Waitress with mask at outside patio

3 Key Design Trends for Businesses in 2021

10+ min read • Feb 01, 2021 • Kayla Voigt

Form follows function.

It’s one of the first lessons in any introductory biology class, but the same concept is true of any architectural space. With more time spent at home than ever before, the rooms of our living spaces now pull double or triple duty as schools, offices, and relaxation spaces. How does this translate to the real world? With a hopeful outlook on 2021—and a return to public life, offices, and more with a vaccine—comes a new perspective on design that will mark the next decade.

Here are the top design trends that businesses should think about for 2021 and beyond:

Flexible, Hygienic Functionality

The most important trend? Rethinking business, retail, and office spaces to promote health and hygiene. Most office buildings, for example, don’t have windows that open—and outdated HVAC systems can easily spread viruses and bacteria throughout an entire floor.

“Building owners, managers, and developers who considered health more of a touchy-feely subject or didn’t think they had control over it—the pandemic has forced them to think about it and the multitude of ways they do have control over it,” Reena Argarwal, COO of the Center for Active Design, told NPR

Rethinking functionality begins with the structure of the building, from the number of doors or touchpoints it takes to get to your desk to occupancy levels, windows, handwashing stations, and air filtration. The CDC recommends specific modifications to deal with COVID-19, such as spacing employees out, replacing high-touch communal items with personal ones, increasing airflow, and investing in ultraviolet cleaners or HEPA filtration.

But businesses post-pandemic also need to provide more reason for in-person interaction, now that it’s clear almost any nonessential worker can do their job from home. Traditional open office plans were originally thought to make employees happier and more productive, but all this “collaboration” just translated to distraction and less interaction, not more. 

Design leads the way forward in a new type of office. “Let’s let offices become team spaces,” design researcher Eve Edelstein told NPR. “Take those rows and rows of desks and turn them into carefully controlled spaces that people feel comfortable being in.”

Joyful, Eclectic Aesthetics

Spending more time at home has put a spotlight on how design impacts everyday life. The stark minimalism that looks great on Instagram doesn’t do so well when you spend all day in 1 place. With one of the worst years ever behind us, decorators are turning to aesthetics that spark joy (and not the Marie Kondo kind).



View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Sitio (@__sitio)

Think: blobs, squiggles, and wavy lines; more and more vibrant color; bold statement pieces; and personalization. “Blobby design is up to your own interpretation, which is perhaps why it’s soothing,” writes Bettina Makalintal for Vice. “There’s no right answer as to why a blob calls to you, and a blob can be something—or it can just be a blob. The world is harsh and sharp; blobs, meanwhile, are loose and free.”



View this post on Instagram


A post shared by 2LG Studio (@2lgstudio)

The cafes, restaurants, and offices of the next decade won’t be stark, personality-less spaces but expressive, vibrant ones that call to mind ‘80s trends without feeling tired, especially now that neon walls, botanical prints, and millennial pink feel outdated. “A lot of restaurant interior trends these days are Instagram-based, like neon signs or patterned tiles or wallpaper,” Hannah Collins, hospitality designer, told Eater. “We are very attracted to beautiful photos, and it’s something we spend an insane amount of time looking at. It’s what draws people in, it’s free marketing, and it’s part of your survival strategy as a restaurant.”



View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Clever (@getclever)

More than anything, people are ready to leave behind the stark-white Scandanavian farmhouse mood from the late 2010s. When they do return to public spaces, it will mark a triumphant, colorful return.

Outdoor Spaces

Aesthetics come and go. One thing experts agree on, however: outdoor-centric design is here to stay. Nordic “friluftsliv,” translated to “free air life,” is the new “hygge.” It’s all about getting as much nature time as possible, even if the weather outside isn’t ideal.


Over the summer, many restaurants converted parking lots and patios to accommodate more seating. Now, they’re offering everything from branded blankets to heated mini-cabins in an effort to keep business up during the winter


Diners likely won’t want to go backward—whether that’s installing drive-through and takeout windows like Italy’s “wine windows” or making city sidewalks into open-air cafes. “We are seeing more guests request outdoor seating, and as a result, restaurant owners are beginning to work more creatively in how they design their patio space in a way where it can work all year-round,” Chef Chris Ponte told Modern Restaurant Management. “More thought has gone into how we utilize our patio space and how we will think of outdoor dining going forward.”


For businesses, that means investing more in outdoor-centric spaces like patios, fire pits, green space, and other ways for employees and customers to bring the outside in, like natural materials and potted plants. “In order to incorporate this concept into design, I predict [people] will be bringing indoor elements outside, such as lighting and seating, to create cozy yards, patios, stoops, or balconies,” design expert Dayna Isom Johnson told Apartment Therapy. “After a year marked by distance and uncertainty, the 2021 trends are all about creating connections—to each other, to ourselves, to nature, and to our communities—and restoring balance to our homes and lives.”


Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.