Blade Runner's Designer on Creating the Future
Designer Syd Mead on the cult of Blade Runner and the Michael Jackson theme park that never came true.
Syd Mead, Solar Crisis spacecraft pod, 1990. Courtesy Syd Mead.
Syd Mead is an iconic name in "future design‚" so celebrated that he has transcended designer status to be considered a visionary. Throughout his career he has demonstrated a mastery of the balance between fantastical creativity and real-world pragmatism: he has been involved with plotting the look and feel of the next generation of pretty much everything‚ from toasters to luxury yachts to presidential airplanes to theme parks‚ and even entire worlds for some of the biggest sci-fi movies of all time‚ most notably Blade Runner. In 2014 Syd was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.
His exhibition Progressions opened at the Forest Lawn Museum‚ California‚ in 2012 and featured a range of 49 gouache works from his schooldays up to the present. It included the work Shoulder of Orion‚ inspired by the character Batty's elegiac monologue in the closing minutes of Blade Runner. The exhibition continues to travel extensively around the US and is currently being expanded to include a VR component. Mead's latest project is the visual theme for the 2017 EyesOn Design classic car show‚ which takes place in Michigan this June.
Syd spoke to GARAGE's Executive Editor‚ Michael Polsinelli‚ about his enthusiasms‚ his approach‚ and the real-world path that led him into the future.
Technology changes‚ but the problem is always what it is‚ and you solve it to match the story that the problem's part of. It's no different now than it would have been 10 or 20 years ago‚ or 10 years in the future. I would do the same process under different story conditions‚ and we move ahead and have another successful design solution.
What I do is to take the whole thing apart and find out why it has to be a certain way and then I run it through—yes, I'm going to use this term—the Mead filter and it comes out looking like I did it. I find it fascinating that people keep saying that. I suppose it's a compliment. As I work by myself‚ I don't have to go through a staff structure to create something. I had a choice‚ decades ago‚ to have a bigger company and hire people‚ and I never did that. I liked to draw and I didn't want to hire someone to do it for me.
I've met a lot of kids studying at design school‚ and the game industry is so high up on their list. They all want to be creative designers and that's all they want to do. Well‚ that's a very limited ambition. If you learn how to think‚ you can do corporate logos this week‚ next week you can be working on a new car‚ the week after you're doing a product‚ and the week after that you're doing the interior of a building. If you learn how to think‚ none of these categories matter: everything is just a problem and you learn how to solve each one and move on. If you pursue a linear career‚ when that particular career support goes away you have nothing to do.
In my film roles I come along and work as a sort of offside visual assistant on design for the director‚ telling the other people involved with the movie to "make it look like that." It's a luxury of sorts. For me the whole idea is to understand that all problems are made up of smaller problems. We were taught a technique of disassembling the problem and finding out why it's a problem in the first place. I've done this over and over. I don't really think about it as working in the movies particularly—I treat it as another illustration and design problem.
WORKING WELL WITH OTHERS
Simply put‚ if you listen to the director‚ make notes‚ and become satisfied that you have accurate information‚ then you can illustrate their take on the story. It doesn't matter to me if the story has come from a book or has been written fresh for a film script: there's always the story and there's always the story ambience‚ the story logic‚ the time frame‚ and the technical inclusions—and that drives the design‚ totally. If I make the mistake of not getting the correct information from the client it's a death knell for the design.
I've had the least success with advertising agencies. Each account that's in-house has its own director‚ then you have staff who create material to show the client. It's not a secure directional relationship—it's a committee relationship. You're always guessing‚ and you have no idea why you're doing anything specifically. And you never really find out either.
Blade Runner I was very fortunate to have most of my designs go right into production from first sketch—that was because I was talking to Ridley [Scott] directly.
"I always thought of appliances as props for stories that no one had written yet"
There's a book called Men in Groups [by Lionel Tiger]. It's a cross section of ambition inside a corporate or hierarchical entity that takes its cues from herd behavior in mammals. Another is Games People Play [by Eric Berne]‚ a study of psychological techniques that people use to make others do things. Those were my guideposts in working with corporate CEOs and movie directors‚ and just general client hierarchies.
IN THE BEGINNING
I was a child during part of the Second World War. All my buddies were drawing planes bombing people‚ and I was drawing cars‚ futuristic teardrop cars. I was totally enthralled by making up my own world and illustrating it. That helped improve my technique‚ because I knew that if I could draw better‚ my imaginary world would look more real.
My parents gave me a book with illustrations by Chesley Bonestell‚ who was famous for creating views from above the Earth and views of other planets‚ surfaces of moons and so forth‚ and as it turned out they were very accurate! He would use street maps of a city. I later used a similar technique for a project with Disneyland Paris. My father was a fundamentalist minister but he was also a painter‚ so we had books on artists like Raphael and Caravaggio‚ and I would look through the pictures. I didn't understand what I was looking for at the time‚ but I was influenced by formal composition‚ and the appreciation of light and shadow‚ and what it means to render something as opposed to making a drawing. I got practice in drawing figures‚ as I had to populate my world. By the time I was 10 or 11 I was making very detailed pen drawings.
I sold my first artwork when I was in fifth grade. I was drawing mutated versions of classic dogs‚ like cocker spaniels‚ and selling them to my buddies for a quarter apiece. That was 1942‚ and a quarter was quite a bit of money. I sold three or four drawings for a dollar‚ and a dollar then bought a lot of stuff. I didn't know what I was doing in terms of equity exchange‚ but I was selling my artwork because people wanted it – they wanted what I could do. By the time I got into high school I knew I was going to make my career in drawing.
My first paying creative job was right after I got out of high school‚ around 1950‚ for a company doing animation trailers that played between double features in theaters. First I was a painter‚ then I went into background and character origination. I then went into the army for about three years‚ after which I went to industrial design school. When I graduated in 1959‚ I went to the Ford Motor Company's Advanced Design Studio.
I started my own corporation in 1970‚ in Detroit. I had no clients. With pure luck – this is how luck works‚ and I was very‚ very lucky‚ and I appreciate that – my first client was Philips Electronics. That was one of the corporations that made my accounts for the next 12 years.
KEEPING THE HAND IN
Sometimes I do personal artwork to make sure my brain is still able to tell my hands what to do with gouache and pencils. You have to keep the mechanics intact. If I don't draw people for a while‚ I have to work for four or five days to get the ease of technique back into play. You never totally forget it but you don't stroke it every day. I remember being at school and I could just go ahead and paint and I didn't even need a line drawing because I was doing it so often. If you're in commercial practice you have to do the procedure‚ from thinking about it to sketches‚ and it takes more time than you ever spend going to school.
I have a painting‚ just a piece of plywood‚ that I did in Detroit for my new TV room. I used leftover paint and junk I found in the basement: old light switches and so forth. And I've had people look at it‚ like: "How many weeks or months did you work on that?" I put this thing together in one afternoon. If you have an idea and it's a good one‚ it's just not going to take that long. With mechanical things‚ like wood or metalwork‚ it takes longer. Laboring over a painting for weeks and months and years—I don't understand that.
My personal artwork gravitates from cartoons to pure abstract drawings and patterns to every once in a while a rendering just for myself‚ like I'm going to do today. I've already created a story and I know why I'm doing it and why it's supposed to look a certain way‚ just as if I were working on a movie. What pulls me in is the visual magic of the work looking strange – that could be creating an impossible architectural complex or the excitement of telling a little made-up story in one visual shot. When I was younger I started a graphic novel and realized that it was just too much work. I'm not Japanese.
What I like to do very much is to combine. For example‚ the English Teddy Boys‚ the fops with velvet-lapelled jackets and crewelwork on the outside: I might put those details on a panel down the back of a guy's spacesuit. I like to combine the history of fabric and fashion‚ or give a take on the classic Arab thobes‚ which have beautiful pleated closures. They look like velvet bags but they are very carefully tailored.
I meander through fashion extractions and history and pull it all together to come up with something entirely new. One of my things is "encounter cloaks." It's like humans say: "OK‚ we're going to meet aliens and they're going to look at us and think: 'God‚ their food-intake hole shows all the time‚ that's disgusting!'" And maybe the aliens have antennae coming out of a hole in their heads. So I invented this whole pretense to serve both humans and aliens when they meet. They'd come together in their encounter cloaks‚ which would have sensors of all sorts‚ but you'd never really see the other creature.
Essentially‚ sophistication is memory. If you remember how to make a soufflé‚ or how to create the color orange from red and yellow‚ or learn a different language‚ it's all memory. So whenever you run into a challenge‚ whether it's social or professional‚ you can dredge up from your memory bank and think: "Oh‚ that's sort of similar to that‚" and you're on the way to creating a solution. Human history is rich – it's incredibly complex‚ incredibly varied – and stylistically you can go back and probably find remnants or origins of every single style pretense that's never been invented or will be. I admire ancient history‚ ancient architecture and motif‚ and I may not be consciously thinking: "Well‚ this is going to be a Greek key or valance‚" but that's in the back of my mind. I'll sketch it up‚ it might be influencing me or not‚ but a very important part of being creative is having exposure to something other than just your little hometown.
DESIGNING THE FUTURE
My life is creating things that have never been thought of before‚ usually for a script. Working for Philips‚ I always thought of appliances as props for stories that no one had written yet. That frees you from using clichés and broadens your appreciation of what you're doing‚ which helps the creative process a lot.
I designed every single product line that Philips made‚ from televisions to kitchen appliances. I also worked on the first commercial laser-disc player. Philips had the NatLab‚ Netherlands Advanced Technology‚ and I would work with those guys to design a line of products using technology that was maybe three to six years away. The design director would present my stuff to the board to get them used to seeing what could be done with their own products. To visually warm them up. Very few of the designers at that time‚ the '70s‚ knew what I was doing. One young fellow‚ who had had a typical formal European education‚ simply couldn't comprehend how I could create a photographic‚ detailed illustration of a product that hadn't been engineered. His brain couldn't accept what could be done.
For instance‚ appliances had manual switches or buttons. And in the case of little recorders‚ you'd have a linkage that would go to the back of the machine casing. It was very clumsy – you had to apply a relatively high amount of pressure because there was a clunky progression of hinges and pivot points. NatLab was working on a "skin switch" which you'd touch and the machine circuitry would know that it needed to activate. I did a whole line of products that would use that button-control technology. The designers had no idea what I was doing but eventually they had to accomplish it technically.
I worked on real line products too. Phillips wanted to bring out a new range of television sets. They had technical drawings and wanted to cast the chassis in zinc alloy. I did six little gouache sketches of what I thought would be really cool‚ knowing where the technical parts needed to go. I always used to think about it as if I were designing a prop for a movie that would never be made‚ so it had to look really cool and visually exciting.
Blade Runner was set hugely ahead of its time‚ but 2019 is only a couple of years away and we're not even going to be close to that pretense in real life. However‚ as we go into more elaborate stories in the future‚ the technology is starting to catch up. We now have little color cameras that are 2mm across. The technology of reality is starting to compete with the imagination of what movie writers can write. More and more‚ like William Gibson‚ we'll see this social embedment in an imaginative future. But technology is background – it's not the story.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
I've done three proposals‚ mostly master plans‚ for destination theme parks that never came true. In capitalized enterprise‚ the more expensive the project is‚ the more fragile it is. I'm never offended if a project gets canceled just because the funding falls through.
One was going to be in Kobe‚ Japan—I designed a 1.6km circle that descended into the ground on an existing terrain characteristic‚ meaning they didn't have to scoop out everything. It was a shallow cone going down into the ground‚ and at the bottom were a lake and three feature restaurants on mirrored stainless-steel pylons with water coming down. The idea was that it looked as if they were standing on a waterfall. It had a rotating event arena‚ which you could move for shadow and sunlight. Around the inside of this cone were five curved sections‚ and they were going to rent the pavilions to corporations to have exhibitions‚ events‚ and entertainment. That never happened due to funding issues with municipal bonds and corporate sponsors‚ and some environmentalists were also upset. It was a combination of everything that killed that.
Another one was for Michael Jackson. He wanted to produce his own kind of professional-career ego entertainment center where you'd be able to follow his career and tune in via tapes. It was going to be near Kuala Lumpur‚ in Malaysia. My partner Roger and I had several meetings with Michael‚ and he said to me: "Have you seen the movie Judge Dredd?" We had. He said: "I want the interior to look like that‚" with the pipes coming down‚ a sort of industrial look. I'd been to Tokyo many times and I'd sat in the bar at the top of this 40-story building looking out over the Imperial Palace and gardens. At night you'd see cars going down there and the light would disappear behind trees and come out again. For Michael's pavilion‚ I wanted to install television sets that were timed to duplicate this diorama effect on a miniature scale. You'd look out over a walkway as if you were 40‚ 50 stories above the ground. It would have been really spectacular.
He changed his mind. Working for that kind of client‚ at that level of income and opportunity and choice‚ you have to always be ready to have something else to do because they'll change their minds in an instant. And the same is true for the Middle East. They have all the money that they would ever want and they don't really appreciate the fact that it takes time to bring something to reality. They just get bored.
"The movie industry is a closed professional club. I wasn't part of the fashion"
THE PERSONAL PLEASURES
When I do a superyacht or the interior of an airplane for a head of state‚ I think of that as a story too. The airplane interiors never got much publicity – that's because you couldn't offend the security or publish the design until years after you'd done the job and they were flying around. I'm very proud of those designs because you have to get an education about what you can and can't do and combine that with your idea-generation system. It makes you come up with really surprising things. You can't violate certain rules that are established by physics‚ the legalities of government regulations‚ or the limitations of the materials. The movies are different because the props are built‚ they film the whole thing‚ and it looks very real‚ but it's functional only visually in order to illustrate the story.
The film that I felt most viscerally related to was 2010‚ by Peter Hyams‚ because then I realized I was working on a movie. I went down to MGM Studios and worked with Peter on a weekly basis. It gave me a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to create a movie in the first place‚ and secondly‚ walking around the sets gave me more of a "working in the movies" experience than Blade Runner did.
THE CULT OF BLADE RUNNER
Blade Runner has transcended its own reality through mystique. Ridley Scott was already one of the world's top commercial directors‚ and he was the master of the tight shot: telling a story briefly and in great detail‚ and with great cinematic drama. So when he moved into directing Blade Runner you always had the impression that you were just seeing a little hole in the story at that point and there was much more going on that you never got to see. That's an editorial technique that he was very‚ very good at.
Also‚ the movie never violated its own style or pretense. It was totally consistent and it was its own world. And you can watch that over and over‚ and of course there are always little anomalies that could be done differently‚ but overall it was a masterful job of creating a world in which drama takes place.
It also connected on so many levels: socially‚ morally‚ and—I hate to use this word—spiritually. It had a built-in intent on what it is to be human. Is it fair to throw away people when they're used up‚ just like an appliance? But then of course when there's a war people are sent off to die‚ as if they are being discarded. So it's a moralistic crossover.
In terms of public requests‚ Blade Runner seems to take precedence‚ and in a way it's annoying‚ because that was 34 years ago and I've done a lot of stuff since then. It's not the last thing I ever did in the whole world.
I received the script and saw that it was a very dystopian world we were looking at. Earth had been left behind because all the technology was directed off-world. Originally the only thing I was hired for was the vehicles‚ and I realized that they were characters and should look a certain way‚ each one very distinctive. I thought: let's show them in this world. I dropped in these dark backgrounds with garish lights and street scenes‚ and that's what fascinated Ridley‚ because he's an artist and he enjoyed the fact that I could sympathize and illustrate this dystopian world with the vehicles I had been asked to design‚ all in one little visual package. So I was left to go at it‚ and a lot of the renderings from my street scenes were duplicated by Laurence Paull and his team almost exactly like I had painted them.
The movie industry is a closed professional club. And the people who are in it all the time talk to each other and see what everyone is doing‚ and they tend to pick up on visual fashion that goes across the industry. I'm not in that industry all the time‚ so part of the magic of Blade Runner is that I created stuff that had never been done before in terms of visual detail. I wasn't part of the fashion.