned. Much like cooking, there are plenty of recipes out there, but original thinking is best left to the learned. Experimentation can lead to great discoveries, but only a small population will ever achieve originality in their work. The difference with design today is that taste has become more subjective, and the materials for use (or misuse) are everywhere.

Influence is not a trend ender; it's a trend starter. Random is the death of influence. Be deliberate.

Trend Ender 8: Self-expression
Could this trend be our last creative movement? Our visual abundance isn't just becoming boring; it's becoming addictive and controlling. In many ways, the "more" movement is leading design around by the nose. Today's generation exists in such a confusing world of mixed visual messages that we are on the verge of a state of visual chaos. We believe this abundance of visual culture allows us to define ourselves down to within an inch of our true selves. But, to be honest, chaos is really only describing our mood of the moment, a mood that we have little control over unless we find meaning in it.

True design must be of the moment and last well past it. Design is meant to exist on a continuum of all sorts of meaning, one that reaches from ephemeral to permanent, entertaining to life changing. If design can elevate us emotionally, what is happening today in our visual world of chaotic contrast and multiplicity on demand? Can design still captivate us?

True design may be chaos, but only if that chaos is tempered with a deliberate, visionary intent to move us emotionally. Our current trend of meaningful design-for-everyone may just lead us to a euphoric high, but the more important journey may be what comes after the high, when the novelty wears off.

Our current fascination with craft and self-expression, with the rise of Michaels craft stores, Martha Stewart Living, and do-it-yourself programming and magazines, more than hint at the deep desire for finding more meaning in our visual and virtual lives.

Trend Ender 9: Meaning
Finding meaning in brands. Does everything have to have meaning? Do you remember the first time that you heard the term "meaning" when asked to create something? How about this newer idea of adding a story? You may think that this whole "story" and "meaning" thing is nothing more than some fluffy, MBA textbook concept that the new marketing manager from Yale is trying to use to impress her new boss, but you're wrong. In fact, meaning and story are two new business concepts that affect design more than any business trends that have occurred in the past 100 years. The problem is that along with this power to connect comes responsibility not to abuse this complex relationship.

In order for something to have meaning, it must connect emotionally with the consumer. Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways to connect is to remind the consumer of the past. No wonder our visual world is overflowing with terms like "vintage", "retro", "antique", "vault" and "classic"; not only is it easy, it might be all that is left. Marketing today is in the same quandary as design, and as marketers strive to behave more like designers, designers should practice how to behave more like responsible marketers.

Marketing, then, is nothing more than selling art, right? Well, it's probably closer to selling "art with personal meaning" than it is selling "meaningless personal art." Regardless, the value of this art/meaning connection is real and here to stay, so if you need to hone up your art skills, do it now, but be sure to be clear about what you are actually learning. If you have perfected using all of the filters in Adobe Photoshop but can't name the top five artists in the latest Venice Biennale, then you must realise the handicap this presents. Design is more than skill, and more than memorising, it's knowing.

Trend Ender 10: The internet
It's changing our lives? The internet is perhaps the most influential and important development that most of us will ever see in our lifetime. The ability to talk and share anything with anyone anywhere in the world is an amazing thing. But the very globalisation that connects us can also bring with it a more disposable culture.

Think about this: new ideas can be shared instantly, on sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, and via email. The fact that we can flash any image across so many eyes in different cultures homogenises vision and taste to a point where masses can become desensitised, and then demand more. The internet is the vehicle that is saturating the global mind so quickly that a new global culture can become anaesthetised to stimuli that once was unfamiliar.

Past cultures were defined by national borders. There was a distinct connection between culture, art, religion and politics. Design today is relatively independent of such connections, yet, in a strange way, even more connected via the internet and media. These two vehicles allow for a deeper connection between niche groups, which cultural anthropologists call "experience clusters" because they are composed of individuals who experience things together. At the same time, others may never even see what these niche groups are sharing. Early adopters can speed up the process of visual evolution within their group.

These redrawn boundaries of the human experience group us not by geography or national heritage, but by our personal interests and desires. This is a rewiring of our social structure, a more individualised pattern amongst "interest groups."

The scary thing is that something can only be new once. How long can this go on?

Mattus has led design teams at Hasbro, Inc. for over 20 years. His book, Beyond Trend, is available now from HOW books,