When editor and consultant Casey Lewis started her newsletter digest on youth culture, After School, she instinctively gravitated towards pastel and iridescent-like backgrounds for her graphics. “To be honest, and I’m sort of embarrassed to admit this, I didn’t think about it too deeply!” she told me over email. “For me, holographics evoke a sort of tech-y nostalgia that takes me back to the early days of my interneting. Because After School is about youth culture, and because so much of youth culture today feels like a throwback to the ’90s and early-aughts, it just felt right.” The era, also known as Y2K, was marked by an aesthetic that’s “not too self-serious, just kind of cool and a little tacky, but in a fun way,” Lewis explained.

The Y2K aesthetic characterized the end of the millennium. “Things like rounded, bloated typefaces, hyper digital elements like metallics, gloss, mirror and 3-D, as well as implied tech elements like loading bars and rendered buttons,” said Jane McFarlane, the brand director of creative agency The Digital Fairy. One of the most recognizable elements, however, is the era’s color palette and finishes: glossy holographic gradients, watery iridescent colors, and shiny silvers. “These design elements were super popular during the late ’90s and early 2000s,” she continued. “They reflected our excitement about rising tech advancements as well as us naively trying to make sense of our world both on and offline.”

If we described Y2K’s look in a word, it would be iridescence. Even though iridescence took over the world of high-end design and art in the mid 2010s, its appeal is now extending to cultural artifacts and consumer goods. At the 2020 VMA awards, Lady Gaga wore a marine-life inspired Iris Van Herpen iridescent number; Lorde has a series of holographic stage costumes. In consumer goods, this motif abounds too: Three recent book releases, including Vagablonde by Anna Dorn, Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner, and Fake Accounts with Lauren Oyler exhibit the illusion of a rainbow-like shimmer. The promotional campaign for the Apple Card uses a similar gradient color palette, and in Disney’s Frozen 2, Elsa’s new getup as the fifth spirit is optic white with diamond-shaped iridescent inserts. Even WGSN’s 2025 Advanced Color Forecast predicts futuristic iridescence in smart glass in office-design environments and structural color, “a technology that involves growing cellulose into nanostructures that reflect light,” with a known iridescent effect. 

At the 2020 VMAs, Lady Gaga wore a shimmery Iris Van Herpen design.

The reasons behind its appeal are manifold. “Holographic and dichroic surfaces and materials are futuristic in appearance and made more so by the way in which they are now being combined with technology: such surfaces have inherent qualities that tantalize the senses,” explains Reiko Morrison, WGSN’s head of consumer tech. “The Instagram/TikTok generation is the generation of technology—shiny, futuristic surfaces are part of their daily world, but also harken back to the Y2K trend which has seen immense popularity on TikTok with metallic and iridescent eyeshadows and lip glosses.”

Like how the iMac G3s with their candy colors were all the rage at the turn of the millennium, heralding a new era, the current iridescent craze has a similar mood of expectancy. “Just like in 2000, we are on the cusp of technological innovation with the explosion of web 3.0,” says Deanna Middleton, a visual strategist at The Digital Fairy. “However, there is not the same techno optimism. We have been burnt by the wrongdoings of web 2.0 and approach 3.0 with cautious optimism. Iridescence has matured to reflect this; today it encompasses deeper and moodier tones, compared to the hopeful and naive rainbow tones of the 2000s and 2010s.”

The current iridescent craze has a mood of expectancy.

It should be noted, though, that holographic and iridescent textures were actually fairly rare in the overall Y2K design landscape compared to today. “I think this was due to both the ‘newness’ of these qualities in terms of accessibility and cost, and the fact that the contemporary, complex apparatuses of fast fashion and online marketplaces, able to pump out an endless variety of customized consumer goods, were still in their infancy,” says Evan Collins, a designer who founded the Y2K aesthetic institute and the visual lexicon Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute. “The rise of iridescent textures and imagery may also be related to how both 4K ‘ultra-high resolution’ technology became commonplace in the 2010s, and advanced fluid simulation and 3D modeling became more capable of mimicking natural phenomena,” he added, referring to the fact that iridescence is far from being a tech-only visual phenomenon: You can spot it on insects, on feathers, on scales. 

Nature’s in on the trend, too. Photo by Yogendra Joshi, Creative Commons

Collins attributes the current general popularity of holographic and iridescent motifs to a sense of newness. After its initial Y2K boom, holographic and iridescent motifs completely vanished for some time: trends like McBling, embodied by rhinestones-encrusted cell phones and shades of lilac, baby blue, and hot pink favored jewel tones and bright, cool-toned metallics and sparkle. The post-recession aesthetic was flat, vector-based, and, in a way, matte. And the colors that epitomized the “millennial” aesthetic were warm and muted: desaturated pinks and very warm yellows and greens were prominently featured in fashion and interior design.

It’s a common dynamic for corporations and tech companies to co-opt style signifiers of subcultures that were active a few years prior, and indeed, companies have already appropriated iridescence in their branding. This means we’re slowly seeing it everywhere, from website layouts to meme graphics and ecommerce pages, all the way to web3: MacOS Big Sur, Monterrey, and Windows 11 combine classic gradients with subtle iridescent and metallic “finishes” in their UI, while the header of the fintech service company Stripe sports a quintessential gradient pattern that borders on glimmering. On a less corporate note, artist Blake Kathryn combines hyperrealism with iridescent textures for immersive experiences for the likes of Coachella and for original digital artworks for platforms such as SuperRare and Nifty Gateway, making iridescence a hallmark in web3 art. 

As visually appealing and as representative of the incoming web3 era as an iridescent palette might be, there’s a technical holdup that might prevent these finishes from seamlessly integrating into virtual reality spaces. While they work well in headers, infographics, and yes, even artworks, they might not be technically supported by the metaverse’s graphic engine. In the end, these limitations might signal the trend’s twilight in the coming years. “As we move into virtual spaces, low res, easy to render surfaces and textures may become more favorable,” said Middleton from The Digital Fairy. “Like we saw with online content,” she says, referring to the way contemporary creators push back against something that looks too polished in content, “we may ultimately see a rejection of polish and perfection [in form].”

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By Peter