Tag Archives: Blade Runner

Evangelizing Design Fiction and topping it off with Syd Mead and Blade Runner

The last two weeks have been rapid-fire. I presented my thesis research at two different universities as part of the interview process for Assistant Professor design positions. The last one was, coincidentally, was in the precise location of the 2013 Emerge Conference. I had nothing to do with planning it this way it’s just how things worked out. In fact, I was so buried in the preparation for these interviews that the Emerge Conference dropped completely off my radar screen. So, as I am presenting on one part of the campus, about the idea of design fiction as a serious area of design research, Bruce Sterling and Brad Allenby, pivotal voices in future thinking, are presenting in another. It just seemed weird, especially since I had no idea it was going on until I got into town. Sterling, of course, is credited with creating the neologism known as “design fiction,” and though he probably has no idea that I exist, I think we are watching closely from similar perspectives. Note the similarities with his recent blog and my post from a few weeks ago.

It was an exhausting day of meetings and presentations, so I was anxious to get back to the hotel and decompress. Despite this I could not pass up the opportunity to trek across campus for a 6:30 screening of the digitally remastered 1987 classic, Blade Runner, in an awesome little theater with a shake-your-chair sound system. After the film, who else but Syd Mead shows up to field questions. Mead, complete with sunglasses, says he’s 79 years old, but there are no signs that he’s slowing down. He’s sharp as a tack and a bit feisty. Mead said that he is quite comfortable with revising his concepts or with ideas being outright rejected, as long as he gets paid. I think that some of the students saw his ‘show-me-the-money’ attitude as a bit arrogant, but Mead is a design and concept-art legend, he’s been working in the profession for a long time, and knows the way great designs and great art would rarely come to life without free enterprise. So, while some students may see the idea of commerce as a tool of capitalist oppression, Syd gets paid. Good for him.

All that being said, the presentations over the past couple of weeks went well, I think. I’m thinking that close to 100 turned out for my last one. Most of the comments were positive and encouraging. I may even have a few more converts to the web comic, but after the rigorous interview processes I have no idea where all of this will end up. Maybe none of it will turn into gainful employment, but they all add up to great experiences and the chance to share ideas with smart people.

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Graphic Novel for Design Fiction

The rage, when it comes to design fiction, is to make a film. The examples of this abound, not only the best diegetic prototypes from Blade Runner, Minority Report and 2001, that really started us thinking about this stuff, but also the recent presentations by MicrosoftCorning or Sony. In fact, with each new sic-fi or super-hero blockbuster there is some element of design fiction that is woven into the narrative. Tony Stark’s high tech lab with it’s holographic, gesture interfaces, is really just a “one-up” of John Anderton’s pre-cog version. The heart implant, however, doesn’t qualify so much since it is rather removed from the trending or plausible science of today.

In my last post I listed two things that I believe are essential to qualify as design fiction. The first was that you have to make something, visualize it or prototype it. The second qualification is that you have to throw it into the background as a tool, and not fetishize it (to use Bleecker’s term). It’s much more about how the people use it and their interaction with it, than how incredibly cool it might look (which is OK, but it’s about the human drama first). If there is a third, then I think the design itself must be based on some thread of science or research that can be pulled out in such a way that, in theory, the thing could work.

Whether the authors, screenwriters, or production designers on these film did rigorous research before creating these visions, is not as important as whether the thought of plausibility was there, or whether it was pure fantasy, e.g.“OK, he will need little rockets in his boots so that he can fly.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with little rockets in the boots, I think they’re cool, but they are not design fiction — in my book.

So what does that have to do with a graphic novel?

This brings us to the title of the post. Why does a graphic novel do this better than a movie. First of all, I would not presume to say that it does it better. It does, however provide some interesting advantages that a film does not. The idea of sequential art that links story pictures (panels) in sequence to move the action forward, shares some obvious similarities to film, but it pretty much stops there. The distinction most frequently cited is what we call the “gutter”, the space between the panels that requires the reader to “fill in”. Most film marches forward in linear fashion delineating in perfect detail, all that is contained in one scene. Unless we grab the remote step-frame our way through, the film is designed to flow over us. The graphic novel, on the other hand, can show you as you turn the page, what is about to happen, and unless you are way more disciplined than I, you are likely to glance at the last image on the page before you read all of the images leading up to it. Therefore, as a double-page “spread” lays there in front of you, past, present and future are all displayed at once. Film does not do this. Even with rewind and fast forward, you are locked into the moment. This nuance allows the reader to study the image in a way that a movie audience cannot.

There are some good reasons, I think why this is a particular advantage for design fiction. First, the designed thing or technological idea that is being presented may not be front and center to the story, but it can be studied and lingered upon, before proceeding onward. Second, if the artist puts enough detail into the thing or ethnography into the idea, you can examine the waltz of interaction with the design in the innocuous way it seductively seeps into the background. I believe the this can only be done effectively, if you are able to proceed at your own pace. Once again, I know that you can step your way through a film, but often it lacks both the resolution or the detail to satisfy a deep dive.

In the case of my graphic novel, each scene is created in CG, so everything must be built. The designer is drawn in, perhaps more deeply, to craft the object with sufficient detail that it can be studied. Therefore, not only the size and shape and ergonomics of said design, but the finer details of its materials and functions may also be required. All this adds to the realism, and realism adds a dimension to the visualization and prototyping that combine to allow that item or idea to seem perfectly at home within the scene. I have taken it one step beyond, of course, and made each panel High Def, so that you really can zoom-in and see more; an idea that has already come back to haunt me as I inspect these very large images. “How did that thing get in the shot?”

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Some source images for graphic novel metropolis

I thought I would share with you some of the source images for Hong Kong 2, the metropolis where my graphic novel takes place. As I have revealed in some previous posts, we’re looking at a mega city on the North American mainland 148 years from now. I don’t want to reveal too many particulars that are central to the narrative but essentially the identity of this city has become a conglomeration of 22nd century architecture mixed in with a hundred years or so of Asian-style city stacking. A trip to Tokyo, or China and you quickly begin to see what happens when you have to stack more and more people into a finite area. Generally, you build higher, connect-on, and do a lot of retro-fitting. In the graphic novel, the high-rise now floats up there around 150 or more floors and that’s where you find the more affluent social groups. The closer you get to the street, it gets poorer, darker and considerably more dangerous. Though this was never touched on (to my recollection) in the movie Blade Runner, I recently saw a piece of promotional video from Ridley Scott that featured interviews with Scott, Douglas Trumbull, and Syd Mead that discussed much of the art direction for the film classic. Apparently they had a similar dystopia in mind.


Here are some images I collected from the web and my travels that give a peek into the kind of city texture I’m thinking of.

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More than a graphic novel

Let’s face it, I came to Ohio State to make a graphic novel. For me, it was the epitome of holistic design and a realization of “epic integration.” In the professional world, I was forever battling to make clients and decision-makers embrace the idea as it applies to brands and their stories — experiences. Over the years though, so much of your design sensibility becomes second nature, intuitive. What seems obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else. Thankfully the faculty prodded this out of me and as a result there was the discovery of design fiction.

Through design fiction, idea-objects gain knowledge mass and a sense of credibility. But design fiction is more than just constructing a set of plausible constraints through which a design might exist. Bleecker states that drama is of great importance. “We can put the designed thing in a story and move it to the background as if it were mundane and quite ordinary — because it is, or would be. The attention is on the people and their dramatic tension, as it should be.” (Bleecker, 2009:37) Thus, design becomes that invisible collaborator with culture in making life seem as real in the future as it is real for us now.

In fact, science fiction has a long history of introducing new technologies and artifacts that go on to become real world devices. The gesture-based interface of Minority Report or the multi-storey videos of Blade Runner are only two examples.









Evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer David Kirby calls these props “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010:1) “Film-makers and science consultants craft diegetic prototypes and enhance their realism by creating a full elaboration of the technological diegesis which includes any part of the fictional world concerning the technology. Through their actions they construct a filmic realism that implies self-consistency in both the real world and the story world.” (Kirby, 2010:46).

While design fiction can be used in filmmaking to create acceptance of a concept or idea as some kind of future product placement, that is not its greatest potential. “A particularly rich context, a good story that involves people and their social practices rather than fetishizing the object and its imagined possibilities — this is what design fiction aspires to.” (Bleecker, 2009:27).

Playing around with these concepts makes for a very rich exploration into a future design. Stay tuned for the story synopsis, characters and more – coming August 2011.


Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. Online. http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com

Kirby, David. 2010. The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40/1; 41–70, February 2010. http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals


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