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 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?
One of the main recognizable quotations surrounding cyberpunk is ”High tech, low life”. But what does it 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.
The environmental setting is important to achieve a cyberpunk aesthetic. Part of the entire idea of a cyberpunk world includes mega-corporations and thus also big skyscrapers with massive advertisements and ads in all types of forms.
It’s also supposed to be high-tech, so such elements should be included as well. In addition, we have the other part of the cyberpunk idea, the low-life. Low-life can be portrayed with slums, dirty apartments and industrial settings (but with technology incorporated).
Here is a list of common cyberpunk aesthetic features in the environment:
- 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
- Industrial settings and wastelands
- Buildings under construction
- Lots of telephone lines or wires hanging haphazardly
Visual Color Palette
The cyberpunk aesthetic is also commonly recognized by its color palette. The cyberpunk color palette is most prominently shown with dark background and a very colorful and gradient foreground.
In some cases, a light background can be used. When light colors are used as base then the rest of the visual landscape is often very minimalistic and posh. Most of the time, even with light backdrops, some sort of colorful gradient is in screen.
- Neon lights in bright blue, pink, purple, yellow, and green
- Gradients of blue to punk, red to green, red to blue and similar ones
- A dark background
- A very minimalistic light background
When creatives edit photographs to make them look more cyberpunk, they almost always up the contrast, exaggerate the black point, and turn saturation up a lot. It’s also common to make the white balance colder (blue tint).
Clothing & Fashion / Look
Following the original concept, cyberpunk aesthetic clothing is either high-tech, low-life, or punk.
High-tech means incorporated technology such as wearable technology or cybernetic implants. Low-life means typical working-class and punk-associated clothing. Low-life can also be associated with occupations such as prostitution, criminality, and such.
- 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
Some may exaggerate the ”futuristic” part of the cyberpunk aesthetic, which means that clothing sometimes are inspired by haut-cuture.
User Interface Design
In digital UI design, cyberpunk is associated with high-tech systems. For example: advanced weapons, AI systems doing real-time detections, and displays of lots of data. Common elements are lots of camera zooms, buttons, settings, precision-controls, elements of brutalism, and the glass effects.
Many futuristic or cyberpunk looking interfaces does not make much sense, but they are mostly designed to just look super cool and technologically advanced. The textual contents of cyberpunk aesthetic interfaces often contain code names and lots of numbers to show how advanced the system is.
Tokyo & Asia Influenced
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 written signs somewhere in the backdrop.
However, more and more cyberpunk media are made to take place in other cities (like Sweden). But almost always, some sort of Tokyo-influenced visual feature is included. It’s always fun to pause movies or zoom in on paintings to find the small details that the artists have thought of to include.
Thanks for reading! I hope this gave you a good explanation on what cyberpunk aesthetic is.