Design Trend Report: Space Opera
Get ready for your one-stop guide to the space opera design trend, featuring Star Wars, Flash Gordon, and other pop-culture gems.
The History of Space OperaThe cool thing about Star Wars is that it’s far from being just a franchise that only science-fiction fans can get obsessed with; it’s also something that designers should be able to appreciate. After all, the visual art in this film series is nothing short of mind-blowing in its creativity. And, yes, “May the Fourth be with you” is absolutely a takeoff on the Star Wars catchphrase of “May the Force be with you.” The phrase “space opera” is a reference to a subgenre in science-fiction that puts the emphasis on action. It was coined back in 1941—when comic books and their badges were growing in popularity—by American fan-fiction writer Wilson Tucker. Ironically, the phrase was meant as a pejorative by Tucker, who was talking about formulaic and hackneyed TV shows and westerns whose plots had simply been switched over to an outer-space setting. After languishing as a genre for the next couple of decades, space opera was reimagined in the 1960s and 1970s and consequently enjoyed a slow-but-steady resurgence. First, it was the 1974 anthology of old-time science-fiction stories called, appropriately enough, Space Opera, that made people look at this genre in a different light. Then, around the same time, the husband and wife team of Lester and Judy-Lynn del Ray—both science-fiction editors—revitalized the genre further, distancing it from the earlier connotations of unoriginal plots based on TV shows and westerns. Probably the biggest favor that was done to this genre was its association, however, with the Star Wars franchise when, by the early 1980s, space opera was being used to describe the major motion pictures in the original Star Wars trilogy (as well as other pop-culture works). It took until the 1990s for this design trend to actually gain status as an “official” genre of science-fiction. Here are a few of our favorite Star Wars-inspired digital assets to give you a better sense of how this design trend looks: While this brief history is very revealing, it doesn’t tell the whole story of space opera. Before the phrase was coined, there were already numerous works in pop culture that featured the qualities of what would turn into this design movement. For example:
- Les Posthumes, 1802 – Nicolas-Edme Rétif
- Star ou Psi de Cassiopée: Histoire Merveilleuse de l’un des Mondes de l’Espace, 1852 – by C. I. Defontenay
- Lumen, 1872 – Camille Flammarion
- Galactic civilizations
- Interstellar travel
- Starships engaged in battles
Image Credit: WikipediaIn this time period, when Art Deco design was also in full swing, two space-opera comic-book characters would also become popular:
- Buck Rodgers
- Flash Gordon
- The invention of a means to launch into space
- Interstellar travel
- Planetary romance
Image Credit: WikipediaThroughout the 1940s all the way to the 1960s, space opera was seen as a legitimate part of science-fiction. Interestingly, by the time the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, the movement had already started to morph away from the themes common in its inception, such as celebrating the goodness of mankind and other saccharine material, and instead began exploring the darker side of humanity in its themes. Such a shift can be seen in the central premise of Star Wars, which involves the Jedi (light side of the Force) vs. the Sith (the dark side of the Force). Today—as seen by Star Wars Day and its “May the Fourth be with you” salutation—this trend is firmly rooted in our 21st-century collective imagination.
The Design Characteristics of Space OperaVisually, this design trend involves far more depth than solely a focus on space and spaceships. While that’s absolutely the central concept of its aesthetics, there’s also strong technical design behind all the interstellar travel and intergalactic battles. Let’s look at its recurring themes, first:
- Outer space (travel, destinations, interstellar warfare)
- Lofty aspiration
- Fantasy elements
- Technology, speed, and machinery (touching on elements of Futurism)
- Political and social commentary (absolute power, corruption in government, ethics, oppression, liberation)
- The use of cooler colors like various shades of blue
- The use of neutral colors, especially black, for outer space
- Geometric shapes like spheres and circles, for various planets
- Aerodynamic and otherwise streamlined curves and shapes (reminiscent of Art Deco influences), for spaceships and other futuristic flying machines
- Dazzling color contrast (characters usually sport vibrant colors in contrast with the cool tones of outer space)
- Clutter and busyness (especially during space-warfare compositions)
- Asymmetrical balance
- Interesting textures and patterns (from Darth Vader’s helmet and mask to Princess Leia’s cinnamon-buns hairstyle)
Space Opera in Graphic DesignHere are several ideal reasons to say “May the fourth be with you” every time this Star Wars holiday comes along. There a lot of inspiring examples of this trend in the graphic-design arena, which attests to its popularity as well as its tendency to fire up the imaginations of talented designers everywhere. Here’s just a sampling of some of our favorites. minimalist-infused illustration that proves you don’t have to use a cluttered design to create a sleek, aesthetic presentation. His product’s bisected appearance provides an opportunity for asymmetrical balance, color contrast, and futuristic/outer-space themes. Note the dark, neutral colors on the left side of the frame, along with the classical, geometric shapes (circles) that dominate this movement. On the right side of the frame, take note of the use of simple, streamlined curves and strong, definitive angles that come together to represent all sorts of spaceships and interstellar travel. Dribbble demonstrates the use of neutral and cooler colors for the vast, mysterious expanses of outer space. The blacks on the edges of the frame hint at the unknown of the galaxy while the shades of purples and pinks (which can be both warm and cool, to be fair) add a soothing and calming flair to the overall presentation. Throw in the pattern that the distant stars make all across the composition, and you have a graphic design that is both ethereal and inspiring.
Amazing Stories CoverAs mentioned earlier, Amazing Stories was the very popular science-fiction magazine that launched in the 1920s and featured a lot of space opera, though it’s still published sporadically today. If you were a fan of this genre several decades ago, you would be treated to fantastic, space-related illustrations and stories with each issue.
Image Credit: WikipediaWhat better way to examine this trend on the cover of Amazing Stories than with its first issue? From April 1926, we have a graphic that shows:
- Yellow negative space to promote better focus on the foreground elements
- Space themes (the ringed planet)
- Seemingly disconnected elements (ships running aground on ice/snow, ice skaters, planet in the background)
- 3D slab-serif typography in the title
Planet Stories CoverAnother effective illustration of this design trend can be seen on one of the classic covers of Planet Stories, a science-fiction pulp magazine that was a contemporary of Amazing Stories, back in the day. The magazine ran from 1939 to 1955 and was aimed at younger readers.
Image Credit: WikipediaHere, we have a cover from May of 1952. Eye-catching, it shows the following design elements:
- Vibrant, loud colors
- Color contrast
- Warm colors like yellow in the foreground to prominently draw the eye to the foreground
- Symmetry (balance) in the composition
- Sunrise motifs (just like with Art Deco design)
- Geometrical shapes (circles, arches, curves)
Image Credit: StarWars.comBeyond this, all the telltale signs of the trend’s futuristic, space-warfare, and machine-based elements are present, from the drawn lightsabers and droids to the fleet of spaceships. Also of note are the visual cues of the characters: Kylo Ren, the sequel trilogy’s villain and Rey, the sequel trilogy’s protagonist, seem to be engaged in a stare down.
Image Credit: IMDB.comHere, you have more copious helpings of the neutral color black for the vastness of outer space. The red in the attire of Ming and Flash contrasts sharply with the black background, for what is a good design choice to draw the eye to the more important elements in the foreground. Various geometric shapes (circles for planets and the outline of the spaceship) round out the design.
Space Opera in Web DesignThanks to the Internet, the final frontier for this design trend to conquer is the web. Here, too, we’ve rounded up some neat examples of this trend alive and well in cyberspace.
Image Credit: StarWars.comThe webpage displays everything from a video celebrating the “May the Fourth be with you” catchphrase to short primers on how to celebrate the fan holiday while we’re all at home during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. There are even special deals that Star Wars fans can take advantage of.
Image Credit: TBS.comThis TBS show’s characters hub on its website provides a look at what happens when you take this trend’s design concepts and set them to hand-drawn animation. The character are illustrated with some of the same aesthetic flourishes that we’ve already seen in the examples above: geometric shapes, streamlined edges and lines, and color contrast galore. Netflix show’s webpage, we see the space motif in all its glory.
Image Credit: Netflix.comFirst, it’s hard to miss the swirling mass of celestial space dust around the protagonist’s profile, which creates an evocative, mysterious vibe. Then, you have the combination of pink and purple hues, all colors toward the cooler side of the color wheel, which mix well with the black background of space. Finally, you have the geometric design influences once more, with the clusters of circles, representing the stars.
Where Aspiration Meets InspirationMan has always aspired to travel to the stars and beyond. Making it to the moon is not enough! We need to see and know more about the vast universe. Among all design aesthetics, space opera captures this feeling so well. The end result of that is a trend that inspires one and all. So the next time you hear the catchphrase “May the Fourth be with you,” know that it’s more than a plug for the latest Star Wars vehicle. It’s also a motivational cry to broaden your design chops in this aesthetic.
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