What do mass-produced androids, angular trench coats and surveillance cameras have in common? There’s a dystopia behind everyone. These dark sci-fi worlds are becoming more and more influential in design in 2022, as creators use stark images, menacing tech and a gnawing sense of dread to suggest a troubled—if often pretty stylish—future.
So what exactly are dystopias, and why are we seeing them more and more? Here’s our guide to dystopian design, from the first dystopian stories to their recent revival in a modern world of climate change and big data.
What are dystopias?
Officially, a dystopia is “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.”
A dystopia is the opposite of a utopia, a perfect imagined world. These can be hard to find in modern fiction: Star Trek’s well-meaning, technologically advanced Federation comes close, as does Marvel’s ingenious, eco-conscious Wakanda. Dystopias are easier to spot: take 1984, the Handmaid’s Tale, Blade Runner, the Hunger Games and Dune (all books that have been made into movies or TV shows), video games such as the Last of Us or Cyberpunk 2077, and tabletop games like Warhammer 40K.
Dystopian fictions show a grim future. In most dystopias, a privileged elite exploits everyone else with the help of advanced technology (in the Matrix, the tech is intelligent enough to have become the elite). Typically, a repressive, all-knowing government or corporation uses surveillance, violence, propaganda and mind-numbing routines to make people little more than machines. Individuals may be brainwashed or fearful; either way, they are powerless to change the system.
Why dystopias are the look of our time
So how are these dystopias designed? Key visual features include huge cities and a damaged natural world. In 1984, a shadowy city is overhung by giant fascist posters and brutalist buildings. In the Handmaid’s Tale, images that might seem optimistic (colorful dresses and wealthy suburbs) and undermined by juxtaposition: the red dresses and hats that the imprisoned handmaids wear restrict their movement and make them identical, while the streets are patrolled by secret police.
Blade Runner shows a film-noir inspired sci-fi setting in which darkness and rain fill an overcrowded metropolis. Other dystopias show huge factories or artificial implants that literally make people into machines, while Dune and Warhammer 40k are dystopias on an unimaginable scale, in which individuals are dwarfed by great spaceships and galactic geopolitics. Common to all these visions is the repeated sense that individual lives are insignificant.
Today our world is slowly recovering from a brutal pandemic. Our planet is increasingly rocked by extreme weather as climate change grips, with countless species under threat and our way of life seeming less and less sustainable. Political debate in many societies seems to be getting more polarized. And powerful corporations are digging deeper and deeper into our personal lives, as search engines and apps collect more and more data about our likes, dislikes, political views and social circle.
Up until a few years ago, a world in which everyone carries a device that tracks them everywhere and sends the results to be pored over by intelligent machines would have seemed like a classic dystopia. Today, it’s just life. Is it any surprise that pessimistic visions in which we are all just cogs in a machine are increasingly common?
Technology and the metaverse make dystopias real
It’s clear why dystopias are on our minds. Another reason we see so many of them is that tech makes them increasingly easy to render. Sci-fi worlds and advanced cityscapes that would once have once been impossible to render are now streamed by the dozen in glossy CGI. Our experience of virtual worlds is about to get even deeper as the metaverse gains steam.
The thinking goes that we will increasingly use avatars, cryptocurrency and immersive tech like VR headsets to interact in worlds that mix the real and the virtual. Parts of the metaverse, such as Horizons Workrooms’ virtual meeting spaces, the Sandbox’s create-your-own-worlds platform and NFT marketplaces are already here.
We won’t go full multiverse until these worlds are widely used and linked together, but some would argue that our early metaverse is already dystopian. One reporter’s recent experience of VR chat rooms was dominated by harassment and abuse. The metaverse may free us to express ourselves fully, make new discoveries and bond with people right across the world. But it may also be a place of trolling and cybercrime in which faceless companies set the rules: the term itself comes from a dystopian novel, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
The features of dystopian design
Design in the metaverse is varied and often unpredictable. Different avatars, skins and backgrounds can result in strange juxtapositions, and a step between platforms may transform everything. Early examples of metaverse design include dense collages, cartoonish avatars and strange molten overcoats. Many of these designs aren’t overtly dystopian, but their mix of the real and virtual taps into another key dystopian theme—the idea that reality is being gradually eroded, and that our bodies are less real than the pixels we project in the metaverse.
Go beyond the metaverse and there’s plenty more inspiration. Images may literally show dystopias: think crowds of people packed into monumental cities, workers being funneled into factories, neon signs, eerie lighting and robots. But what really makes dystopian design is darkness. It might be literal, from shadows or pitch-black uniforms. But more often it’s a taint in the high-tech vision. Do the workplaces look like processing plants for the people who work in them? Are there cameras on every corner? Does propaganda beam down from posters or screens? Does everyone look eerily similar, their personalities flattened by an oppressive boot?
Dystopian design can be oppressive, but it can also be subtle
More subtle aspects of dystopian design are spread even wider. Dystopias, as anyone who’s seen Keanu Reeves stop time while wearing slimline shades knows, can look pretty cool, and fashion trends such as dystopia-core and avant-apocalypse combine sleek, protective shells (to keep hostile, dystopian forces at bay) with dark colors and hard angles (to reflect a pessimistic mood).
Dystopian style’s edge and urgency won’t be for everyone—and it’s worth thinking through the implications before you jump in—but will suit some brands down to the ground. In one of the top current book trends, for example, dystopian design lands not just on the covers of genre fiction but also on works of poetry and academia.
Visuals might mix pessimistic darker colors with garish or stark light, grids and geometric patterns can suggest a technological world in which people have little agency, while landscapes may have a bleak, alien feel. For text, if you want to be literal you can dive right into the uncomfortable symmetry of the Dystopian font family, or hint more obliquely at dystopias via futuristic (start with Eurostile Bold Extended) or fascistic (Fraktur is the classic) styles.
Similarly, numbers, letters and code can evoke a sense that we’re all just data, while images may give the trappings of dictatorship a modern twist (like the massed ranks of Star Wars stormtroopers), or combine machines with people in a cybernetic vision. These physical images are important to dystopian design, but so is the mood: a sense that, whatever sophistication might be on display, there’s something wrong here.
The bright lights in dystopia’s darkness
Dystopias are often bleak. Many end with the main character dead or defeated. But while oppression is central to dystopian fiction, so is resistance, escape and freedom. And just as these stories feature people fighting back, falling in love or popping the red pill, so dystopian design often has a lightness to it.
That might come from context: someone purchasing a dystopian-looking product knows they’re buying it because it looks cool or it expresses a feeling, not because they’re actually signing up for machine-led repression. But it also comes from signs of resistance, whether a literal image of someone fighting back or from the subtler sense that somewhere, perhaps far in the distance, a light is growing.
That can come from satire or humor, as in Quin Wu’s playful portraits of broken monumental branding. Another response to dystopian conformity is to think differently, as with the growing trend of anti-design, which disrupts classic design principles with jarring contrasts and subversive images. Dystopias can help us work through our anxieties about the present, but they can also be a trigger, whether for choosing a more ethical product, regaining control of your own data or coming together via local campaigns or politics. Dystopian design can show a bleak future to give us a more hopeful present.
Why dystopian design is the look of our time
As we become increasingly plugged in and the dangers to our planet rise, it’s no surprise we’re seeing more and more dystopian design. Alongside images of vast buildings, sophisticated machines and put-upon people we’re also seeing works infused with a more general mood of eeriness, oppression and resistance. Dystopian design can give products darkness and edge—and as their ongoing popularity shows, these dark visions are as immersive as hell.