Commandment #4: Stop obsessing over trends and aim for ‘timeless design’

Often when we create a brand new product, we want it to be the new cool kid on the block. Obsessed with the latest trends in aesthetics and technology, we begin to base our work on the latest techniques, hoping to get some years of stylish head-start.

The problem is, most design trends are fickle and change as years go on. We’ve all seen cool new fonts that became extremely uncool, buttons that aren’t supposed to have round corners anymore and the perpetual “Skeuomorphic vs. Flat vs. Almost Flat” dialog going on in design communities for the last many years.

Can we unshackle digital design from this obsession with cool new trends?

Can digital design take inspiration from some of the ageless wonders of industrial design and endure decades like the Coca-Cola bottle, an Eames lounge chair or any of the countless devices from Braun?

Can a digital product be built on a timeless foundation where the work of designers outlive them, just like a car made by a company that no longer exists continues to be used by its proud owner?

Unlikely, most will argue, as they believe the digital world is always “shifting”. Unlike their physical counterparts, digital products need to keep up with the latest platform standards or devices, so they are meant to be more flexible to change than physical products. And finally (they point) most startups are in survival mode, so instead of longevity, appearing bleeding edge and cool takes priority. They neither have the resources, nor the objective to explore how to add extra years of life to their interfaces.

While all of these arguments have merit, when you start focusing too much on fashionable trends or innovative technologies instead of substance, your products core values start to suffer. Instead of sweating over semi-flat graphics and gradients, designers ought to spend more time on core values that will never fade away and features that are the driver of the experience. Imagine all the time you have spent changing out flat to semi-flat or adding a speckled finish, when you could have iterated on a particular pain point in the customer journey? It looks worse financially when you start to factor in the incremental cost involved to rework the whole thing once it goes out of style!

Today, longevity in digital design isn’t a pipe dream. The shelf life of our products can be extended, even while the underlying technology continues to evolve. The advent of Material Design was the biggest influence and marked a turning point in digital design. When a major player like Google created a design language from scratch, it empowered designers with clear guidelines and tools to implement the language in their own work, while focusing on solving the pain point of their audience. The popularity of design systems has exploded since then and first Apple, and then Microsoft followed with a digital design aesthetic that embraced stunning, yet timeless simplicity. This allowed even the most rapidly evolving product with a clear set of timeless principles, so while their UI components may change with time, the feel of the product will remain consistent over many years, even as the product matures.

The designers could also become more “Tech-Adaptive” — meaning rather than forcing creative visions upon underlying technology, we work with a sound understanding and collaboration of the underlying technology.

In conclusion for an industry that runs on the motto of “move fast and break things”, it’s possible for our interfaces to age like fine wine. With some thought and introspection, we can all aim for digital classics instead of one-hit wonders.

Designer, Growth Marketer & Product Leader