Designing reality ahead of schedule: The science fictional worlds of Syd Mead, visual futurist

Gautham Shenoy November 4, 2017 5 min

‘Science fiction is nothing but reality ahead of schedule.’ This pithy, thought-provoking definition of sci-fi doesn’t come to us from a writer, but an artist – an industrial designer and illustrator, Syd Mead. The name may be unfamiliar to many, but not the future worlds he’s created, most of which we’ve gawked at on the screen, spoken about and which have inspired, informed and influenced designers. Think Blade Runner, for one.

If you want to know what the world could possibly look like that best fits your science fictional future, your best chance would be Syd Mead, be it dystopian cities and light cycles or organic spaceships and space habitats. Everyone from James Cameron to Ridley Scott and Neill Blomkamp agree. No wonder then, that Mead is most often referred to as ‘the artist who illustrates the future’.

Born in 1933, Syd Mead graduated in 1959 from the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (then the Art Center School) in Los Angeles with a degree in Industrial Design, and went on to work for Ford at their Advanced Styling Studio. He would soon leave the studio to do projects that included books and catalogues for a gamut of companies, and in 1970 would soon start his own firm Syd Mead Inc., to provide design solutions to his clients, most notably Philips. And it was due to a brochure that Syd Mead did for Philips that his long relationship with the film would begin, with Star Trek.

Syd Mead’s design for V’ger, the organic spaceship from 1979’Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Mead’s first Hollywood project.
Syd Mead’s design for V’ger, the organic spaceship from 1979’Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Mead’s first Hollywood project.

It was 1978 and Robert Wise, the director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was looking for an artist who could conceptualise the protagonist of the film, the living spacecraft V’ger. Intrigued and fascinated by Syd Mead’s designs, illustrations and renderings in a Philips brochure, Robert Wise tracked down Mead and thus it came to be that – inspired by the structures of Angkor Wat and the vines that surround and envelop them – that Syd Mead would design V’ger for Star Trek.

But the big break, and perhaps his most lasting influence on creating a whole sci-fi world, came a few years later when he was called upon by Ridley Scott to design the dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 and the world of Blade Runner. Unsure of what to credit him as or for, Ridley Scott asked Mead himself, who decided upon ‘Visual Futurist’, and that’s what he is credited as in the movie. For lade Runner, Syd Mead designed not just the cars but also the pyramidal skyscrapers, the storefronts and streets, but also the Spinners, VidPhons and Trafficators that told pedestrians when to cross the street and displayed traffic, news, and weather, in other words, true sci-fi world –building.

Some of Syd Mead’s designs and sketches for the Ridley Scott-directed Blade Runner.
Some of Syd Mead’s designs and sketches for the Ridley Scott-directed Blade Runner.

Syd Mead’s designs don’t look dated even with the passage of time, are memorable, and more importantly look plausible and connected to what we already know and what we think could be. He calls it the ‘familiarity trigger’. Speaking of his approach to creating a futuristic vehicle or setting, Syd Mead says, “The future starts right now. When you are creating something set in the future, it has to have a familiarity trigger. The environment has to have a ‘remembrance factor’ — something familiar—to make it believable. Then you can start adding something weird and different.” Always in sync with applied science, emerging technology and grounded in engineering and manufacturing principles, Syd Mead’s designs blend form and function with plausibility – not just visually arresting but technically possible – to create technologies, automobiles, habitats and worlds, that don’t just stay with you, but worlds that you would really like to visit sometime.

Sketches for Tron, by Syd Mead. Note the light-cycles.
Sketches for Tron, by Syd Mead. Note the light-cycles.

After Blade Runner, more projects followed. Each as memorable as the next. From the spaceship USS Sulaco in Aliens, the light-cycles of Tron, to his work on Johnny Mnemonic, the space habitats and settings of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium to the mask-maker machine design of Mission Impossible III and the futuristic look of Tomorrowland, Syd Mead has contributed to not a few of the cinematic experiences we’ve so enjoyed on screen. Not to mention his work in Japanese anime, including the designs for the space cruisers, fighters and costumes of Yamato 2520 and the mecha designs of Turn-A Gundam.

Left: the spaceship Yamato from the anime, Yamato 250. Left: One of the mechas from Turn-A Gundam. Designs by Syd Mead.
Left: the spaceship Yamato from the anime, Yamato 250. Left: One of the mechas from Turn-A Gundam. Designs by Syd Mead.

Now 84, Syd Mead continues to work, and not just in film, and push the boundaries of design and futuristic world-building that are ahead of their time, with his fertile imagination and his inimitable mix of technical wizardry and artistic skill. So the next time you look at a sci-fi world that you like, remember that it is most likely inspired by Syd Mead, if not by Syd Mead himself.

Cover of Syd Mead’s latest book, The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist (Titan Books)
Cover of Syd Mead’s latest book, The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist (Titan Books)

All this said and done, this is the tip of the iceberg of the breadth of Syd Mead’s work and the depth of his influence. Head on over to Syd Mead’s official website to delve deeper into this most fascinating of artists and if you’re interesting in knowing more about his film work, the designs and what went into them, get a hold of his latest book, The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist, from Titan Books, which includes a foreword from Denis Villeneuve, director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and contains a wealth of sketches, designs, and stories.

On that note, I sign off for this week and hope to see you again for another edition of New Worlds Weekly, only on FactorDaily. Meanwhile, do let us have your thoughts, share your story suggestions, leave us your comments and criticism, or if you want something featured, let us know in the comments section below, or you can tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD.

Live long, and prosper!


               

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