Recently several clients requested me to create brand assets with a specific yet similar visual style. I started asking myself when was the last time that happened? Was that coincidence or a reflection of a bigger trend? In fact I can recall several significant visual fads in the past couple decades. They were indeed the results of certain technological or market disruptions (or bubbles). I do have a few subjective observations, they are of course by no mean the outcome of any empirical research.
Bubbly 90's: During the dot com bubble when the optimism was high, businesses competed to demonstrate their creative capacity as assets. All fundamental financial ratios were irrelevant as long as your business has something to do with web. The bubble has furnished us with numerous projects requesting us to create assets that are gestural, creative, whitty and whimsical. Everyone was in a good mood. We all know what happened when the bubble was burst.
Photoshopper: When Adobe Photoshop became such a hot app that threatened the livelihood of many professional photographs, designers and illustrators were also pressured to create assets that shamelessly revealed off the different special and layer effects of the software. In my opinion, the design field has entered a dark age that resembled the naissance of desktop publishing. When visual communication served a better purpose promoting the tools than communicating a message, regardless how brilliant the tools are.
Recession realist: Recession hit US right after W took over the white house. Layoffs, budget cuts, for sure less experimentations on marketing communication. The consumers were spending mostly on the essentials. Big companies were playing it safe, even with brand building. We were assigned many projects using more realistic visual styles, depicting products instead of concepts.
Technical line art: I had no idea where this came from, The line drawing used mainly in instructional inserts or back panels (which we also do a lot) became mainstream. They took on a more heroic role in communication in packaging, collaterals, and info-graphical materials. Interestingly, this style seems straight forward at first glance, but indeed requires a quite strategic mind. Designers who create artworks has to make smart decision on what to show and what not. Importance of elements represented only by differentiating line weight or some minimal uses of colors.
Revival of fun (or bubble?): They called it the second coming of tech bubble in the silicon valley.Companies such as Groupon, Facebook...etc, with unjustifiable earning ratios and valuation do well in their IPOs. With VCs hedging their bets investing in multiple startups ran by young leaders who were born shortly before the first bubble, we see a lot of parallels between the two markets. We are getting requests for doing fun concepts again. More metaphorical story telling, more gestural and fun visual styles, simplistic, humorous, gestural...and less direct depiction of products and services.
The increasing demand for creative execution reminds me the best time in 90's, yet it also reminds me the lost of paper wealth that many of my peers suffered. Stock options that once worth millions became liability if realized. Some of us didn't get hit as badly due to a high percentage of assets invested in Real Estate, which did quite well for the following decade. Equity grew at double digits for years... until of course the recent crash of market in 2007.
Worst of it all, is that we've not yet seen the bottom of the real estate bubble yet. After recent Facebook's IPO, many newly minted millionaires have entered the housing market looking for homes. Maybe this second coming of tech bubble will help lift the market, and bail out some of those Real Estate investors who are still drowning under water now. Wishful thinking, I know.