2021: Design Trends for Public Agencies (Part 1)

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Looking for the Hot Colors and Fonts for 2021?

I hate to tell you this, but you are going to be disappointed. The design world is preoccupied with paradigm shifts like transmedia, design ecosystems, participatory content and sharing. The conversation seems to have forgotten things like color (heck, Pantone’s Color of the Year 2021 is gray). Designers used to craft individual pieces for specific audiences, consciously or unconsciously pushing trends. No longer. Audiences have become granular, users participate in generating content, and designers are preoccupied with creating a world of widgets and elements that can engage people across a shifting sea of delivery mechanisms.

Some large cities and major public entities may have the resources to participate in this brave new world of complex content & delivery, but most public agencies must stay focused on “traditional” communications: getting important information to their constituent audience(s), increasing civic engagement and working for the public good. To be effective, public agencies want their design to be appealing and au courant, but it’s very hard to get a grasp of what that actually means in 2021.

Rule #1: Don’t Panic

The good news is that good design is still good design. And trends are less restrictive, it’s no longer the case that “all the cool kids” are designing the same way. This means your design is freer to reflect individual identity and history instead of some proscribed look that will go stale in 2 years. In fact, after a year of pandemic and social distancing, one of the main movements for 2021 is exactly what cities and local agencies have always championed: human connection instead of influencer attitude, communal environments instead of cold professionalism, and an emphasis on the world we live in.

There are some specific visual trends, of course…I enjoy the movement toward playfulness, retro-chic, and typography as art unto itself. Look for natural colors like sage, mustard and cobalt. Look for images of smiling people, greenspace and acts of kindness. There’s also the growing feeling that the “simplicity” design principle is being used as an excuse for outdated minimalism and aloofness. So, as this Fast Company article says, there’s hope that 2021 will put more soul into design: more color, more texture, more font variation, less stock imagery and less cookie-cutter creativity.

This is all good news for public agencies because it’s the stuff civic and community engagement is all about. Consider ways to use design to communicate more earnestly by creating infographics, explainer videos, etc., instead of trying to be more sexy (cautionary tale: the CIA rebrand into Mission Impossible, while leaving information almost impossible to access). Don’t worry so much about the hot colors of 2021. Don’t worry whether your website is using this year’s font (there isn’t one). Think about your organizational mission and how it makes life better. Then consider the ways your design can deliver honestly on that promise. That’s the main visual trend right now.