From Marketing to Fashion, ‘The Glitch’ Has Become One of Today’s Defining Design Trends

How digital errors became an aesthetic

Artist Phillip Stearns created this textile work from a photo taken with a damaged digital camera. Phillip Stearns via New Atlas
Headshot of David Griner

The visual crackle of a struggling video stream is a frustration to most, but clearly an inspiration to others.

Known as “the glitch,” the visual of a pixelated or off-register image has firmly become part of modern design culture, defining the newest chapter in the art world’s eternal fascination with distress, deconstruction and the eerie beauty of imperfection.

At a brief presentation on design trends at Advertising Week New York, stock art service Shutterstock illustrated how glitch designs have permeated almost every aspect of culture in 2017, from marketing campaigns and magazine covers to product design and fashion.

"There’s a controlled imperfection to it, and it's a reminder of the technical elements of design. It visualizes technology as having a combination of textures and patterns but without perfection."
Terrence Morash, creative director, Shutterstock

The glitch trend was one of several predicted by Shutterstock in its annual Creative Trends outlook. At the time, glitch seemed like a relatively modest trend compared to more practical design trends like emoji usage (which saw a 328 percent increase in stock art searches year over year) and VR-related images (up 255 percent).

Edward Snowden, by The New York Times Magazine

By comparison, searches for glitch images had risen 32 percent on Shutterstock. But there’s an important distinction in the fact that, while most of the stock art service’s trends are driven by demand for a popular visual subject (such as VR headsets, augmented reality or cybersecurity), glitch is an overarching design aesthetic that has become part of almost everything in culture.

Shutterstock creative director Terrence Morash, who presented at Advertising Week, tells Adweek that “the glitch” has had far more impact than most of the visual trends his team identified for 2017.

“When we issue this annual creative trends report, we naturally look out for examples where the trends come to life,” Morash said. “No other trend has surfaced quite as much as glitch. It is ubiquitous, and we have seen it emerge in fashion, branding, TV and film, as well as packaging and out-of-home campaigns. Although searches for the term glitch had only increased by 32 percent from the previous year, our internal creative and trends review team noted its potential to climb further in the design ranks this year. I don’t believe we have reached peak glitch yet.”

Not only has the glitch been a trend in edgy ads and ominous magazine covers (such as The New York Times Magazine’s 2016 Edward Snowden cover, which was supplemented online with an extra-glitchy animated GIF of the whistleblower), but it’s even become a central feature in product design.

Adidas created an exclusive soccer cleat for 2017 called The Glitch, which was only available for purchase through a custom mobile app and invite code. The shoe’s tagline: “Break the pattern.”

Fashion and art designers have been increasingly obsessed with the glitch in recent years, too, with its static and asymmetric lines inspiring a wide range of textile patterns. As early as 2012, Brooklyn artist Phillip David Stearns was using Kickstarter to fund the launch of his Glitch Textiles project, which netted more than $27,000 through two fundraisers.

So what’s the appeal of the glitch?

Morash says the trend manages a paradoxical balance of being both futuristic and retro, reflecting an unsettling near-future while referencing the low-fi technology of the past.

“Glitch appeals to designers for its dystopian yet futuristic look and feel. There’s a controlled imperfection to it and it’s a reminder of the technical elements of design,” Morash said. “It visualizes technology as having a combination of textures and patterns but without perfection. When you have a disharmony in design, it becomes more interesting and stands apart from everything else.

Found between “the future perfect and future fearful,” glitch design shows how art directors are both fascinated by and apprehensive of the potential impacts of runaway, often-flawed technology.

“There is also some level of nostalgia at play with glitch,” he says. “It reminds us of misregistration in print, the static on a TV or the glitchy effects on an old Game Boy.”

Multimedia artist Stearns was inspired to make fabric from the glitch after intentionally damaging a digital camera and then using it to create unexpected visuals.

The result is the creation of intentional chaos in an era where technology is meant to create order.

“These glitchy images represent a moment of defiance and rebellion,” Stearns says in a Kickstarter video explaining his fascination with the aesthetic. “Each image is unique. It’s a wonderful thing existing within the rigid confines of a rules-based system.”

Phillip David Stearns' 'Sunburst' throw was 'designed using 3-D rendering errors.'
Netflix used the glitch to promote House of Cards.
A glitch-inspired sweater by Japanese designer Nukeme.
A Forever 21 design intentionally went off-register with its colors.


@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."