Trope Trek: Design Trends & What to Avoid in 2016

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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Print’s 2015 Regional Design Annual. The 2016 RDA is currently open for submissions. Enter here. Or, explore all of the winners from the 2015 competition here.

Around this time of year, I conduct an exercise called “Pin the Trope on the Design,” where I troll through PRINT’s Regional Design Annual winners and identify trends and fashions from the past 365 days. My goal in publishing these findings is to warn designers to limit their use during the following year, unless they want to be behind the curve.

Yet rather than offering me a heartfelt “thank you” for showing that repetition is the hobgoblin of originality, critics of my trope trek defensively argue that we use common visual languages all the time—so why make a spectacle out of it? True as that may be, I maintain that that’s no reason to bestow RDA recognition. To which these critics counter: Taking ownership of clichés in a brand-new context is almost as challenging as devising original ideas.

OK, so maybe I’ve been too hard-nosed over the years.

The oft-paraphrased line that originality is not as important as being good because being “good is hard enough,” implies that very few innovations are created exclusively from whole cloth and that working within or around the common vocabulary is a challenge even for the best of designers. Yet it is nonetheless still easy to fall into the fashion trap because tropes are like flowers to the bees and honey to the bears. And designers are naturally influenced by things they see in both high and low culture—or in the RDA—and once in use it can become an overused style.

My intention is not to call anyone to the floor, but rather to determine what these concepts, devices and ornaments are, which repeat and define any one year.

Nonetheless, I recognize that this analysis is based entirely on inconclusive evidence: The RDA jury has in true Darwinian fashion already selected out the weakest entries, including tropes deemed too cliché. or old school. Each juror has a particular preference and I am working with their edited pool of material. What’s more, my own selection is biased. For instance, I wanted to see arrows in a lot more designs—for some reason there seemed to be a lot of pointy things in the work I’ve seen over the past year (which may have been my imagination, since there were fewer arrows than expected). Conversely, I had an inkling that the use of vintage and nostalgic, so-called vernacular styles, had played themselves out already. Wrong! There’s still a lot of it.

Some years are more derivative than others and this year was fairly low on derivation, so I decided to cut the pie in a different way. Rather than lumping all the material into fi ve or six buckets, I’ve spread those buckets across the RDA’s geographic regions. For instance, the Southwest has more “vintage vernacular” than the others, while the Midwest exhibits more “linear” or vector illustration.

I was also surprised that once-popular devices were virtually ignored; notably, data visualization is no longer on my list. Each bucket is based on finding two or more projects with similar tropes, including:


Inline Type: Faces that contain an added white line echoing the main type


Arrows: As elementary graphic symbols (including Native American arrows)


Linear: Designs that use simple linear or vector illustration


Simple Sans Serif: Designs in which variations of this minimalist unadorned type style is central


Vernacular: Designs that use pastiche or similarities to vintage established styles from either the Victorian, Modern or Midcentury Modern periods

This year’s RDA is one of the most “original” in the competition’s history. Either the jury did a great job of preselection or designers are truly less derivative these days. Very few pieces are stylistic clichés, and although many share similar characteristics, individuality reigns across all the regions, which is as much a testament to contemporary designers as to my fine-tuned analytical procedure.

Here’s what was popular in 2015. Will you use them next year?

Click to enlarge:


Keep an eye out for the 2015 Regional Design Annual winner galleries—coming soon!