The phrases “design fads” and “design trends” are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. The distinction between them is subtle but important, and it is convoluted by the fact that something can be both a fad and a trend.
Let’s talk about fads and trends:
Fads are the peer pressure of design — they happen simply because “everyone else is doing it.”
The iconic fad of the Web 2.0 era, aside from calling it the “Web 2.0 Era,” was the glossy button. In the mid-2000s, glossy buttons were all the rage. They started popping up on websites everywhere, like digital jelly beans that reflected light that had no source. Websites that had no other dimensional elements would have glossy buttons, just because it was the thing to do. I’d accuse those designers of being lazy, but glossy buttons were kind of a pain to implement, so there’s no other explanation except they were following the herd.
If a design technique is popular only because “all the cool kids are doing it,” it’s a design fad.
Design trends, on the other hand, emerge organically. As the digital landscape changes, similar design problems will naturally result in similar solutions.
If large search inputs are more popular now than they were two years ago, it isn’t because they’re a fad, it’s because the current digital context encourages it. Likewise with responsive design, sliding menus on mobile devices, and larger body fonts.
The digital field is so new that borrowing techniques from each other is inevitable. Almost every social network has a news feed of some sort. Does that make it a fad? No, as long as it’s being used sensibly. It’s a natural progression, so it’s a trend.
Flat vs. Skeuomorphic
The conversation du jour in digital design is flat vs. skeuomoprhic. It’s a tricky thing to discuss, because each technique is both a trend and a fad.
So-called “flat design” is a trend because it is the natural direction for digital design to take. Not every flat website is a copycat. It is a style arrived upon by numerous designers independently while developing an appropriate aesthetic for their work. As our users grow more accustomed to the digital vernacular, there’s less need to represent functionality through skeuomorphism, making flat shapes an increasingly obvious choice.
Of course, flat design can be a fad when used for the wrong reasons. Plenty of designers use it incomprehensibly, simply because they thought it was “the next big thing.” But this is a reflection on those designers, not the trend itself.
Skeuomoprhism similarly straddles the line between trend and fad. It is still exceedingly useful, especially when building software for an audience that is not yet immersed in the digital world. Making digital tools look like their physical counterparts is a simple, nonintrusive way to convey meaning and lighten the cognitive load on users — in those cases, it is certainly an appropriate choice.
On the other hand, skeuomorphism is often used “because it looks cool.” “Because is looks cool” is never a good excuse for choosing a design style, unless one of the project goals is to “make it look cool,” which it should never be. Making design decisions based entirely on personal preference or aesthetic choices reeks of hack work: form should always support function, lest we find ourselves becoming professional decorators rather than professional designers. Misusing skeuomorphism this way is to embrace it as a fad rather than as a trend.
Design has no room for fads. If something’s a “fad,” then it’s probably decoration and not design.
There’s nothing wrong with using a technique that has suddenly become popular, as long as we’re using it appropriately. At the beginning of the year, our own Gannon Burgett wrote an article entitled 13 Design Trends for 2013, which included things like Larger Search Inputs and Animation as Affordance. These are trends, not fads, because their rise stems naturally from our current digital context.
As always in the world of design, we should be conscious of how we are using every element on the screen. Is this necessary? Can it be simplified? Does it move us closer to our project goals? If we can justify everything on the screen, we are doing something right. If we are using styles and elements simply because we saw someone else use them, we are embracing the unhealthy pattern of following fads, to the detriment of ourselves and our clients.