Syd Mead - Interview
Back in 2013 I interviewed Syd Mead for an arts mag feature that never saw the light of day. At Gamma we released a couple of prints and tees featuring his iconic work. Here's the full article.
You were creative from a young age, your father actually wrote a thesis on creativity in children, did he apply this at home?
I have a drawing I made when I was three years old, showing a round face with eyes looking to the left and a smiling mouth with a tongue sticking out. My dad attended Sioux Falls College in Sioux Falls, Iowa for his degree in fine art. He kept many of my early drawings, which will be included in my autobiography, which I am currently working on.
I was provided with pencils, paper and a wide variety of available drawing, coloring and painting material as I grew up. When I was in fifth grade (1O years old) I became fascinated with the precision of line produced by crow quill pens. My parents provided me with the pens and the India ink that you used in them. For coloring, after the beginning ‘little kid’ crayons, they bought a Prismacolor pencil set, a waxy colored pencil product that produced brilliant colors. Along the way I used watercolors at about the same age, 1O to 11.
I made my first art ‘sale’ when I was in the fifth grade. I became fascinated with ‘evolving’ the appearance of various dog breeds. My fellow students saw my drawings and I made ‘altered’ drawings of their pet dogs, selling them for 25¢ apiece, a nice sum in 1941!
My dad was aware of my early drawing talent and his encouragement was not technique or subject advisement; simply making sure I had drawing materials, paper and lots of unbothered time to pursue my artistic activity. I also made my own toys out of different weights of paper and cardboard. I would lay out the flat pattern with tabs and slots that, when all folded together produced a three dimensional vehicle. Mom could never figure out how I could visualize the finished result. I’ve always had excellent three dimensional visualization ability.
You mentioned your autobiography, how far in are you, can we expect this in 2014?
I fervently hope so. I'm at page 164, have just moved to Southern California (1975), my 3OO SL has just arrived and I'm getting settled in to my condo overlooking Doheny Beach in Capistrano Beach. To my estimation, this puts me at about 6O% through the eventual tome.
Chesley Bonestell was an inspiration to you, did you ever meet him and do you feel you continued a lineage within your shared fields of design/art?
My parents bought Chesley Bonestell’s book for me when I was in Junior High School. I was absolutely fascinated by the images inside. I never met him and I wouldn’t assume any ‘continuance’ of his legacy. He was a master.
I did meet Robert Heinlein at his home in the elite Broodmoor enclave west of and adjacent to Colorado Springs when I was in high school. The house was 'modern' in the horizontal alignment mode, he was gracious as a host to a young 'fan.' I'd read his book about the ROADS. My recount of the encounter is in my autobiography.
You attended Art Centre in Los Angeles where you've said you learned more about being a professional than being creative, during this period you cite Strother McMinn as an influential mentor. How important was he to you and do you feel it is vital to find the right guidance when starting out?
By the time I attended the Art Center School (then on third street in Los Angeles) I could draw very, very well; animals, the human figure and had a firm grasp on various media techniques. I learned to paint with gouach (opaque watercolor), which is still my preferred color medium. Strother MacMinn was a dedicated teacher. Yes, I consider him one of my mentors, as he would make pointed criticisms of my design and technique approach. In addition he added his social support to a lot of us Industrial Design guys by inviting us to his residence for an evening of salad and steak. This was a relief from endless, twenty-four hour engagement in fulfilling assignments. Art Center still operates at this challenging level.
The right guidance is critical but you have to already have a strong desire to ‘be something’ in a chosen field. An advisor can’t instill ambition. Adjacency to talent or opportunity does not guarantee success, a weird idea that seems to cause some student age group people to blame others for their lack of success. Over two thousand years ago, Socrates stated: “LUCK IS OPPORTUNITY MEETING PREPARATION.”
You're known for your solid work ethic, did this come from Art Centre's demanding practice?
I've been drawing since I was three years old. My 'work ethic' was in place long before Art Center. This helped a lot because I already had personal enthusiasm for drawing and completing artwork.
On completing your studies at Art Centre you were offered a job at Ford, you left after 6 months. Was this because you were dissatisfied with the way the company functioned creatively? Was this a decision from the head or heart?
I completed my Art Center period on a Ford Motor Company scholarship and was hired by Ford’s Advanced Styling Studio by its executive, Mr. Elwood Engle. (He was a Pratt graduate.) I worked in the studio for about 26 months. I left when offered a job with a small PR company in Chicago. Over lunch, my salary jumped five times to $25,OOO a year, a princely sum in 1961. Without being too cheeky I suppose you could say the decision was from my wallet. PLUS, I had complete creative freedom as opposed to working in a corporate environment where your ideas are lumped into a composite from which a best choice is made for the good of the corporate goals.
That's quite a salary bump for a young guy...
The increase in salary was magical. I'd already bought the Mercedez Benz 3OOSL coupe with half of the $1O,OOO.OO I'd been paid for the one month's tour de force on the first United States Steel book. I was very lucky, within about 5 1/2 years out of Art Center I had the 3OOSL, a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, a '63 Corvette Stingray roadster and had just bought a 8,OOO square ft mansion designed by Albert Kahn early in his illustrious career.
The US Steel book? Was this via The Hansen Company?
For the Hansen Company, which was re-named the MEAD HANSEN COMPANY after I was hired, I completed numerous high-end promotional books for prime clients including United States Steel, Allis Chalmers, Celanese Corporation, Atlas Cement among others. These publications became widespread ‘collector’ items and now sell on e-bay for hundreds of dollars if you can find them.
I recently saw one go for close to $1000 on eBay.
Every publication we've either co-produced or produced within OBLAGON's proprietary release tend to sell more than their original retail price. In the case of older books, the price goes up due to, of course, scarcity or the tendency for owners to keep theirs. It makes me feel good because it, in a way, validates our confidence in continued professional visibility.
You've spent most of your adult life in California, a lot of artists have special relationships with their surroundings, is your environment important to you, who you are?
I’ve now lived in California for thirty-eight years. I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, then Canton Iowa where I started grade school, then Mason City, Iowa, then Denver, Colorado, Gunnison, Colorado and then Colorado Springs where I graduated from high school, enlisted in the Army after one year of college. I then attended Art Center from 1956 to 1959 after three years in the Army 1953 to 1956. I moved to Southern California in 1975.
The environment here is conducive to creativity and of course when I was invited into the movie industry, being here is the place to be. The weather, the creative professional ambience is particularly invigorating.
You've been hired by some of the largest brands of your time including Phillips and Sony. Creative professionals often have to jump through hoops explaining their work to business executives. Do you have any advice on how to bridge the gap between left/right minded individuals?
Working with large corporate groups is relatively simple if you signal yourself as executive’s peers. I come into a relationship with a corporation’s advertising arm, an internal design studio or as a consultant for a corporate project. ‘Suits’ usually are from either finance or legal or associated fields. They do not understand ‘drawings’ as such but do understand finished illustration. Also, there is a hierarchical procedure that you have to be aware of in approval or account review meetings. Depending on the number of management levels in the meeting, you have to provide enough information to be critiques so all levels can demonstrate to each other that they are ‘doing their job.’ It sometimes resembles herding cats.
In the history of product design, do you have favourites? Are there any products you hold in high regard due to their balance of form, function and aesthetics?
A favourite in industrial design currently is the open ‘loop’ fans from Dyson. The concept combines technical expertise with elegance of form.
Today, many regard Apple as the leading technology design brand. Would you agree? Do you use their products?
Apple is a remarkable phenomenon. I have used Apple computers from the very start. After all, they started out as a graphical display. Square pixels did a much better job of displaying graphics and letterforms. Their designs are logical, clean looking and reasonably easy to use. My first Macintosh was an FX, then a Quadra 95O, then an 81OO-1OO, (a really bad edition!) a G3, a G4, and now an iMac, a 17” Pro laptop and an Air model.
Within the realms of interface design, the last couple of years have seen a split in ideals. What's known as skeuomorphism, on one hand you have designers pushing simplicity on the other those who embrace ornamentation to varying degrees. What are your thoughts on this?
European traffic sign symbols. Philip’s head of design, Mr. Knut Yran (who I consider one of my important mentors) was president of ICOGRADA for a year or so. He took delight in poking fun at the European traffic signage graphics. One of the signs had a red car cross-section symbol in red to the left of a black car symbol. What this was supposed to mean was ‘no passing.’ Knut joked that it signaled the advisory that ‘only red cars can pass.’ Currently on car instrument panels there is a symbol of an oilcan to indicate oil pressure. How many people of current generation, or foreign drivers…know what an ‘oilcan’ looks like? The symbols become meaningless when the viewer has no idea what the symbol is of.
The whole graphical idea is/was to introduce early adapter users to an easily visually understood interface. I suppose now, decades on, this naïve representative idea can move on to more sophisticated graphical imagery. I’m not into ‘psychographics’ as a discipline. I will leave the intricacies of design ‘conference buzz word affectation’ to others.
You've described seeing your work come to life on screen as 'exciting'. Do you feel film is the highest human art form? The combination of literature, art and music?
Film, cinema, the ‘movies’ are the most sophisticated form of story telling that we currently have. Other than in-head dreaming it conveys emotive immersion. The next big leap in cinematic release will be 36O degree 3D presentation at over 1OO frames per second, which will be, essentially, ‘reality.’ Movies show a surface illusion. Watching a prop you’ve helped design slam shut with audio can be thrilling when you realize that it’s probably made of plywood, fiberboard and a coat of textured paint. It is artifice at the highest level.
When commissioned to create vehicles for Blade Runner, your trademark use of scenario resulted in your involvement being extend, giving you more influence on the overall look and feel of the sets. Did you intend to over deliver on the brief or was it just a case of your approach of illustrating not just the object but how it interacts with its surroundings?
I sort of ‘painted my way’ much farther into the design involvement with BLADERUNNER than originally intended by Ridley and certainly by the producer and controller. I had not read nor did I realize the iconic status of Philip K. Dick at that time. In fact, I did not read ‘DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP’ until I’d finished working on the film’s preproduction.
Your work, visualising Philip K Dick's world is now almost inseparable from his. When we read his novels we see your worlds. Do you feel a bond towards him? Was Blade Runner a landmark project in your career personally, did you connect with it as more than just an artist at work?
I don’t feel any particular bond to Dick. BLADERUNNER was a landmark project in my career. At the time I worked on the film I had several parallel projects going through my corporation, I was traveling to Europe, painting architectural interiors and exteriors for architects in Texas, completing design work for the Raymond Lowey studios in Paris and New York. As I did and still do I treated BLADERUNNER as another job to be done to the best of my abilities.
BLADERUNNER was the first film I worked on from start to release. My very first involvement in cinema was designing the V’ger entity in post-production for Robert Wise at Paramount. For BLADERUNNER, I received a single card credit in the after roll, a wonderful incident that has not been repeated in the many other films I’ve worked on.
Did you ever meet Philip K Dick or discuss the works?
I never met Philip K. Dick and have never been asked to be part of a discussion of his works.
You worked on the original Tron movie back in the 80s. At that time digital technology was in its infancy and many of the visuals were created using analog kit, even trickery with light and paper card. Watching it now it's hard to believe, i'm sure a lot of people don't realise just how primitive the set up was, even though it pushed the limits of what could be achieved at the time. Do you agree that restrictions bring out the best in artists? Today, is it sometimes just too easy?
As you know, TRON looked the way it did/does because at that time that was literally all that could be done with frame by frame animation via computer imagery. It was a tortuous, layered and intricate use of available technique. If you have a firm grasp on being inventively creative and trust your creative instincts yes, limitation can prompt unusual solutions. Today? Easy is a good description of something being too available or too accessible. I think the ‘easy’ availability of CG technique sometimes allows solutions that need a lot more careful thought and judicious introduction into a film.
Were you consulted on the recent Tron sequel? It revamped a lot of your original design including your logo.
I did a consultation with Disney Interactive on the game TRON.2, but did not have anything to do with TRON; LEGACY.
You've designed a lot of vehicles, many for films. Do you have a personal favourite?
My favorite vehicle I’ve designed for film is…yes, the SPINNER. It was very different, had compound ‘glass,’ an industry first and has become an iconic design modeled by several agencies over the years.
Within your work, the enticing scenarios that you're famous for, there's a lot of style. The nightclubs are bubbling, the vehicles are sleek and the people are fashionable. You've got a real sense of style, fashion and movement. Your books have had titles such as 'Steel Couture', are you drawn to fashion, trends etc?
The world, whether fantasy of ‘real’ needs the entire range of ‘stuff;’ fashion (how are people dressed?), vehicles, (what is the level of technology involved?), architecture and general ambience. A movie simply (!) reproduces the story world in a convincing manner by including all those things and attributes. What I do is to first find out what the technology base is for the story. This stage is my insistence on a one-to-one with the director. If that is not possible to start, I won’t work on the film. Then you read the shooting script and assess what the director is trying to present. THEN you start to create all of the detail you’re assigned to do to creatively help the director to accomplish his visual style for the film.
Your process, Gouache on board? You work with the same materials artists have used for centuries, does technology ever creep in?
I call painting with gouache ‘brushing pigment on cardboard with animal hairs on the end of a stick.’ I admire the guys who are accomplished using digital illustration. Remember, it doesn’t matter what the technique is, you’ve first got to know how to create a picture, a design or a visual representation of something. The computer is a marvelous thing but it doesn’t start from zero.
Attention to detail, the subtleties of light and movement appear effortless from your hand. Do you work from a photographic memory or study elements before painting?
I try to recreate illusion, a reproduction of what would happen with certain lighting conditions, reflection off shiny surfaces, the texture of foliage and the composition of the finished view. My advice to young designers and those who want to ‘illustrate’ is to pay attention to their surroundings, the way light bounces off a puddle, to mentally retain detail. You can’t reproduce or stylize something that you don’t know about.
As a designer a lot of projects must cross your desk, many don't reach production, which of these would you most liked to have seen realised?
I’ve designed cruise ship proposals, billion dollar theme park master plans, super yachts and numerous vehicle ideas plus several 747 interiors for heads of state. My designs for yachts have never hit the water for various funding and contract dispute reasons. I would love to create a super yacht that would be actually launched, or influence a destination themed environment that was actually built.
A lot of your work re-imagines our world, cities and vehicles of tomorrow. How do you feel about the actuality of modern architecture and design, are you disappointed the future hasn't quite advanced at the pace you imagined?
The future has come true in lots of ways; consumer electronics, imaginative architecture. It’s the overall global infrastructure that lags due to the competition from social investment and the drag of elaborately funded entitlement costs. At any one time there’s only so much capital available.
Considering this, do you have a favourite city?
My favorite city in Europe is Torino, Italy. We have friends there, it is the Piedmont are (Pinot Grigio...best) and is a beautiful city. I've had good experiences in Paris also, but only with a 'native' sponsor, bilingual fan or other professionally linked people. In this way, you circumvent the more arrogant inflictions of the populace.
You've previously said you would love to have designed a theme park, an opportunity to create an immersive world. What sort of world would Syd Mead create?
Syd Mead would create an alternate reality, which would kick in (without drugs, okay?) after you’d gone through a reception stage where you would choose your preferences for ambience, social milieu and stylistic invention. You would be able to mentally command stuff (EKG pickup) and manipulate your desire range. Although direct brain implants are being considered and displayed in films (Matt Damon’s brain implant in the currently released ‘ELYSIUM’ is an example) I don’t think physical implants are the answer to enjoyment of fanciful experience.
Music, what does Syd Mead blast when he's doing 100mph in his 300SL Gulwing?
I’ve sold my 3OOSL Mercedes coupe but when I was blasting north on the new 75 Interstate in 1968 in Michigan at 14O miles per hour, I wasn’t doing anything but paying attention! At that speed you have to drive about two miles in front of you. When I was blasting down the Interstate 5 in Orange County in 1978 at 11O miles per hour I was watching the rear view mirror, watching what was happening about a mile ahead of me…you are busy. Music? Well, I think current music is a more of a theatrical experience than coherent sound. I favor the era of Jeff Beck, Super Tramp and the very durable Mick Jagger era. I also like Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.
You're still working, is there anything in the pipeline you'd like to talk about?
I am currently under contract to be part of a big movie project. I will be the keynote speaker at this year’s AUTODESK conference in Las Vegas in December.
Syd, you are many things to many people. Your career has spanned a period of rapid technological development, many have been touched by your creativity and vision. How would you like to be remembered, an artist, designer, futurist?
I would like to be remembered for encouraging others to expand their appreciation of the creative skill that entertains, provides immense personal inspiration and fulfills personal ambitions of my fellow designers.
Syd Mead passed away on 30th December, 2019.
You can find out more about the his work at www.sydmead.com
Artwork images © Syd Mead / Oblagon Inc.
This interview was conducted in September, 2013 by Rob Swain.
Reproduction without prior permission prohibited.