Year in Review: The Biggest Trends, Themes & Events of 2021

Ready to recap the year that was? From the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to the Squid Game phenomenon, here are the themes and events that defined 2021.

Year in Review: The Biggest Trends, Themes & Events of 2021
Portrait for Kelsie RimmerBy Kelsie Rimmer  |  Updated April 28, 2022

For many of us, 2021 was yet another year full of uncertainty and change. From the global pandemic and worldwide lockdowns to a variety of social, environmental and political movements, our lives have been defined by some pretty impactful themes over the past 12 months, which have directly affected the visual trends that have emerged.

As we look forward to a fresh start in 2022, we thought it was worth reminding ourselves of some of the key moments of the last year. Whether it’s the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, the Glasgow Climate Change Summit (COP26), the pandemic Olympics, or the Squid Game phenomenon, 2021 was a year of mixed emotions and bizarre, and – dare we say it – unprecedented events.

Ready to reminisce? Let’s recap one of the most eventful years in modern history. 

1. The Global Pandemic Continues

Woman in mask during pandemic by AnnaStills

As perhaps the defining event of 2021, there’s no denying that the COVID-19 global pandemic has had a massive impact on all of our lives. In addition to many people social distancing and working from home, nations around the world mandated lockdowns, businesses were forced to close their doors for weeks or months on end, and entire industries – such as live music, sporting events and the performing arts – were shut down completely. While this was an incredibly challenging time for many, it also encouraged some innovation driven by the need to get creative to stay afloat. 

Content creators were forced to produce content from their homes, leading to an increase in short-form social video on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram Reels. Many individuals turned to social media, streaming services, online shopping, gaming and video calls for entertainment and connection. And big events – such as Isolaid Festival, FinCon and even New York Fashion Week – either took place virtually or added a virtual element to their shows, allowing people from all over the world to tune in from the safety of their homes. But even as restrictions begin to ease, vaccination rates continue to increase and the world starts to open up, our experts expect the solutions that were developed over the last couple of years will outlast the pandemic and become the ‘new normal’. 

“The ‘new normal’ is here to stay,” explains David Scott, Envato’s Senior Communications Manager. “With border restrictions and quarantine requirements around the world making international travel incredibly difficult – or just plain impossible – for many would-be event attendees, organizers had to think outside of the box to come up with suitable hybrid options. In areas of high vaccination rates, this has led to a dual track approach, where local attendees can still meet IRL and experience a socially distant event, while global attendees tune in online for the stream, connecting across virtual chat rooms and visiting virtual booths. While there remains an incredible variance in the quality of these online offerings, the events that will shine in the future are the ones who can find smart and direct ways to connect the offline event experience with online attendees.” 

The global crisis has also a big influence on the kind of visual content being created and consumed – including content about the pandemic itself. For example, since March 2020, we’ve seen COVID-19 related search terms trending heavily on Envato, with keywords such as “coronavirus”, “quarantine”, “social distance”, “medical mask”, and “stay home” in particularly strong demand. With Omicron-related items already popping up on Envato Elements – only a short time after the new strain was announced – we think it’s safe to say that global pandemic has now become a normal part of our collective psyche and everyday lives. 

“It would be unthinkable not to mention how the pandemic has impacted demand for specifically related content over the past year,” says Envato Photos Specialist, Gaby Jalbert. “This includes medical research, hygiene best practices, working from home, online education, online shopping, delivery services, social distancing, economic issues, mental illness and so on.” 

To check out the kind of items trending due to the global pandemic, take a look at this Vaccination Flyer Set by Graphicapital, this 3D Illustration by megostudio or this Omicron Concept by twenty20photos.

2. COP26: The Glasgow Climate Summit

Young group of demonstrators on road from different culture and race fight for climate change by DisobeyArtPh

With environmental issues continuing to impact both the planet and our everyday lives, there’s been an increased focus around climate action and awareness throughout 2021, led by activists including Greta Thunberg. The United Nations Climate Change conference – more commonly referred to as the COP26 Summit – was held in Glasgow earlier this year, resulting in a new global agreement called the Glasgow Climate Pact which aims to set the global agenda on climate change for the next decade. 

Countries around the world pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the use of coal, phase-out fossil fuel subsidies, and increase funding to help third-world countries cope with the effects of climate change and make the switch to clean energy. The Glasgow Climate Summit spurred on important conversations around the world this year, further increasing the focus on climate change and environmental sustainability as we move forward in 2022. 

As a result of increased focus and debate around environmental issues, content relating to nature and the environment is becoming incredibly popular for both photos and graphics. Gaby explains, “During these challenging times, many are still very preoccupied by environmental issues and raise valid questions around the importance the environment should have in the global economic recovery – renewable energy, air quality, natural resources, etc.”

Since mid 2020, searches for “environment” in graphics and photos have been up 50% and 60% respectively, while terms such as “nature”, “recycle” and “sustainable” are growing even faster as sustainability becomes an increasingly pressing topic for businesses.

“Over the past year I’ve seen a shift in thinking from reduce, reuse, recycle to adopting a low carbon, plastic free lifestyle,” says Kate McInnes, Envato Content Specialist. “It’s great to see more and more people make sustainable lifestyle choices and use graphic design to share the message with others.“

Show your support for environmental causes and issues with these Environment Instagram Stories by RahardiCreative or this Environmental Sustainability Flyer by Rawpixel.

3. Squid Game Goes Viral

With many of us in and out of lockdown in 2021, at times, there wasn’t much else to do other than sit on the couch, get out the snacks, and binge watch Netflix. From the crazy true-crime of “Tiger King” to the mesmerizing murder-mystery “You”, there were plenty of shows that took the world by storm over the past year. But there was one that surpassed all others to – quite literally – break the internet.

Almost immediately after its release on September 17, Korean thriller Squid Game became the internet’s favorite show, exceeding Netflix’s record as the platform’s most popular series of all time. Only nine days after it hit the streaming service, Squid Game became the No. 1 Netflix show in dozens of countries, including the U.S., the United Kingdom and South Korea. It also exploded on social media, spurring on an endless stream of memes and leading to the hashtag #SquidGame being viewed a whopping 22.8 billion times on TikTok.

While the show received ample advertising around the world, it’s viral success has been attributed to word-of-mouth marketing. Its unique, dystopian concept fascinated social media users, with many raving about the show on platforms from Twitter to TikTok. 

“People hear about it, people talk about it, people love it, and there’s a very social aspect to that, which does help grow the show outside of what we do,” said Netflix’s global TV head, Bela Bajaria, to Vulture magazine

Officially the most popular non-english TV show in Netflix history, Squid Game also became a worldwide phenomenon due to its accessibility, offering subtitles in 37 languages and dubs in 34 languages. It also opened important conversations around diversity online, with many claiming that the translations provided missed crucial context.

Squid game honeycomb game by twenty20photos

Items that capture the concepts employed in Squid Game have started popping up on Envato Elements – such as this video by RuslanMikaielian or this photo by twenty20 photos that depicts the infamous honeycomb game scene from the show. 

4. Social Platforms Fight for Domination 

TikTok is already the fifth most popular and fastest-growing social media platform in the world

As social media continues to evolve, social media platforms are fighting it out in a bid to stay hip and relevant. In the past year, giants Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have all introduced similar video and audio features to that of emerging platforms – such as TikTok and Clubhouse.

It’s unsurprising that the big guys are trying to replicate the up and comers, given the meteoric rise of TikTok in particular. While Facebook technically still reigns as the most popular social media platform, with over 2.7 billion monthly active users, TikTok is hot on its heels with the fastest growth of any platform this year. Since launching only five years ago, TikTok has already become the fifth most popular social media platform in the world, with 700 million monthly active users. Instagram is still the platform of choice for most Gen Z and Millenials, and has also seen impressive growth this year boasting over 1.2 billion monthly active users

The general public’s social media platform of choice is continually shifting, and 2022 we expect that the fast-growing platforms will be the ones to watch. With the social media space being monopolized by a few big players for years now, it’s certainly interesting to see the hottest social media sites of the moment battle it out for our attention. May the best platform win!

To spruce up your social media content in 2022, check out this TikTok Pack by yura_fresh, this Thrives – Instagram Pack by visuelcolonie, or this Fashion Facebook Cover by mikrotypestd

5. Facebook Becomes ‘Meta’

Facebook rebrands as Meta

While we’re on the topic of social media, in 2021 Facebook reinvented itself, officially changing the company’s name to ‘Meta’. Announced at the Facebook Connect augmented and virtual reality conference in October, it is the first rebrand in the company’s 17-year history and is said to reflect the company’s “growing ambitions beyond social media”. Facebook – AKA Meta – adopted the new name based on the sci-fi term “metaverse”, in a bid to better describe its vision for the future of the virtual world.

“Today we are seen as a social media company, but in our DNA we are a company that builds technology to connect people, and the metaverse is the next frontier just like social networking was when we got started,” said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Our hope is that within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.” 

In addition to its new newsletter feature Bulletin, the Facebook franchise has also ramped up its efforts in hardware over the last year, introducing Portal video-calling devices, RayBan Stories glasses, as well as Oculus virtual-reality headsets, indicating that augmented and virtual reality will be a key part of Meta’s strategy for 2022 and beyond. We’re intrigued to see what plays out across the Metaverse in years to come. 

To level up your Facebook content in the new year, try out these Facebook Ads by surotype or this Facebook Opener by soundeleon

6. Crypto & NFTs Explode

Mike Winkelmann's NFT artwork ‘The First 5000 Days’ which sold for a record-breaking $69 million

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet over the past year, you’ve probably heard about NFTs – a cryptocurrency that’s taking the digital world by storm. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) have absolutely exploded online in 2021, with both collectors and creators investing big time in these digital artworks and, in some cases, shelling out huge amounts of money to own them. Digital artist Beeple – also known as Mike Winkelmann – sold his NFT artwork ‘The First 5000 Days’ earlier this year for a record-breaking $69 million – a figure that lands him in the top three highest-earning living artists alongside Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

According to Cointelegraph, sales are expected to reach $17.7 billion by the end of the year. There’s no denying that NFTs are one of the biggest trends in the world right now, but what are they and why are they so popular? 

NFT stands for non-fungible token, which essentially means that the item being traded is unique and can’t be replaced with anything else. This makes NFTs one-of-a-kind – a quality highly valued by the art industry in particular. NFTs can be anything digital – such as videos, photos, music or digital art. They’re a part of the Ethereum blockchain, which also supports other cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, but as non-fungible tokens are unique, they store more information than other ETH coins, making them more valuable. 

NFTs provide an alternative way for artists and digital creators to sell work, allowing them to ‘mint’ their artworks as individual tokens which other people can then purchase. NFTs also pay artists a percentage every time the NFT is sold or changes hands, so the original digital artist continues to reap the benefits of the work’s success.

On the flip side of the (bit)coin, there’s also a lot of controversy surrounding NFTs. Tokenized artwork is still technically the same as every other version of it – meaning that aside from the NFT label, there isn’t really anything that sets it apart from any other copies of the work in question. It’s also important to note the environmental impact and carbon footprint of NFTs, with Bitcoin mining alone generating around 37 million tons of CO₂ every year. 

To read more about this crypto craze, check out our NFT explainer blog. 

7. The Pandemic Olympics

2021 Tokyo Olympics held in a pandemic

A decade in the making and delayed by a year due to the global crisis, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics made history this year for being held in the midst of a pandemic.

Despite worldwide lockdowns, social distancing regulations and travel restrictions, the 2021 Olympics were as spirited as ever, boasting an extravagant opening ceremony (albeit in a nearly empty stadium due to social distancing restrictions) and an array of record-breaking performances from athletes all over the world. The event provided some much needed entertainment and inspiration for those in lockdown around the world.  

In addition to going ahead in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, the 2021 Olympics also sparked some important conversations around the mental and physical well-being of Olympic athletes. In particular, US star gymnast Simone Biles – who was seeking to become the first woman in more than half a century to retain the all-around title in 2021 – garnered worldwide support for her decision to drop out of the women’s gymnastics team final to focus on her mental health.

She returned to claim bronze on the balance beam in addition to the US team’s silver medal, with many taking to social media to show their respect and support for her difficult yet admirable decision. While the first pandemic Olympics were nothing short of impressive, we certainly hope they will be the last!

And that’s a wrap on 2021! To look back on the year that was, check out the Hottest Creative Trends in Design, Video, Audio & More for 2021. Or, to look ahead to the new year, check out Envato’s Top Creative Trend Predictions for 2022. 

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