Design trends are funny. They sometimes show up in the oddest places, and across entire spectrums—categories that have nothing in common. Or so it would seem.
I don’t like the term “awareness”, as applies to an affliction (e.g. “autism awareness”). It has an ineffective, almost powerless connotation attached to it. But today I’ll use the word in conjunction with the word “design”—design awareness. This is something real that all good designers have. It’s ingrained in them.
Designers themselves are unique among visual people in that they gather mental pictures by simple observation of everything around them. They store them away in their subconscious, and then at an opportune time, that proverbial lightbulb goes on to launch an idea from it. These are what I like to refer to as design cues.
We like to think that—as laymen—design trends come about all by themselves, like the whole visual landscape’s leaning in a certain way comes about by coincidence. You walk through a clothing store and see hot pink as a predominant color, among different brands. Or you visit a few auto showrooms and see the trend of similar dark colored wheels.
All this comes about because designers will copy one another, either consciously or unconsciously. And this happens across those aforementioned categories, all because that design subconscious has that library of stored imagery waiting to be used. Some of that imagery is fresh, from a few months ago, while other mental pictures are years old.
I noticed a BMW i3 the other day (pictured at top left), an almost six-year-old model of an electric vehicle made for mostly short urban travel. It can seat four people and has a body made from a hemp composite. For those who might be interested, its range is around 100 miles on a 4.5-hour charge. (I won’t comment on the build quality of this vehicle in today’s article.)
Immediately what struck me about it was how much it looked like a shoe: it has body panels of different colors (black plus one other color) and the overall shape is stubby, not entirely unlike that of the child’s athletic shoe pictured at top right. And I didn’t have to look far to find that pic, despite the very similar color arrangement.
Was that design cue by accident? You’d have consult BMW’s design staff. Of course, they probably won’t provide an answer, but one thing is true: this particular design trend is common in more youth-oriented markets (or I should say young adult markets) where the inspiration comes from wanting to be different from the previous generation no matter what.
Case in point: those dark wheels I referred to earlier are a maturation of a design cue brought about by young drivers getting their first car that either has no hubcaps or by taking the chrome hubcaps off dad’s hand-me-down vehicle. Auto manufacturers then built on that cue, because their designers saw what was happening and made it a trend.
The same cues could’ve come about for the Honda Element, a vehicle that was on the market from 2003 until 2011 (Nissan made a similar vehicle, the Cube, made available in the U.S. from 2009 until 2014). Its upright, rather boxy shape was anything but like your parents’ car. It also came with different colored body panels (inspired by baseball shirts, or maybe just primed body panels?).
It doesn’t matter where the inspiration comes from. Design cues can come from nature (winged designs such as Chrysler’s logos), from movies (fashion designs from period films like The Great Gatsby), or from even the military (automotive designs such as the VW Thing derived from Germany’s WWII era Kübelwagen). Designers borrow from any number of sources.
So, readers, is all design—or at least most of it—original? Not by a long shot. But seeing those trends developing from visual cues amounts to real design awareness.