Transform magazine: The key branding and design trends to watch out for in 2022 – 2021

Sairah Ashman, CEO at global brand design agency, Wolff Olins, outlines the biggest shifts in branding and design that emerged in 2021 and makes predictions for the top trends to watch out for in 2022.

Like anything else, design is greatly impacted by changes and shifts in culture, society and the wider world. The disruption, uncertainty and chaos brought about by the pandemic has seen a veritable explosion of new trends emerge in 2021 that will no doubt shape and inform how brands communicate and interact with consumers, now and in the years to come.

The social commerce boom, alongside the increased number of brands experimenting in the metaverse, from Coca Cola to Balenciaga, is sparking a shift from deep and meaningful brand relationships to brands being seen as more of a connective platform in our lives, in the mould of YouTube or Spotify. In light of this, brands will be increasingly focusing on creating more impactful social and virtual interactions with consumers; a clear outcome of the pandemic. 

Along with the push towards sustainability, we’ve seen brands across sectors widen their focus beyond external impacts to internal culture and the employee experience, as businesses face myriad challenges, not least ‘the great resignation’, sparked by rising employee expectations around flexibility. In addition, we’ve seen how the exposure of toxic workplace cultures has damaged the reputation of brands and organisations of all sizes and types, from BrewDog to The Ellen Show. Brands are realising that creating a vision and ambition for workplace culture and articulating a purpose and core values are just small steps towards building a cohesive brand experience. Developing and following through on actions that help shape a positive, compelling experience for employees and customers alike is critical going forward.

One of the biggest emerging brand design trends we at Wolff Olins have spotted emerging throughout 2021 is how the metaverse proposes a future VR for the mainstream. Despite the hype, virtual reality remained on the margins pre-pandemic, but as the world has moved further into the metaverse, VR is edging into the mainstream. This push is driven by a combination of factors, including major gaming releases, such as Lone Echo 2 and Half-Life Alyx; the increased demand for VR solutions in areas such as healthcare and the arts; and the rise of hybrid events in every sphere from business conferences to music festivals.

Augmented Reality is also gaining increased traction, with Apple planning several upcoming AR product launches, including Apple Glasses, AR eyewear that can connect with an iPhone and beam content, and the tech giant’s first AR/VR headset. Today, AR can be considered the biggest step in human-machine interaction since GUI. For our Wolff Olins 2021 Holiday Card we embraced the rise of AR, creating fun holiday pals to help share the festive love.
As more brands focus on inclusivity and sustainability, a more ethical and conscious approach to design is emerging. As well as product design, with Nike’s hands-free shoes and Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller, ethical design is transforming UX, as brands maximise ease of use and efficiency to serve customers’ needs. As brands focus on their values or sustainability goals as part of their branding, Gartner warns in its 2022 Global Consumer Trends Report that consumers will want to see promises kept and measurable progress against goals.
Designers are also under increased pressure to choose materials that are sustainable, recyclable and have a low carbon impact, and this has given rise to innovations such as mushroom leather, which biomaterials company MycoWorks is predicting will be a sustainability game changer. Although this may seem altruistic, it also demands scrutiny to ensure that brands are not just greenwashing to try to meet consumer expectations. Innovation in sustainable design is set to boom next year, as from April 2022 a plastic packaging tax will apply to all plastic packaging in the UK.

Health and wellbeing dominates the latest design trends, with demand for health and wellness products soaring. Wearable tech that monitors and tracks everything from sleep to heart rate has risen in popularity as people have turned their attention to lifestyle, diet and overall wellness. Also, as high-net-worth individuals spent so much on their health during the pandemic (20% more than pre-pandemic, according to Bupa), travel operators and hotel brands are focusing on integrating wellness into their customer experience. 

Tone of voice will also change over the coming year and the smart brands will be able to emulate or join pop culture movements. Fintech brands will credibly and authentically find ways to reveal their fun side, drawing and illustration in the style and freedom of kids’ work will emerge and crypto will finally make that hop from nerdy to mainstream by using the right cultural touchstones. 

Finally, typography.  The days of Helvetica obsession are long gone and character in type is making brands stand out. Look for custom designed fonts and typefaces, psychedelic lettering and mixed or clashing typefaces to challenge expectations.  

From fashion to core values, the emergent themes of 2021 are going to explode through the new year and through real life into the virtual world. Although there will always be uncertainty around the pandemic and how it may change business practice, what we can be sure of is the creative response and experimentation around these predictions that will keep brand activity fresh and entertaining, whether we are in the office or still working from home.