5 Former Design Trends That Aren’t Cool Anymore (So Stop Using Them)

by on 9th January 2012 with 62 Comments

screenshot

If you’re like me, looking at your own design work from a few years ago can often result in some laughable or even cringe-worthy moments. Design styles have been steadily evolving and most of us can’t help but be affected by these changes. Who among us hasn’t piled on the cheesy Photoshop layer effects, all the while thinking the result was downright awesome?

However, some of us are a little slower to evolve than others. Today we’ll be taking a walk down memory lane and looking at five design trends that used to be super cool, but now simply tend to make your design look outdated and even ugly. If you’re currently still stuck on these trends, it might be time to move along! We’ll help you out with some modern alternative practices that you can use to bring your design skills into 2012 in a hurry.

Let’s Make Fun of Design

We designers tend to take ourselves far too seriously. A post like this could easily lead to derogatory finger pointing and superiority complexes, but let’s go ahead and admit up front that we’ve all flirted with at least a few of these trends, many of us have jumped on board every single one of them.

The only way to escape this fact is to be a new designer, then all you’re doing is jumping on the trends of today. Don’t worry, you won’t regret or perhaps even acknowledge these decisions for at least another three to five years.

What Are Design Trends Good For?

The key to analyzing design trends is to remember that they aren’t inherently good or bad. Instead, they merely serve as a way to observe and remember the collective tastes of bygone eras.

“By examining which design practices seem out of style and dated, you can avoid being that guy who still wears tie dye t-shirts on a first date.”

In this way, they’re a fantastic history lesson on how styles have evolved over the years. Try to think of past design trends like fashion, something that was cool when you are young will eventually become deplorable, but don’t worry, by the time you’re old it’ll probably see a resurgence.

The practical lesson here is that by examining which design practices seem out of style and dated, you can avoid being that guy who still wears tie dye t-shirts on a first date. Is it the case that you should absolutely abandon all of the practices on this list forever? Absolutely not. Just like with that tie dye shirt, you can probably find a time or two where these seem appropriate, even if only ironically. And who knows? They could come back and become cool again before long!

Bevel and Emboss

I know it’s tempting. You open up that Photoshop Effects window and Bevel and Emboss is like a siren calling from the rocks, pleading with you to add a touch of realism to your design. Before you know it, you’re staring at something like this:

screenshot

There’s almost nothing that screams late 90s/early 2000s design like a good old bevel treatment. We went crazy with these things and put them on everything we touched. Even beloved, age old brand logos weren’t safe from the far reaching effects of this trend.

Like that picture of you on Facebook with the skinny jeans, we now look back on this trend with a “what was I thinking?” attitude. Don’t knockout it though, you’ll do the exact same thing in ten years to whatever you’re working on today!

Do This Instead

These days the trend across the board is much more minimalistic that it was ten years ago. We’ve gone past faux realistic bevels and, for the most part, dropped them completely. Now objects tend to have simple, uniform edges with almost no effects apart from the occasional subtle shadow. The World of Adrian Le Bas is a prime example:

screenshot

Web 2.0 Gloss

The bevel and emboss trend wasn’t suddenly abandoned one day in favor of minimalism. Instead, it had to evolve into something even more ornate before we decided to run in the completely opposite direction.

Bevels alone tend to give an almost clay-like look to an object. Add in some shine though and you’ve suddenly got some fancy plastic and glass effects:

screenshot

This one still hasn’t effectively been killed off, you need not travel far to find its influences. I’ll even gloss up a button or two myself from time to time, though certainly not to this extreme. The problem is of course that stylistically, designers have largely dropped this and are moving once again towards more subtle choices. Implementing a heavily glossed web 2.0 style on your site is a surefire way to make a brand new site seem like it’s already due for a design refresh.

Do This Instead

The good news is that “attractive” buttons are even easier to make these days. All you need is a little border-radius and a slight gradient. The effect is a nice button style that stands out without being too flashy. Check out this example from Shopify.

screenshot

It’s interesting to note how technology affects design trends. The Photoshop-centric effects of yesterday are giving way to CSS3 styles of today. You can expect this to continue as new possibilities come to light with pure code-driven design.

Lots of Cursive Text

screenshot

This one is a possible exception to my earlier statement about design trends being neither good nor bad from a purely objective standpoint. If a trend actually stands in the way of the success of a design, then it’s easy to argue that it is in fact an example of “bad” design.

I find this to be the case with big blocks of cursive text. For some reason, this is a trend that simply refuses to die. Following this trend is a double whammy of ugly design. Not only does it make your site uncomfortable to browse and read through, it also tends to reflect many of the typeface woes of the 1990s. If there’s one thing you don’t currently want someone to say about your site, it’s that it looks like something from when developers with no real design experience were first beginning to apply basic styles to websites.

Do This Instead

Instead of hitting your visitors over the head with overuse of that fancy typeface that you found free online, try instead sprinkling it in extremely selectively. Elementary school taught you that cursive is for professional communication; they lied. In design it should be used very selectively as an occasional accent to more readable alternatives. Here’s a beautiful example of this from Little Sea Warrior.

screenshot

The Burst

This one has roots dating back to the early days of even print design. The burst is a tried and true way to grab your viewer’s attention. It says “hey, here’s some important information!” in a easy to implement and instantly recognizable way. The problem: it’s ugly and makes your design look like a marketing professor threw up on it.

screenshot

My main problem with this is that it reflects a complete lack of thought and imagination. Instead of considering how to effectively integrate a logical and appropriate break into the design pattern, the designers who use this simply use the very first idea that pops into their heads. It would also be the very first idea of every non-designer as well, making it the most uncreative design element you could possibly use.

Do This Instead

The simple solution here is to put a tiny bit more thought into creating an element that fits with your overall design theme but still violates the page enough to grab attention. The price tag on Milk and Groceries might still be a little too close to cliche for my taste, but it’s a good step in the right direction and reflects an attempt to think outside the burst.

screenshot

Retro Redemption

The real key to mastering design trends is to know what they suggest. Don’t implement a certain style just because you feel good about it today, instead analyze what it is that you want to achieve and what will work for and/or against that idea.

For instance, if you’re trying to create a modern e-commerce site that reflects current style choices in web design, you should avoid bursts like they’re an 80s rock-a-mullet. However, if you’re intentionally creating a retro look, then suddenly bursts once again become a perfectly legitimate and even attractive choice. Check out the Tom and Dan Show site below to see this idea in action:

screenshot

Dramatic Drop Shadows

The story here is the same as that of the bevel. That Photoshop “Drop Shadow” layer style is just begging to be played with. If you start by tweaking the default effect, you’re likely to come up with something like this:

screenshot

This shadow is big, soft, has plenty of distance and has a color that contrasts heavily with the background. Unfortunately, the result is a design that instantly reeks of cheesy fake lighting effects.

Do This Instead

There are still a million different popular ways to use drop shadows, the above example simply isn’t one of them. If you like the soft, feathered edge look, try blending the shadow in with the background so that it serves to make the text a tad more realistic without being a major distraction.

screenshot

Another shadow treatment that’s popular right now harkens back to the days before it was common to use soft shadows. This effect uses a non-feathered drop shadow that has a little bit more of a retro feel.

screenshot

You can take this a step further by layering the shadow with a knock section in between the shadow and the text. Once again, this is leaning towards a refined aged feel.

screenshot

Conclusion

The examples above should serve to illustrate the idea that following antiquated trends can in fact have a negative effect on your designs and the impressions they leave on your viewers. Once again, the main principal I’m trying to communicate is intentionality. As long as you know what it is your design style of choice is communicating, and that concept or time period is exactly what you’re going for, then you’re on the right track.

Also keep in mind that design trends wouldn’t evolve at all without pioneers that go against what’s currently popular and blaze their own trail. Don’t be too eager to jump onto the overused tricks bandwagon if you’re working on a project that merits some innovative thought. Go your own way and let everyone follow you!

If you enjoyed this article, leave a comment below and tell us about some of the trends you followed in years past. Which things bug you the most when you go back and look at your portfolio from ten to twenty years ago? Which styles do you wish would make a comeback?

Comments & Discussion

62 Comments

Comments & Discussion

62 Comments

  1. Great post, just goes to show how many old website need updating using these new techniques!

  2. gwells says:

    one might argue that these were bad trends to begin with (even if many of us fell into the trap when they happened, to some extent).

    i think a lot of them fall into the “whoah, look what i can suddenly do with a few new photoshop tools/actions/plugins/layer effects” category. and fall into the “just because you *can* do it doesn’t mean you *should* do it” category.

  3. darren says:

    ….according to designers.

  4. vizzy says:

    Curious case of “stop liking what I don’t like”. You just picked out examples of bad design, and contrasted them with decently designed things today.

    Theres no reason gloss, stickers, ribbons, etc can’t be designed well and used to solve specific problems. There is absolutely never a point in a professional designers career that they should contrast two solutions to affirm their own ‘taste’ for a specific aesthetic. It’s counter productive, and I don’t allow that sort of ego and behavior on my team.

    Furthermore the condescending tone of ‘do this instead’ is insulting to your audience. Especially when your own website isn’t very well designed itself.

  5. Joshua Johnson says:

    Vizzy, I think if you actually tried reading the article you wouldn’t make the same points. I went out of my way several times to make light of the situation in a non-condescending manner, often pointing the finger right back at myself more than anyone.

    I also, made it clear that trends are merely a glimpse of the overall evolution of specific tastes and that you shouldn’t let them define you as a designer (even new, supposedly better trends).

    Really, give the article a read through before making a snap judgment, I think you’ll find that you agree with the main points.

  6. KT says:

    Sorry guys… The rest of the world doesn’t care. We just want to find what we are looking for. Burst and shadow away if it takes us directly to porn!

  7. Pintamanta says:

    I think you’ve forgotten “Glow” in some text treatment and you can add “Sun Bursts” as it can been seen now and then. But like you said there are some rare occasions where it fits in a given design.

  8. Nicole says:

    Love this. I often pull out my old work and giggle at what I used to think was so awesome. Great article!

  9. H_Neue says:

    I have a client that still requests this stuff and will NOT back down when I tell him it’s a bad decision. That’s what I get for allowing someone who isn’t creative creatively direct me. I can’t wait until the economy gets better and I don’t HAVE to take all work that comes my way. :)

  10. vizzy says:

    @Joshua

    My comment came off pretty harsh, my apologies.

    I did re-read the article. However, I think my points are still valid. Your comparison images are unfair – you’ve purposefully created bad examples of still-relevant ‘styles’ and are running them in competition with good design.

    To illustrate the point, three of your ‘do this instead’ examples feature drop shadows and bevels (that according to this post are former trends that aren’t cool, and we should stop using).

    I would argue that drop shadows and bevels are stronger and more relevant to todays ‘trendy aesthetic’ than ever before, and seen all over the place (this site included)

    Just because bevels and shadows today are smaller, and more subtle doesn’t make them any less of a drop shadow or bevel. It’s the same trend and effect, evolved over a period of time.

    A more logical comparison may have been exploring the evolution of ‘bevels and drop shadows’ in popular web design. It would make sense to look at old popular styles (old Google logo anyone?) and compare them to modern implementations that are living on the most popular sites on the web.

  11. jj says:

    Thanks, good to know, but I’m just curious what’s the point of these trends anyway? So you will drop these down in 2013, and move on, and leave these 2012 trends behind and so on? Design is nothing like wearing tie dye shirt to a date…

  12. James says:

    These techniques are not new….. Everyone just forgot about them. The genius is that it takes one to remind you of what you should already know.

  13. Antonio says:

    I don’t think a designer should care about what is cool or trendy. If it fulfills a purpose, do it. If it don’t, don’t.

    In my experiene, all those effects are best used in a very subtle way, like almost invisible tiny bevels, but still noticable.

  14. Martha says:

    I think a lot of these techniques became popular with CSS3 and all the “fun” new fonts and styles designers had added to their palettes.

    We tried them all out, had a blast and will hopefully get back to good old typography and hierarchy to make our content stand out.

  15. Omari says:

    Some of these techniques including the bevel, cursive text and glossy buttons are out of the questions but some of these are quite needed especially in this modern and competitive day and time.

  16. Martin says:

    I think the Bevel is similar to the Drop Shadow. It depends on the Bevel adjustments whether it fits or not. Just like the big default looking Drop Shadow isn’t the best thing for layouts, with some adjustements as shown above it still can be a nice looking effect, just like the Bevel in my opinion can be.

  17. Martijn says:

    Is this a repost from a year ago?

  18. Domenic says:

    Martijn hit the nail on the head. I mean: No one uses these techniques anymore…

  19. Darren says:

    Have you actually ever built a website Joshua?

  20. Joana says:

    Great post!

  21. Michael says:

    If you’re talking about ecommerce sites then conversion overtakes the need for “modern/cool design”. This is always the issue between the sujectivity of design and the reality of revenue.
    The issue is that designers dont always look at the reality and the true purpose of a website.

  22. Michael says:

    Also – using target=”_blank” on external links ensures people dont lose where they came from and can easily return to the site and carry on where they left off.

  23. Tom says:

    Awesome post, great that you included alternatives as well. Definitely taking all these points on board!

  24. Bobby says:

    So glad that the web 2.0 buttons are on here! Oh, and bevel & emboss. I see those 2 the most and it makes me want to scream!

  25. aleksandar says:

    Great article. Everything is changing, so try to make web site which will look fresh in the future. Don`t folllow all trend, because for a several years it won`t be so trendy.

  26. Jun says:

    Nice Post! God Bless!

  27. I agree with most of the excellent points in this article. The worse trend that refuses to die in my opinion has to be the Web 2.0 gloss effect.

    @Vizzy, I think you misunderstood Joshua’s point. Joshua’s points aren’t that using bevels and drop shadows is bad and should be stopped, period. The main point about shadows and bevels in particular is, there are better ways of using them or there are more up-to-date effects. So, try using a drop shadow in a better way instead of in the “old” way. And so on.

    To be fair, Joshua is not being condescending. If people choose to perceive him that way, then it’ll be because there’s an element of truth in what he said, which has hit a nerve.

  28. Julien Jolly says:

    Interesting overview of the actual (and former) trends in webdesign.
    Thx!

  29. Dusan says:

    Just goes to show that you should be following web design trends, at least a little bit. But the thing that bugs me is that the trendsetters are almost always some big names in the business, which makes us others mere followers

  30. Aj Banda says:

    wow is all I can say! I am a web developer (so mostly I’m doing the back end), but sometimes you just can’t help myself to go outside my comfort zone and try the front-end.

    and thanks to this site, now I know that I need my time machine to update my works. Thanks for this!

  31. Pete says:

    Ok, Lets just get one thing straight. If your using bevels you should not be designing ANYTHING.

  32. Tieson Wooten says:

    Finally a compiled list of stuff that ought to be buried. All these effects had their time, now let the curtain fall in peace.

    Great article!

  33. Eddy says:

    Great website. It keeps really up to date with the trends. Enjoying it. Divorce Lawyer Miami

  34. Mariam says:

    Thank you sooooo much! I have been looking for an article like this for a long time. Hopefully my students will learn these good practices by heart. Thanks again.

  35. Elke Hinze says:

    Excellent article. I think it’s important to remember that like anything else, things come and go. Some of this stuff may be back in style 10 years from now, but with a new twist.

  36. Ashley says:

    I like your article. Can you point me to the tools you use to make the Do This Instead. Thanks

  37. Davo says:

    This is a nice article for picking up some interesting ideas. Obviously today’s look is going to appear as dated in 2-3 years time. It’s not entirely out of the question that what’s old will be new again one day.

    I think as one of the other commenters noted, if something is designed well, it will look great no matter what the prevailing trends. I would also make the point, a well designed site with originality of design is always going to lead the way. Innovation is where it’s at. Making your own trend.

  38. shiyon says:

    helpful.. thanks!!

  39. Robert says:

    I try not to worry to much about trends. If you put some actual thought into your work, it usually turns out well. Don’t add elements just because some guy did it on his site and it looked really cool. Analyze what needs to be communicated and figure out the best way to do it. If you only design with current trends, your work will always go out of style. Aim to create timelessness in your work.

  40. Dipak says:

    Even the latest trends can look out of place if it’s not used in the correct context. It’s all comes down to the designer.

  41. Bevel and Emboss is so freaking tacky. Glad it made it on your list. I will admit though that I was guilty with everything above when I was a newbie :).

  42. RD says:

    Interesting article. The hard shadow on text could still be cool depending on color combination though.

  43. Anita Green says:

    Hey, I love this article! So funny. And true! But you have to admit it was much easier to satisfy a client with these effects when they first came out. We always knew that if you were having trouble selling a concept you could always bring out the filters. And I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a creative director say “make it look sexy”. So just like fishnet stockings, these effects lose their ability to thrill with overuse.

  44. eryn @ 3-60 says:

    Great Article. I had to laugh at the bevel and emboss. Just looked at some old logos I designed (that may now need to be removed from the portfolio :) which have that cheesey metallic beveled look. Gotta freshen up.

  45. Aaron says:

    I miss the good old days of Yellow Comic sans on top of black, blinking star patterns.

    One thing you forgot to add is the over-use of “bad gradient” effects. Not only in web, but in print design as well. So many people still use the sold color-fade-to-white effect, it drives me crazy. Add a little generic bevel and emboss effect of 1999 and you got yourself a gross design.

  46. Great article. I always retain more when its a fun read. And i’ve got one for you… the image stitching technique that brings several unrelated photos together with edge fades into one composite franken-tastic header image

  47. v says:

    I can’t believe that the basis today of good design is dictated by presets on a program and what is trendy. What ever happened to art?

  48. Alex says:

    Whoever said that ‘no-one in the outside world really cares, as long as we can find what we’re looking for’ was probably spot-on.

    That is why I am strongly considering a career change. I’m fed up tinkering about with designs on web sites, when, at the end of the day, no-one gives a fuck about it, they only want to find what they are looking for and not have anything distracting them from their goal, whether that is to buy a new chainsaw or read the news… no-one, outside the world of design, gives a damn about it. And that’s why I get such a poor reaction when I tell civilians ‘I’m a web designer’. They just do not see it as an important job.

    Wishing I’d spent all these years studying for something people actually care about. Like health, nutrition, science, whatever.

  49. carrie says:

    as a designer, i agree with all of these. however being in the sign industry – subtle doesn’t go over to well with most of the clients. lol

  50. Elissa says:

    Thank you for posting this article; I think it does a great job of showing people of what’s available, and to think a little more conceptually about their website design. The key, I think, is to base the website’s design around its concept so it’s cohesive, coherent, enjoyable and useable, all at once.

    I wanted to make a note of something, however, just for your future reference. On your last examples of what could better be done with shadows: I have bad eyesight, and I couldn’t tell the differences between them at all. I *think* it might have something to do with how high-contrast they are. Consider, perhaps, another article which shows alternatives geared specifically for people with eyesight issues: older people, for example, see colors differently due to a yellowing condition. Glaucoma and, in my case, cataracts also affect how you perceive color, shadow, and more.

  51. teys says:

    Great article. I love design but like some of the comments – great design doesn’t always translate to conversion. Sad but true. There are some poorly designed sites that actually rank high. Kinda frustrating but a lot of grannies and grandpas find these ho-hum sites easier to maneuver. Web generation gap? Maybe. Thanks for sharing anyway.

  52. josh says:

    *Yawn*

    These trends are already played out. Lets see what’s next, please. The next person to post a texture-multiplied forked ribbon in a muted blue with a subtle drop shadow gets the axe.

    Too many people are resorting to these “safe” tricks that are becoming more widely accepted by clients (that should be our first clue that they’re losing relevancy).

  53. John says:

    I likey.

  54. Sally says:

    Good article – enjoyed reading it and remembering when some of the mentioned effects were brand spanking new and how exciting it was to use them (heehee) and how these same things now can date a design and not in a cool retro way!
    Had to laugh about the use of “bursts” as I had a client who insisted on using them. It was so frustrating to me to stick an ugly burst onto what until that point was a decent looking design that worked well.
    Everything has a time and a place and some times as deisgners we need to move on to new “tricks” or adapt things to keep up with the times and this was a fun article that highlighted this.

  55. Irina says:

    You’ve missed out massively rounded corners (which are a pain in the eye)

  56. Glossy still cool, some would still agree though.. :P

  57. I find it so ironic that there is a great article like this, then immediately underneath it is a big “flash” wix ad. 100% Flash, big harsh shadows, glossy buttons, I’d love if was a joke, but unfortunately I don’t think it is.

  58. jeyjoo says:

    Trends come and go. Its about staying on top of them. All this easy to say with retrospect.
    An interesting article would be to pull apart current web design trends, and say why they are so bad. Take the hideous facebook like button (and other social share buttons) that designers are placing on every single web page. It is hideous and one day (I hope) will be replaced by something far nicer on the eye!

  59. Paul says:

    I actually found this article because I was pretty sure that it couldn’t just be me thinking this way! Really interesting stuff.

    Personally I’m sick of designs that use effects as the main focus, leaving good typography completely out of it. I don’t think any effects should be applied until you know layout and typography, and this stuff should only be done to enhance a nice design that works, if at all.

    I have started telling people that I offer a design repair service!

  60. helen says:

    Great post and suggestions! I stopped using drop shadow for fonts, just use it exclusively for my artwork to show a painting’s depth, but your ideas about using this filter for fonts is very interesting.

  61. Jose says:

    Congratulations ! You have explained in this great article ideas that I already had in mind and I didn’t want to admit.

    I have passed throught all these old (antique) styles that you have mentioned and I am asking myself: how could I think that it was attractive ?

    I am planning to redesign for a simplest but nicer models.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe
Membership
About the Author