The Scandinavian design aesthetic originated in—surprise!—the five Nordic countries: Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Simplicity, minimalism, and form following function characterize the aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean this “no frills” design aesthetic lacks artistry or creativity. On the contrary, the need to squeeze more utility and value out of less while achieving something physically beautiful is the essence of Scandinavian design.
When most of us consider Scandinavian design, IKEA and interior design are probably what comes to mind. However, this design aesthetic is just as powerful for graphic design projects, and can allow you to pack a powerful punch with anything from your branded marketing materials to your social media presence. In this post we’ll describe themes that shape Scandinavian design, explain why they are so popular, and provide you with some inspiration on how to apply Scandinavian flair to your graphic design projects.
Inspired by nature
People in the Scandinavian countries love being outside. Even in the midst of extremely cold, dark winters, it’s common to see babies bundled up and napping in carriages outside. It should come as no surprise, then, to note that Scandinavian design is inspired by nature, and that the great outdoors and all types of natural beauty are prominent, ongoing themes within the aesthetic.
Tip: Use leaves, trees, wood, bark, or even patterns based on the textures or silhouettes of these elements in your design to achieve the Scandinavian look.
Uniquely Scandinavian patterns
Traditional Scandinavian designs often contain patterns based on simple, flat botanical and animal illustrations that are usually arranged symmetrically. For example, you might see colorful evergreen tree silhouettes, stylized geometric snowflakes or flowers, vivid dala horses, or bright, cheery folk art birds. Hint: if a pattern has graced a traditional looking “Christmas sweater,” there’s an excellent chance it’s a traditional Scandinavian pattern.
Tip: Choose a geometric shape or expression of a botanical or animal, and repeat it symmetrically to create an appealing pattern.
Scandinavian design is simply modern. A final result in this style distills the essential attributes of even an old-school product into a simpler, more striking and modern message, not by adding attributes, but by reducing its overall complexity. Simplicity unites the color palette, typeface, layout, and other elements into a modern looking and feeling final product.
Tip: Include plenty of negative space; solid, uninterrupted colors; clean lines; and sans serif fonts. Aim to unite these elements so they produce a single, simple, modern effect without distractions.
Although the two are often conflated, simplicity and modernism are not the same thing, and Scandinavian design features both. In Scandinavian design the core elements of each design are forcefully rendered, and every extraneous detail is omitted. The end product is an abstraction of the actual product, a stronger, representative version. This minimalism is another expression of form following function, a hallmark of Scandinavian design.
Tip: Ensure that even the most minute element in each design is absolutely critical to the overall piece, and remove everything that isn’t essential.
Clean composition, forms, and lines are another piece of the Scandinavian design trend puzzle. Shapes and elements are allowed to stand on their own and given lots of space.
Tip: Start with clean, simple shapes as you originate your design elements. Avoid overcomplicating the design and ruining those lines.
Sans serif typography
Naturally, simpler, more modern looking sans serif fonts are central to Scandinavian design. Sans serif fonts drop serifs, those little “feet” that are at the ends of letters in around half of the fonts that are out there today. This elimination of the serif, while seemingly a small adjustment, makes a tremendous difference in how the font feels. Letters that themselves have more negative space between and among them add to this effect. Scandinavian typography looks cleaner and simpler, and allows the reader a more functional, down-to-earth experience.
Tip: Use sans serif fonts such as Sweden Sans or Helvetica and give your typography some space.
Scandinavian color palette
Life in Scandinavian countries inspires a unique color palette for use in design projects.
- Lighter, more neutral colors. Lighter pastels, whites and off-whites, and more neutral colors with grays, browns, and blacks sprinkled in for contrast, allow you to create designs that are nature-inspired.
- Sophisticated, understated elegance. A variation on the lighter, neutral color palette is its more sophisticated cousin, featuring richer cream shades, and earthier golds and terracottas.
- Colorful, high contrast brights. Nothing brightens up gray winter days like a splash of high contrast color, and you will see bright accents in brilliant blue, green, red, or orange here and there in Scandinavian designs.
Tip: To employ a Scandinavian color palette in a graphic design, start with the lighter neutrals that you need as your base, and then enhance with either a richer, sophisticated shade or perhaps a high contrast bright, depending on your design goals.
Craftsmanship and art
Just as the ability to work with natural resources and transform them into functional, beautiful pieces of furniture is central to Scandinavian interior design, artistry and craftsmanship play an influential role in Scandinavian graphic design. Hand illustrations, custom typefaces, original patterns, and artists’ engravings all enhance Scandinavian graphic design, as does the basic ethic of using creativity to make the most of precious, scarce resources.
Tip: Use original art and design to create a handcrafted look.
Join the Scandinavian movement
Scandinavian design is hot, and it fits right in with other trends in graphic design. If you’d like to make this aesthetic work for your next project, start by picking two or three of the characteristics outlined here. Let these examples inspire you, or, if you’re looking for a stunning result that’s custom made for you, start a logo and brand identity contest with a Scandinavian design aesthetic as your goal!