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How 'web kitsch' is helping brands embrace the power of nostalgia

Designers are taking on the less-polished aesthetic of the early web—when it was less templatized, less corporate, and decidedly more weird.

Illustration by Eliran Vahdi.

Profile picture of Lilly Smith


3 min read

Fashion and web design are also colliding when it comes to aesthetics: Y2K nostalgia is everywhere.

Like current typography trends, the visual design pendulum is swinging away from clean and corporate genericism that’s dominated branding and web design for over a decade. Designers are taking on the less-polished aesthetic of the early days of the web—when it was less templatized, less corporate, and decidedly more weird.

That means web design that’s intentionally low-fi—default fonts, patterned backgrounds, old school browser windows, simple layouts, and decorative sticker icons like butterflies that convey an amateur look—even if the designer is anything but.

Images 1-5 courtesy Ryan Haskins. Images 6-9 courtesy Esther Rubanovich.

The y2k aesthetic is everywhere (and not just in web design; we see you, tiny sunglasses and low-rise jeans). It cropped up on the branding for the 2022 D&AD Editor X New Blood awards, websites for pop star Olivia Rodrigo, fashion label Off-White, and personal portfolios, like these by designers Ryan Haskins, Esi Rub, and Kurt Champion. Designer Tracy Ma, formerly at the New York Times, has embraced this aesthetic for years. She had a hand in dusting off the traditional illustration style at the newspaper, and was part of a crop of new designers that overhauled the look of Bloomberg Business in the style during the mid-late 2010s (see those default fonts?). But now, just as the South Florida Sun Sentinel described MTV’s Laguna Beach in 2005, the Y2K aesthetic “is like, a real teen hit.”

“Design always echoes fashion, and right now Y2K fashion trends are the ‘it’ thing,” David Chathas, design director at Wieden + Kennedy Portland, told Shaping Design. “From a design perspective, we’re reliving 1999-2006, but through a Gen Z lens… [it’s] Y2K nostalgia re-invented with open source access to 3D software. It's Nu metal meets the Limited Too and everyone and everything gets a butterfly."

Images courtesy Kurt Champion.

We can see it with DTC beauty and accessories brands like Studs, Starface, and Billie that cater to younger Gen-Z audiences, where clean and straightforward navigability isn’t as covetable as an authentic connection with users and a vivid brand presence, conveyed through bright colors, memes, gifs, and kitschy web designs that could’ve been made by a very online blogger friend of yours in the early 2000s as by a professional in 2022. And that’s the point.

The pixelated, low-tech look has also infiltrated NFTs. Cryptopunks, a collection of 10,000 24 by 24 pixel portrait illustrations, are considered among the most covetable NFTs on the market, and sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. The style is even appearing in AR/VR spaces. Virtual platform Gather’s 8 bit interface offers a friendly and approachable alternative to the slick look of the Metaverse envisioned by major tech companies, and on the other end of the spectrum, web kitsch is playing out through the re-emergence of outdated tech (neopets, anyone?).

The nostalgia is still stronger than ever. “Most stuff feels like the LaCroix version of the original source material, which is okay,” says Chathas. “The important thing is whatever the new thing is, is actually cooler than the original. We just won't be able to process it until later,” he says, adding that although trends vary in staying power, longer ones stick around for two to five years. With more tools available than ever before, designers are well-positioned to make exactly that happen.


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