Syd Mead: A Future Elaborately Imagined

by Kendall Schroeder

Combining realism with fantasy, Syd Mead is one of today’s most prolific and influential conceptual artists elaborately preparing the world for the future. His work stands out among the myriad of concept artists today. He has the innate ability to capture a photographic essence in formal media producing a duplicate reality in graphic form.

“Imagination is essentially memory… it’s recording and memorizing what you’ve seen. It’s the creation of putting the elements together into different combinations. It’s a process of arranging knowledge into new formats, that’s imagination.”

Syd Mead’s curiosity drives him toward a future elaborately imagined, wanting to investigate and solve the unanswered questions. His optimism is realized in his conceptual “renderings,” where industrial design and the creative mind bring the future within reach, near possibility. In fact, industrial design is the key to Mead’s creativity.

Syd Mead Concept Car

Mead, who recently celebrated his 86th birthday, has been one of the most influential visual futurists for over 40 years. Mead’s idealized designs have helped shape the iconic worlds of films such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Tron, Aliens, Elysium, and most recently, Blade Runner 2049.

Visualizing the Scenario

Mead’s ability to visualize a scenario that exists in a picture makes him a sought-after conceptual designer. It is the work of a concept artist to convince the audience of a believable scene, producing the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional space. Mead’s education at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in the 1950s, helped him to develop this style.

Syd Mead’s mastery of scale, his visualization of futuristic scenarios, and the ability to create a story within the depicted scenario brings life to the concept. In fact, successful techno-fantasy illustration has all these elements: scale, a scenario and people taking part in the scenario.

Syd Mead Kentucky Derby

Practiced in his work for the Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Studio in the early 60s, Mead created a vision of the future where people were included, making them feel more comfortable. Even if there are unexplained elements in the illustration, Mead knew that including people in the drawing would help the observer feel more comfortable because there are people just like them enjoying the same scene. Mead develops a futuristic scenario, while adhering to the classic history that may take place in that scenario.

Syd Mead Hyper Van

“The future is a guessing game that is elaborately expected. The future is now.”

Syd Mead’s concept work goes through a variety of iterations as more and more details are added. Examples of rustication, cast or hand-hune façades, depict an ancient, retro-future look. Random contours of foliage against mechanical objects and re-imagined vehicles, are added to soften harsh lines. A sense of realism in a futuristic scenario is created. Mead’s elaborate depiction of foliage is very stylized. It has depth, a backside, an inside. Each element is a separate distinct part of the whole.

Syd Mead Interior Design

Inspiration for the Future

“Inspiration starts when your pen hits the paper.”

Inspiration for design comes from many forms. The shape of the subject matter, the people in costume, all help to create the huate couture in a scenario. Mead is not just creating a visual scene, he is developing a story. He’s creating the style and rationale for the scenario.

Syd Mead Menagerie

Mead’s concept work can be distinguished by his use of light and shadow. He establishes the position of the light source to aid in developing soft shadows. There is no need to establish what is causing the shadows. Shadows are a graphical interruption of the continuity of the scene. It creates interest and adds elements of real life. The closer the object is to what’s casting the shadow the darker the shadow is. As long as the cause of the shadow is out of sight, it’s graphically more interesting.

Syd Mead Hyper Bike

Mead uses lighter values to indicate sunlight and darker values to indicate shadow, controlling the relative value of detail in shadow and sunlight. If the full range of the values is not utilized, the picture will look underdeveloped. The objects are defined by the values not lines. Darker valued objects placed in the foreground lets the observer’s eye move from dark to light to dark to add interest and draw the viewer in.

Drawing the Viewer In

His early industrial design work includes character studies juxtaposed with sleek machines. Mead uses costume elements and details to create a theatrical feel and look, adding drama and heightening the elements of the story in the illustration. In this way, Mead is taking something familiar and combining it with something strange. It interrupts the observer’s expectations and adds a new layer of entertainment.

Syd Mead Concept

Mead’s use of reflections is a visual representation of a system of tiny mirrors all depicting a shiny object. He’s able to combine sections merging into a reflective picture of something that is opposite of the object itself. It contributes to the dimensional illusion of the final story.

A Strange Level of Mystery

Mead’s futuristic scenarios often include elements that evoke inquiry. He is able to include a strange level of mystery and intrigue to the illustration. Anything that lends mystery and curiosity to a piece of art makes it more interesting. An unlikely picture of a probable scenario in the future lures the observer in. The characters and the scenario provide the viewer something to appreciate and be a part of the story. Mead is a master at taking tradition and forcing it into a future scenario to project to the viewer a sense of reality.

Syd Mead Scenario

Freehand, or relaxed curves, adds a random casualness to a concept, a graphical and selective representation of shape. It allows the artist to develop a visual vocabulary all his own. Color is like an overlay. The cross reference of color, light and value make a picture look real.

Mead’s use of geometric shapes, such as interrupted, simple arcs, help produce a clean, crisp geometry. These elements combined with detail overlaid onto the basic shape, aid in the realistic environment.

Sophistication is Memory

Mead’s prolific work has a certain level of sophistication to it. Having the background in industrial design has allowed him to develop a memory system, noticing and remembering how things in the world look and finding out why they look that way.

Syd Mead Futuristic

“The tool used to create the illusion of reality is of less importance than the idea that generates the effort in the first place – tools will change – the guiding hand is the intelligence to appreciate what a picture is, what constitutes an interesting picture or scenario – a lack of understanding of what constitutes rational picture making is a flaw in a lot of amateur efforts.”

Mead’s work stands out among the myriad of concept artists today. He has the innate ability to capture a photographic essence in formal media producing a duplicate reality in graphic form.

References:; The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist by Syd Mead

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