The significance of terms like Millennial or Gen Z have superseded their formal meaning. Millennial has come to connote cliches like avocado toast, “millennial pink,” gourmet burgers served on slate tiles—or less fun, more unflattering platitudes around being “entitled,” hypersensitive “snowflakes” that whinge about not being able to afford houses (like their boomer parents apparently all could).
They’re lazy labels—vague at best and unhelpful in terms of offering any real insight.
Defining groups by simple age parameters—especially considering Gen Z currently spans that aged 9-24-years-old—means missing the mark as a brand that wants to genuinely say (or sell) something meaningful to a specific audience.
What Exactly is a Cultural Code?
The field of semiotics is about understanding meaning through the sign and the signified. For example, the “sign” might be red; it can imply many things depending on the context, in the UK alone: anger, a warning, stop, passion, or romance. In design terms, individual signs come together to form cultural codes. Take hipster luxury.
A few years ago, the code of hipster luxury might consist of design cues like reclaimed oak tabletops, bare Edison light bulbs, industrial pipework, and exposed brick. Now its form may have shifted—teal green velvet, geometric tiling, brass fixtures, palm tree prints, and mock-terrazzo marble.
The codes are more than the sum of their parts; separately, or in other configurations, those elements take on other meanings. Velvet seats in a strip club denote something entirely different to those in a trendy restaurant offering a farm-to-table tasting menu.
When a code emerges among a particular audience, brands need to ask why. What do the “hipsters” in the above example think that aesthetic says about them? That they crave authenticity? That they inherently understand craft? That they like nice things but appreciate both grittiness and irony? A certain bourgeois thriftiness?
Residual, Dominant, and Emergent
The most ‘hip’ codes, perhaps, are those that create tension with already-dominant signifiers of hipsterdom. In the wake of Kinfolk magazine-esque “millennial minimalism” (calm, wide-spaced sans serif fonts, muted colors, neatly arranged Kilner jars, crisp white Stan Smith trainers), the graphic design world saw a backlash with the rise of “ugly design” and trends like acid graphics, a riot of clashing neons, maximalism, blocky unapologetic fonts, and a general railing against the norm.
Since culture isn’t static, codes change over time. You can broadly split them into categories of residual (familiar, deeply rooted in culture, sometimes feeling dated), dominant (recognizable to all, but still resonant), and emergent (new ideas that won’t be widely recognized, and which may currently be more a collection of individual signs which are gradually aggregating into a nascent code.)
It follows that emergent codes at some point become dominant, and dominant codes become residual, and sometimes a twist of cultural meaning throws the residual into a new emergent form. What’s “cool,” “classy,” and “cutting edge” shapeshifts as the cultural meanings behind them change.
We’ve seen this play out in the designs for fitness campaigns. Everyone remembers the much-lambasted “Are you beach body ready?” ad from 2015—a monument to hyperbolic female physiques in stark yellow and grey, a woman reduced to nothing but a “perfect” body, and big, black all-caps, no-BS typography. Since that ad (it turns out it was for Protein World), such designs have fallen into the unfashionable residual pile.
The dominant codes that emerged in fitness now focus on celebrating health, strength, athleticism, and power. Nike’s dynamic typefaces at a slight slant, hinting at a sense of momentum; bold layouts; punchy photography of people running, sweating, and becoming their best selves. It’s about the elevating aspirational end of brutally hard work, the body as a process rather than a product.
Coming out the other side of that bombastic, high-octane spin class aesthetic, we’re moving towards emergent codes of bodies that feel good in a holistic, mind-and-body way, the more phenomenological aspect of physical exercise as a means to be with oneself rather than enhance oneself. A poster girl of this might be self-described “queer femme” yoga practitioner Jessamyn Stanley—note the futuristic and playful purple and blue neon gradients of her profile pic.
A Gen Z Code: A New Frontier
One of the key codes we identified recently at Space Doctors in a project looking at Gen Z’s interaction in online metaverses is something we’ve dubbed the “new wild west.” Its fundamental elements are acid green, terminal fonts, sharp contrasts, jarring collage, screengrabs, and digital artifacts. Inspired by the wild west of the early internet, it looks to move away from harmony and towards a living, energized chaos—a reaction to an increasingly harmonious, consistent graphic style defined by too many brands and businesses.
People don’t just suddenly love luminous green; design reveals how specific audiences view the world and its place within it. Digital natives want to forge a new space that’s jagged, raw, and real. This energy is not wholeheartedly the rampant neon anarchy of the internet 1.0, either; it’s a refined version of digital chaos forged of the new skills catalyzed by the creator economy.
Codes Construct Identity
The codes relevant to one audience will alienate another. Some brands will want to tap into familiarity, harnessing residual ones that draw on nostalgia; cultural memory shared emotion. Others want to stake their claim on the emergent, shaping new meanings at the living edge of culture and co-creating with their consumers.
The way we align with cultural codes is ultimately about the way we construct identity. Sometimes, that identity gets constructed in obvious ways, such as in slogan t-shirts; or a garment might be saying something more subtle about its wearer, such as showcasing their appreciation of line and a sense of order in a shirt design. Clever brands want to dive even further: why do people want to show their sense of order? Is it about power? Why do people need to feel that power? There are always so many more dynamics at play than simple aesthetics.
When looking to create branding or marketing that appeals to Gen Z, it’s no good just harnessing particular color palettes, fonts, or phrases that align with certain aspects of zeitgeist culture and slapping them on anything and everything. What do those colors mean to Gen Z and why? What are the cultural touchpoints and anchors (films, TV, artists, musicians, etc.) that have brought about their prominence? What does their emotional response tell us about how those colors, fonts, and icons are interpreted?
Brands and designers must decode the significance of emerging design trends before blindly jumping on them, interrogating what they communicate in various contemporary vernaculars.
Articulating Shared Experience
Good design is about good communication.
Codes emerge as a human means of articulating shared experiences. That’s why trends happen: we see things around us in culture that makes us feel, that means something to us. And we express them through the signs and symbols of our lives—maybe through our designs, language, or fashion choices.
It’s often touted that Gen Z is about fluidity, a loose term denoting everything from gender fluidity to a hybrid existence lived between numerous different media and cultural forces to the way work and life intersect, making reducing it to a single mass all the more meaningless.
We need to stop talking about “demographics” as homogenous entities to be enticed by a series of trends broken down into two-dimensional facsimiles and lazy visual shorthands. Design is about more than a series of colors and letterforms; it’s about the ever-shifting meanings that such elements evoke.
Julius Colwyn is Associate Director at Space Doctors. A global cultural and creative consultancy and certified B corporation, they energize world-leading brands by helping them connect and respond to cultural change. With a background that weaves through the arts and sciences, Julius works at the intersection of insight, strategy, and creative, using a combination of design, creative strategy, and semiotics to help organizations create more impactful, meaningful, and relevant futures.