Futurist Extraordinaire Syd Mead has been designing futuristic concepts for corporations and the movies (including Blade Runner and Tron) since the '60s.
Over the last 50 years, Syd Mead has created startling pictures for clients all over the world. His technique infuses finished scenarios with a vivid reality, allowing the viewer to gain a look into many visions of future worlds. He has designed and illustrated for corporations, motion pictures, themed entertainment, and a wide range of transportation projects. Syd's combination of recognition and creative imagination has graced scores of films, books, and other exhibits. His film work includes Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Tron, 2010, Aliens, Short Circuit and other films. Off screen, Syd has designed a 747 interior, a yacht and the Spaceship 2056 pavilion in Japan. Numerous magazines have featured Syd's art and he has published several books of his work.
How do you define yourself: designer or artist?
I define myself as a designer... who also is an artist. I treat each capacity as a separate (but not unrelated!) skill set.
Often, clients do no understand that 'making a picture' of a design is a separate effort often, a client will say ''we need a picture of...'xxx' ... and expect me to design what the picture is of, without realizing that the first step, designing the picture subject, is a task separate from being able to make a picture.
I have earned fees in both major categories. For about eighteen years I was paid very highly to just complete illustrations of architectural exterior and interior designs for architects in New York, Houston, Texas, Detroit, Michigan, Singapore, London and several even in Japan. This professional activity was completely separate from designing vehicle projects, products, etc.
What is your point of view to design?
Design is the arrangement of element as those elements may be as simple as a geometric collage or as complex as the design of a supersonic jet liner, a super yacht, a major high-rise building or the composition of a symphony.
Designing for real world and also for cinema world? Do they seem similar? Which one do you prefer?
Designing for the 'real world' is actually 'easier' than designing for cinema. Here is why. In the 'real world' manufacturers have the opportunity to market (read 'educate') the final design result before the public gets to actually buy it.
In the cinema world, l am designing items to illustrate a story. The audience may only have a few seconds to ?recognize' the design, appreciate what it is (for that story) and believe that the design belongs to/in the story if I fail to design something that is instantly recognizable and believable I have interrupted the story; I have failed.
I have no preference for either one, having done both for over twenty years. (My first movie design was the v'ger entity for star trek: the motion picture in 1978.)
What is the joy of design?
The joy of design is matching wits with the challenge of the moment. I have been designing graphics, products, transport solutions, movie props, sets, vehicles and scenic design since l received my first paycheck for my ideas and design skill in 1950. I work very hard to make sure that my methodology is correct, that my analysis of the real problem is accurate and importantly, whether the client is intelligent enough to appreciate my efforts.
It may sound egotistical but at this point in my professional development, I know that if the client doesn't like what I have presented to them, they have either failed to give me accurate information, they don't actually know what they want or they are simply being intractable and arrogant. I have resigned several accounts in my professional history because the client was too difficult to work with, and the relationship was a waste of my time.
What inspires you most?
I am inspired by the thrill of the problem presented to me. (In the general question environment of 'design'). I keep a large mental catalogue of memories, sensations and defiantly scenic realities. Matching my skill to a client's needs always gets my creative juices flowing.
How do you feed your designer core?
I subscribe to several general interest publications that keep me abreast of technological, social and political realities. I read about three or four periodicals a week, plus the occasional recreational science fiction and narrative editions. I enjoy a world-wide professional visibility and receive notices and information from other designers all over the world. This keeps me aware of what they (the world out there!) are doing so that I can scale my efforts, my ideas and my knowledge base to be current and ahead of the curve.
Does design influence your lifestyle?
Absolutely. I would no more sit in a frumpy, stupid chair and relax than I would eat dirt. The things I buy for my house, the cars I drive, the places I patronize must have some element of design intrigue. Otherwise, I stay home; a home I have arranged to suit my designer tastes.
Do design and art support each other?
I believe they do. Think of design as 'artifice', a word that precedes 'art'. Conversely, my 'art' devoid of ?artifice' or 'design' is junk. This describes about 85% of the laborious nonsense one sees in 'art' galleries.
Will the definition of design change in the future?
The definition of 'design' depends on the observer, the culture in which the design is appreciated and the means by which the design is realized. Design in medieval times was solely the result of laborious craftsman working solo or in concert with others. Design currently can be the result of a computer aided system being guided by a designer but being manufactured, realized and/or displayed on an rgb screen. Design has changed already from the classic meaning, and in the future? We will see more and more that 'design' becomes pure idea, the idea being ?realized' on demand for either actual utility use, simple visual analysis or perhaps only as an artistic presentation. Instant realization will convert the 'Idea' to 'reality? on demand. Already, the data to 'make' a design is actually more valuable than what the data directs to make.
What should the priorities of designers be?
Syd Mead: Every designer must know what they want to do, and how they want to do it. This produces a 'signature' which, if the first two items are defined, can be recognized in the final work. Training to be a designer means that you learn methodologies and skill techniques that enable your personal vision, your personal taste to be applied to your design solutions. Designers that don't know what they are doing produce utterly forgettable drek. Designers who continuously repeat one central idea become, in the end, caricatures of themselves and eventually ?go out of style' because they make the mistake of thinking 'result' instead of 'raison d'être.'
For you, how does it feel like to define the future? Does it seem clear to foresee?
I do not claim to 'define the future?. What I do is to think about why things are the way they are now, combine that awareness with how things were, are now and may be brought into reality. This defines the look' of 'future' stuff. My scenarios are fanciful guesses that are the result of combining several layers of awareness and supposition.
The future is never clear, since every moment from now includes a myriad events happening around the world simultaneously. However, broad trends can be guessed at with the caveat that anything of 'world wide' impact can, within the course of twenty four hours, change the course of 'future'. Think of 'future' as a product with 3 billion designers all working at once. It is a wondrous thought.
Do you design the interface of the future or the future itself?
A fascinating question. The 'interface' of the future is everyones' perception of reality. The future (see above) is the moment-by-moment result of the world's population demands, concerns and appreciation of what they consider 'reality'. Reality for some is absolute fantasy for others. The interface of the future demands a certain level of common appreciation of reality. Without this, the world remains in a terrifying struggle of one reality trying to eliminate others that they don't believe in. Until there is some intelligent realization and appreciation or a common reality, we will not end the world's constant waste of brain power and social energy.
I persist in believing that a common reality can be achieved. My future depiction is a visual hope for a common appreciation of a beneficial, functional future.
Which one will influence the world in the future? Local culture or a common global culture?
Local culture constitutes reality, even in different parts or the same country. The only common global culture at this point in mankinds' pathetic attempts at social organization is the fact that we are all of the same species. What makes some animals and others civilized is the 'local' appreciation or reality.
Your future plans?
I plan to die with a detail brush or a pen in my hand. My future plans are to continue enjoy being who I am, to be aware of the huge gap between rationality and fanaticism, to arrange for my financial security as l get older and to continue to enjoy the company of young people who are like an elixir for me. I feel extremely fortunate that I relate very well with people in their teens and twenties.
The culture you appreciate?
The exquisite, complex, elaborately arranged Japanese culture, into which I have been able to see just a little bit.
Country you want to live in?
The United States, of course. So far, the United States has developed the most egalitarian, the most opportunity oriented, the most workable combination of social allowance, private capital formation and retention and the most idea energizing mixture of social stability and revolutionary development.
The detractors for the 'American' anything are only irritated that it works so very well. The fact that people are constantly trying to get into this country by whatever desperate means confirms the 'vote with your feet' phenomenon. The United States was founded by men who were tired of being 'told what to do and think' by religious zealots, by authoritarian 'royalty' and were tired of being punished because of accident of birth. Most of the rest of the world still thinks that the average citizen lacks any ability to think. This is an insult. The United States, as a social experiment, does not yet insult the people who want to live here as legal citizens.
The cuisine you enjoy?
Continental style with proper sauces, spices, elegance or preparation and presentation. I like squid, (calamari), escargot in the shell, (I prepare my own, marinating them in cognac for half a day), various kinds of exotic cheeses, filet mignon au point, (Not au bleu!). A perfectly prepared fish en croute, the many kinds of pate and terrines and the occasional pastry.
I am also a gourmet cook and enjoy creating constructions in pastry. I currently have a gingerbread castle approximately 40cm high made entirely in pastry. It is now two years old, it is still 'edible' and is preserved under a sealed plastic case on display in my livingroom.
Drink you prefer?
Grey goose vodka, (for vodkas;) dewar's blended scotch, drambui for a liqueur and I like to cook with grand marnier for deserts and with various wines for sauce reductions.
Painter who influences you?
No painter currently influences me, but I admire John Berkey and while at Art Center College l learned about and appreciated the works of Chirico, Rafael, Michelangelo, El Greco, Carravagio, Rubens, Leonardo Da Vinci and the American artist Willard. I think the efforts of most of modern 'gallery' artists are vastly over-rated or simply beside the point. In my estimation, the vast majority of 'installation' artists are simply grown-up spoiled brats starved for attention.
Author you like?
Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, Philip K. Dick and Bester.
Book genre you prefer?
Well written science fiction
Movie you like?
Will it sound egotistical if I list the ones I've worked on? That would be Bladerunner, Tron, Aliens, 2010 and Short Circuit. Those are all science fiction films. In general narrative, dramatic films, l am fond of Brazil, Trip To Bountiful and Fried Green Tomatoes. l also thought The First Men In Black was very, very well done. I thought the Matrix was simply a demo reel for special effects and the Star Wars recent movies are elaborately staged simplistic stories that are actually demo reels for Ilm and Lucasfilm.
Film director you like?
I have worked several times with Peter Hyams the most recent a film to be released as 'a sound of thunder'. Principle photography is now starting in Prague and post production will most likely be done in either Luxembourg and/or Montreal.
Music you listen to?
I listen to Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, Iron Butterfly, Supertramp, Jeff Beck). l also listen to
Vivaldi, Schubert, Wagner, Vangellis, Mozart, Chopin and Greig.
Design you like?
In automobiles: I love my 1956 Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe for its remarkable engineering, sturdiness and ease of maintenance (for a forty-six year old car!). I admire the Chrysler 300M. I think cars like the Diablo, modern Ferraris and the so-called 'super' cars are the weird portraits of the ego-centric, over-funded people who buy them. My next vehicle will most likely be the 2004 or 2005 big Cadillac if Mr. Lutz can throw out the idiots who have cursed automotive design with the Cadillac image, the CLK, the Ciel, the Escalade and the current Seville sedan, a stupid design that looks like a cheap Mercedes S-Class saloon built by Hyundai.
In furnishings: I have my Barcelona chair and Ottoman set, I have my classic Eames Lounge chair and purchase mostly metallic and glass furnishing designs. I now live in a post and beam modular house custom designed in 1962 by Pasadena architects Buff&Hensman. I don't like rattan, gold trim anything heavy wooden furniture or the over-patterned, 'cute? junk so popular with women 'homemakers?. This is the twenty-first century, not the seventeenth! I am not into cute, which means kitch.
Designer you respect?
To be honest, I really, don't keep up with other designers by name.
This interview is made in 2003. Designophy ©