Cyberpunk Aesthetic | What is it?

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Artwork by Vinh Pham

What is cyberpunk aesthetic? In this article, I explain what cyberpunk is, and the common features and distinct characteristics of cyberpunk aesthetics: the environmental settings, color palettes, clothing, fashion, and GUIs.

I especially hope that this article can work as a guideline or cheat-sheet for those of us who enjoy thinking about different aesthetics and cultural concepts, or for those of us who enjoy creating visual arts and graphics.

Related: Neon-Noir Aesthetic: What It is?

What is Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk Aesthetic | What Is It?
Artwork by AndreeWallin

Cyberpunk is not just a visual aesthetic of neon light and megacities. It is also, if not primarily, a science fiction genre of high tech, low life, made popular by authors such as Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson (Neuromancer), and many more. Today it is also commonly known for movies such as The Matrix, Blade Runner, Black Mirror, Altered Carbon, Ghost in Shell, and more.

There are also many other sibling-genres to cyberpunk, such as steampunk or solarpunk (utopia instead of dystopia). But they have their own characteristics and ideologies.

Related: 6 Best Futuristic Movies on Netflix

What does “high tech, low life” mean?

With high tech, one means things associated with advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, transhumanism, hyper-futuristic cityscapes, hacker culture, and other technological advancements in for example architecture, weapons, and gadgets.

With low life, one means things associated with those who are having it rougher in life: drug use and culture, sexual exploitation or sexual revolution, slums, gang warfare, criminality, anarchy, class uprising, and criticism against corporate corruption.

Naturally, this leads to the highlight of differences between different social classes and how capitalism and corporate-greed affect ordinary people’s lives.

“There is usually a sense of emptiness and/or hopelessness, despite advances in technology that were supposed to help society. Usually only the wealthy can afford the best technology and therefore the best quality of life.”

cmbel2005 on Reddit

Philosophy and social criticism

Cyberpunk literature and other media often feature a specific philosophy and critical outlook on society, technology, and modern urban life. The main characters in stories and movies often hold anti-establishment and anti-corporate views, as well as an attitude of defying norms and thinking for themselves. I guess that’s the “punk” part of the cyberpunk.

Music & fashion

Cyberpunk can also be associated with certain genres of music or sounds. Mostly electronic music made with synthesizers, techno, or other industrial genres. Or, it can be ambient types of music. More here: Cyberpunk Dystopian Music – Playlists & Recommendations

It can also be associated with certain types of clothing and fashion such as Techwear, or uber-futuristic clothing with shiny materials and embedded technology. Read about Techwear here: Women’s Techwear Clothing – Inspiration & Clothing

However, there’s no denying that one of the most distinctive features of the concept of cyberpunk is the strong visual cyberpunk aesthetic.

What is Cyberpunk Aesthetic?

If we bypass the fictional world-building and the philosophical aspects of cyberpunk, then cyberpunk aesthetic can be closely related to Neo-Noir aesthetics. Here comes a couple of lists of things that almost always are included in cyberpunk graphics: environmental settings, color palette, clothing and fashion, as well as GUIs.

Cyberpunk Aesthetic | What Is It?

Environmental setting

  • Megacities and skyscrapers
  • Crowds with lots of people
  • Huge holograms projected in the air
  • Lots of lit-up advertisement
  • Sexually-explicit elements (sex-workers and sex-related advertisements)
  • Used and dirty-looking small apartements or luxury minimalistic interiors
  • Slums and homes made of containers
  • Night and evening time
  • Fog or mist
  • Rain
  • Industrial settings and wastelands
  • Buildings under construction
  • Lots of telephone lines or wires hanging haphazardly

Related: Concept Art of Futuristic Cities | Cyberpunk

Visual Color Palette

Neon Noir Aesthetic
Scene from the movie Blade Runner
  • Neon lights in bright blue, pink, purple, yellow, and green
  • A dark background

Clothing & Fashion / Look

  • Wearables (high-fidelity and high-tech headphones, glasses, shoes, and protective gear)
  • Cybernetic implats and prosthetics
  • Embedded technology in clothing pieces
  • Neutral and often dark-colored clothing. Monochromatic.
  • Bright-colored hair (red, blue, pink, green)
  • Women who dress in sexually-explicit ways
  • Men with military/authoritarian clothing pieces
  • Punk fashion
  • Leather, denim, biker, flight jackets
  • Long coats
  • Welding goggles, aviator sunglasses
  • Combat boots

Related: Wearable Futuristic Outfits | Women’s Inspiration

Digital User Interface Design

Sci-Fi Design by Carl Hauser

In digital UI design, cyberpunk is associated with high-tech systems such as weapons, AI systems doing real-time detections, and displays of data. Common UI elements are zooms, lots of buttons and settings, precision-controls, elements of brutalism, and glass effects.

Related: Cyberpunk UI Website Design Inspiration

From the start, cyberpunk has been inspired by Tokyo in Japan and the streets filled with neon store-fronts and advertisements. Even today, new art and movies within the genre often feature Japanese women, especially geishas or characters from other Asia-inspired mythology or history. Other small details are can be things such as ninjas-inspired clothing, transparent umbrellas, chopsticks used to keep long hair up, or Japanese signs somewhere in the backdrop. However, more and more creations are taking place in other cities (like Sweden). It’s always fun to pause movies or zoom in on paintings to find the small details.

Thanks for reading!

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