Understanding and using emerging aesthetic design trends

April 19, 2017

While there are many different types of trends you can and should reference throughout the new product design and development process including macro, consumer and industry, aesthetic design trends may be some of the harder nuts to crack.

These trends can be viewed as completely subjective and the result of “artistic styling” or “personal taste” without the right framework and context of understanding.   

An aesthetic design trend is composed of elements such as form, shape, proportion, color, materials, finish, texture and typography that create a distinct visual personality. A vast array of design styles and trends exists in the market simultaneously, for example you can buy Arts & Crafts, Mid Century Modern or Early American style furniture today; Aesthetic design trends, however, inform future trajectories that are most likely to influence how we design and experience products for the coming decades.

When applied appropriately aesthetic design enhances the sophistication, functionality and overall value of a product. Try tuning into the following core aesthetic design trends to inspire your next creation. Visit the gallery below for visual examples. 

Organic Minimalism

The original Minimalist style in product design was inspired by architecture. It was a movement away from extraneous decoration that stripped a product down to its necessary elements and no more. Braun products from the 1970s and ‘80s reflected this philosophy with clean pure formulas of shape, composition and solid, monochromatic color. Organic Minimalism expands on the “less is more” philosophy by including restrained organic forms and seamlessly integrated interface elements.

Restrained organic forms are surfaces that—while remaining uncluttered by extraneous detail—use curvature and subtle surface undulation to create a simple visual statement.             

This trend is also reflected in user interface hardware execution. Touch-sensitive controls, haptic feedback, dead-front illumination and, of course, touchscreens all facilitate the creation of seamless surfaces that hide the visual complexity of the interface while allowing an intentionally curated approach to user interactions. This is especially valuable in feature-rich products.

In Organic Minimalism, logos and graphic branding elements recede to allow the overall silhouette and details to drive the visual statement of the product.

Real Materialism

This macro design trend is all about honesty in the application of materials in the construction of a product. Using real metal, wood, or carbon fiber instead of decorated plastic substitutes translates into a higher perceived value for your product and brand. The same goes for ceramics, textiles and other non-plastic materials.

When applied appropriately aesthetic design enhances the sophistication, functionality and overall value of a product.

This trend can be applied to plastics as well. When the materials’ inherent aesthetic properties are leveraged honestly and appropriately, a design in plastics can be just as beautiful and aesthetically rich as one crafted from a block of aluminum. The fluid nature of plastics allows for the creation of forms and surfaces with a high degree of control, accuracy and consistency. Examples of “honest” plastic would be high-gloss finishes, matte finishes, precision textures, elastic forms, amorphic surfaces and solid color employing the exciting variable of translucency.

Organic Textures & Patterns

This aesthetic trend is characterized by custom-designed surface textures and patterns that are organic in nature. Organic textures have visual flow and a softness about them that break from the strict linear grid patterns of modernism. These custom-designed surface details trace their roots back to the meticulous detailing of centuries’-old pottery and woodworking where handmade surface textures were applied as a means of personalizing and humanizing a man-made object. The examples that are proliferating today in product design draw inspiration from nature and have a tie into the functional story of the product such as a representation of moving air, flowing water or acoustic waves.

Organic textures and patterns add a warm and dynamic visual element that speaks to quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail. They also bring a touch of personalization and uniqueness to the product. Use of organic textures should be done in a way that reinforces a product’s character.

Functional Exposure

Perhaps inspired by the controversial Centre Georges Pompidou by architects Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini, this trend is all about glorifying the inner workings of a product. Translucent plastic housing components such as those on Dyson’s vacuum collection canister were inspired by the original iMac housing. Functional Exposure is all about revealing the traditionally hidden technology at the center of a product’s innovation. This works on multiple levels, not the least of which is selling the technology’s value in a visually captivating manner.

In addition to the overall aesthetic design trends mentioned above, there are several emerging form and shape trends to watch that will begin to manifest themselves in mainstream products.

Fractal

Much as the sleek forms of early aircraft influenced the streamlined design style of 1930-1950, the unconventional shapes of the Stealth fighter jet inspired a new aesthetic design trend. This trend is characterized by flat, angular planes arranged in triangular or polygonal surfaces that are angled with respect to one another and meet at sharp edges. When paired with dark finishes it is decidedly masculine, aggressive, precise and high tech. The effect can also be toned down to create a more “friendly” product with the Fractal geometry being constrained to a singular surface allowing touchpoints that are more comfortable and approachable for the user.   

PUSH

PUSH is a form language that employs tensioned surface treatments that have the appearance of a fabric stretched over a solid object. It can trace its roots back to the challenge of shrink wrapping a product’s interior components to achieve the minimal enclosure size. Depending on the scale and degree of severity, PUSH can be friendly or aggressive, soft or tough, minimizing or maximizing.  

Start exploring

Aesthetics can be highly personal and subjective, making it easy to default to known formulas as a safe way to express a product’s form and function. That’s a shame as there so many options available that can truly differentiate your product.  

While there is no replacement for seeking out a professional designer’s opinion regarding the application of aesthetic design trends, I feel compelled to leave you with a few suggested online resources to provide you with inspiration. Pinterest is a great resource as are leManoosh and Cool Hunting. Look around, soak it in and enjoy your exploration.

Written by Bill Dorr. This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Appliance Design