Top trends in writing: Lessons from the world of graphic design

An infographicabout the top graphic design trends for 2019 got me wondering about whether there might be corresponding trends in writing. Whether there might be linguistic versions of aesthetic tastes and preferences that evolve over time, and for similar reasons.

I’m not sure there are. But here’s a working premise: What causes aesthetic values to evolve over time also impacts linguistic values. Just as an image or shape or color maybe viewed as beautiful at one time and not at another, so too does a compositional form or device resonate and excite at one time and fall flat at another. And I would speculate that the most forceful cause of shifts today in both aesthetic and linguistic tastes is technology. Being bombarded with content, being forced to skim and scan, being confined to echo chambers, facing the homogenizing of content where superficial musings and well-defined arguments appear on the same shelf and where opinion masquerades as fact and information, all impact how we experience and value both images and collections of words.

Here is the result of applying some of the design trends described in that infographic to approaches to writing.

1.      Fluid Shapes: “Flat, perfect shapes are outdated and it’s high time to explore other options.”

Perfection is, apparently, outdated. People are drawn to what’s irregular, things that aren’t smooth or nicely packaged. When writing, be willing to skirt norms and rules. Play with rules of grammar. (But don’t ignore them – there’s a palpable difference between writing that mistakenly violates the rules and that which does so deliberately.) Be gritty in your language. Be edgy in your tone. Be rough in your themes. (Which is to say – risk being impolite and confronting difficult, awkward, or uncomfortable subjects.) Be willing to play with traditional narrative structures: Try putting the end at the beginning; or start with the rising action and then describe what led to it. Consider even toying with logical structure: State the conclusion up front and then outline the premises. But be careful here: While linguistic taste may be subject to fashion, cognition is not.

2.      Retro Visuals: “Redefining or reinventing past movements and styles will make your design more ambient this year.”

Invoking what resonated in the past attracts - presumably it tickles people’s sense of nostalgia. When telling your story or making your point, try throwing in a narrative format or a device or style that was widely used in the past. Like romance. Or tragedy. Or allegory. Or try an Epizeuxis, the quick repetition of words and phrases. (e.g., “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”) Or a Polysyndeto, the repeated use of extra conjunctions in quick succession. (e.g., Shakespeare: “If there be cords, or knives, or poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I’ll not endure it.”) Or a Hypophora, where you ask a question and then answer it immediately. (From Corinthians: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.”)

3.      3D Design: Is “now used to create depth and a unique user experience across platforms.”

You can bring depth and dimensionality to your writing in various ways, one of which is through story telling (which essentially means character and plot, tension, resolution). Give people mental images they can identify with, that feel real, that have shades of meaning, suspense, conflict, detailed descriptions, insights, realizations. Use vivid language. Write in a way that more closely resembles speech: Use contractions or incomplete sentences or informal language and phrasing. At a more literal level, be willing to explore images within language. One way is through emojis. Yes it’s easy to knock them as lazy and unprofessional. But, as Peter Gasca argues in this article, emojis can be effective and efficient in communicating complex ideas. “It might be time for older generations who have fought against the evolving communication traditions to embrace this new form of communication. And if ‘embrace’ is too strong a word to use so early, let me just say ‘accept.’”

4.      Neon Color Shock: “’The bolder, the better’ is definitely the new motto for graphic designers.” and 5. Bold type: “Bold but minimalistic (sic) type is more eye-catching than an over-designed page.”

Whether it’s articles, speeches, marketing materials, or even email announcements, your words are little more than a splash against the title-wave of content that your readers confront each day. So, how to draw attention to your little splash? I suggest it’s not as simple as writing catchy headlines or churning out vacuous lists that offer the promise of quick bites and easy digestion. To write boldly is to really lift the haze that comes with the torrents of content that blur together under the weight of clichés and corporate-speak. Say what others know is true but aren’t willing to say. Speak truth. Be relentlessly vivid and real. Write as if your audience is one person whose heart you wish to touch. Help her see what you see. Talk to his fears. Tend to her dreams. Don’t be afraid to sound like an imperfect, real human.

6.      Asymmetry: “Asymmetry incites curiosity because it’s unconventional. Surprise viewers with an unexpected layout or compositions.”

People gravitate to symmetry. It represents order. It’s binary. It is elegance and simplicity. It comforts. And, apparently, it is typical. And typical is now dull. The pleasure of asymmetry – or at least the attractiveness of it – is about the allure of the subversive, of disorder and complexity, of randomness and uncertainty. Perhaps because it is closer to life as it is lived than as it’s packaged in consumer marketing (among other things). In terms of writing, this is more about content that form or style. When making an argument, when providing the rationale for a decision, when laying out a vision or explaining a strategy, allow for ambiguity. Be willing to talk about what may not be good or strong or bright. Include what is negative, what is unknown, what contradicts. Resist the bows that tie everything together as if the road ahead were linear or the challenges nothing more than “opportunities.” Failure may not be an option. But if you are willing to entertain it, you increase your chances of avoiding it. 

7.      Gradients: “A soft transition will soothe the eye and keep you on-trend.”

The author writes that gradient coloring will help to “breathe life into the simplest design.” Once again, the theme is that, to be engaging, a sense of aliveness – of being vibrant, awake, animated, in some sense realistic – is better than approaches that feel spiritless, plastic, contrived, or artificial. Clear narrative and logical transitions are a fundamental of quality writing, allowing the reader or listener to be carried along, with a sense of direction and destination. Know the main point you're trying to make and ensure that everything in your piece serves it. Avoid lengthy digressions or detours. In speeches or editorials, don’t preach and pontificate but rather write as if you’re in conversation and sincerely interested in hearing what your interlocutors (be they real or imagined) are saying. If you read it aloud to yourself – whatever the format, whether a speech or a white paper or a marketing brochure or an email message – and think, "no one really talks this way," try again.

If there’s a single theme running through these trends, it’s an embrace of some form of realism and authenticity. Whereas 19th century realism in art represented a rebellion against romanticism's emphasis on exaggeration, drama, idealism, elitism, it seems to be re-surging today as a rebellion against the deceptiveness and sense of vacuousness brought about by social technology, virtual and augmented realities, and modern capitalism in general.

This just might mean that the arc of linguistic taste is bending toward the personal, the real, the human, the genuine. Might it even be bending towards an interest in truth? Now wouldn't that be a trend worth writing about…

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