If you’ve watched any science fiction in the past few decades or seen a concept car, or, hell, even had a daydream about what the future may be like, then you owe a lot to a man named Syd Mead. Syd Mead, likely more than any other artist or designer, helped us visualize what the future could look like, whether it was a gleaming, post-scarcity utopia or a bleak, brooding dystopia. He designed spaceships, cars, robots, cities, everything. He designed the future. Mead died today, at the age of 86.
Mead got his start as an automotive designer for Ford, who recruited him back in 1959. Mead stayed with Ford only a little over two years, and Mead’s only automotive design to actually make it into production was the taillight of the 1964 Ford Falcon Futura, a jet-engine-like design element that became one of the most recognizable details of that car.
Mead left Ford to do more illustration work, including a catalog for United States Steel, which featured many wildly futuristic—yet still plausible—cars in stylish futuristic environments, populated by heathy, attractive future-humans who seemed to have everything pretty well figured out.
The cars shown were clearly futuristic, but maintained enough recognizable design cues and elements to be understandable and acceptable to people of the present, which includes pretty much everybody.
I especially like how that futuristic Cadillac exists in a world where vinyl tops are still a thing, living alongside what seems to be sedate genetically engineered tiger-like animals.
His ability to balance advance design with elements of the familiar may have come from his time working with Raymond Loewy, who had a mantra called MAYA, which stood for “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.”
Mead did a lot of industrial design for a large variety of companies, from Volvo to Philips to Air France, but most people know Mead’s work because of what came next: his work in movies.
The first three movies Mead worked on were all science fiction standouts: Star Trek The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and Tron.
In some ways, the work on Star Trek let Mead work within his usual utopian styles while venturing out a bit with his designs for V’Ger, the movies space-probe antagonist, and then, with Blade Runner, we see a new direction from Mead, a vision of incredible futuristic feats of engineering but without the gleaming clarity and order of his earlier works; a dystopian vision of a rain-soaked Los Angeles, filled with colossal video billboards and flying cars.
He designed the iconic Light Cycles in Tron, the first feature film to include significant amounts of computer animation. He pushed his visual style even further as he designed the main spacecraft in Aliens, the Sulaco, a widly complex, agressive-looking weapon-like ship.
Mead designed the Leonov spaceship from the movie 2010, the robot Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, conceptual design for Johnny Mnemonic, and kept on designing the look of movies all the way to the fairly recent movie Elysium from 2013, where he provided concept art for the space station design.
Mead was one of those incredibly gifted people who somehow was granted a remarkably specific ability to do something incredibly well, in his case, to extrapolate the present to imagine all sorts of futures.
He also just had an innate designer’s eye and a lovely drawing style as well—look at his hand sketches and you can see someone with a gut-level grasp of visual concepts like light and dark, shape and form.
I was reminded of this just a few days ago, when I got this emailed holiday card from Syd Mead and Roger Servick, his manager:
It’s not like Mead’s usual style, but it’s absolutely charming—a stylish, evocative doodle that reminds us just how much more there was to Mead than even what we’re used to expecting from him and his work.
Mead gave us deep looks into futures that may or may not come to pass, and it’s thanks to those visions that we’re somehow able make the future into the present, then past, on and on, forever.
Rest in peace, Syd.