As the longer term cultural impacts of the pandemic become clear, Fjord’s Global co-lead Martha Cotton unpicks the ‘fabric of life’ and shares the Fjord Trends 2022 with LBB’s Laura Swinton
Over the past couple of years, trendspotters have been playing a game of darts in a blizzard. Fumbling through a flurry of Covid-19 initiated change to feel out footholds in an unstable landscape, trying to draw up a proactive map when businesses, organisations and individuals were existing in a state of pure reactivity.
But, according to Martha Cotton, global co-lead at Accenture’s design practice Fjord and one of the architects of the annual Fjord Trends, the road ahead is looking a little clearer as we head into 2022. This year’s report reveals five key trends that are driven with tensions that get to the heart of some humanity’s big questions. If the global pandemic caused people to face up to fundamental issues within their own life and their place in the world, you can bet that has implications for business.
“Everyone wants to know what’s changed and what’s going to stay? Assuming we come out of this pandemic situation, what’s going to stick around? I feel like we’re starting to be able to answer that question with this trend report,” says Martha, who says that’s something we can all take heart from.
"Last year the meta theme, you may recall, was this idea of mapping out the new territory. That described that we were all in a territory that is unfamiliar to us... And now the thing I love about our meta theme for this year is that it builds on that. Now that we’re in this new territory, we’re really examining all of our relationships: with each other, with technology, with brands and services and we’re stitching it all together in this new fabric, we call it the fabric of life. One of the things that I take heart from is that’s an inherently optimistic position… and I think we’re all craving some optimism.”
Come as you are
The first trend reflects the growing sense of agency people have, the comfort with personal idiosyncrasies brought on or accelerated by two years of pandemic life. They’re less keen to feel pigeonholed and more likely to be questioning their lives and, particularly, their worklife.
This has a couple of key implications for businesses. The first is, of course, the much-vaunted ‘Great Resignation’ and talent crunch. Whether or not people do follow through on their dreams of quitting their jobs, talent retention and motivation is likely to be a huge question for employers and a significant design challenge.
More broadly, says Martha, it means that brands need to ramp up the individualised and person-centric design, and avoid making assumptions with clunky segmentation. At best, they risk missing opportunities - at worst they risk irritating and putting people off completely.
“Why is this meaningful for design? It means that as people engage with brands, with products and services, they’re putting themselves as the hero of their story. Your marketing teams need to be able to recognise that people are saying ‘don’t put me in a box’. I’m a big Olympics fan and over the summer Olympics, Tom Daley, the champion diver from the UK, was knitting in the stands. He’s saying: 'this is me, this is who I am'. Unapologetically coming as he is,” says Martha.
“To me there’s a huge lesson to be learned for how we think about human-centred design when humans are increasingly ‘out there’ with their complexity. Designers and marketers need to really recognise that because I don’t think we don’t think that that’s going to fade away.”
The end of abundance thinking?
Between the supply chain crisis and the climate crisis, the spectre of post-pandemic price hikes and tax rises, the public is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to think hard about purchases. It comes, paradoxically, after several years of seamless experiences and new fast turnaround commerce players creating an impression of instant gratification and plenty.
“Everyone knows what a supply chain is now!” laughs Martha as she reflects that the seeming mundanities of global logistics have become an ordinary topic for late night comics. While the interconnectedness of globalisation has been a vague and somewhat futuristic, cosmopolitan cloud in most of our minds for the past 30 years, the nitty gritty and nuts and bolts are now front and centre. “I think that’s a very new phenomenon... To me, that’s actually a super exciting design challenge because designing for scarcity is a new idea.”
The current supply chain issues may be a temporary situation, a more anxious, scarcity mindset is something that brands will need to acknowledge and face head-on. Fjord's trend hunters identified a growing frustration with built-in obsolescence, losable earbuds and other wasteful aspects of technology - an insight they labelled, provocatively, 'tech is trash'.
“To have abundance thinking is to reflect a sense of privilege, right? If you go through the world and can get whatever you want, whenever you want, that’s definitely coming from a place of privilege. But I do think it has kind of permeated the global consciousness,” says Martha of the abundance mindset that has framed brands’ assumptions. Deeply ingrained habits can be slow to change, but Martha says these changes are happening and businesses are exploring alternative business models around repair, rentals or re-selling.
“I think consumers are increasingly scrutinising their purchases based on where the product comes from, its global footprint and what it took to get to ‘me’.”
The next frontier
A 2022 trends report wouldn’t be a 2022 trends report without a reference to the metaverse. Of all the topics in the report, Martha says this is the one that people at brands have been most eager to hear about.
Described in the report as ‘a cultural explosion waiting to happen’ , and Martha says it has huge implications for the creator economy. This new frontier of the internet looks set to create new kinds of jobs, new ways to make money and new kinds of experiences - and new expectations for brands. But while there’s definitely a whiff of a gold rush - or NFT rush? - with her design hat on, Martha reckons businesses, organisations, communities and individuals need to think about what this new frontier should really be.
“To me that the challenge will be: okay, is it going to be a meaningful place?...Or is it just going to be another channel?” reflects Martha. Will it be somewhere people go to have substantial and worthwhile interactions and exchanges or will it become ‘just another way to buy digital shoes’.
With so much potential - not just in terms of content and experiences we access through screens and headsets but real-world experiences that interact with the digital world - now is the time to really think about that.
Moreover, from a creativity perspective, what’s really exciting Martha is what it means for creators. Not only could it change the way creators are recompensed - after decades of a toxic ‘work for exposure’ culture - but it also positions creators as valuable and valued architects. While there’s been a flurry of excitement around fashion brands selling, for example, AR clothes and accessories, the real opportunity is much deeper.
“I also think it is really interesting for the creator economy, and brings the agency to the creator themselves,” says Martha. And I think so to me, that's kind of exciting. OK, great, I can buy a Gucci purse, but what can individual creators do? And how can they bring value to the metaverse? I think that's actually going to be really interesting to watch.”
This much is true
Truth, trust and transparency are basic expectations in a culture where people have learned to access information at the tap of a finger. But the pandemic and all its constituent anxieties and uncertainties, and the competition between important medical advice and rampant conspiracy theory has only underlined the importance of truthfulness and trust.
From a communications perspective it means that brands really can’t risk a mismatch between nice words and nasty deeds. Authenticity has long been bandied around the marketing world but the Covid context means that it must be more than a mere buzzword.
“As people, we ask questions but we don’t necessarily trust the answer. We don’t know how to take answers. It’s clearly had a huge impact on how various countries have been able to fare in the pandemic, that lack of trust,” reflects Martha.
As a design challenge, brands should build their experiences in a way that makes information accessible, that are proactively honest and transparent without being overwhelming. And this doesn’t just relate to ethical issues. The supply chain crisis is a case in point - transparency and openness about out of stock products or delivery progress is an important tool for mitigating disappointment.
“Again, another monumental challenge is going to be core here. But when designing transparency, how you communicate with your consumers is going to be key to building trust. Being transparent about, you know, how supply chain issues are going to affect your ability as a brand to deliver the experience you're trying to is what organisations have to do.”
Handle with care
During the evidence-gathering stage of compiling the report, one signal that came loud and clear from every corner of the world and across the network of 2,000 designers, was the importance of mental health. It’s something that surprised Martha, but heartened her too.
That insight was developed into the wider trend of the importance of care - not only of our own health and wellness but of those we love. In developed countries, aging populations are creating an increasing care challenge and one that is traditionally and even still today left to women to deal with.
For brands, this creates opportunities to be present and helpful - but a care lens can also help inform when to be less intrusive or overwhelming.
"Now every business is in the care business,” says Martha. “Every time I get out of an Uber, my Uber driver usually says, ‘stay healthy’. Right? So it’s kind of built into our discourse. But how you translate that to a design challenge is super interesting. There are ways to think about accessibility, multi-sensory design, decluttering things (I don’t mean minimalistic design, just less in the process). I think there are a lot of ways this interest in care and business of care becomes actionable, which is key because it’s not enough to say, ‘I care about you’ you’ve got to demonstrate it.”
Trends and tensions
It’s no coincidence that this year’s trend report is bookended by seemingly contradictory topics. Up top, we’ve got the growth in individualism, personal identity and agency - to an extent, ‘me, me, me’. But at the end, we’ve got care - a topic that has become more prominent as the pandemic has given people the chance to reconnect with their families and communities. In other word, ‘we, we, we’.
Philosophically, the tension between the group and the individual is a core human conflict that crops up again and again throughout human history, and is a key question in politics, psychology and sociology.
And throughout the rest of the trends, those tensions in the fabric of life become more apparent. People may be approaching purchases with a sense of scarcity - but the dream of abundance, however illusory, is undeniably enticing. The metaverse is a new frontier of opportunity, but the pandemic fostered a renewed appreciation of green space, gardening and making stuff with our hands, from sourdough to new haircuts.
These tensions are a feature, not a bug of human existence. It’s not the role of the trends report to suggest which ‘side’ of a contradiction to bet one, but rather to help businesses navigate them. Balance is not a static state, but a constant shift.
“I don’t love tension, but I love the observation of the tension within it. I think actually living with that tension is part of the human experience. When I think about what we do with the tension, it’s not about resolving it, it is about finding balance,” says Martha.
So, if the landscape in 2022 looks a little bit clearer than it did in 2021, it’s also becoming apparent that businesses and designers are going to have to think about some of the really big human questions.
“The first trend is all about people not wanting to be defined or put in a box, it’s this idea of individualism and people are spending a lot of time alone… but then our last trend is about care. The collective, and our reliance upon each other. So to me, that’s a really nice bookend of that exact tension. We have ‘me versus we’, and I think working through that and resolving it is going to be the task of humanity,” says Martha. “You know… no big deal!”