In her mission to demystify trend research, Els Dragt is determined to simplify it for everyone. After writing a book on the subject for beginners, she is now focusing on helping marketing, strategy and innovation folks incorporate trend research methods into their daily jobs. During our conversation, we discussed what makes a good trend report and how to build credibility with clients. Furthermore, we spoke about openness as an underrated skill and why trend research is the freest form of research.
You’ve been a trend researcher for almost 20 years. How did you get into this field?
Many people who work in this type of job are innately curious. As a kid, I wondered why things were the way they were. Why were people behaving in a certain way? Why is something seen as normal or abnormal? I’ve always been interested in people who challenge the status quo and create change. I don’t have to be a trendsetter or change-maker myself; I’m just really interested in their motivations and drivers.
I chose a background in social studies because I wanted to understand how people behave individually and in groups. I remember, back at university, I spent a lot of time doing statistics, creating surveys, and using SPSS to analyse them. However, there was one teacher who conducted group discussions and qualitative in-depth interviews. After doing so much quantitative work, I was surprised that you could actually meet the people you were researching. That’s where I realised this is what I want.
After university, I worked in different research jobs. I learned a lot about interviewing, connecting with all kinds of people, and diving deeper into their motivations. I then slowly moved into a space where I could explore specific groups, like change-makers and frontrunners. I also started adding observational techniques, which involved going to events and exhibitions and taking in visual cues during field research.
Somewhere along the way, somebody labelled what I was doing as trend research. And I thought, “Okay, is this what it’s called?” I didn't learn it at school, but because of my social research foundation, I could move quickly into this field. When you have research skills, especially if you’re adept at qualitative research, which is already quite ambiguous, you are equipped to deal with even more ambiguous information about the future. And I love it because it's so free.
What do you mean when you say it’s free?
Because it’s about the future, and because the future is uncertain, nobody has an answer. It's okay to not know where you're going or what you'll end up with. By contrast, market research is often more structured and focused. It feels a bit rigid, whereas with futures research I have more room to play.
Can you give me an example?
Any type of trend research feels free to me because I can use whatever I observe. Be it on the street or at some weird event. I love going to events because I'm interested in almost anything as long as it is somewhat different and offers a fresh perspective. It can be about finance, fashion, agriculture, or food; if someone exhibits a new design concept or shares their future vision, I want to soak it all up and make sense of it. It’s research in free form. Trend research doesn't have the same super-focused starting point as most other types of research. It's more about exploring what is changing and why.
Based on your experience, what makes an effective trend researcher? What skills and talents do people in this field naturally have?
Curiosity is a key factor. Wanting to understand the why behind all changes. For futures researchers specifically, it’s also crucial to have an openness to the multiple directions the future might move into. Creativity is important too; finding new ways to explore and connect seemingly unrelated things from very diverse sources; finding patterns and creating a coherent storyline about one or more possible futures.
Openness is an underrated skill. While working at agencies and trying to get my colleagues into trend scanning, I noticed that it's not easy for everyone. Not everybody can open up as easily as people who work in trends almost naturally can.
That’s interesting. Could you elaborate a little bit more on openness?
It's when you see something different and new without immediately judging it. Many people when they see something new immediately have all kinds of opinions about it. Whereas the researcher’s reaction is: “Hey, what is this?”and “Oh, interesting, let's explore!” This openness allows you to explore something new from all kinds of angles. You can see the good things, the bad things and the implications. Instead of having opinions, a trend researcher imagines possibilities.
What about the dichotomy of creative and analytical thinking? Some people are more creative, some people are more analytical, but as a futures researcher you're both. You can imagine different outcomes and scenarios, but you can also be very systematic in how you think.
Exactly. When I started out as a researcher, I thought I was more on the analytical side because that's how society sees you when you are a researcher; you are analytical, and the creative stuff is for artists. Later, I realised that you can also be creative in your analysis and in how you connect the signals. When I work with others, be they colleagues or students, we all tend to see very different patterns, and some don't see any patterns at all. It’s both openness and creativity that enable you to discover these relations between the seemingly unconnected. You can also be creative in naming your trends and in thinking of engaging ways to share them.
Many people falsely assume that all you need is a bit of desk research, which leads to a host of trend reports that are not very good.
I agree. Solid trend research explains the why behind these trends. But often people get stuck talking about the signal—a new product or style they label as a trend. Often, technologies like Chat GPT are also confused for trends. Trend researchers, however, always like to know what lies behind the new, whether it's a technology, a product, or a business model. There’s always the question of why people want to use or adopt it. What role will it fulfil in their future daily lives? This layer is something I don't see in every trend analysis. Luckily, I see it more and more. Because that's where you create value—by explaining the needs and values underlying all these interesting signals of change.
What I like about your book is that it acknowledges that there are different ways to talk about and research trends. It presents a framework that guides the process without being too rigid or prescriptive. However, the lack of a standard vocabulary and uniform framework is sometimes seen as an impediment to the discipline's advancement and credibility. What’s your take on this?
On the one hand, it would make life easier if there was one formula, like in physics, where you have one gravity equation. But on the other hand, it’s always been this way in social studies. This is especially true for a new discipline like Foresight which has only been around for fifty or sixty years and is still in development. It’s natural for the stage the domain is in.
Another question is whether a rigid framework fits the domain. I’m not sure. I always start my presentations by introducing my framework and foundation, so that the audience can understand where I come from. I also like having different discussions about how to approach a specific research question. My worry is that when we agree on something, it might feel like it can never change. That's not something I’d like.
What is your recommendation for building credibility with clients?
I like to start my workshops by asking my clients what they mean when they talk about trends. Before telling them my definition, I want to know theirs. What I often see is that very different descriptions circulate within their company. For one person, it’s a 3D printer; for the other, it’s digitalisation or aging society. They're all on different levels in that sense. This simple exercise helps them reflect on their own understanding of trends and offers a great opening to introduce my definition and approach.
Showing my process was vital at the beginning of my career. When I started out, it was the time of the “trend guru”, where the focus was on fancy slides with super-inspiring signals of change. As a researcher, I wanted to learn more about the process behind it. But often, they didn't show it. So, whenever I gave a keynote, I began by explaining my process and my taxonomy before I delved into the output of my trend research. Therefore, my recommendation would be to reflect on your framework and foundation for your trend work. Also, consider how you would explain it to someone in an understandable manner. This is the first step in getting people on board with what you're doing. Instead of alluding to an intuitive or mystical process that happens in a blackbox, be transparent about your process.
Transparency and openness not only build credibility but also enable people to buy into something that might be difficult to grasp.
An important disclaimer is to say that we are not predicting; we are exploring. It’s also crucial to emphasise that there won’t be many numbers. Since we're discussing new and emerging changes, they are often not quantified yet, and only a minority has adopted them. Clients will be more likely to accept your work when you share this information in a clear-cut manner beforehand. And yes, some people will need more certainty, and that's fine. To find the right fit with a client, you have to share your way of working. This will attract the types of companies and clients who can handle it. I'm not so much into being a chameleon and adapting to any type of client and giving them what they want.
Let's talk about your book, “How to Research Trends,” which you're currently updating. When you first came up with the idea, what was your motivation for writing it?
The book was published in 2017, but I finished it around 2015, hence the update. My job back then was lecturing on trend research. At that time, we couldn't find textbooks that fit our study program. We had many trend reports written by different agencies or companies, but they didn't show the process behind them. However, our students needed to learn the process to create those trend reports themselves. So, we looked for this type of book. But it was super difficult to find. Today, there are many more options. But back then, I decided to write it myself. I was attracted to this project because I like to make information accessible. And I had to explain how to do trend research to someone who just graduated high school. So, with an eighteen-year-old student in mind, the focus was on making complex processes understandable and accessible for newbies in the field.
Your book talks about different signature styles in trend research. Be it with regards to a specific trend focus, methodology, or way of presenting trends. What is your signature style?
I would describe my style as down-to-earth. I want people to understand what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. After you read a report or see a presentation, I would like you to be able to do something with it. I want people to feel like they can work with this type of information rather than be confused and overwhelmed by it. So, my style is to make it concrete and practical. At least that’s the feedback I get, as it's not easy to reflect on your own style. But clients tell me that I make it more comprehensible and actionable for them. There are two ways I do it: First, by balancing the very far-off manifestations with mainstream brands tapping into the trend. And second, by combining visuals with text, even though text is my main entry point. I had to train the visual part to become better at it.
How did you train it?
I worked at a communication agency with very creative colleagues who used graphic design and visuals in many interesting ways. As a result, I learned how to combine images, recognise what makes a good image, how to use images that translate mood, and where to find interesting images that aren't stock. By watching these visually skilled people, I learned a lot from their visual style. So now, when I present, I have something for everyone: people who are more drawn to the text, the visuals, or both—in line with my style of making it accessible to many people.
You've also written a book about asking questions “Dare to ask”. Do you see a connection between thinking about the future and asking questions?
Yes, definitely. My job is to research, and research is about questions. When I see something new, questions pop up in my mind immediately: what is this, how can it be, why, etc. Because I did a lot of qualitative interviewing in my work, it also made me reflect on conversations between friends in informal situations or discussions on TV talk shows. Many times, I was annoyed that it wasn't very explorative. The answers were already contained in the questions posed. They were suggestive or leading. And as a researcher, I want conversations to be open and explorative. So, I had to do something about it. I didn't want to write another lecture-style book, but create something more informal, a playful book about asking questions.
Asking questions is imperative for futures work, where you need to open the realm of possibility. That’s why I like to do question-storming instead of brainstorming. The innovation process usually involves a lot of brainstorming. But it's very solution-driven, whereas I prefer it to be curiosity-driven, at least at the beginning of the process. Question-storming works like this: You share a challenge or topic you want to know more about with the participants. You then invite everyone to write down all their questions. Once you have gathered all the questions, you cluster them. This helps you discover new angles or even a more interesting challenge to pursue. Once you‘ve done that, you can start thinking about ways to find answers to these questions. It's a very different starting point than brainstorming ideas and solutions. As a researcher, I don't care so much about the solution; I'm more interested in exploration.
I feel that good questions are underrated. Not only the ability to ask open questions but also staying with the question a bit longer, reflecting on whether it’s the right question to pursue, instead of immediately needing an answer. Many of us feel uncomfortable being in this uncertain state of not knowing, so we start searching for answers.
As a researcher, you learn to feel confident that the answer will appear along the way. When you are not used to explorative work, you might struggle. I often see that it's more challenging for people whose job it is to focus on solutions. They jump to solutions because that's what others expect of them. They become impatient if you don’t give them ideas. That’s why, in my sessions, I like to do an exercise where people locate themselves on a line from being an explorer on one end to being a fixer on the other end. Some people are more on the explorative side, others more on the fixing-things-immediately side, and some are somewhere in between. And then you get all these nice conversations and learn why people are on one end of the line or the other.
I can see how this is great for teams and how it can help in a workshop setting to harness different strengths.
You understand everyone's starting point better. And you can be light-hearted about it, especially during the difficult phases of your innovation process. “Oh, here he comes with solutions again. Of course, you do; you are the fixer!” You can address it in a more fun way and avoid offending people.
Next to being a researcher, you are also a trend trainer and mentor, so you're helping companies build their own trend research capabilities. What challenges do companies face when moving trend research in-house?
Challenge number one is time. Often, the companies I work with that want to set up their own trend process and practice struggle to get time from upper management to work through the cycle of scanning, analysing, and applying trends at least once. So, upper management must buy in and allow at least three months to set up the process. It doesn’t have to be a full-time activity, but they need to invest time at the beginning. When you dedicate a bit of time to understanding the whole process and how to integrate it into your organisational processes and daily work, it will save you time in the long run.
The other challenge is dealing with uncertainty in the process. Again, because we are going to explore and not predict, we don't know where we will end up. I often advise people in companies to call the undertaking a “trend pilot” or “trend lab” because it gives them more freedom to experiment. It also allows things to go wrong or gives them permission to ask for more time or budget.
There is also a challenge in instilling openness in people to explore a variety of trends and countertrends. Many people find it hard at first to embrace a different kind of exploration. They mostly focus on their own businesses and industries. They also tend to stay on the manifestations level and only look at the latest products or technologies. I encourage them to also include and interpret art and explore novel visions in academic papers or other sources on the cutting edge. In addition, it is important to get more people involved so that the trend ambassador does not just work alone. The more people they get on board to help them, especially with scanning, the better. Finally, it's also about enabling them to do something with the trend insights from the trend lab or trend team.
It sounds like a big undertaking. How do you help them spread trend knowledge and trend thinking throughout the company?
It’s always smart to build on existing communication structures. You can use internal newsletters or portals. Make sure to share regular updates and snippets of your work. If you still work in an office, you can create a trend wall where you gather your research for everybody to see and add signals to this wall. If you work online, you can create an online space in Mural, for example.
It’s about being practical. I remember when I was at an agency and tried to get my colleagues to do scanning. I created awards like “Trendspotter of the Month”: the person who brought the most interesting or relevant signal received a small prize. I also put up posters in the washroom and next to the coffee machines that showed the three most interesting signals we spotted this month. It helped get the conversation started. There are many ways to get people to think about trends. It doesn't have to be anything big, like creating a new community portal or something. It can be something as simple as a poster next to the coffee machine.
You are currently working on the update of your book. What will the update entail?
It's more the angle I wanted to update. When I wrote it, it was very focused on students who were introduced to this topic. Now I feel it’s becoming more relevant and interesting for corporate professionals. I’m also shifting the focus from people who want to do trend research full-time to people who want to integrate elements of trend research into their daily jobs. So, I’m writing it with marketing, strategy, or innovation people in mind. While for the first edition I interviewed trend researchers, I’m now interviewing people who do trends inside companies but are not necessarily trend researchers. With that in mind, I’ve also added some worksheets to help people apply the tools and methods I'm introducing. Furthermore, I’ve included emerging streams of thought in our field, like what it means to be a good ancestor and taking the long view. I've also added additional models, like the Three Horizons framework. There is also a whole chapter about setting up your own trend practice within an organisation.
Sounds great. Is it based on your observation that this is a strong need right now?
Yes. I see many companies and organisations wanting to do more things in-house. They move everything from marketing to innovation to user research in-house, and increasingly trend research as well. For instance, I've worked with an insight director who wanted to incorporate trend research into his skill set. Or I’ve worked with innovation teams that train their colleagues in different skills, like design thinking or how to do trend research in a more applied way. I see it happening at very different levels in companies, so it's a need I wanted to address more.