What exactly is a design trend?

Trends are critical to design and industry, but what is a trend? Zuzanna Skalska, previously with Philips Design in Eindhoven and VanBerlo, the largest Dutch design consultancy, is now head of trends at Netherlandsbased transdisciplinary consultancy 360 Inspiration, and author of 360° Trend Report books (a 2009 Red Dot award winner). She explains what trends really are and where they lead.


You have to predict the future to be able to think innovatively, and you need a lot of information to make strategic advice for tomorrow's business. Many people, especially in business, mistake marketing trends, which are needed to sell goods to consumers, with trends that companies and brands need to build their future investments, development scenarios and strategy. There are thousands of 'trendy' blogs, but only a handful that can give any real inspiration for business and industry.

To understand industry's trends, first let me explain what a trend is. For many, trends and trendwatchers are associated with fashion and home decoration. In general, for consumers, a trend means new ideas and things coming to the market. If a consumer notices something like this, it's not a trend but already a mass-market product.

Real trends are the fundamentals on which a company can build its future strategy. They are an awareness of movements in society, economy, geopolitics, and not least, in technology.

Meteorologists and trendwatchers do a similar job; the first observes the movements in the atmosphere, the latter monitors society and technology, but both come up with a prognosis, a short- or long-term forecast.

To prevent this from becoming an ivory tower with a small base and a large distance to the market, one should look in different directions. I monitor eight industries, from medical tools, consumer electronics and professional equipment to packaging, food and mobility, constantly searching for cross-virilisation of ideas: the newest hinge developed for the Airbus A380 could also be implemented in a fridge.

Trend research evolved together with industrial design. It goes hand in hand. A trend is a living organism that mutates due to technological development. When industry was simple and very much defined in its core business, trends were focused on a particular theme. As an example, let's go back to fridges: 10 years ago fridge manufacturers' trend research was focused on colour, handles and other details. Today, fridges are about innovative materials (like the Airbus hinge spin-off example), about packaging that has to fit, about connectivity and The Internet of Things, and even how to store food in a very small fridge, or no fridge at all.

To talk about trends we have to take a closer look at the world's recent political scene. The end of the Cold War closed the era of heavy industry and started an era of sophisticated technology of satellites and fast communication (from Cold War to Big Brother). Every new military operation opens a new technology for the consumer. After the 1991 Desert Storm operation, the 'consumer industry' received the technology of mobile-phone communication. Middle East conflicts have also given us digital photography and TomTom navigation systems. The latest military 'gadget' is the drone.

Amazon is now rolling out same-day delivery by drone, and German DHL delivers medicine via drone to distant small islands in the North Sea.

From now, on the bio, nano and chemical industries will be very much responsible for our environmental future. Organic plastic that does not disturb our natural resources will be a big revolution for all industry businesses. And nanotechnology is already opening up a future for surgery without scalpel cuts.

The largest area of development of new materials happens to be the sport industry. Multisport events like the Olympics and Winter Olympics generate a wave of new products. Products incorporate carbon fibre, intelligent fabrics with health sensors, full-body control for improving personal wellbeing, and so on, and these innovations are filtering down into the domestic market. Space technology will continue to be applied to consumer products. Imagine an ionic washing machine, or cooking on volcanic sand from Mars. A mobile phone could be placed inside a finger ring, with all storage on an orbiting satellite server.

Ten years ago we had Design 2.0: product design, service and experience, such as addedfeature mobiles and shoes with mileometers and navigation. Five years ago was Design 3.0: design that changed company cultures from the top down.

The chief designer become a member of the board, and brands got innovation, speed and creative power. Now we are entering Design 4.0, which is not about aesthetic and material values, but about personal meaning and services. It's all about bottomup and communities. There is no fixed strategy, but the vision is to engage the personal and emotional.

According to the Harvard Business Review, we have progressed from hiring hands (industrial era), through hiring heads (corporation and brands) to hiring hearts (new human-centric and community-network era). And that has turned my job by almost 180 degrees.

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