The Original Creators: Syd Mead
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Syd Mead.
Light cycles, dystopian Los Angeles in 2019, space marine transportation ships and autonomous robots who are friends with Steve Guttenberg are just some of the iconic film visuals Syd Mead is responsible for. His concept drawings brought a unique futurist aesthetic to cinema while his set and production design work for Blade Runner is still so iconic that you can barely write about it without sounding like a cliché machine, as its influence continues, looming over anyone working in sci-fi. But his career has been vast—and reaches beyond film—he’s had his busy fingers in all kinds of pies, his company Syd Mead, Inc. works across various fields including automotive design, graphic design, set design, product design, poster design, logo design, game design and architecture.
When you look at his paintings of futuristic cityscapes, with their shiny and sleek transportation and the slim, chrome-laden buildings, you realise it’s mostly Syd Mead we have to blame for getting our hopes up about how amazing the future was going to look. His concepts never fully became reality—so we wait, still.
While some of his images contain cars levitating inexplicably above the ground that are made of materials we’ve yet to discover, most of Mead’s ideas are generated in reality. With a keen eye on applied science and technological change, he builds his designs on principles that do or could exist. He speaks about a “familiarity trigger” when talking about his work, something that binds the viewer to the product. Once this is accomplished the design can take a few turns for the strange or the elaborate without people’s minds shutting down.
In addition to Mead’s technical expertise, he also a skilled artist. His drawings of the human form are quite incredible, but he also has a grasp of lighting and composition. With this potent mix of technical and artistic skill, his designs have been infused with a totemic power able to endure the ages. Even now, one looks at his old pictures and thinks “Wow”—that is a place I’d like to visit." Forever influential, he’s released a DVDs series, “Techniques of Syd Mead,” where he explains his craft. Along with his legacy he’s also still working—four decades after he started—designing the sets for Neill Blomkamp’s forthcoming sci-fi flick Elysium.
This design book showcases some of Mead’s great retro-futurist design work from his time at U.S. Steel and beyond, where believable concepts are jettisoned into a sublime-looking future that are glorious to the eye, but look far too outrageous and awesome to ever be real. Which is kind of tragic. Check out more images from this book here.
From the moody looking dystopian grimness of Blade Runner’s mesmerizing future, to the vehicles of the computerized world of Tron and the marine transportation ship the U.S.S. Sulaco from Aliens—even Johnny 5 who no child of the 80s could truly dislike no matter how annoying he now seems—plus Japanese anime, his film design work has left indelible marks on our collective imaginations, and given toy model enthusiasts plenty of thrills.
The reality of car design is in very poor comparison to the cars Mead designed. From the flying one in Blade Runner to his designs for U.S. Steel and his work for Mattel’s toy line Hot Wheels, no one has designed unbuilt cars with such beauty and flair.