As we look to visually represent the multifaceted lives we experience in the digital age, the opportunities for creativity are endless.

Our consumption of visual culture has irreversibly changed. Where once traditional media were the only sources through which a few voices could be heard, now millions of viewpoints, ideas and perspectives are available through multiple channels and platforms. It’s no longer necessary to follow the in-crowd, because we have access to a much more diverse crowd than the one on our doorstep.

The transient quality of the digital age, however, means that not only are the options vast, they’re also fleeting. We can create or dismiss identities at the click of a button. We can be whoever we want for however long, or exist as a multitude of personas simultaneously. We don’t even need to commit words; emojis can now get the point across more accurately.

“Surreality” is an aesthetic that references how we visually make sense of the new ways in which we consume culture and share information. Just as Surrealism looked to translate the unconscious in order to understand the conscious, the visual techniques that shape this trend look to reconcile the duality we experience now that much of our lives are digital.

The Internet has disrupted the central narratives that shaped our world, democratizing the landscape and creating a nonlinear, nonhierarchical arena where individuals, rather than corporations, are taking the lead. The 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, filled with surreal imagery, was a perfect example of how the mainstream has taken its cue from online culture. By using treatments that reference online phenomena, like gifs and memes, brands are able to tap into the zeitgeist, positioning them at the forefront of the current visual realm.

We see this trend manifest in a variety of treatments. Humans are complex and unpredictable, and there’s no reason why brand visuals can’t be, too. At the forefront, surreal collages, like those fashion house Kenzo has become renowned for, take inspiration from multiple sources and reference points, not settling on a core style. These hyper-immersive, psychedelic visuals appeal to a global audience by transcending genres. In an age where technology is removing the serendipity of discovery, these quirky compositions reignite the pleasure we feel in experiencing the unexpected.

Another core component of this aesthetic is repetition. Drowning in visuals, repetition makes sense to us; it references the volume of pictures we see and the speed at which we consume. Boundaries are redundant in the digital realm, and with repetition we look to visualize infinity, drawing patterns from big data to build an understanding of a seemingly borderless future. As we seek to address the duality we experience with our online and offline personas, we see repetition in portraiture too. Fractured, multiple portraits present the complexity of human behavior; multifaceted, fickle characters that are nonconformist, contradictory and inclusive.

The appeal of this trend is wide-reaching and deep. The kaleidoscopic intensity of these visuals challenges expectations; often igniting the creation of memes and gifs, inviting the audience to participate and share in the creative process. In taking the positive aspects of the digital age and using them to look to the future, it allows brands to break from the past and reach into unknown realms with honesty and integrity.

 

 See which keywords have risen in Getty Images search data that have helped define the Surreality trend:

 

Discover more images inspired by the Surreality trend at Getty Images and iStock by Getty Images