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Five Aesthetic Design Trends Defined

by Bill Dorr, director of industrial design

Design Concepts

SUBMITTED

As human beings, we are constantly in search of ways to express ourselves as individuals while seeking to contribute to an overall culture. For thousands of years, we have applied decoration to our man-made creations with a seemingly endless range of aesthetic variation that speaks to both aspects of this ongoing endeavor. Aesthetic design trends are constantly evolving and have their own lifecycle of birth, death and even rebirth.

In today’s ever faster product development cycles, the ability to be aware of design trends and apply them appropriately can be critical to a product’s market success. In a sea of competition, the visual appearance of a physical product often is the first impression a customer has of your brand, so it better be good.

The team of product design and innovation consultants at Design Concepts follows aesthetic design trends as one of the elements used to inform and inspire the work done for clients, to create meaningfully differentiated products. What follows is a description of five distinct aesthetic design trends being tracked as they evolve.

The color of metal

When used as an aesthetic material choice, metal conveys a perception of dependable, authentic, expensive, professional and beautiful quality. Metal finishes that go beyond the traditional bright chrome and brushed stainless steel have been increasing in popularity. Digital consumer electronics are a key driver of this trend, as they continue to borrow from the world of jewelry design in a successful effort to transform themselves into a compelling personal fashion accessory. Smartphones – with their large planar glass touchscreens, super-thin profiles and minimal hardware detail touchpoints – allow for very little that can be done to distinguish among brands and models. This means that the inspired use of colors, materials and finishes provides the best opportunity to make a distinctive visual design statement.

Bright warm metal hues typically found in the cosmetics packaging industry and fine jewelry are growing in popularity, especially in the world of consumer electronics. These include varying shades of yellow gold, rose gold, bronze and copper. Examples can be found in the iPhone7, fitness trackers, HP’s flagship laptops and even kitchen appliances, where accents using this warm metal palette reinforce the premium positioning of these products.

The last few years have seen a proliferation of color experimentation in metal finishes utilizing various hues and saturations of blue, red, magenta, green and yellow. These have been making appearances on smartphones and select home appliances. Look for this trend to continue as a reaction to the sea of visual conformity across consumer products.

Natural appeal

Applying the warmth of natural materials to high tech products helps humanize the digital boxes we all interact with every day, while imparting a perception of custom craftmanship.

The earliest consumer electronics technology, from telephones to radios to TVs, were wrapped in real or simulated wood materials. Today, wood has returned as a material that personalizes a product and has a warming, personalizing effect on consumer technology.

iPhone cases of sustainably harvested wood fused with Dupont Kevlar, simulated beechwood handles on small kitchen appliances, and cork as a surface accent for a wireless charger are proof that this look is back, with a modern ecological spin. Bamboo continues to be the go-to material to emulate while making a statement of ecological consideration and sustainable design.

Another example of this trend is the Spire wearable activity tracker. The product looks and feels like a smooth, water-worn stone lifted from the banks of a cold mountain stream. Instead of a modernist statement of monochromatic plastic with crisp edges, the organic form and soft-touch mottled finish invite users to hold it in their hands and keep it close, promoting its daily functional value.

Beyond the materials themselves, today’s designs are employing surface textures and patterns that emulate nature to add personality and visual sophistication to otherwise functional devices. When carefully considered, these details also can be semantic of the device’s function and reinforce its purpose. Smoke alarm with a sunflower-inspired Fibonacci pattern, anyone?

Dark and dangerous

Maybe this sounds a bit dramatic, but dark and dangerous is an appropriate name for this emerging trend. The minimalist beauty of Apple’s products that was so strikingly different and refreshing has, in time, become arguably generic and expected. An antithesis to this highly refined modernist style of design aesthetic has been gaining ground for a number of years now. The elements of this trend include sharp chiseled surfaces, aggressive form gestures, dark color palettes, metal accents and matte finishes (the opposite of high gloss, of course). This trend was inspired by military tech, such as the stealth fighter, and is showing up in everything from automotive design to audio headphones.

Until recently, solid matte colors and matte metallic paint finishes were seen only in the automotive custom market, with modifiers and body shops competing to see whose ride could look the most stealthy and sinister. Lamborghini and Mercedes dipped their toes in first, and now Volvo has its 2017 V90 family wagon dressed in matte dark gray metallic – and it looks positively beautiful! For some products, a matte finish is practical, as well as aesthetically beautiful, hiding imperfections in the plastic molding process, for example. This trend is accelerating and will continue to expand its range of application.

Dark metal finishes originated as accent colors in consumer electronics years ago. The latest application for this trend is in kitchen appliances, where it is gaining traction as a primary color treatment. These dark finishes are being embraced by early adopters seeking unique differentiation from the status-quo brushed stainless steel that has dominated the mass market. This trend will continue in the appliance market but will reach maximum market penetration levels far below traditional stainless steel.

Transparent tech

One of the more unique physical properties of certain plastics is their ability to attain differing levels of transparency, from water-clear to 100 percent opaque. In the late 1990s, the translucent iMac captured the world’s attention like no other tech product ever had. The iMac’s aesthetic had the appearance of a vase blown from Murano glass. The transparency exposed the internal “computing” guts of the product to glorify the wonder, power and promise of digital technology.

Dyson, Harmon Kardon and many others also have capitalized on this trend to their benefit. As the use of translucent plastic gained in popularity, it was applied to virtually every possible artifact manufactured. It became vastly overexposed and started to fade, abandoned even by its original benefactor, Apple.

Today, this trend is not dead but is more restrained in its application. Look for it to appear in clever, yet appropriate product solutions where exposing the engineering guts is advantageous usability and meaningful differentiation.

Pattern and texture as branding elements

Pattern and texture as surface decoration have been re-emerging over the past 10 years as major elements of visual differentiation. If every product was composed of smooth surfaces, polished and devoid of anything but the most essential functional detail, then every product would take on a visual sameness without differentiation and individual character. Designers would finally realize “universal design aesthetics,” and it would be a total bore! Human beings, no matter where they live on the globe, always will seek products that can express their own individuality. Surface decoration in the form of textures and patterns can reinforce function, improve usability and assist in building a distinct brand character.

Intricate and sometimes delicate patterns with expressive, yet refined, graphic personalities offer a sophisticated visual appearance of craftmanship and quality. For example, audio speaker grille patterns have evolved far from the traditional strict grid of round holes to become distinct visual expressions while retaining their base level functionality.

The use of nature-inspired textures and patterns creates a more approachable connection between modern man-made products and the aesthetic of the natural world that surrounds us. Many nature-inspired textures have visual flow and a softness about them that break from the strict linear grid patterns of modernism. Today, product designers are creating textures and patterns that possess a semantic tie to the functional story of the product, including air movement, flowing water, acoustic waves and even DNA.

Appropriately connecting the dots between aesthetics, function and brand has become a critical element in determining the market performance of a product.

Bill Dorr is director of industrial design for Design Concepts, Inc., Madison, Wisconsin. For more information, call 608.334.2555 or visit www.design-concepts.com.