Explore the lighthearted retro-futurism of Vintage Vaporwave design

Pastel neon ambience room and CRT TV with vintage OS desktop.

Image source: Adobe Stock/Summer Candy.

Vaporwave has always communicated in the language of electronic beeps and boops, with iconography and color palettes yanked from the early Internet and CRT video screens. 20 years after the rise of social media, more than 40 years after the introduction of the personal computer, and over a full year since the pandemic disrupted everything in our daily lives, the current cultural moment is full of contradictions — and the latest evolution of the vaporwave design trend captures them better than most. The Adobe Stock team dubbed this year’s incarnation of techno-retro-futurism Vintage Vaporwave, and it is one of the strongest design trends we are seeing just about everywhere.

Futuristic design with a neon smirk

The origins of the vaporwave genre may be in electronic music, but the visual language of vaporwave aesthetics is so immediately recognizable and so deeply entwined and inseparable with that music.

So what does vaporwave look, sound, and feel like? It’s a dreamy trip through empty, glowing hallways — smooth, elevator jazz melodies layered with chopped and screwed 80’s synths — it’s a glitchy, anonymous, VR drive through a futuristic, video-game version of Japan in a shiny, neon pink convertible.

Vintage Vaporwave is a close cousin of our 2020 design trend Modern Gothic, with its retro-futuristic color and iconographies, the use of glitch and other digital artifacts, and nods toward cyberpunk. But there is a key difference. While Modern Gothic tended toward darker, more dystopian visions, Vintage Vaporwave represents a progression of this aesthetic that turns toward the light.

One differentiator of this trend is a pervasive sense of humor, ranging from sweet to dryly ironic. We also noticed this tendency in another of our 2020 design trends, Semi Surreal. Some of that playfulness carries over from games, especially the popular mobile games many play on their phones.

During the pandemic, while social distancing made in-person game nights unsafe and shelter-in-place had many of us missing our friends, group online games like Among Us rose in popularity. That game is particularly emblematic of a larger cultural appetite for retro, pixel-art imagery (and its trendy 3D counterpart, voxel art) in games, with simple, addictive gameplay, and a funny, tongue-in-cheek attitude (you do get to sneakily sabotage your friends — unless they hurl you into space first).

Image source: Left: Adobe Stock/Summer Candy. Right: Adobe Stock/ Aleksandr.

Color cues to our mental states

Pandemic fatigue may offer a clue to the reason for this lighthearted shift in cultural consciousness. After a year filled with frustration, burnout, and isolation, many have been actively seeking ways to escape. Whether that means spending more time outdoors (a very popular response we explore in our 2021 visual trend, Breath of Fresh Air) or immersing ourselves in fantasy and video games, people have been taking their joy wherever they can find it.

Trending color palettes convey the emotional shift that many are feeling now.

“What makes it really aesthetically different [from last year’s trends] are the color palettes,” says Shea Molloy, vectors and illustrations lead at Adobe Stock. “Vintage Vaporwave is a little bit softer. It’s a little bit more Y2K, less cyberpunk.”

That means while there is still plenty of 80s and 90s neon, it is mixed and paired with candy-coated pastels and set off by black and white or neutral tones. Fashion brands in particular have run with these bright, pastel, and retro-inspired hues, updated for the present. A natural fit for children’s wear (as demonstrated by Danish it-brand Soft Gallery), trendsetters like sustainable fashion brand Girlfriend Collective prove these palettes can appeal across age and gender demographics. Some, like Studio Cult, enlist Vintage Vaporwave colors and branding alongside winking, retro references (as in their Frozen Cursor pin and happy face jewelry).

Image source: Clockwise from top: Adobe Stock/grumbus. Adobe Stock/Wavebreak Media. Adobe Stock/local_doctor. Palette: Adobe Stock/A New Wave in Vintage Vaporwave.

High-tech mashups of digital and analog

Pixel-art and pixelated text are common visual cues of Vintage Vaporwave, along with heavy outlines, isometric shapes, extruded lettering, grids and dots, and strong, graphic shadows. Designers are often deploying those shadows and outlines to add depth to otherwise very flat compositions, to suggest 3D space, and to create digital stickers.

“The Vintage Vaporwave trend is heavily reliant on media involvement and all the new technology that people are constantly using,” says Molloy. “People are now used to using digital stickers in their social media apps to embellish and lay out their Instagram stories, and things like that.”

The rise of augmented reality has made stickers more useful and popular than ever, allowing us to add cartoony graphics to everything around us, even if only through a screen. Putting stickers on top of video — overlaying flat graphic elements on top of the physical world — offers a visual mash-up of old and new, physical and digital.

“When you use filters in Snapchat or TikTok, and stickers in Instagram, for example, it’s allowing you to marry and visually represent the incorporation of technology in your life,” says Molloy. “You notice how embedded tech has become. We’re seeing a lot of elements in this trend like little speech bubbles or screen pop-ups.”

Image source: Left: Adobe Stock/ FluxVFX. Right: Adobe Stock/ Meowlina Meow.

With so much digital information coming our way every day, more gradations of visual realism are becoming helpful and even necessary for us to parse what we are being told. Skeuomorphism — a design term that refers to digital objects which mimic their physical-world counterparts using shape or texture as well as how a user can interact with them — has given way to a new hybrid style: neumorphism. This design direction incorporates elements from skeuomorphic and flat design to create a subtle new style that is just representational enough of the physical world to make designs more legible to mentally-taxed users.

Sometimes, says Molloy, “deciphering super-flat icons becomes more mental work than looking at something at least vaguely representational. Some stories are better told not totally flat — apps or digital designs with a little bit of depth to them say something different to the end user.”

Image source: Left: Adobe Stock/ NeoLeo. Right: Adobe Stock/alexdndz.

Future angst, future hope

There’s a bit of melancholy floating through vaporwave aesthetics, however ghostly and “vaporous” it might be. A central tenet of the trend is the emphatic collapse of boundaries between high and low art or culture — in other words, vaporwave is necessarily postmodern.

Aesthetic and pop cultural critic Alican Koc, in his Capacious Journal essay, “Do You Want Vaporwave, or Do You Want the Truth?”, writes that vaporwave “reproduces a melancholy affect through its aestheticization of the depthlessness, waning of affect, new technologies, pastiche, and collapse of high/low categories into consumer culture that define postmodernism… Vaporwave aesthetics can thus be understood as creating a cognitive map of the bleak affective space of late capitalism, inviting viewers or listeners to step inside and critique it from within.”

While Vintage Vaporwave as a 2021 design trend retains many elements and references from the dark, dystopian aesthetics and cultural critiques of cyberpunk, however, the mood of today’s most popular designs seems stubbornly cheerful, reflecting a strong feeling of resilience.

At its heart, says Molloy, “this trend is just so fun. It doesn’t hurt that it seems to come with a resurgence in love for roller-skating!”

Get lost in the vaporverse with the curated Vintage Vaporwave gallery on Adobe Stock.

Designers and illustrators, get our full Vintage Vaporwave Call for Content here for more inspiration.