In a broad arena like illustration, which stretches across national borders and multiple media, identifying trends accurately is a bit of a minefield.
But with that said, with 2018 quickly coming to a close, we still believe it's possible to pull out some broad themes about what kind of illustration has been in demand from clients. (Whether you approve of them or not, well that's a different story.)
So in this post, we point to five big trends in the world of illustration that have both dominated the past year and look likely to influence the next one, too.
We're not saying you need to follow these trends yourself, but it's certainly handy to know that they exist (also see our piece on typography trends for 2019).
01. Bright colours and simple shapes
When it comes to branding, advertising and packaging, the overwhelming trend in graphic design this year has been for simplification and reduction. So it’s not surprising that that spirit has carried over to the world of illustration as well.
“The most notable trend I’ve seen in packaging design this year is a move towards cleaner and more iconic packs,” says Patrice O’Shea, design director at Design Bridge London.
"With the rise of niche, start-up challenger brands that are seen as more ethical, the big corporate brands are having to re-think their marketing and creative strategies to respond to the consumer need for greater transparency," she continues. "Brands are removing unnecessary claims in a bid to be more single minded, simultaneously making them work more effectively on shelf and in ecommerce.”
While that doesn’t necessarily mean ruling out an illustrated approach, it does mean that where illustration is used, it’s often based around bold, simple shapes and strong colours.
Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli’s work for pasta brand Barilla is a clear example, as is Illume's revamp of Target’s fragrance aisle; the packaging for puff pastry brand A Piece of Lovely Cake by Chinese agency Step Design; the limited edition Coke can, themed on a Big Mac, by Brazilian agency DPZ&T; and Meroo Seth’s packaging designs for Rico Chico chocolate.
This trend is sure to continue and strengthen in 2019, but O’Shea urges caution. “Sometimes, the stripped-back aesthetic can end up becoming overly simplified,” she warns. “In a world saturated with own label and copycat brands, you still need to establish a distinctive and ownable visual brand language that emotionally connects with consumers to ensure that you stand out from the crowd.”
02. Organic and handmade
While colourful, geometric, 2D vector art still dominates the landscape, there’s been somewhat of a counter-trend, in the form of illustration that's organic, hand-drawn and hand-crafted (or at least feels that way, even if it was created digitally).
“We live in a super-digital world, which means there are tons of designs that are super-clean, sharp and sleek,” says Andrea Stan, aka Mky, a graphic designer and lettering artist. “But there is just such beauty in a hand-drawn piece, with all of its imperfections. And in 2018 I've noticed a repeating pattern in style preferences from clients, in that they seem to be attracted to things that look organic and human made."
It’s a trend that can be seen in the book cover art of Charlotte Edey , which is imbued with an earthy sense of the hand-drawn; the editorial illustrations of Maëlle Doliveuxand, beautifully constructed out of layers of colour paper; the striking work of Maxim Shkret, whose animal illustrations are modelled in CG but look like intricate paper art; and even corporate designs such as Rebecca Sutherland’s posters for Heathrow Express, featuring illustrations physically constructed from upcycled train rubbish.
“Hair, trees, skyline and clouds are all elements that can add an organic playfulness to your designs,” notes Gerard Keely, the freelance illustrator also know as Spoon Lancer. “Wobbly shapes are used to frame illustrations, and look great especially when placed beside text.”
03. Quirky and abstract
As another reaction to the dominance of bright, shiny 2D vector art, could we be seeing a return for abstract illustration in 2019?
“Right now, more and more illustrators are mixing images, textures, shapes and lines to create fun abstract designs,” says Keely. “It’s a style where anything goes and abstraction is king; it looks great as long as you get the balance right.”
The trend can be seen in packaging, such as Thirst’s organic visuals for Commonwealth Brewing Co, or Gander’s trippy illustrations for Misfit Juicery. But it’s perhaps most significant arena for growth is in interface design, where consumers may well be tiring of identikit vector graphics everywhere.
While ‘don’t trip up the user’ is still the go-to guideline for app and web developers, some brave brands are starting to experiment with something more visually interersting. Take Janis Andzans' illustrations for Avocode, or Intercom's website, which is plastered with dramatically abstract illustrations.
And most significantly, Adobe's Creative Cloud has taken a much more abstract approach to their website illustration (shown above), which really show it pushing the envelope visually beyond the same old vector icons we're all getting bored of looking at.
Now the tech giant behind Photoshop and Illustrator has shown the way, we're putting money on the fact that other digital platforms will follow suit in 2019.
04. Playful and fun
Since the tumultuous world events of 2016, there’s been an observable trend for dystopian and depressing themes in many illustrators’ work.
But in 2018 there were signs that some people are getting tired of all that, and that a sense of playful fun might be back on the menu.
In 2019, will it be finally time when we can kick back and have a little fun again, in illustration as well as life in general? We certainly hope so...
05. '90s style
"As an illustrator attracted to vintage and retro-style I couldn't help noticing that one of the biggest trends of 2018 has been a roaring sprout of 1980s and 1990s inspired illustrations," says Italian designer Massimiliano Emili.
Fashion has been leading this trend, with 1980s style references abounding everywhere from streetwear to high fashion for the last few years.
And more recently, that influence has bled into illustration and graphic design in general, in the form of what Emili describes as "wild use of bright and loud colour combinations, often including neons, light blue, teal, pink, peach and light orange. This trend is also evident in the use of solid lines and solid colours, as well as camcorder VHS glitch effects in web design illustrations."
However, Emili believes that that right now, 1980s-inspired illustration is rapidly giving way to 1990s illustration.
"A large part of both designers and design targets were kids or teenagers in the '90s," he points out. "And this revival speaks directly to their hearts, hitting their emotional chords and winning their interest, as it does with me, a guy born and raised in the 1980s."
Georgian designer and artist Nikta Savinov agrees. “Nineties, early 2000s, brutalism, rave and web 1.0 aesthetics are in style now across both illustration and design," she says. "Colour palettes are limited; monochromatic and single-colour designs are on top of the game. You can see lots of typographic and geometric compositions, from minimalistic to super overloaded; patterns made from simple geometric figures or repeating texts (logos or slogans); patterns from abstract, irregular shapes and forms."