Saturday, 6 August 2011

Interview with Syd Mead

Syd Mead is an American "visual futurist" and concept artist, best known for his visionary designs for popular science-fiction films. Syd Mead, Inc. accommodates international clients, including work with major Hollywood and Japanese film studios. His impressive portfolio includes designs for Tron’s light cycles, Blade Runner’s flying cars, Japanese toy and television characters, “The New Yamato” and the 8 robots of “Turn A Gundam” mobile suits.

An advocate of new technologies, Syd Mead has expanded his horizons to include computer illustrations and graphics, using the latest in available techniques to their full advantage. In a career that spans over 50 years, and includes an astounding range of creative activities, Syd Mead attributes his success, to the premise that imagination, or the idea, supersedes technique.

  1. You are a world famous "visual futurist" and concept artist who has produced iconic work for films such as Tron, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Aliens and 2010. For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with your work, tell us about your career and your artistic creations.
My ‘career’ started just out of high school in 1952 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was my first ‘paid to create’ job, doing background scenes and character origination for a local animation trailer studio called Alexander Film. After three years in the Army Engineer Corps on Okinawa during the Korean War, I spent the next two and a half years at Art Center School, then in Los Angeles. I was hired by Ford Motor Company’s Advanced styling studio in Dearborn, Michigan, quit after 26 months to be hired by a small promotional company in Chicago, designing and producing a series of ‘future’ vehicular technology promotional books for United States Steel, and several promotional books for Celanese Corporation. I redesigned the corporate logo for Allis Chalmers, did a promotional book for Atlas Cement Corporation and several other promotional illustrative publications. I started my own company, the eponymous Syd Mead, Inc. in Detroit, Michigan in the fall of 1970. I moved to Southern California in 1975, and I am still here, now in Pasadena. The movie part of my career, started with designing the V’Ger entity for the finale of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, going from that post-production entrĂ©e to Blade Runner, Tron, 2010, Aliens, etc. You can pursue further information on our website,

  1. You served a three-year enlistment in the U.S. Army. Has this experience helped you in the creation of your concept art, and if so, how?
The Army service gave me an appreciative insight into the Asian mentality and design sensibility. That exposure served to fine-tune my already developing appreciation of proportion and interval.

  1. How did you make the transition from providing designs and illustrations for Philips, to producing concept art for major Hollywood studios?
I was trained at Art Center to think, to arrange problem solving into a procedural effort. I make no distinction between various kinds of design problem solutions; it all resolves down to understanding what the challenge is, whether a consumer product, a 750 foot cruise ship, a 400 foot super yacht, a movie prop or graphical solutions to corporate graphics. It is a common mistake to put a label on any discreet field of design; that is termed ‘linear career’ limitation. I treat all design challenges as variants of procedural problem solving methodology. I have never been trapped into a ‘specialized,’ linear career parameter. That’s why I’ve been continuously and profitably active for over 50 years.

  1. How did you become known as a “visual futurist”?
I created that title spontaneously after a brief call with my entertainment lawyer from New York, for my credit on the after roll of Blade Runner. It is purely a promotional ‘bumper sticker’ denotation.

  1. Tell us about your latest publication, the long-anticipated Syd Mead’s Sentury II.
Sentury II is a compilation of the last ten years of design activity of Syd Mead, Inc. The peripheral exception is the anime Gundam project, which started in 1998 and finished in 2000. Sentury II is a companion sequel to Sentury. The two cover art examples are cross-related in composition, coloration and scenario presentation.

  1. Why did you produce this book, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
The book serves as a ‘place holder’ in the rapidly expanding media universe. Our intention is to serialize it, at some point in the next years, as the print version sells out. This will be for archival purposes. All of our books have increased in value as re-sales over the years, many of them now on eBay or other shopping networks for many times their original price. The books serve as visibility portfolios and inspiration sources for designers and artists all over the world. Check our Guest Sign-In page or Facebook for an idea of our visibility worldwide.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
The reward in being creative is in the success of the solution, first of all to myself and secondly to the client. This sounds egotistical but think about it. I immerse myself in the specifics of the client’s problem presentation. If that presentation, or critique is inaccurate or incomplete, I can be sucked into solving either a non-existent, or a wrong problem. But if I am professionally happy with the result, operating on information I’ve been given, to me the solution is a success, and I get paid. If the client has given me the correct information, then they are happy also and become another link in the referral chain of further business, either in their field of endeavor or ancillary fields. The biggest challenge in any design problem job is getting accurate information from the client, as a basis for solving the problem. Sometimes, I’ve had to identify the problem myself, to the client, before starting. Client staff structures often obfuscate the ‘real’ problem with some vague or procedural rationale. This is disastrous.

  1. Of the work you’ve created, is there one that you are particularly proud of? If so, why this particular work?
I am particularly proud of several large project involvements. The two 747 aircraft interiors for heads of state come to mind. I did these as only the second entry into the aircraft interior field of work. The other kind of project is more recent. I designed two very different food-service installations in New York City, FoodParc and Bar Basque, both on 6th Avenue at 30th. You can view these on our website, if you pursue the links with the architect group’s name of Philip Koether Architects.

  1. Evolution is an inherent facet of science fiction art. What new developments are you aware of, with regards to the application of technology, in this genre?
Science Fiction owes its fascination and literary persistence to our inherent curiosity about ‘future.’ Evolution, as referenced by your question, hopefully compliments the maturation of the genre from cheap, pulp-fiction to more serious inquiries into what the future may either promise or threaten, depending on the mental health of the writer, social invention or the purely business-minded pursuit of the movie industry. The reason why Blade Runner has become such an iconic movie, is that it is consistent to itself, involves several levels of social imperatives, and on top of it all, is a morality tale of human worth and the evolution of ‘love.’

  1. Your visuals for the film Blade Runner helped shape the public perception of the look of the future, influencing the visual design of many of the science fiction films that followed. To what do you owe your uniquely inspiring vision?
My vision… Well, let’s go back. By the time I created a lot of stuff for Blade Runner, working with Sir Ridley Scott, I’d been doing elaborate scenario and design solutions for over twenty years. Working on Blade Runner followed the procedures I’ve described in previous answers. I was presented with a clearly defined ‘problem’; and I solved it, along with several parallel jobs I was doing for other clients.

  1. What aspirations, or reservations, do you have regarding the continuing application of your work to film?
There are many more resources for training guys to work in the electronic game industry, and entertainment industries, than there were in 1959. My ideas are still valid, as evidenced by my continued visibility across the entire range of guys working in those industries. Movie financiers tend to like a ‘one-stop’ source for creative effort, because of the risk-factor in financing productions. They like to have ‘prior’ experience.

  1. What advice would you give to artists considering a career in concept art?
Career advice is sort of hazardous because you necessarily have to generalize. With that caveat, here goes. Notice everything. Sophistication is basically memory; how things look, why they look that way, how people react, how they stand and physically interrelate, how light plays across architecture, and how foliage softens perspective edges. A successful problem solver has to take the ‘problem’ apart, identify what the problem is and reassemble all the parts into a new solution. Big problems are combinations of smaller ones.

  1. What are you doing now?
Right now I have taken a hiatus from commission work to write and compose my autobiography. I have stacks of photographic references, drawings my parents kept since I started to draw at around three years old… It’s been a fascinating life, and writing my way through seventy-eight years is entertaining.

  1. Where can we find you and your work?
Our website is:
Our e-mail URL is: