What is frutiger aero, the aesthetic taking over from Y2K?

What is frutiger aero, the aesthetic taking over from Y2K?

Shiny globules, green fields, tropical fish – memories of an era dominated by glossy, naturalistic design are taking over the internet

It’s 2008 and the sweet smell of plastic fills the air, as you unwrap your first-ever touchscreen phone. You boot it up, and are greeted with a melodic chime, before being lulled into stock images of sunflower-filled fields and oversaturated blue skies. In the next room, your parents are taking their first intrepid steps towards becoming technologically literate by trading the gym for virtual tennis on Wii Sports. You probably didn’t realise it then, but you were swept up in the middle of a substantial digital shift a subtle transition from the futuristic pessimism of the early 00s to a glossier, more optimistic utopia that felt just within reach. 

For the past few years, nostalgia for Y2K has dominated our feeds, spilling into everything from fashion and make-up trends, to revivals of turn-of-the-century web aesthetics. But as we enter 2023, it’s looking like the millennium bug might finally be over ousted by a growing nostalgia for a slightly later era, one that provided today’s young people with their formative digital experiences. One of the most prominent aesthetics at the time, nicknamed frutiger aero, roughly spans the period from around 2004 to 2013. Slideshows of images of the aesthetic set to soothing electronic music are currently making waves on TikTok, where the hashtag #frutigeraero has over 28M views. On Reddit, a subreddit of the same name has grown by over 400 per cent in the past month, and on YouTube, analysis videos breaking down frutiger aero are springing up left right and centre. 


But what exactly is frutiger aero? Sofi Lee is a member of the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute (CARI), an online community dedicated to logging visual aesthetics in consumer culture from the 1970s to now. She was the first person to identify frutiger aero, naming it after two major hallmarks of the aesthetic: the Frutiger family of fonts and Windows Aero, the design language of Windows Vista. Although Sofi didn’t acknowledge their connection at the time, she remembers being drawn to the individual elements of frutiger aero growing up. “I was in my teens when Vista came out, and I was so excited because I thought it was the coolest-looking thing in existence,” she tells Dazed. “It was glossy and glowing and just seemed like it represented a huge step forward in terms of what interfaces could look like.” 

Lee explains that other prominent motifs of frutiger aero include bokeh, auroras, globes, and glassy, transparent materials that is, virtual things resembling their real-life counterparts. This adds up to a naturalistic aesthetic that provides a feeling of the indoors and outdoors merging together an apt representation of an era where the arrival of smartphones was transforming the internet from something locked away in a computer room, to a living and breathing entity all around us. 


“I think part of the reason why companies adopted this style was to convey a sense of approachability and friendliness, since this was an era when technologies were becoming much more widely accessible to people that had previously not felt comfortable [with them]” says Evan Collins, also from CARI and known for pioneering research into other popular aesthetics, such as Y2K and McBling. One of these new technologies was touchscreen: iPads and iPhones first launched during this era, and Evan thinks their rise might coincide with frutiger aero’s growth in popularity. “There may be something to how the use of glossy, translucent, jelly-like, glowing interfaces mimicking real-world physical properties helped to acclimate people to touch-based interfaces,” he suggests.

While UI design is where frutiger aero originated, droplets of it can be seen all over the late 00s and early 10s, with its bubbly branding travelling as far afield as air conditioner vents, laundry detergents, and even frozen yoghurt shop chairs. Frutiger aero can be seen in the shimmery facial features of the Sims 3 characters, the lobes of an Xbox 360 controller, the slash of a Fruit Ninja watermelon on a faux-wooden chopping board. Once you learn how to separate it from its Y2K predecessor, you can see it everywhere. Think: PlayStation Home, Super Mario Galaxy, Purble Place, tropical fish, open-plan offices with a shitload of plants, these four colours. All of them are frutiger aero staples.


So is it simply the next trend on the endless conveyor belt of recycled aesthetics? Is it popular because Gen Z are turning 25 and longing for the comforts of childhood? Or does its colourful vibe represent something prescient about our current moment? 

“I think there’s a lot of hopefulness in this aesthetic that Y2K doesn’t have,” says internet culture expert and meme librarian Amanda Brennan. She believes that our nostalgia for frutiger aero’s heydey could correlate with us wanting to escape the constantly looming permacrisis of the early 20s. “I think people are searching for aesthetics and feelings that can help them shake off the last couple of years. Something that is still nostalgic and still hitting that comfort bubble, but also a little more out there, a little more exploratory.” Trend expert Hannah Craggs from TrendBible agrees. “In times of unrest and uncertainty, such as the cost of living crisis, there is a natural pull towards the comfort of simpler times and familiar moods often found in nostalgic memories,” she explains. This hopefulness and return to a more playful and quirky style can be seen not just in us tiring of Y2K nostalgia, but also voicing a general sense of boredom with the flat, minimalist style that dominates much of tech and online interfaces today. 

As an aesthetic defined by lush, high-definition photos of plants and animals, our nostalgia for frutiger aero might also mirror the way we view our planet today. “I think there is a lot of eco-awareness happening now, and that might be why people are drawn to this, because it is very nature-focused,” Amanda explains. “I think we’ve seen a shift in how people perceive climate change and the actions we can take for it. Thinking back to those years, [frutiger aero] had this hope of ‘Okay, we’re going to make this world beautiful, both physically and online’, and I think that is a really big movement in culture right now too.” Frutiger aero’s associations with the planet were not always positive, though, as both Sofi and Evan tell Dazed that it was often tied to greenwashing. Perhaps there is another parallel here too silicon valley bros claiming to care about the environment, all the while encouraging us to swap the outdoors for shoddily designed, blocky, virtual worlds? Seems oddly familiar.

Digital nostalgia for the mid-aughts is everywhere, whether that’s in photodumps, blogging, or taking digital cameras into clubs. Blend this with the analysis of microaesthetics becoming its own genre, and it makes sense why frutiger aero is soaring in popularity. But is it anything beyond a microtrend and nostalgic reimagining? Could we ever see elements of frutiger aero making their way into makeup and fashion like Y2K did? Hannah thinks in some ways, they already are. “The worlds of beauty, media and graphic design are already seeing direct impact through the use of literal Frutiger font in graphic design, through to high gloss makeup looks, a key shift away from Y2K’s diamante bling and sparkle.” Internet and tech-wise, though, we don’t expect to see websites returning to a more skeuomorphic design, as Sofi points out that frutiger aero isn’t particularly friendly or cohesive across multiple devices in the same way flat design is. 

I think there’s a lot of hopefulness in this aesthetic that Y2K doesn’t have… people are searching for aesthetics and feelings that can help them shake off the last couple of years’ – Amanda Brennan

“Lately, I’ve had the keen sense that the internet is regressing,” writes Terry Nguyen in a recent piece for Dirt. “Nostalgia for the digital past is potent, namely because our futures, both physical and digital, seem unbearably bleak.” In a way, maybe it is frutiger aero’s retrofuturism that makes it so appealing. Scrolling through slideshows of old Samsungs and iPod Nanos feels eerily akin to viewing mid-20th-century reimaginings of people living in domes on the moon. Perhaps we are longing for a future that felt tangible at the time, but one that never came. In some ways, frutiger aero feels like the last beacon of a lost age the final days before omniscient tech truly dominated our lives. It makes sense that we yearn for this time, but it’s also for this reason that, although frutiger aero feels comforting and soothing for some, it also stirs up feelings of anxiety in others now its true intentions to get everyone online is more transparent, and we have seen through the curved, perspex looking glass. 

“I think any aesthetic that becomes prevalent in this capitalist society we live in is going to be shaped by that society,” Sofi says. “I think whether people feel frutiger aero is actually sincere or tongue in cheek maybe is a reflection on their feelings towards that time.”

Whether it was a soulless trap to entice us into big tech, or an authentic shift towards accessibility, and whether it has any lasting influence or not the resurgence of this glowing aesthetic and its motifs inevitably runs parallel to our emergence from the early 20s into something fresh and glossy and new. It looks like we’re finally all ready to breathe, take in the world around us and touch grass albeit virtually.