The difference between design fads + trends

The difference between design fads + trends — Paper + Oats

Fads and trends. This topic can be a little touchy, I think, especially when you start talking about the elements of branding + design. Let me start by saying this: your business’s brand — no matter how businessy (is that a word?) — is still personal. It’s a personal reflection of the work you’re passionate about. It’s how you describe what fires you up to potential clients and customers. The design of your brand is most definitely personal to you, and by default, I’m sure you’re a little protective of it — unless you’re itching for a rebrand, in which case maybe you’re not so attached to it! All this to say, I hope this post doesn’t offend anyone’s design aesthetic for their brand, my only goal is to show how design fads are different than design trends and how it can affect your business in the long run.

The words “fad” and “trend” are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually quite different. 


So what’s a fad?

A fad is defined as an intense and widely-shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities. It comes from the word fiddle-faddle, which describes something as being trivial or nonsensical. In more common terms: a fad is the cool thing to do.

Sounds pretty negative, huh? Short-lived. Without quality. Trivial. Not words you’d want associated with your brand, I’m guessing? Fads are easy to spot, but hard to avoid. They suck you in with their cool newness, am I right?! I’ll certainly admit, I’ve totally fallen for them and occasionally jump on board, but I think it’s important for online businesses to be aware of these fads to make sure they’re using them to their advantage. Fads can be a fun thing to use for short-lived or temporary design work, but when it comes to your overall business branding, fads should be avoided. Your branding elements are more permanent and the further we move from fad to fad in the design world, the more dated your brand will look. Examples of design fads from the past would be the grunge / high texture look and the scrapbook / layered look. Both were popular several years ago, and if you used them you fit right in. But looking back at things that used those fads, they look old and dated.


And what’s a trend?

A trend is defined as a general direction in which something is developing or changing. Trends go hand-in-hand with the changing of technology and the advancement of design systems and methods.

This is where you want your brand to be. You want to be known for being on the cutting edge of development and change, you want your business to ebb and flow in the general direction of new technologies. Think of trends as being associated with a need, while fads are associated with a want. A good example of a trend in the design world is responsive design. Designing for web is constantly changing, and responsive design is a must for any current website. Responsive design means that your website layout responds to the device it’s being viewed on — desktop, tablet, or mobile. Designing your website to account for this is not done because it’s popular or “cool” — it’s done because it’s necessary. You know your website will be frequently be viewed on a cell phone, so you need to design it in such a way to account for that. It’s not short-lived and it most definitely has a clear reasoning behind it.


A personal example

When I stumbled onto the world of printables on Etsy, it quickly became a foundation and important revenue stream for my business. But sprinkled among this world of printables were lots of fads and one big fat trend. Here’s the breakdown:


The Trend

Printables are digital products. They’re digital files sold and delivered electronically, nothing physical is shipped. The trend of selling digital products is most definitely current. It did not come about because it was a cool thing to do, it was born out of necessity and a shift in technology. The more advanced technology becomes, the higher the demand for consuming information instantly. When I decided to sell printables on Etsy, I was jumping on board with the latest trend in how products were delivered to customers. Customers are wanting their needs satisfied instantly, and they are actively seeking that out in the places they choose to shop. This is a trend because it’s a development in technology, and it won’t be short-lived. Technology will most likely never move backwards, right? Because of this forward motion, printables and other digital products are becoming more in demand.


The Fads

If you search “printable planner” on Etsy (or even Google), you’ll be flooded with fads upon fads related to the trend. The fads come into play when you look at the design of the printables. When I decided to start designing my own printables, I noticed these fads right away and wanted to steer clear of them. Things like over-used fonts, flowers, rainbows, heavy patterns, etc. Instead I thought in terms of practicality. Sure, the full color chevron background was cute, but how would that print? It would suck your ink cartridge dry after a few pages. I wanted to design my printables to be more clean and not use too many heavy areas of color or solid patterns to keep the ink usage low. A lot of printables I found were also over-using florals and feminine fonts. I noticed a need for more gender-neutral printables, so I tried to design mine with both men and women in mind. If you’re feeling bombarded by fads like I was, take a step back and try to base your design decisions around being timeless and practical. Chances are there are customers searching high and low for something different than all the fads, and you could be the one to provide it.


Should you incorporate fads into your branding?

When you're choosing colors, textures, and techniques to use in your business’ branding, a lot of times it will come down to intention. If you’re wanting to include something that happens to be a fad, ask yourself this question: Is this decision based on a real representation of my brand or is it based on what is popular? This question can help you push past the “coolness” factor of a new fad and decide if it truly is something that will enhance the communication of your brand to your customer or if it will hurt it in the long run by making it look out of date.

A big one that comes to mind — and maybe you’re thinking of it too! — is gold foil. Everybody loves a little gold foil, right?! I’m no different, I think it can be really stunning in the right setting.

Hold the phone… did you catch that? In the right setting. I’ve definitely seen gold foil used in environments where it looked very out of place. This is a red flag for blindly going along with a fad without considering how it actually fits in with your brand. If you use gold foil in your branding and it fits with the style of your brand, the other elements of your branding (colors, typography, patterns, mood), and it is an honest representation of your brand (not just a popularity move), then by all means, slap some gold foil on. But think carefully about why you’re using it before you bring it into the mix.

If you decide you want to use a fad in your branding, I would recommend incorporating it subtly, so that if you decide to remove it later when the fad has passed, it won’t be detrimental to your brand.  If you find yourself re-branding constantly, you may consider this: Am I following fads or trends?


Can you still make a fad stand out from the crowd?

A second result of overusing a fad: blending in. Deciding to go along with a fad can make you blend in with everyone else who decided to go along with it to. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: Look at what everyone else is doing, and do it differently. Be innovative with your branding and other design elements for your business. Throwing in a fad just because you like it and not because it is truly representative of you, can water down your brand. Strive to do things differently — even popular things can be tweaked or presented differently to help you stand out. Back to the gold foil… if you want to jump on the metallic train but don’t want to look like everyone else, maybe try exploring other metallics like copper, silver, or brass. Or if you love the popular watercolor look and want to incorporate it into your branding — maybe you could try a different brush technique or use an unconventional color palette to make it stand out from all the others. Even if you feel a fad is on-brand for you, try to be innovative with it to keep your brand from blending in.


To wrap up, it can be difficult to draw the line between fads and trends in the design world. Technology is always changing, and it’s important to keep your branding + design for your business and products/services on the cutting edge. You want to stay current with trends that allow your business to be found by your customers and relevant to your audience, but you want to be careful when incorporating elements just for popularity’s sake. Some fads may stick around longer than others, but they’re still short-lived. Design your business around trends, not fads, and you’ll be more likely to build a timeless brand that your customers will fall in love with. 

Tired of fads? Here's a way to stay true to yourself.

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Your turn

Hopefully I didn't ruffle any gold foil feathers with this post! :) What's your take on design fads and trends? Do you use any in your own branding and do you have honest reasoning to back it up? What other design fads + trends have you noticed lately?


Kelsey Baldwin

Graphic designer + blogger providing design resources to help creative entrepreneurs navigate the world of design + branding for digital products so they can share what they know.

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