When you think about cyberpunk design you probably envision neon lights, skyscrapers and dystopian backdrops. This is all true, but cyberpunk is so much more than that.
It’s a rich cultural movement spanning film, fashion and design—all born from a sci-fi sub genre. Cyberpunk is often described as “high tech low life”—basically an advanced technology world inhabited by people who can’t afford the luxuries. As with all design trends, Cyberpunk aesthetic has ebbed and flowed, but has been enjoying a significant resurgence for the last few years.
The year 2020 plays a vital role for Cyberpunk. Many original Cyberpunk novels and games were set in the time in which we’re currently living. There’s Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner set in the year 2019, the classic eighties game Cyberpunk 2020 and the cyberpunk manga classic Akira took place in 2019. The year 2020 also sees the highly anticipated release of the role play game Cyberpunk 2077. Today we also see cyberpunk embedded in contemporary graphic design, fashion and film.
A brief history of Cyberpunk
In a post WW2 world, the use of electronics became more prominent in modern life. People naturally started to look towards the future and imagine a world where the invention of robotics became more advanced. This inspired a generation of sci-fi writers and artists to predict the future, starting with Philip.K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
It would be impossible to mention every seminal piece of cyberpunk art, however we will take you through a brief overview of its origins and development through the decades so that we can gain a better understanding of cyberpunk’s relevance in contemporary design.
1968 — Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Arguably the first ever cyberpunk piece of literature ever written, Philip.K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was the catalyst that kicked off the cyberpunk sci-fi subgenre.
1982 — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner was based on Philip.K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Sheep. Blade Runner is dark and gritty, peppered with the glittering lights of urban skyscapes.
The hazy dystopian LA of Blade Runner was mostly conceived by concept designer Syd Mead, who would later work on Aliens and Tron, not to mention inspire a future generation of cyberpunk designers.
1984 — William Gibson’s Neuromancer
William Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer is one of the most famous works of cyberpunk fiction ever written. Responsible for coining the term “cyberspace,” Neuromancer was also a large influence for the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix. At this time cyberpunk-influenced book cover design is finding its rhythm using airbrushing techniques and bold colour schemes.
1988 — Akira
The incredible animation of Akira is still as visually rich and impressive 30 years after its debut. Originally a manga created by Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira has heavily influenced countless artists from Wes Anderson to Kanye West.
1988 — Snatcher
The artwork of Akira also inspired the work of Kanomi’s video game Snatcher. Snatcher is a graphic adventure game, drawing reference from anime as well as leaning on typical cyberpunk plot and design.
1999 — The Matrix
The Matrix was heavily influenced by William Gibson’s Neuromancer and set at the turn of the century. The release of The Matrix coincided with a global conspiracy fear of the Millenium Bug, a phenomenon where computer users and programmers believed that computers would stop working on December 31, 1999.
1980s-1990s — Mondo 2000 magazine
Mondo 2000 was a cyberculture magazine published in California during the 1980s and 1990s. It covered cyberpunk topics such as virtual reality and was a huge influence for the later-founded Wired magazine. 3D design and playful typography became more experimental and untraditional, particularly during the 90s.
Cyberpunk in contemporary design
Cyberpunk became slightly kitsch in the design world after the turn of the millenium, however the year 2020 is seeing a major cyberpunk renaissance. The aesthetic is making a trendy and relevant comeback.
Elon Musk has just released his Cybertruck, The Matrix star Keanu Reeves has a lead role in video game Cyberpunk 2077 and neon green seems to be appearing everywhere you look.
Cyberpunk as a design trend does not necessarily have to include typical tropes such as urban dystopias and flying cars. Today, contemporary designers are using cyberpunk ideologies as a springboard to influence their work. Unconventional graphic design layouts, digitally enhanced typography and bold color schemes are extremely popular at the moment giving an exciting and somewhat unsettling glimpse into the future.
Let’s take a look at some contemporary artists who are experimenting with cyberpunk influences.
The empathy dystopias of designer Michel Clansen
German graphic designer Michel Clansen confidently uses classic cyberpunk tropes such as proleptic design and “empathy dystopias”—an idea first explored in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Clansen is at the forefront of bringing cyberpunk into contemporary design by using an intoxicating mix of 90’s cyberculture and futurism in his design.
Bráulio Amado’s digitally enhanced typography
You can see cyberpunk influences in contemporary graphic design everywhere at the moment. Look for loud contrasting color schemes, unconventional layouts and playful, digitally enhanced typography that doesn’t obey traditional rules. Bráulio’s poster designs follow no clear structure. Contrasting neons complimented with a grainy texture is a perfect example of nostalgic futurism at its finest.
Familiar gritty dystopian scenes by A3
A3 brings the dark grittiness of a dystopian future and classic cyberpunk neons to their logo design for Thirst Kitchen. This image has the clever ability to make you feel like you’re a fugitive in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Hui Yeon Hwang’s use of neons
Wired magazine focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and politics so it makes perfect sense that Hui Yeon Hwang would bring her recognisable forward thinking graphic design and neons to Wired’s October 2018 front cover.
Confident clashing by Vukn
Vukn throws out the rulebook by using bold contrasting colors, unorthodox layouts and clashing fonts to create a truly cyberpunk feel.
The Akira-esque illustrations of Vinne Art
This illustration of Billie Eilish by Vinne Art is a perfectly Cyberpunk reimagining of the 18 year old superstar. Billie’s trademark slime green roots are inherently punk and even inspired Dries Van Noten fall 2020 catwalk show. The cycle of trends is never ending!
John Baiatul’s futuristic glitch effect
Using glitch effects is a great way to bring an unsettling futuristic feeling to any design while also adding depth and texture. John Baiatul’s logo design for a video game also uses cyberpunk’s signature clashing neons.
A new age of Cyberpunk
The reality of the year 2020—originally written about by Philip K. Dick and William Gibson—may not (yet) feature flying cars, but we’re living in a different kind of dystopia where people stare into their screens all day, political campaigns can be manipulated through the internet and you can put on a headset to simulate a different world entirely. The presence of cyberpunk design in our current social climate feels more relevant than ever.