Is Design Cyclical? Why Styles Are Continuously Changing

Note: Use of “design” largely refers to design style, specifically mobile and web, for this article.

I was recently looking through some screenshots of apps from earlier versions of iOS. It had me thinking about where design is headed over the next five to 10 years, why we continue to iterate on style, and whether design is really getting better or simply changing in a long-term cycle for the sake of change. Is design progressive or cyclical?

The first point to consider is what style is, and why it continues to change.

Style is the external manifestation of certain underlying values and attitudes.

In the case of digital design, there is a constant desire to see and create new styles. I’d liken it to the iPhone, for example. The style of the design is difficult to fault, yet we constantly crave a radical redesign at every year’s keynote event. The style might be different but often it’s very difficult to argue it is in fact better. The iPhone 6/7 might look different compared to the 5, but does it grip in your hand as well? Does it rest on the table flat? It’s a classic case of constant desire for change that does not always yield a better product. The same concept can be applied to digital design. We love seeing new things, experiencing new things, and design is no different.

Creatives are differentiating styles in order to maintain a unique selling point for services. Again, it’s not changing styles because they are better and help the user — it’s change as a byproduct of boredom, competition and the requirement to stand out.

José Espinosa of MIT wrote an interesting essay on a similar topic but around the concept of fashion. It’s hard not to see crossovers between the industries. This was one of the most interesting sections:

“As time passes, more and more people adapt the new style, but unfortunately not all of them fully understand its underlying principles but nevertheless follow the external changes in the fashion. Thus, the new style has become mainstreamed. The pioneers get frustrated because their style does not serve as a differentiation signal anymore.

“At this point new pioneers start trying to create new styles to differentiate from the current mainstream culture. The old pioneer’s values are now a target of critics. Eventually a new style will start to gain momentum and the cycle will repeat again.”

Companies are always looking for ways to differentiate through design. When one company creates a design direction that draws great appeal, others follow. As such, the style no longer differentiates, and as with fashion, this can serve as a catalyst for change