Cyberpunk: How to Master the Futuristic Style
Cyberpunk is a sci-fi subgenre that is positively bursting with incredible sources of inspiration for graphic designers that love unconventional styles. We’ve compiled a few samples of the most rebellious media in this futurism-influenced movement and a tutorial for you to create your first cyberpunk piece.
Welcome to the dystopian future, where corporations rule the sprawling megacities from their unreachable skyscrapers, and heavily modified cyborgs prowl the neon-drenched streets far below.
The cyberpunk world isn’t for everyone, but you can be or create anything you like here, especially if you are a graphic designer.
The cyberpunk aesthetic has had an incredible influence on film, fashion, literature, gaming, anime, and graphic design.
If you want to get plugged into the cyberpunk style, we have the perfect software you need to utilize this high-tech style, as well as some radical inspiration and source material.
Before you get kitted out with all the tools and knowledge needed to start the cyberpunk style, let's explore its origins and the media that made the futuristic aesthetic so popular today.
What is Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk began as a type of speculative fiction generally focused on a dystopian future. It is quite a dark subgenre of science fiction where technology and capitalism have run rampant, and artificial intelligence has become sentient.
A typical cyberpunk world is one where titanic corporations rule the world, society and governments have all but collapsed, and most people have been cybernetically enhanced. Of course, high pollution levels are central to cyberpunk, and nature is all but decimated.
How Did Cyberpunk Start?
Cyberpunk first came to be during the 60s and 70s in the New Wave science fiction movement. Authors like Bruce Bethke, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson are widely regarded as having launched the cyberpunk genre and cyberpunk fiction.
The combination of the punk and hacker subcultures was a huge source of inspiration for these genre-defining authors and the cultural revolution they sparked.
One of the first visual forms of cyberpunk fiction came in 1977 with the first edition of the Judge Dredd comic, but cyberpunk design and media truly took off in the 80s. In fact, the term “cyberpunk” was only coined in 1983 by author Bruce Bethke with his titular short story, “Cyberpunk”.
1982 was a big year for the cyberpunk movement. Japan developed its own gritty and explosive flavor with the publishing of Akira, an iconic manga created by Katsuhiro Otomo, and Ridley Scott's timeless sci-fi epic Blade Runner was released to theaters.
In 1988, Otomo's Akira manga was adapted into an animated film of the same name. This groundbreaking feat of animation further popularized cyberpunk and its now multicultural essence.
Another stunning example of Japanese cyberpunk media was the 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii. This highly philosophical work made the cyberpunk ethos more compelling, and its protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, would later be played by Scarlett Johanson in a 2017 Western live-action adaptation.
Despite decades' worth of phenomenal content, the cyberpunk genre was still on the periphery of mainstream pop culture. In 1999, this dark style gained the public attention it deserves when the Wachowskis released the first installment of The Matrix trilogy starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss.
In the 21st century, cyberpunk influenced other kinds of media, with cyberpunk video games like Ion Storm's Deus Ex, and later, the ambitious if not flawed Cyberpunk 2077 RPG from CD Projekt RED.
Of course, cyberpunk has been one of the chief inspirations for many other industries, such as the fashion one.
The Advent of Cyberpunk Fashion
Since its inception, cyberpunk's distinct styles have inspired the fashion industry with the introduction of futuristic designs. A film like Blade Runner redefined black clothing, with Ridley Scott’s character Deckard and his heavy trenchcoat becoming an icon for decades to come.
Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode were Blade Runner's chief costume designers, and they looked to 1940s cinema for inspiration. Kaplan and Knode examined Humphrey Bogart's character in the classic noir film The Maltese Falcon for Harrison Ford's character, Rick Deckard, and his iconic look.
Adrian Adolph Greenburg, better known as Adrian, was another early 20th-century costume designer Kaplan and Knode borrowed from. Kaplan and Knode lifted details from Adrian's tailored suit designs for Blade Runner's female lead, Rachael (played by Sean Young).
Blade Runner would be the biggest source of cyberpunk stimulation for fashion and costume designers until the 1999 release of The Matrix.
While Blade Runner's costumes were baggy, rough, and vintage, the characters in The Matrix Trilogy didn't settle for anything that wasn't super sleek and chic.
Ironically, the character Morpheus's (played by Laurence Fishburne) outfit is a modernized adaptation of Deckard's gear. Still, the other characters' costumes sourced elements from a surprising range.
Take Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), for example. Her form-fitted latex costumes are almost snake-like in design and were greatly motivated by the 90s' cybergoth music scene. Neo, (played by Keanu Reaves), on the other hand, prefers dressing like a kung-fu sifu.
To summarize, the cyberpunk aesthetic combines 40s film noir fashion, gothic styles of the 90s, military uniforms and gear, and more experimental and futuristic cybernetic details.
While the cyberpunk look might seem incredibly unique, its essence is composed of many incredibly varied sources.
Cyberpunk Media to Get Inspired By
Now that we’re better acquainted with cyberpunk’s origins and style let’s examine the media that largely shaped our modern understanding of the futuristic style. As we’re trying to get a better feel for its design and principles, we’ll sadly have to skip the great literature in the sub-genre.
Although we’ve already discussed Blade Runner at length, we feel that this vital staple in the cyberpunk subgenre deserves a bit more love.
Blade Runner is a noir-inspired film that, like many films in the noir genre, takes place in a cold and haunting city and revolves around a lonesome detective. The film follows Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” charged with tracking down and decommissioning renegade “bioengineered humanoids” called replicants.
Director Ridley Scott based his jaw-dropping sci-fi masterpiece on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, a short story by one of cyberpunk’s literary founders, Philip K. Dick.
As far as cyberpunk cinema goes, Blade Runner is largely considered to be the gold standard, and we strongly recommend that you watch (and even rewatch it).
The Wachowskis’ The Matrix film is another must-watch for those trying to get into cyberpunk. With its slow-motion firefights, masterful martial arts choreography, and jaw-dropping stunts, The Matrix is one of the most entertaining sci-fi films of the 90s.
The Matrix is set in a world where supremely intelligent robots conquered the world and detained humanity within a complex virtual reality called “the Matrix”. Thankfully for us, a few heroic individuals managed to break free of this simulated existence, aiming to liberate humanity from slavery to the sinister Machines.
Visually, The Matrix provides a treasure trove of incredibly stylish and edgy costumes, nightmarish cybernetic sets, and plenty of explosive action to get your blood pumping. The Wachowskis were inspired by a range of Chinese Kung-Fu films, anime, comic books, and video games.
The Matrix Trilogy’s many and incredibly varied locations provide an invaluable series of references for graphic designers looking for amazing background inspiration.
The characters move through these sensational sets at dizzying speeds, and the contrast between the normal-looking but artificial “real world” and that outside the Matrix is jarringly effective.
The 1988 animated adaptation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s original manga was an astonishing and groundbreaking landmark in cinematic history. With its flawless and epic animation, shocking visuals, and apocalyptic themes, Akira is a rare kind of roller coaster ride.
Akira takes place in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo (called Neo-Tokyo) where biker gangs ride rampant. Our protagonist, Shotaro Kaneda, is the leader of a bunch of delinquents with wheels, one of whom soon acquires terrifying telekinetic powers that could spell doom for the world.
With over 160,000 animated cels fueling unbelievably fluid animation, Akira is a triumphant example of Japanese animation. If you’ve ever wanted to delve deeper into Japanese animation beyond Studio Ghibli, Akira is a superb place to start!
Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that played an essential role in reviving public interest in the sub-genre despite launching with mixed reviews. The colossal hype generated by the game’s clever marketing tactics and Keanu Reave’s role spawned a newfound passion for cyberpunk.
This sprawling action role-playing game puts you in the shoes of “V”, a cybernetically-enhanced mercenary. When V inserts an ominous cybernetic modification into their system, they find that it contains far more than they bargained for, like Keanu Reave’s character’s consciousness.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a titanic game with a huge open world that is the closest one will get to a real-life and interactive cyberpunk experience. You can spend many hours wandering the sprawling and lovingly detailed Night City, hunting for motivation.
The Fifth Element
Luc Besson’s sci-fi masterpiece, The Fifth Element, is often disputed as a member of the cyberpunk club. This debate was spurred by the film’s locations, themes, and characters which are more like those of a space opera than a cyberpunk piece.
With its marvelously futuristic rendition of New York City, complete with flying cars and multitudinous skyscrapers, The Fifth Element contains more than enough cyberpunk “elements” to appease the more pedantic cyberpunks.
Semantics aside, The Fifth Element is a gorgeous cinematic experience consisting of a loud color palette that favors the color orange. Luc Besson’s famously flawless cinematography and colorful characters make for an unforgettable and sumptuous experience.
Cyberpunk for Graphic Designers
Sadly, cyberpunk design was regarded as a bit kitsch at the beginning of the 21st century, and graphic designers generally shied away from it. But as the genre regained popularity from 2020 onwards, graphic designers began warming up to cyberpunk’s kaleidoscopic and gritty style.
In 2020, the Cybertruck was unleashed by Elon Musk, neon green became an incredibly prominent color choice for designers worldwide, and Keanu Reaves made a fan-pleasing video game appearance in Cyberpunk 2077.
But while cyberpunk is stereotypically imagined as a gritty and dark style, graphic designers don’t necessarily have to go down this route. Instead, they use cyberpunk themes as launching points.
The point of cyberpunk in graphic design is to break modern design conventions with digitally modified typography, irregular layouts, and fierce color palettes.
To make the most impactful cyberpunk piece possible, we recommend using groundbreaking design software like Vectornator. Vectornator is ideally suited for making prime examples of cyberpunk art, like this awesome piece by Redditor “u/indielord” below:
The cyberpunks have broken through all human limitations, as has Vectornator removed any constraints on the creative process. Whether you want to create your own glitchy typography, bring a jaw-dropping cyberpunk city to life, or design cutting-edge fashion designs, Vectornator has any of your cyberpunk needs covered.
Vectornator is an advanced design software crammed with powerful features but is straightforward and accessible, meaning that you don’t need to complete a graphic design course to master it.
Let’s now look at some other magnificent and recent cyberpunk designs so that you can get a better idea of what incredible pieces look like.
Poster Designs From Bráulio Amado
Cyberpunk has become hugely influential in many poster designs, and Bráulio Amado’s sharply contrasting color palettes and refreshing layouts are leading examples. This radical graphic designer has shed the traditional structures seen in many poster designs with acidic effectiveness.
The cyberpunk movement breaks free from many graphic design conventions and norms to create highly original and attention-grabbing pieces.
Michel Clansen Joins the New Punk Movement
Michael Clansen is a German graphic designer that is repurposing well-known cyberpunk tropes for the new punk movement of the 21st century. Clansen explores themes elicited in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to raise awareness of the importance of empathy and social justice in technology’s modern place.
The nostalgic effect of Clansen’s designs isn’t accidental. The German graphic designer loves blending cyberculture from the 90s with futurism.
You’ve probably seen plenty of glitchy typography examples, and most of them were inspired by cyberpunk. Many cyberpunk films and games feature heavily distorted typography in their animated logos or in-world digital displays.
Think of an ancient CRT monitor that survived the apocalypse, and you have the basis for cyberpunk-style typography. Add textured, grainy, and jagged elements to your typography and stretch the legibility of your design to its limits.
How to Create a Cyberpunk Effect in Photoshop
If you want to bring a surreal cyberpunk effect to a stock image with Photoshop, we’ve got you covered. First, you’ll need a suitable stock image.
1. Make Your Own Action
Import the stock image you would like to turn into a cyberpunk masterpiece. Try and select an image that is contrast-heavy.
Once you have your ideal stock image saved, you can head to File -> Open, click on your stock image, and click on Open. Before you begin, you’ll need the ideal settings:
- Set your photo into RGB Color mode and in 8 Bits/Channel. You can ensure that you have the right settings by heading to Image -> Mode.
- You should size your image to 2000–4500 px wide/high for the optimal outcome. You can do so in Image -> Image Size.
- You want this image to be set as the Background layer. To do this, head to Layer -> New -> Background from Layer.
Next, head to Window -> Actions, and once you’re in the Actions panel, move the cursor to the top right-hand corner and select the menu icon, click on New Set, and call it “Cyberpunk”. Don’t exit just yet, as you will want to hit the menu icon once more, select New Action to make your action, and call it “Cyberpunk”, too.
2. How to Make Your Cyberpunk-Inspired Color Look
Now, you can make your personalized cyberpunk color look within the Photoshop layer. Head to Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Gradient Map to make your gradient map adjustment layer and call it “Color_Look_1”.
Double-click the layer thumbnail, and once the Properties panel opens, select the gradient which will activate the Gradient Editor. You can then set your Color Picker settings like so:
You can also modify your lighting with a cyberpunk moodiness. Edit this layer’s Blending Mode by changing it to Soft Light with a 70% Opacity.
Let’s continue editing your Background layer by selecting it and heading through Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Hue/Saturation. This will make a new adjustment layer for hue and saturation editing, which you can call “Color_Look_2”.
If you double-click on the thumbnail layer, the Properties panel will open. Punch in the following parameters:
You can now choose your Background layer by heading to Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Photo Filter and make a custom photo filter adjustment layer which you can call “Color_Look_3”.
With this new layer thumbnail at hand, you can double-click on it, and once the Properties panel opens up, change the Filter setting to Density 25% and Cooling Filter (80). Finish by activating the Preserve Luminosity feature.
There you have it, your first cyberpunk-style edit!
How to Create a Cyberpunk Illustration in Vectornator
Alright, so now that you know how to transform photos into snapshots from a cyberpunk world, now it's time to really hone in on your dystopian designs.
Photoshop is great for editing raster images, but Vectornator is much better for creating vibrant and unique illustrations.
Take the example by Vectornator user Liam Brazier. He rendered a fantastic cyberpunk-style vector illustration of Harlowe, a character from the Fortnite game.
Liam made the entire illustration from vector shapes. The composition is seriously impressive, but the colors the artist chose really make this artwork embody the cyberpunk style.
How to Create a Cyberpunk Color Palette in Vectornator
With the 4.7.0 update, you can now create and save multiple Color Palettes in Vectornator. You can add or delete singular colors (including gradients) from your Color Palette, and save a Primary Palette depending on your project. You can even drag and drop existing Color Palettes from other apps, like Procreate, directly into Vectornator.
For creating a color palette inspired by cyberpunk, we suggest finding a reference photo for inspiration. This could be a still from the one of the films we mentioned earlier, or perhaps you use a photo that you edited in Photoshop using the tips above.
Import your chosen reference image into Vectornator and use the Color Picker to select and extract the prominent hues from the scene. Then, simply save them as a Color Palette in Vectornator.
Alternatively, you could upload the image to Coolors to automatically generate a palette from the image. You can then export it and import it inside Vectornator. Name the palette "Cyberpunk" and you're ready to start designing!
Check out our recent blog on How to Draw with a Modern Color Palette for more tips.
We might not have flying cars whizzing about our skyscrapers or be able to opt for cybernetic enhancements. Still, our current world is a lot like the cyberpunk scenarios that authors like William Gibson and Philip K. Dick envisioned in their novels.
Many of us spend most of our days wired to screens, the online world influences many of our decisions, thoughts, and behaviors, and VR is becoming increasingly popular.
Graphic designers are at the forefront of this cybernetic transformation, and with powerful graphic design software like Vectornator at hand, there are no limits to your technologically-fueled creativity.
Download Vectornator today and get futuristic with your designs!