The guru of sci-fi design Syd Mead on his method, ethic, and the inspiration for the creation of the Blade Runner world.
Concept artist, industrial designer, and visual futurist Syd Mead is best known for his designs for science-fiction films such as Blade Runner, Aliens, and Tron. For decades, he has been shaping our visions of the future with designs that strike with both their fantastical creativity and their believability. From real-life yachts and private 747’s to Hollywood blockbuster interplanetary spacecraft, Syd’s work proves that he is a true visionary.
What is his design method and where does his inspiration come from? Strelka Magazine publishes excerpts from a Skype Q&A session that was held at the Strelka Institute in 2015.
DESIGNING BLADE RUNNER
Ridley Scott wanted to create a science fiction movie in a noir photo style, so he did. I was hired to help him tell his story in visual terms with my industrial design background. So I designed all the vehicles and some of the set pieces that Lawrence Paull, the production designer, had built. So my inspiration was the story itself: the script. Places like Cuba, South East Asia, India, where the technical infrastructure is forced to work beyond the point where it’s new. In other words, it’s overlaid with modifications and it’s forced to work, because in the Blade Runner world, the real future is off-world. So the technology that was left on Earth was forced into making what was there work beyond its normal design lifetime.
"Inspiration depends on what you know and what you remember."
SYD MEAD’S FAVORITE FUTURISTIC MOVIES
Other than Blade Runner, I think Luc Besson’s movie The Fifth Element is fantastic, and Gilliam’s movie Brazil. Those two, I think, are probably the most inventive, enjoyable, and significant movies of recent memory. The reason I like Brazil and The Fifth Element is that the designs were completely real to the story. To me the important thing is to have a movie that is consistent all throughout the story. If something is out of place or doesn’t quite fit and the audience knows it right away, then that produces a mistake. So I enjoy watching movies as a designer, watching them as somebody who worked on movies, and somebody who read a lot of scripts that were never made into movies.
Blade Runner was the first movie I worked on from pre-production to theatrical release, so I really didn’t know what was going on in making a movie. It became a very iconic movie. But the movie that I really enjoyed working on was 2010 with Peter Hyams directing at MGM. And that is because I could enjoy being really aware of how movie is made – I read the script, I had meetings with Peter at MGM, and I also met Arthur C. Clark. So that movie remains in my memory as a real working relationship where I knew what was going on.
ON THE TRANSPORTATION OF THE FUTURE
I think of automobiles as a private mobile environment, and I think they are going to last quite a while. Private automobiles as we enjoy them in the modern world, I think, are still going to exist as a private enjoyment kind of thing – sort of like owning horses to ride when you have the time. Horses are no longer used for transportation; in effect, they are now used mostly for racing, which is entertainment, and for riding as a pleasure activity.
"The future comes true with the past dragging along behind it."
Automobiles will be leased by the government or city agencies. They’ll become time-use vehicles – I designed one of these for the city of Amsterdam about 20 years ago. The idea was that you get into the vehicle, you slip in your credit card, and the time you use the vehicle is all you pay for, and it was back into the recirculated use cycle. I think that will be a big, big part of future vehicles.
DESIGN METHOD AND SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
My work process has not changed. My design ethic and my design methodology are still the same as they’ve been for the last 56 years. What the computer did for me is allow me to archive images electronically, allowed me to scan an image that I’ve drawn by hand and colorize it for presentation to the client, adding graphics. But for me, the skill is still using gouache and hand drawn sketching, which I scan and colorize on the computer. You also have to realize that throughout human history the idea has been much more important than the tool.
Inspiration comes from remembering what you see. I don’t think there is anything more important for a designer, whatever field you’re in. Inspiration depends on what you know and what you remember. Sophistication is having a very good memory – you remember things that can add to your experience and add to the way you think.
The style of a decade infuses the way you think. You tend to absorb what’s around you depending on what you read, how far your investigation goes in terms of informing yourself. My concerns were the geometry of the the product, the social use of the product, and I was influenced by contemporary authors like Arthur C. Clark. My total inspiration was being curious and transferring that curiosity into my design style.
MOST CHALLENGING DESIGN TASK
The most difficult design job was working on a superyacht. I’ve worked on two – one for [Saudi billionaire] Khashoggi, which was never built for many financial reasons. The other one was for Donald Trump, which was also never built for financial reasons.
The more money that is involved in the project, the more likely that it will never happen, because the financing comes from so many places. But designing something that large (about 400 feet), you have to invent space, positions – it’s designing a huge 3-dimensional puzzle, like a Rubik’s Cube. That was the most challenging job as a designer. That also goes along with designing interiors for [Boeing] 747’s, because they have to fly and the materials and the safety considerations all have to be fitted into this flying concept – it’s a very challenging job. And the exciting part is that it is going to be made for real.
ENVISIONING THE FUTURE
As a small boy, when I first started to draw I always drew situations, like scenarios. The future comes true with the past dragging along behind it. The future does not start from zero. So I always imagine a scenario when I’m designing a product or a car for a movie – it’s all part of a story. And whether that future comes true or not depends on society accepting the future that’s portrayed. But that future in my mind is concise, is complete, and it’s evenly designed from edge to edge, because it’s a complete scenario.
You can now go to an electronics store and buy something that was completely science fiction 10 years ago. So here is the problem with making a movie that will be seen by the average public – they can buy something that the movie says is futuristic, and then that spoils the story.
The next big leap in recognizability is probably going to be extra-humanoid – it will involve cyborgs, it will involve humanoid robots, it will involve links to the brain. It’s going to be a complete remake of what we consider normal, and that's going to be very very upsetting for a lot of people. What I hope is that we can make that change without losing the humanness of being human.
Illustration source: Hethatis Madzo / Flickr.com, Paul B. Hartzog / Flickr.com
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