The Gen Z Aesthetic
The death of "premium mediocre" and the birth of "intentional ugly"
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This week I found myself down some very rare Instagram rabbit holes. I learnt about VSCO girls (yes, very late to the game), I DM'd with 15 year old "niche memers" and moodboarders, and I watched Joana Ceddia give an archery tutorial. I feel like an old anthropologist who's stubbled across some remote tribe — who are these Gen Z? And why are they doing that?
I loved art history in high school, and design history in college. There's something so fascinating about drawing links between moments in culture and the visual expression of those moments. On a shorter time scale, it's fun to draw generational lines and unpack the aesthetic components that bubble up because of the unique experiences of certain age cohorts. Some say memes are the art movement of our time, and I tend to agree. Most post-modern art movements arise to subvert the status quo. And in the same way, meme culture tends to reject whatever has become the cultural norm at any moment in time. The "Millennial Aesthetic" aka "Instagram Aesthetic" aka "Premium Mediocre" has taken pride of place on our billboards, feeds, wardrobes, and offices to become the new cultural norm. But Gen Z meme culture (and its associated aesthetic) is arriving and shaking that shit up.
The defining characteristics of the Gen Z aesthetic are most obvious when sidled up next to the Millennial aesthetic. So let's first recap the last 5 years...
Gender-fluid Millennial Pink + an array of other smooth pastels
Sans serif logos paired with stylish serif fonts
Generous white space
Highly stylized still-life vignettes
Elegant Scandinavian silhouettes
Blank, clean surfaces
Perfectly shot flat-lays
Heavily filtered selfies
It's a soft, calming, and unoffensive aesthetic. These trademarks are suggestive of well-being, serenity, and kindliness — qualities heavily sort by a generation that is very subject to depression. The obsession with houseplants, of which I'm supremely guilty, can be seen as compensation for the woeful state of our natural environment. Succulents line our window sills to ward off the realities of an ever-warming planet.
But the aesthetic has become so saturated and manufactured, that a new generation of consumers are painting an entirely new canvas. And it ain't pretty. I've personally been referring to the aesthetic as "intentional ugly", and like the mad anthropologist I am, I've assembled a collection exhibits:
Exhibit A: Relatable and raw photography, and the use of filters that intentionally make your photos look worse. Taylor Lorenz notes "Fast-rising young influencers such as Emma Chamberlain, Jazzy Anne, and Joanna Ceddia all reject the notion of a curated feed in favor of a messier and more unfiltered vibe.”
Exhibit B: Weird and goofy outfits. Make-up free selfies with unflattering poses.
Exhibit C: Nostalgic themes and analog film filters. Lorenz notes ‘Huji Cam, which make your images look as if they were taken with an old-school throwaway camera, has been downloaded more than 16 million times. “Adding grain to your photos is a big thing now,” says Sonia Uppal, a 20-year-old college student. many teens are going out of their way to make their photos look worse."‘
Exhibit D: The vaporwave aesthetic is popular, with its early Internet imagery, late 1990s web design, glitch art, and cyberpunk tropes, Greco-Roman statues, and 3D-rendered objects. Presented here in the equally popular "Niche meme" format.
Exhibit E: A dark, academic aesthetic is common. Presented on the left in an “Aesthetic moodboard” which are huge on Instagram. Gen Z aren’t afraid to lean into their nerdiness.
Exhibit F: 8-bit pixel art, cyber, and early internet references.
Exhibit G: E-boys and e-girls, which are basically the emo kids of the new era. They love grunge, video games, and anime. (Please note the Juul pod earrings).
Exhibit H: VSCO girls. VSCO is a subculture that emerged during Summer 2019. The VSCO girl is eco-conscious, she wears oversized t-shirts, Birkenstocks, scrunchies, and covers her HydroFlask with stickers. The name was derived from the VSCO app — known for its summery and nostalgic filters.
Exhibit I: Poorly set typography and the use of system (read: boring) typography. Text padding and button padding so strange it makes even non-designers uncomfortable. Then again, I think there's a certain comfort in the dorkiness. The lo-fi quality of these layouts make the products and brands seem more approachable, and more genuine.
Exhibit J: Quirky, nonsensical memes. Gen Z memes aren't as cynical or sarcastic as Millennial memes. Memers frequently use WordArt, and other early 90's graphic distortion tools.
A strong desire for self-expression is the thread that connects all these references. Gen Z are showing their concern for our deteriorating climate and their passion for a slew of social justice movements through their fashion, their TikTok's, and their art. And I think it's awesome.
It will be interesting to see if brand designers and product designers will be able to break their disciplined use of white space, well-set type, and perfectly aligned imagery to speak to a generation that is now the largest segment of the population. Though I'm sure "intentional ugly" will soon become the sort-after aesthetic, and take its place as the new cultural norm. I'll be writing this same post in 5 years time, a concept Molly Fischer gets at in her brilliant piece 'The Tyranny of Terrazzo. Will the millennial aesthetic ever end?':
"Ever since modernism brought industry into design, tastes have cycled between embracing and rejecting what it wrought. A forward-looking, high-tech style obsessed with mass commercial appeal will give way to one that’s backward-looking, handmade, authenticity-obsessed — which will then give way to some new variation on tech-forward mass style. (Furniture dealers joke that “brown” goes in and out with every generation.) It’s a logic that gets filtered through the reliable desire for the world the way it looked when we were young, and lately this has meant looking back 30 or so years to the Memphis-inflected pastel pop of the ’80s and ’90s. We might call the latest iteration of the cycle the “millennial aesthetic” — not to say that it was embraced by all millennials, just that it came to prominence alongside them and will one day be a recognizable artifact of their era."
May the cultural pendulum keep on swinging!
Curious to know other markers of the Gen Z aesthetic you’ve noticed?
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Yours in scrunchies and pixels,
Myself and some friends are assembling a team to build a new social product for Gen Z creators. If you’re interested in working in this super fun space, please hit me up firstname.lastname@example.org