What designers can learn from a sci-fi graphic novel.

With characters and script, synopsis and page grid nearing completion, I am poised at the threshold of an epic design journey and the production phase of my MFA thesis. Through my work this past summer, I have already begun to construct the context for this future, the story of the characters, their lives, and their world and visualize it within the constructs of a science fiction graphic novel. For this future prototype, I have chosen a new visual style — not film, not hand drawing — but stylized realism from computer-generated imagery (CGI) to further enrich the story, the cultural legibility, the theoretical visualization, the experience, and the emotional resonance.

As I have blogged before, I want this to be a great read, but for the designer it is also something more. This project is a multi-layered examination of the conjugation of design and narrative. With a trip to the latest superhero flick, there is clear evidence that we now have the technology to envision virtually anything, any world, any impossible feat and any disaster. Within these virtual visualizations, our design—our stuff—often taken for granted, supplies context and cohesion. The more the design reflects the culture the more real and reasonable the premise — the more virtual the vision. Thus, on one level, design blends into Bleecker’s[1] background providing credible context for a future vision.

On another level, design also becomes an accelerant for our culture and society. If the design around us, in our messages, our products, our tools, and our lifestyles is so inextricably woven in our culture, then it bears examination of what we make and how it will affect culture — perhaps before we simply wait and see.

Design also participates in the storytelling exercise and the way that future worlds can be prototyped. The graphic novel becomes a means to create a visual prototype of one such world in a fashion arguably less costly than filmmaking, where the designer gets to ask the holistic question of what design will be like a hundred years from now in the context of people’s lives wrapped in a compelling narrative.

The examination is multi-fold. The designer must create a purely hypothetical drama, then speculate on how it might be made real, how design can contribute to authenticity, what new things and ideas might be woven into the texture of human lives, and pulling threads of science fact into science fiction create the visuals and style to serve as prototype and narrative guide through a coherent order utilizing the conventions of the art form and the tools of the graphic designer.

At the end of the journey is introspection and conversation on the implications of such a journey for design practitioners as contributors to future media, entertainment, artifacts and information.

Possibly this is more real to me after having done it for 30+ years, but it seems that this is about design habits, and the tried-and-true that we exercise every day in the practice of commercial design, back and forth over the same territory, forging ruts and channels that make us and our design so predictable. In many ways, if we never stop and ask, “What if?” we will never spark that new synapse that will lead us to the untapped possibilities. Design should do that, too.


[1] Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. (37)

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