Web design trends change constantly, and 2021 is no exception.
This year, many designers are launching bold experiments—breaking rules, reinventing existing styles, and taking even more inspiration from industrial and print design—while others continue to push the bounds of the playful typography and bold minimalism so popular over the past few years.
A birds-eye view of the design landscape makes it clear that design approaches are more varied than ever.
But behind this diversity of aesthetics and underlying approaches lies a growing rift. While UX design and its focus on usability and function have become increasingly mainstream, the growing technical flexibility available to designers has led another group to focus even more on web design as an artistic medium.
All of this means 2021 is a year of design extremes. The days of a single approach taking the web by storm (remember flat design in 2012?) are over. What’s left is far more nuanced and much more interesting.
Let’s take a look at the top design trends of 2021.
Aesthetic Web Design Trends of 2021
1. Black is Back
When Apple and Google released dark mode settings nearly simultaneously in 2019, they kicked off a trend of popular websites developing alternate themes designed specifically for low-light situations.
But the long-term impact of dark mode may be even broader. Suddenly, Geocities websites from 1997 no longer had a monopoly on dark backgrounds and neon colors. And designers in 2021 are taking advantage.
Thousands of designers have released dark-themed websites already this year, and their designs aren’t intended solely for low-light use. Dark backgrounds are mainstream again. Black is back.
2. Didone Typefaces
Designers experimented broadly with typography 2019, and this trend is already picking up speed in 2021, crystalizing in a specific subset of typefaces known as Didones.
Didones are typefaces with long, narrow serifs, thick vertical strokes, and contrasting thin horizontal lines.
Printers popularized Didones in the early 1800s, and these typefaces are enjoying a resurgence in 2021. Some have already called Didones “the typography of the next decade,” and we’re inclined to agree.
The logos of Allswell, Vox, and Winc are striking examples of the style, but it’s not just direct-to-consumer brands and media companies getting in on the trend. Many tech startups, like Skillshare and Robin, are using Didones as secondary typefaces to bring a touch of humanity to brands that would otherwise feel a bit cold and robotic in 2021.
3. Oversized Type
Speaking of typefaces, Didones aren’t the only typographic design trend this year.
Early 2021 has already seen numerous sites experimenting with dramatically oversized type. In many cases, designers size fonts so large that one or two lines of text take up most, or even all, of the viewport.
Designers often pair this trend with bold colors and illustrations coupled closely with the type itself. Cowboy Bicycles is a fantastic example of the style.
4. Vintage Styles
Typefaces aren’t the only relics making a comeback. Vintage styles have returned in a big way this year.
From the psychedelic colors of the 60s and warmer earth tones of the 70s to the arcade sensibility of the 80s and grunge textures of the 90s, nostalgia is never more than a few clicks away this year.
Of course, nostalgia has been a powerful sales tool since there were things to be nostalgic about, and popular brands like Apple, Nike, and Instagram have leveraged it successfully for years. Still, this trend is increasing, and it seems likely that vintage styles will remain part of the conversation throughout the next decade.
5. Embracing Depth
In early 2021, many brands have launched designs featuring a faux-3D style that uses layers and shadows to create depth.
Unlike the skeuomorphism of the early 2000s or the flat design trend that followed, this style neither fully embraces nonfunctional ornamentalism or avoids it entirely. Instead, designers seek to call attention to key content elements—like calls to action and feature illustrations—through perspective.
Put simply, it’s not flat. It’s flat-ish.
FullStory’s current homepage is a clear example of the style with every graphic featuring both blurred and unblurred shadows, multiple layers, and a mix of both photos and illustrative elements. There’s even a Didone-Esque secondary typeface for good measure.
6. Bold Minimalism
Minimalism remains just as popular this year as it has in years past, if not more so.
In fact, many minimalist sites feel even bolder than ever, relying almost solely on heavy typography and saturated colors to create beauty. Third & Grove’s site is a fantastic example, featuring alternating full-viewport color blocks, playful Didone typography, and plenty of negative space for breathing room.
Other examples, like Innovation is Hard, avoid illustrations entirely but use animation to tell a story instead.
While minimalism might not seem innovative in 2021, it’s nice to see it continue to grow and evolve like this. And if designers continue to use it with such striking impact, minimalism will likely remain a trend for years to come.
7. Futuristic Themes (and Color Schemes)
Science fiction styling seems to be returning in a big way in 2021.
From UFO-inspired designs like BrightScout’s site to the space colonization graphics on InVision’s DesignBetter industry report, designers are using space and sci-fi as stand-ins for innovation much like their counterparts did in the 1950s.
Even traditionally stilted categories like financial services are jumping on the bandwagon, utilizing luminous color schemes to brighten up otherwise dull sites.
8. Abstract Illustrations
Abstract illustrations—frequently composed of pastel silhouettes—were everywhere in 2019. If the early part of 2021 is any indication, this trend will continue to grow.
Still, regardless of its merits, this trend doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere.
9. Immersive 3D
So-called experts have been predicting the rise of 3D elements on modern websites for years, but 2021 could be the year it actually happens en masse.
Most of the product pages on the Google Store use 3D elements to illustrate the industrial design of Google’s physical products, and even SaaS companies like Shopify are creating interactive 3D elements, though the utility of a draggable globe animation is questionable.
10. Experimental Storytelling
The year 2021 may also be the heyday of experimental and interactive online storytelling.
This type of long-form narrative storytelling was once popular in print magazines and journals, but as the medium fades in popularity, it’s fantastic to see it replaced by more interactive and more visceral web counterparts.
Usability and Product Design Trends of 2021
If all of the above felt a bit too subjective and artistic, you’re not alone.
User experience design has been growing in popularity for years, and an ever-increasing cadre of designers care more about the functional impact of their designs than they do about aesthetics.
Here are some of the top usability trends of 2021.
1. Information Architecture Returns
Information architecture, long regarded as UX design’s creepy uncle, is making a triumphant return in 2021.
With the advent of design systems and data-driven pattern libraries like GoodUI, designers are returning to and reinventing, information architecture patterns they’ve steadily ignored since the early days of the web.
2. Accessibility Goes Mainstream
Advocates and allies have been pushing web accessibility for years with admittedly mixed results. To date, designers have widely ignored standards, if they’re aware of them at all, and most small companies believe they can’t afford to design for accessibility.
2021 could be the year that all changes.
A number of startups focused on making accessibility mainstream are gaining popularity. AccessiBe and UserWay, for example, offer SaaS platforms that automate away many of the challenges associated with making websites accessible.
AccessiBe already serves a long list of prominent customers, including Fiverr, Hilton, and BMW, while UserWay can boast about clients like Disney, eBay, and Coca-Cola. After a host of consumer-led lawsuits against companies with poor accessibility standards in 2019, both startups seem poised to grow significantly in 2021.
3. Transparency Now
Internet consumer privacy laws like the GDPR and CCPA are likely just the tip of the iceberg. In 2021, consumers are demanding increasing levels of transparency and control over their data.
In the 2000s and 2010s, companies owned their customers’ data. In 2021 and beyond, it seems like that script will flip.
4. Design Files Disappear
Could 2019 be the last year you actually design using files saved locally to your laptop? A growing group of designers thinks so.
Figma, a collaborative UX design platform with built-in versioning, gained so much popularity in 2019 it’s not hard to imagine a world where emailing the latest version of the design to a colleague is a thing of the past.
In this brave new world, multiple designers can collaborate on the same file, clients and stakeholders can give feedback in real-time, and the tools have become so easy to use that nearly anyone can contribute.
5. Testing, Measurement, and Experimentation
While nearly everything else has changed online, A/B testing and product analytics have stood the test of time. 2021 will be no exception.
Despite what GDPR doomsday predictors want you to believe, measurement and experimentation are alive and well. Direct-response marketing and analytics reporting may become more difficult in 2021, but the web will evolve to meet that challenge.
In a world where optimized conversion rates and user retention trump everything, companies will continue to innovate.
The Path Forward
If over a decade of web design and development has taught us anything, it’s to consider trends with a skeptical eye and avoid getting caught up in the hype.
Beware of shiny object syndrome.
If you run an online business or work in a web-based profession, your best bet is to focus on your plan and choose the strategy and tactics most likely to help you reach your goals.