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An Audience with Syd Mead at CCS

Tue, 25 Sep 2012

"Visual futurist and concept artist." Like some sort of Transformer, those words combine to create an ideal job description for many an industrial designer. With the world of design becoming more varied, and our jobs becoming more demanding of diversity, it's no surprise that many of us venture into adjacent professions. Industrial Design has adapted especially well recently to Hollywood, bringing our experience to recent films like Avatar and Prometheus, but the trend actually goes back several decades.

One of the originators of bringing Industrial Design into the entertainment world is Syd Mead, whose job title is the basis for that short descriptive sentence above. Mead's work is synonymous with great sci-fi film; his hands have crafted some of the most striking visual masterpieces of the genre. As a graduated Industrial Designer - out of Art Center in Pasadena - he's provided countless inspiration for designers and artists alike over the years.

This level of inspiration was on display at a recent exhibition hosted at Detroit's College for Creative Studies, where Mead shared his painted work from the last 50 years in an exhibit named "Progressions". There are more than fifty pieces in the exhibit spanning automotive and concept art, both commissioned and personal.

"I hope you enjoy it. It may be one of the last times a collection like this is brought together," Mead told us during a special presentation of his career later that evening. The reference came when he began discussing his continued love for gouache painting, and how he respects the artists who have been able to take digital painting to an entirely new level. "They're doing some incredible things, and it'll replace most of what we're doing soon."

Thankfully for us, that won't mean that Mead is going away. In fact, he reiterates that the same methodology of concept creation that he's been utilizing his entire career will continue to be one of the most viable going forward. Speaking to the packed auditorium, Mead shared snippets of a process that revolves around layers, both in preparation and execution.

"The future is fascinating because we don't know what will happen," Mead said. "We can't create in a vacuum. We need to understand the context of that future before we create inside of it." To Mead, that means developing the story around what we're trying to create. 

Every image he creates lives within a scenario, and every line placed on the paper is inherent to that story. In his work for General Motors, Mead's vehicles capture Chevrolet lines and proportions on vehicles far into the future; depicting cars in lavish environments, exotic racing afterparties and futuristic dealerships.

"Designs don't exist on paper. They embed themselves into the scenarios we create." Interestingly, his only real personal claim to fame in the automotive world is designing the bezel for a Lincoln Futura tail lamp after he was brought in to create an entire concept.

The story has to live within a believable world, which to him is the next step in development. "Sensitivity to ecology" often includes understanding nuances like air thickness and what effect the light from two suns might have on a race of beings. For his work on Neill Blomkamp's upcoming film "Elysium", Mead studied the Grand Canyon to understand what it might look like if it was filled with water and how that might guide the local ecology.

After the story is created and the world developed, Mead is ready to begin his masterpieces. "Layer, layer, layer," he believes, and exhibits the mantra in his painting process. "I always begin with the background and work forward. The world, then the story, then the product." His mountain and starfield scenes are idyllic to us, but to him they're a method of grounding his concepts.


Continues →

By Dalibor Dimovski