By Nick Foster
As a counter to the fantasy-laden future worlds generated by our industry, I’d like to propose a design approach which I call ‘The Future Mundane.’ The approach consists of three major elements, which I will outline below.1. The Future Mundane is filled with background talent.
Science fiction cinema needs to be entertaining in order to keep the attention of the audience. For a movie to be entertaining, it needs a narrative arc—a story of hope, despair, triumph or love. It needs a protagonist, hero or anti-hero. It typically needs something unusual to happen, an extraordinary event, something which drives the plot forward. As such, Hollywood typically pushes the narrative towards character extremes which provide clear roles: the hero, the villain, the femme fatale etc. The uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of people don’t come close to these caricatures, and it’s fair to expect that they never will. Your customer won’t need to save the world, they won’t see a real gunfight, they won’t win the lottery or fight a bad guy on the roof of a runaway train.
When designing for the future, designers regularly design for the hero, a trickle-down aspirational super-user intended to give us all something to hope for. But perhaps we could, for once, design for those innumerable, un-named characters of Hollywood, the extras or ‘background talent.’ Perhaps we should look past Bruce Willis and design for the ‘man at bus stop’, ‘girl at bar’ or ‘taxi driver.’ While this approach is less aspirational or sexy, these characters are much closer to the humans to whom you are telling your story. When your goal isn’t entertainment, you don’t need a hero.
So those are our characters, but what about the design itself? Spaceships, weapons and computers are plentiful in science fiction cinema, but what about corkscrews, soccer cleats, milk packaging or garden hoses? In the world of contemporary design awards (for what they are worth), we celebrate the design of background objects, but when we are asked to decipher and create the future we tend to revert back to whizz-bang items of wonder. When I encounter everyday design in science fiction cinema, I get a chill of excitement. From Korben’s cigarettes in the Fifth Element, the parole officer in Elysium, and countless examples in Blade Runner, these pieces of design help us get a much better hold on our future than any holographic interface ever could. The future we design should understand this. The characters in our future will not necessarily need to save the world at every turn—most of them will simply live in it, quietly enjoying each day.
2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space
Take a look around you, it’s likely that you’re interacting with a contemporary piece of technology, be that a smartphone, tablet or laptop, but take a look further around the room. There may be things which are older, things which come from another time—an LED TV atop a vintage table, a Playstation next to a 60’s vase, an iPad in a leather bag. If industrial design is in the business of making stuff, then we need to understand that this stuff piles up, favela-like. Humans are covetous, sentimental and resourceful; they cling to things.
When we render the future as a unique visual singularity, we remove from it any contemporary hooks. When designing a new screwdriver, it’s important to remember that it will probably sit in a toolbox filled with other tools, perhaps inherited from a previous generation.
In order to communicate our vision, it may be helpful to incorporate the existing designed space in parallel with the new. On a very practical level, we should embrace legacy technologies when conceiving new ones. Ethnographic studies constantly highlight technology accretion: the drawer full of cables, the old interaction behaviors, the dusty hard drives, the mouse mats and inherited hardware. Rather than avoid this complexity, good science fiction embraces accretive spaces, where contemporary design and technology sits side by side with older artifacts. In some cases, this technique can be used to show potential disconnects between the new and established, places where technology sticks out like a sore thumb. This is a useful tool for all designers and using it well can help us depict a more tangible future.
3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space.
As mentioned, the structure of science fiction cinema calls for extremes of character, event and environment. These are often visible through utopian or dystopian tropes in costume, architecture and design. At one end of the spectrum, we have seamless computer interactions, bright spacious architecture and glossy white surfaces. At the other, we have the dustbowl, the hacker slums and the gritty laboratory in the sewer.
These two categories are useful for building entertaining narrative structure, but the future probably won’t be either of these things… at least not entirely. It’ll be somewhere disappointingly middling: a partly broken space.
We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it. As Frederik Pohl famously said, “a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”
There are good examples in cinema, notably the cereal box from which John Anderton eats in Minority Report. As he puts it down, the singing cartoon on the front refuses to stop. He tries again but the animation continues, eventually leading him to throw the box across the room in frustration.
In the future, things will fail, but for the vast majority of the world this failure won’t be ‘the rocket is gonna crash into the planet,’ but ‘I can’t get the audio to work on Skype.’ The future will include taxes, illness, weather, transport delays and allergies. Things will break, things will fail to perform as promised, things will need fixing. Rendering the future as a partly broken space gives an audience something to hold onto, something relatable.
In parallel, we should consider how quickly our ‘amazing new innovation’ will become a normalized. Once technology finds it’s way into mass communities it ceases to amaze, ceases to be seen as technology at all, it becomes a regular part of the tapestry of life. In truth, our most common reaction to technology is to focus on its failures, the frustrations, what it can’t do or what we’d prefer it to do. Showing people smiling at their device as it reminds them about the arrival of their taxi is disingenuous. By isolating, understanding and portraying a partly broken space we are on the way to creating a more credible future.
The new Spike Jonze movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, feels like it could be right on the button, not really feeling like a science fiction movie at all, concentrating more on the relationship between people and technology (literally).