What Makes a Trend a Trend?

How do design trends emerge? Who is responsible for them? And what defines a “trend” as opposed to a short-lived fad?

What Makes a Trend a Trend
Portrait for EnvatoBy Envato  |  Updated June 14, 2023

Whether it’s memes, viral videos, catchphrases, or the latest design trends, why do certain ideas or activities capture the public imagination? How do trends emerge? Who is responsible for them? And what defines a “trend” as opposed to a short-lived fad?

It’s often difficult to spot the start of trends because they boil down to social forces among which styles or tastes change. Once the changes have been shared and adopted by a critical mass, they gain a footing, become firmly embedded in the public psyche, and may even find themselves returning as part of a cyclical process.

There’s no magic involved. According to Henrik Vejlgaard, the author of Anatomy of a Trend: “There is nothing ‘mysterious’ about it and it never just happens ‘out of the blue’, though it may sometimes appear to be so. That it is a social process means it’s created by human beings.”

Why then, do some things trend while others just don’t quite click?

In this article we’ll uncover why certain ideas, activities, and actions trend. We’ll identify which elements drive a topic to become widespread, where its impact becomes an unstoppable force.

More importantly, we’ll see how the concept of trends can be applied to branding and marketing to help businesses, artists, creatives, and designers scale and grow.

What Are Trends and How Do They Emerge?

The term “trend” can be applied to many things (such as data analytics, economics, social media, etc.), but for our purposes we’re understanding it to mean “an inclination towards style”, be that in fashion, design, entertainment, or culture. It’s whatever’s happening at a given time, and can be broadly connected to popularity.

Trends that experience widespread adoption can be attributed to the following driving elements: the right place, the right time, the right moment, and with the right people. Google Glass may have been in the right place and at the right time, but it’s commonly used as an example of something which failed to resonate with the right people.

In contrast, think about the spread of Art Deco in the post-war period of the roaring twenties; its luxury and exuberance perfectly reflected the societal atmosphere of the period. It happened at the right time and affected the right people, gaining mass appeal across the classes.

The term “viral” is often used interchangeably with “trend”, though the two are not the same. Trends, as we’ve said, are driven by taste and style, and establish themselves firmly for a given period of time thanks to common sentiment. “Viral” describes the rapid spreading of something from individual to individual, nowadays specifically relating to media and marketing, and is far more transient.

Trends and the Creative Sector

In creative industries, certain design trends like the use of illustrations or colors can emerge. These graphic design trends are usually brought about by a resurgence of past styles that become popular among graphic artists.

For example, the Memphis style is a highly popular trend in graphic design, influenced by the revival of the ‘80s style, an era of abstract and colorful patterns. The fact that a wave of the ‘80s style began to rebuild in the 2000s was of no surprise at all since it was timed precisely with pop culture’s nostalgic cycle of 20–30 years: the 1970s embraced  fascination with the ‘50s, an obsession with the ‘60s swept through the 1980s, and culture in the 1990s saw the firm presence of the ‘70s.

Trends and People

A more practical explanation for this cycle is that the creators of what we are seeing and hearing at any point in time are in their 30s to early 50s, and may have a particular affinity for an earlier period of time. In other words, the youthful consumers of culture from one generation come of age and ultimately become the creators of culture.

Trends exist through a constant cycle of innovation and emulation. It’s the way people embrace one another and interact with each other. People are obsessed with trends because joining a trend means you’re part of a group; you are in, you belong.

“Some changes are short-lived and they are normally called fads. A lot of fashion changes are fads because they are only about one season or two. Some changes are long-lived and will end up being adopted by many people. And these changes are what I call trends,” writes Henrik Vejlgaard.

Trends and the Digital Landscape

So that covers fashion and the analog design scene, but how about the digital design space? Unsurprisingly, it’s just as applicable, but arguably the internet has two distinctly different effects on trends.

Firstly, our connection with design and pop culture has become even more visual.

Jonathan Openshaw, Editor of The Future Laboratory, explains: “Digital media means we now live in a primarily visual culture, where younger demographics consume images rather than words, and so questions of taste, personal style and presentation have come to the forefront. ”

Secondly, the nature of our online world has generated an acceleration in the adoption of trends. Social media disseminates ideas and visuals rapidly, and the effects of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) psychology have never been felt so strongly. References to FOMO can be found as far back as the 1980s, though we tend to think of it as a modern phenomenon. It observes that people are more receptive to what others are doing. They become anxious if they feel they’re being left out, and this only helps cement trends in the digital space.

And as the internet allows trends to develop and spread so quickly, so it also sees their longevity shortened, blurring the line between what we earlier defined as a trend and a short-term fad.

Trend Predictions: Who Are Trend Forecasters?

Before the explosion of the Internet, the trend forecasting system was perfectly outlined. For example, fashion forecasters would decide which looks would cause the biggest impact on the market, and this was based on what fashion houses were producing from season to season.

However, the Internet has been the downfall of many traditional fashion forecasters. Today, any online influencer has the means to set a fashion or design trend (so long as they respect what has grown into a fairly discerning global audience and only promote concepts which align with their brand).

Laura Walters and Katie Kenny, hosts of the New Zealand podcast Superfad, hypothesize, “If the pairing doesn’t seem genuine, today’s savvy consumer won’t buy it.”

This being the case, who is now responsible for creating trends? It’s simple: trends are spread by people. Everyone has a specific role in making an idea or activity a trend. The Diffusion of Innovation Theory (DOI) best describes the types of people that make a trend possible.

According to this theory, the following groups are responsible for trends:

  1. Innovators are the ones responsible for bringing an idea to life.
  2. Early adopters, who have significant influence, then drive trends towards becoming a reality.
  3. The early majority are fans or followers of early adopters and constitute a big piece of the masses.
  4. The late majority don’t easily jump onto a trend. They’ll first observe how the early majority is doing before joining in.
  5. Then the laggards are the last adopters of trends. Once a trend reaches the laggards it will often die down, or perhaps establish itself as some kind of “norm”.

Marketing professionals will often try to identify these sections of a given market. Doing so can greatly influence the success or failure of a design-based campaign.

Trends in Branding & Marketing

1. Find the Stickiness Factor

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell claims that in order for any trend, idea, or social behavior to cross the threshold of becoming a widespread phenomenon, it must have the “stickiness factor.”

According to Gladwell, the stickiness factor is “the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea.”

One perfect example of this is Apple, whose “switching costs” compel their users to stay loyal to the whole Apple platform, not just the physical products. This stickiness has empowered Apple’s ability to drive trends.

2. Connect With Influential People

Influencers who have an online footprint can either start trends themselves or help brands to drive them by lending their clout. Fenty Beauty is an example of where a brand has launched a successful “sticky” business by combining a good idea (a beauty product that celebrates diversity) with a celebrity founder.

Within your own industry (e.g. design), there will be influencers that you can identify and work with.

Companies like Pantone can be considered “trend setters” as they distill trends into reports like the annual Color of the Year. To what degree these proclamations predict or dictate trends is up for debate.

3. Don’t Overdo or Overthink

Lastly but most importantly, if you want something to trend, don’t go with the obvious. Think like innovators: they don’t care about trends, they care about creating something great.

It’s important that you know your audience’s interests to engage them effectively and understand their pain points and address their needs. This way, you’re not just targeting the viral aspect of a trend but you’re generating something productive and profitable.

A trend is an idea, activity, philosophy, or action that is constantly changing over time. For your brand to keep up with trends, it is important to evolve as your market evolves.

Remember that whether you’re talking about fashion, design, aesthetics, products, or anything else, people make trends. Trends are a reflection of their psychology, and people will be inclined to follow others. Use that fact to produce trends that matter to your audience and therefore your brand.

For more creative inspiration, head over to the Elements Blog to read up on the latest trendstipsinterviews and roundups

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