What is the Cyberpunk Aesthetic (and How do you Get it?)
Cyberpunk is an exciting subculture characterised by futuristic color palettes, fashion, lighting and more. Dive with us into the CyberPunk world.
By Ana Mireles
This article will examine the cyberpunk aesthetic, a subculture represented in artwork, photography, and filmmaking.
The cyberpunk aesthetic is visually stunning, hence its popularity among creatives and digital artists.
Many factors combine to create cyberpunk, from colour palettes, fashion, lighting, environment and more.
Let’s take a closer look at cyberpunk and how you can emulate the look in your work.
What is Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk is a type of science fiction. In short, it’s about high-tech-low-life.
The word cyberpunk was coined by Bruce Bethke. He needed a title for his short story, so he made two lists. One list had terms associated with technology; the second was about troublemakers. After combining words from both lists, he settled on cyberpunk.
Later, editor and writer Gardner Dozois used the term in his articles and made it popular. Eventually, it became the name for the entire genre.
Many cyberpunk films, shows, and books have been controversial. They’re often thought of as a calling for a cultural revolution and class uprising.
They usually have ‘heroes’ that are morally questionable. They also portray a society where governments collapse, and most describe authority as evil.
The genre is not only determined by the content but also the looks. The cyberpunk aesthetic is quite established in music and visual arts. It’s also easily recognizable in graphic design.
The cyberpunk style has been developing thanks to sci-fi films such as Blade Runner. This film is based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and directed by Riddley Scott.
It’s also been heavily influenced by comics and manga. Most recently, it’s been shaped by the video game Cyberpunk 2077. This game features the gang warfare of Night City.
Cyberpunk’s origins and popularization
Some proto-cyberpunk art dates back to the 1960’s. However, the cyberpunk movement is considered to be in the 1970s. This was when New Wave sci-fi was thriving due to the sexual revolution and drug culture.
Earlier, science fiction had utopian tendencies. Instead, the New Wave authors were encouraged to explore the impact of drugs and technology on society.
While cyberpunk originated in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the next decade that this sci-fi sub-genre cemented itself.
In fact, the term comes from a short story by Bruce Bethke entitled Cyberpunk (1980). It was also in the 1980s when cyberpunk reached Japan, creating its own sub-genre. The origin of Japanese cyberpunk manga was Akira (1982).
The stories of the cyberpunk genre take place in real life on Earth. Except it is not life as we know it today – it’s a dystopian future.
Most cyberpunk themes talk about a future society, where technological advancements and corporate corruption led to a nightmarish world.
The characters are usually outsiders or burnouts, such as Deckard from Blade Runner. They’re often forced into situations that trigger the development of the story.
They also have a morally ambiguous lifestyle – for example, they use drugs or have addictions. They often belong to the hacker culture, where they usually do good by using illegal methods.
Cyberpunk became popular thanks to novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and films like Blade Runner (1982).
They are both the perfect example of the high-tech-low-life that characterises this sci-fi genre.
Neuromancer is the debut novel of William Gibson and has won many awards. It’s also the first of the Sprawl trilogy (AKA Matrix trilogy).
All three stories refer to artificial intelligence that overcomes its limitations. While they share this arc story, each novel is self-contained. They’re inspired by the hacker culture. And they all happen in the near future when World War III has recently ended.
On the other hand, Blade Runner is a film directed by Ridley Scott. It’s loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Written by Philip K. Dick.
In it, a group of synthetic humans escape from the space colonies and return to Earth. A cop, played by Harrison Ford, reluctantly agrees to hunt them down.
The story takes place in a dystopian version of Los Angeles. There are seven versions of the film, including a director’s cut released in 1992.
Other influential cyberpunk fiction authors are Bruce Sterling, Judge Dredd, and Harlan Ellison.
Cyberpunk media examples
To get a better understanding of high-tech-low-life aesthetics, you can see some of the most important cyberpunk media.
Reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the stories of William Gibson is only the beginning. Here’s a short list that can help you to get familiar with the cyberpunk aesthetic.
- Blade Runner.
- Blade Runner 2049.
- Ghost in the Shell.
- Dark City.
- Minority Report.
Cyberpunk TV series
- Mr Robot
- Black Mirror.
- Almost Human.
- Altered Carbon.
- Aeon Flux.
- Electric Dreams
- (in Development) Neuromancer. An adaptation of the novel by William Gibson.
Cyberpunk video games
- Cyberpunk 2077.
- Deux Ex.
- Far Cry 3. Blood Dragon.
- Final Fantasy VII.
- Watch Dogs Legion.
Cyberpunk comics, manga, and graphic novels
- Ghost in the Shell.
- The Long Tomorrow.
- Wild Palms.
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- The Sprawl Trilogy.
- Bleeding Edge.
- Snow Crash.
- Altered Carbon.
- Trouble and her friends.
What is Cyberpunk Aesthetic?
As you know, there’s much more to cyberpunk than just flying cars and low life. The cyberpunk aesthetics are as complex as the stories.
The cyberpunk aesthetic was shaped by multiple films, TV series, video games, and other media. Thanks to this, it’s now easily recognizable. Not only that, it’s very trendy.
Cyberpunk aesthetics heavily inspires current designs and visual arts. For example, stock media websites like Behance and Shutterstock have curated cyberpunk collections.
Not only that, you can see it even in architecture and urban design. A cyberpunk piece that attests to it is the Berlin Sony Center by architect Helmut Jahn.
The entire structure is considered to be inspired by the cyberpunk aesthetic. However, neon lights are the most notorious elements to recognize the style.
At this point, you might be considering cyberpunk as the inspiration for your graphic design, videography, or photography.
So, here’s a summary of the elements that can help you out.
Cyberpunk Color Palette
The cyberpunk color palette mainly includes bright neon colors. Some popular colors are electric blue, hot pink, and neon green.
It’s easy to incorporate these colors in your photoshoot. You can use them in the props and wardrobe. Also, you can use color gels to create an ambience.
You can also add a cyberpunk aesthetic by modifying the colors of a photo using Photoshop or any other editing software. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide:
- Open your image in Photoshop.
- Click on the New Adjustment Layer and choose Gradient. This will add the new layer and launch the Gradient Fill window.
- Double-click on the gradient to open the Gradient Editor.
- Create your gradient using your color palette. To do so, double-click on the gradient stops and choose the colors from the color picker.
- Change the Blending Mode. Try different ones to find the one you like – usually, Soft Light works well.
- Decrease the opacity if necessary.
- Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer.
- Move the sliders to fine-tune the look.
If you’re having problems coming up with your color palette, you can draw inspiration from a film or an illustration.
A helpful tool for this is Adobe Color. In the Explore section, you can type cyberpunk to get color schemes based on that concept.
You can also use the Extract Theme tool to create a color scheme based on a photo you upload. Otherwise, use the color wheel and different color theories to create your palette.
The influence of cyberpunk in fashion began in the early 1990s. One of the first iconic pieces of cyberpunk-inspired fashion was the trenchcoat. It was based on the one used by Deckard in Blade Runner.
Through the decades, cyberpunk design in fashion has evolved. It’s also blended with other styles—for example, urban street fashion. Cargo pants are one of the must-have items for this look.
Some subcategories have been growing from the primary trend. Cybergoth, for example, it’s inspired by cyberpunk fiction, rave, and the goth subculture.
While it used to be very niched, now it’s very popular. You can even search for ‘cyberpunk clothing’ on Amazon to find the perfect look.
Since technology plays such a significant role, it’s only natural that it has made it to fashion as well. Cyberpunk design combined with high-tech created tech wear.
Some of the most famous brands inspired by the cyberpunk aesthetic are Demobaza, Acronym, Adidas Y-3, and Outlier.
Cyberpunk is based on our society’s future. Therefore, it happens in real-world environments. However, they are dark and underground.
In general, there are no natural elements, and there’s a lot of pollution. It’s also very messy to show the chaos from the collapse of society and government.
Post-industrial ambients are also popular in the cyberpunk environment’s aesthetic.
Japan, especially the streets of Hong Kong. For example, the fictional LA where Blade Runner takes place is inspired by Hong Kong. Also, Ghost in the Shell was filmed in Hong Kong.
Technology and cyberpunk design go hand-in-hand. This is because the whole genre is based on our relationship with technology.
Sometimes it questions what makes us human by proposing different types of artificial intelligence. In the same way, it reflects on the merging of reality, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
Other possible topics are computer systems breaking their hardware limitations or the megacorporations controlling us through technology.
All these possible scenarios determine the style of a cyberpunk piece. For example, in graphic design, cyberpunk fonts are pixelated or futuristic.
In video and photography is also common to find the glitch effect. To do this in Photoshop, you can use the Color Halftone filter from the Filters > Pixelate menu. This will create scan lines.
Another glitch effect you can do is by using the Distort > Wave feature and applying it on each one of the channels. You can do this by opening the Channels panel and selecting the red channel.
Then go to Distort > Wave and move the values using the sliders. Then repeat the operation on the green and the blue channels. Use different values on each one.
You can also download many free and paid actions to create the glitch effect.
Appreciating CyberPunk Genre: Final Words
Whether you’re tech-savvy or a computer dummy, it’s difficult not to feel engaged with the topics covered in cyberpunk.
We may have an optimistic view about technology, or we team up with the dystopian. Either way, it’s undeniable that cyberpunk’s future is becoming our present.
The amazing thing about cyberpunk is that it’s managing to update itself to stay current with new developments. This article is just a scratch of the surface. Hopefully, it was enough to pique your curiosity.
Let us know in the comments which are your favourite cyberpunk pieces and how they inspire your work.
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