Steampunk design: Imagining a futuristic past

Steampunk is a growing subculture that’s existed since at least the 1980s. The genre uses the 19th century as its backdrop (often with a Victorian or Wild West slant) and focuses on a fictional world where steam power rules the world and delivers a new industrial era.

The steampunk movement inspires us to imagine a different time with wildly imaginative, nostalgic and often far-fetched outcomes. The aesthetic is instantly recognizable, often taking a vintage approach to form and function—swirling gears, gaslights, Neo-Victorian outfits—that transport you back to a fantastical past. Today you can see traces of steampunk everywhere, from fashion and art to large scale events like Burning Man.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most prominent motifs to familiarize and inspire you with the world of steampunk!

1. Steam

steampunk illustration
Illustration by Ryan Atendido

Steampunk design fabricates an alternative timeline after the invention of steam-power, so many older steam technologies (such as steam trains) receive special attention. The illustration above depicts what a “futuristic” train may have looked like from the eyes of someone living in the 19th-century.

Compared to a 19th-century locomotive, this one is much larger. The mechanical design is more complex. It has ornate patterns adorning individual components. For these reasons, this illustration can be considered a steampunk design.

2. Air, aviation & flight

steampunk book cover design
Book cover design by John Coulthart

Another motif that weaves throughout steampunk design is the idea of flight or aviation. Often in fashion, you’ll see people sporting aviation goggles and apparel. Designers often drift towards early 20th century machinery and toy with futurism.

In the steampunk book cover design above, we see intricately designs propellers, wings and flying machines. While they may not necessarily require steam, these elements are undeniably steampunk.

3. Moving parts, gears & mechanisms

steampunk mechanical design
3D model design by Mariana Garcia (via Behance)

No steampunk design would be complete without at least one exposed gear. The “bicycle” 3D model design to the right displays many gears, and quickly lights up the imagination.

It pushes the traditional idea of a machine to the extreme. At first it’s hard to even imagine where the rider would sit, let alone how they would ride it (fly it?), but that’s part of what’s loved about steampunk design—it settles you into a reality where over-the-top machines are normalized and intuitive.

A propeller is incorporated into the design, as well. in terms of real-world functionality, there’s no way this bicycle would work under our laws of physics, but that doesn’t matter in steampunk design.

Steampunk liberates us to let our post-apocalyptic steam powered ideas take flight!

4. Brass & copper

steampunk branding
Logo design by Grant Okita (via Behance)

It’s no secret that steampunk is fascinated with mechanics, and consequently copper and brass are often incorporated into design. From mechanical gears to accessories like buckles and pocket watched, this color palette is a popular motif.

In the branding concept above, metallics accentuate every element. The vintage duo grasps onto chains attached to a floating pulley, animating a giant hand to press down on the keys of shiny, copper typewriter. The surrealistic approach and nostalgic tone are a perfect fit for the steampunk aesthetic—and anyone in search of “purveyors of fine stories”.

5. Clocks & timepieces

sp1
“Flyer” design by Christian Lang (via Behance)

Steampunk has a great affinity for clocks and timepieces of all shapes and sizes. With gleaming metals and exposed mechanics, it’s the perfect tool to really show off the genre’s aesthetic. Figuratively speaking, clocks also stand as a reminder that steampunk happens within its own time frame, stemming from a different history.

The design above features a classic steampunk clock, full of copper plating, mechanical gears and ornate details.

More steampunk design inspiration

We’re big fans of steampunk style (and our community is too!). Here’s some of our designers’ interpretations of this wildly innovative style.

steampunk clown
by INKSPITJUNKIE
Steampunk Chameleon Character Logo
by Dima Che
steampunk comic
by hengkiisirawan
mikes nuts
by BlooByrd Art
steampunk trading cards
by Akira X3
steampunk illustration
by miridi
tyrant bloody mary mix
by dguiraom
steampunk-style poster/wall-art illustration
by Evilltimm

Conclusion

There are many design elements that have built the steampunk we know today. It’s wildly inspiring to push past traditional concepts of steam, aviation, gears, copper, clocks and the future. With that said, steampunk is a culture. It is a feeling. Dig deep into H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, daydream about futuristic worlds through the steampunk lens, or roll up your DIY sleeves and just start creating.

What’s your favorite steampunk design? Share it below!

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