Designing for Generation Z: How to Engage Today’s Super-Savvy Kids and Teens

Gen Z, the Internet Generation, the Post-Millennials, the Plurals — they’re hard to define, but most experts agree that the 69 million young people born between 1995 and 2012 are the largest and most diverse cohort in U.S. history.

Their normal is the old unconventional. They arrived at nursery school knowing how to pinch and swipe — not at fellow toddlers, but on touch screens. Many were born after the launch of Facebook, so their whole childhoods were posted online. They owned their first smartphones before their 11th birthdays, and spend up to nine hours a day consuming media, including two to four hours watching YouTube videos. With a spending power of more than $44 billion, they’re also the richest, and arguably the most vocal and open-minded generation ever.

Designers have to dig deep and work insightfully in order to craft brand messages, designs, and online experiences that will engage these savvy kids and teens. Adobe Creative Cloud for teams gives your organization the tools it needs to develop an authentic concept and bring it to millions of screens, but how do you and your clients effectively design for and market to Gen Z?

Understand the psychology.

To design effectively for any audience, a designer must first understand what makes them tick. Bailey Hancox, a researcher and designer at Designworks, recently conducted an in depth study into the mind of Gen Z and what makes them unique from other generations.

“Gen Z is the first generation to be born into a world where technology is so profoundly ingrained within the functions of society,” Hancox says. “They simply don’t know life without computers, smartphones, and gaming devices. Unlike Millennials, who take their problems to the Genius Bar, members of Gen Z look for solutions on their own and are completely capable of achieving them independently.”

With this in mind, designers can alter the way they approach Gen Z-related projects. “Since Gen Z has such a level of self-direction and purpose, brands can present designs as a way to empower this generation to be the best versions of themselves,” Hancox says.

Messages should feel personal.

“Kids in Gen Z are changing so fast, you almost have to say something individualized to each of them,” Nick Iannitti, director of communications at Fuel Youth says. “There’s a real brand fickleness, so you’ve got to provide experiences that will stick.”

Since Gen Z operates in a world of constant communication with friends and family, your designs should feel like something that comes from a close friend, not a nameless company. Incorporate casual, everyday language, and even slang into your projects.

Embrace bright colors.

Gen Z lives for color. “Bright, colorful surprises can grab their attention early and keep it,” Iannitti says.

When designing for this age group, anything and everything goes. Embrace trends like neon gradients and mixed patterns. Be fearless as you experiment with new color combinations and unexpected partnerships in texture and hue. If it catches your eye and makes you look twice, it will do the same for Gen Z.

Make them part of the design process through co-creation and collaboration.

A surefire way to capture Gen Z’s attention is to make them feel like they are part of the design process. “Our research shows that Gen Z want brands to be a resource, not an endpoint,” Sam Crompton, director of insights and trends at Ziba Design says. “If you provide a modular toolkit, they will curate their own individual approach. What’s important is to immerse yourself in their world — listen to them, and include them in the design process as co-creators.”

Consider posting potential projects like logo designs or poster mock-ups on social media and allowing Gen Z to vote, or have them submit their own design ideas and build on their suggestions.

Don’t baby things down.

Because they are so tech savvy, Gen Z is way ahead of past generations in terms of exposure to visuals and advertisements. Today’s six-year-olds think and act in many ways like the 14-year-olds from two decades ago. “Don’t baby things down,” Iannitti says. Gen Z wants to be treated like adults, and feeling like a design is “for babies” will send them running in the opposite direction.

In most cases, avoid cartoonish figures and stereotypically young images like rainbows and suns with fluffy clouds. If you find yourself thinking, “I chose this element because young kids like this,” think twice.

Embrace fluidity and inclusivity.

Gen Z is all about breaking down barriers. “In previous generations, you might have joined specific groups and claimed a singular identity,” Crompton says. “Gen Zhas completely disrupted these social clusters of the past and are instead fluid in their identities. Ask a Gen Z ‘What are you known for?’, and they might say, ‘I’m a musician, a skateboarder, a photographer, a digital designer, an environmentalist and pre-med.’”

Keep this fluidity in mind as you design. Standard delineations — like blue for boys and pink for girls — no longer apply.

All content should be shareable, scalable, and snackable.

With 24/7 access to information, much of Gen Z’s identity is forged by content they create and share. “Their self-esteem rests largely on the number of followers they have and likes they receive,” Hancox says.

Embrace this proclivity for social media by designing content with shareability in mind. “In design, that means lots of quotes, short videos, and images with text overlays,” Hancox says.

Remember that Gen Z communicates much of the time via emojis, videos, and GIFs. Also, ensure content is scalable. Does it look and function as well on an Instagram feed as it does on a website banner or print ad?

Gen Z’s attention span is also shorter than previous generations. “We have about eight seconds to capture their attention, so content must be short, sweet, and snackable, that is, quickly understood by the viewer, who’s made hungry for more,” Hancox says.