There’s a new trend taking over TikTok, and it’s not a dance challenge or a NyQuil marinated chicken recipe (if you know you know). It’s the “collage aesthetic,” in which users create looping videos of cutout images layered together with music and simple animations. The effect feels nostalgic and innovative at the same time, and it mirrors what designers have been implementing in mood boards and brand campaigns for a while—that informal analog feel of hand-assembled and photocopied 'zines, revived again through the current reboot of the turn of the ‘90s and Y2K aesthetics.
The collage trend is broader than TikTok. The treatment, which gives the appearance of cutout, ripped, or torn images taped or layered together, has shown up in branding and marketing for Twitter and Virgin Voyages; Halsey’s Gen Z-focused makeup brands about-face and af-94; as well as legacy brands like Heinz and Johnnie Walker, which are also courting a younger demographic. Diego Cordova and Martí Canillas, creative directors of Cordova Canillas, recently completed a global rebrand for Nike’s Move to Zero campaign, which incorporates collage as well. The duo has made a name for themselves creating work that embraces the aesthetic imperfection of design, “always pushing forward, avoiding (or breaking) grids, cutting and pasting images to create overlapping layers in 2D formats,” they explained via email.
Collage signifies an unpretentious authenticity, and is a welcome relief from the technocentric design visions of the metaverse that have reached fever pitch in the last two years. Even in the Web3 space, there’s a shift in aesthetic direction towards the handmade. Design agency Wildish & Co. created a flexible branding system for cryptocurrency startup Metaphor built from a 100+ asset library of collaged public domain images. Wildish & Co.’s managing director Sam Fresco says, “they needed an identity that would lift them above the noise,” adding that the renewed interest in collage online is simply because it's a fun and approachable medium where anyone can create something dynamic.
He also sees the tap-and-lift photo editor in the latest iPhone iOS update as a new opportunity to put more design tools in the hands of users. For those who haven't updated to iOS 16, tap-and-lift is exactly what it sounds like—the ability to tap on any image in a photo and magically cut it out with a long press. “That's a really interesting native feature that lets people think about how they can stitch two images together, where any image becomes a sticker or can be combined with another to create a sort of hyper-reality,” Fresco explains.
Branding for cryptocurrency startup Metaphor, created from a 100+ asset library of collaged public domain images. Images courtesy Wildish & Co.
While digital collage is nothing new to designers or makers with desktop photo editors, features like the iOS 16 photo editor and Pinterest’s new collage-making app Shuffles has made the process more widely accessible to non-designers, giving the treatment even broader visibility and mass appeal. Shuffles’ mobile-first format not only encourages collaborative remixing of imagery to send privately to friends in-app, it also makes it easier to share across other social media platforms. Lexi Sydow, head of Insights at data.ai, said in an interview with TechCrunch, “It’s building off the empowerment of creativity and user-generated content, popularized in many ways by TikTok.”
Shuffles is the first standalone app created by Pinterest’s in-house incubator, TwoTwenty. Though it’s still invite-only, it garnered immediate success, becoming the fifth most downloaded lifestyle app on iOS shortly after its soft launch in August. Pinterest, now in its twelfth year of operation, has been looking for ways to reinvent itself amid Ben Silbermann recently stepping down as CEO and the company’s global monthly active users decreasing by 5%. With its stock price also dropping by 77%, Pinterest needed a win, and it appears that Shuffles could be a new way forward for the brand that's struggled to maintain relevance with younger users.
Online, the collage trend has helped evolve the more traditional Instagram slideshow as a way to personalize posts beyond the restrictions of a square composition. It also illustrates how people continue to find creative ways to curate and share still images across a social media landscape that increasingly prioritizes video. Rather than an evolution of the photo dump, the trend creates a contrasting version of authenticity: it has the curation and intention of yesteryear's highly aesthetic Instagram, rebranded into something that looks more casual and spontaneous. Consider it design's so-called "messy bun.”
This comes at a time when Instagram itself is changing. Just last year, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri shocked elder millennials everywhere when he announced that Instagram was no longer a photo sharing app. The Verge reported on the TikTokification of Instagram, writing that, “the message that Instagram is sending is clear: it no longer wants to be thought of as the ‘square photo-sharing app’…but instead as a general entertainment app driven by algorithms and videos.”
Global branding for Nike's Move to Zero campaign. Images courtesy Cordova Canillas.
Photographers and digital creatives who use Instagram to showcase their work have complained about the shift to video, prompting many to seek out other platforms that can function as a portfolio for still imagery. The hybrid nature of the digital collage trend could serve as an alternative to abandoning Instagram’s networking potential altogether. The fact that animated digital collages allow users to create Reels with still images represents both a sign of resistance to the move to video and also a necessary adaptation to the platform’s new focus.
But the proliferation of collage’s ‘aesthetic imperfection’ in corporate branding and app design also calls into question where we're currently situated in the life cycle of the 90s nostalgia trend—has it been in the market long enough to evolve into sub trends as designers continue to need to carve out a niche in the online attention economy, or will we begin to see it taper off in the coming year in the wake of the next aesthetic to gain momentum on TikTok?