Q&A with CDN Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Syd Mead

26 July 2016 | by Guy Bird

“My credit on Blade Runner was ‘visual futurist’ because it’s visual, and I’m doing future stuff. I made the title up on the phone. I knew it had to be bumper sticker-friendly”

Despite little of his work existing beyond two dimensions, ‘conceptual futurist’ and all-round artistic force of nature, Syd Mead, has been one of the most influential car designers of the last 50 years.

The number of times Syd Mead’s name is mentioned as an inspiration in conversations with professional car designers – from Ferrari’s Flavio Manzoni to ex-BMW Group design boss Chris Bangle – is truly remarkable. In no small part, this prompted us to give him this very special award.

Born on 18 July 1933 in St Paul, Minnesota, in America’s upper Mid-West, Mead started his professional career in 1959 at Ford’s Advanced Design studio after graduating from Art Center. Headhunted by an ex-Ford designer, he left after just two years to became a full-time commercial designer and illustrator working on lucrative accounts for large American corporations.

The marketing books for US Steel in particular – featuring his incredible futuristic visions and often involving brilliantly-imagined and rendered vehicles – became a sensation in the ’60s, and are now sought-after collector’s items.

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Future Bugatti, Art Center watercolour (1957)

In 1970 he launched Syd Mead Inc. in Detroit, with new product design clients such as Philips Electronics from Europe, where he focused on advanced design, architectural rendering for the likes of the InterContinental Hotels Group, and even Gundam robots for a Japanese TV series.

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Van from US Steel book series (1968)

Moving out to California in 1975, he started to attract the attention of the film industry, working on vehicle, spaceship, city and character designs for cult cinema classics Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Blade Runner and Tron (both 1982), 2010 (1984) and more recently Elysium (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015), while keeping his other artistic and design projects alive, including a significant roster of Japanese clients such as Sony, Minolta and Honda.

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Super sedan from US Steel book series (1968)

Now 82 and after nearly 60 years in the business, he is still drawing and painting, and he graciously allowed Car Design News to spend a day at his Pasadena home and studio to talk about the secrets of his success, what he’s learned along the way, and his predictions for the next 50 years of transportation design.

Car Design News Is there anything in your background to suggest a career in the arts?

Syd Mead I started drawing at about two-and-a-half or three. My dad kept my drawings from that time. He was getting his Masters degree in Fine Art and his thesis was written on creativity in children. I was his guinea pig.

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Custom truck for Ford (1960s)

CDN So your dad was an artist?

SM He was a Baptist minister primarily, but also a painter in oil, and I still to this day can’t stand the smell of linseed oil. It’s a horror. Anyway, he kept all my early drawings, which was kind of weird.

CDN Do you have a memory of being creative from that time?

SM I discovered you could take a glass tumbler and turn it upside down and trace a circle and draw faces. By the time I was four I was drawing cars with people waving out of the window, and by age 11 doing portraits of my uncle Henry that were actually quite good. I was doing scenery, too. The more accurately I could illustrate my imaginary world, the more satisfying it was. That accelerated the development of my technique.

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Syd Mead's car carrier, drawn aged 6 (1939

CDN Car designers regularly say they drew cars and perhaps planes as kids. Was it the same for you?

SM No, it was [just] cars. The only drawing I have of a truck is a car carrier with curtains on the bottom. I was six years old and was probably thinking, ‘Well, it would be really cool to live down there and have your cars up on top and go places.’ At about the same time, I was catching on to perspective. By the time I was in high school I could draw people and animals accurately. Horses and dogs are particularly hard; I doubt I could do it now, I’d have to practice, because of the way they stand, they are truly elegant creatures.

CDN What kind of cars would you have seen around back then?

SM It was the ’30s, so cars didn’t have pontoon fenders, they were all separate. In the ’40s there were attempts at streamlining. I was looking at cars going down the street with ‘slope backs’ and thought I’d just continue that trend.

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Ford Gyron concept car (1961)

CDN Did you see any magazines of exotic cars from elsewhere?

SM Not at all. My ’34 Ford roadster with a rumble seat was fun to drive though, I had great times in it. I graduated at 18, it was the tail-end of the Korean War, the early 1950s, and I went to junior college and studied geology because we did field trips [laughs] – I couldn’t give a shit about igneous rock.

Then I went into the army from 1953-56. I painted naked ladies on the back of my barrack sergeant’s field jackets, so got out of bivouacs, marching and all that.

CDN Just like Giugiaro did during his military service!

SM Ah Giorgetto... I worked with him [later, on 1970s renderings of the Lancia Delta].

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Ford Falcon Futura two-door hardtop (1963)

CDN How did you get your car design career started?

SM I saw images in a few magazines for a car to be called the Continental [Mark II] so I sent the then Ford design boss some of my sketches – they were model-oriented to that era – and he said: ‘If you like that sort of thing, there’s a school you should go to: Art Center.’ Then it was on Third Street in Los Angeles. I had the benefit of the GI Bill after the Korean War [allowing the US government to help fund ex-soldiers through college], a Ford scholarship and a part-time job. My family couldn’t have afforded the tuition otherwise. After two-and-a-half years I had a Bachelor of Professional Arts degree. Having a degree doesn’t make you any better, though. Maybe in medicine it does, but you don’t need a Masters degree in industrial design.

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Ford Gyron concept car (1961)

CDN Tell us about your brief stint at Ford’s Advanced Design studio...

SM After I graduated I started with Ford in 1959. My contribution to American car design is the tail-light on the ’63 Falcon Futura. I quit Ford in June of 1961, so it would have been ‘on clay’ when I was there.

I designed a show car too, the Gyron. There was a full-size clay carved up, and Elwood Engel who hired me and was head of Ford Advanced Design comes into the studio with a gaggle of ‘cost people’. It had a ‘skag fin’ along the bottom that stuck out of the body at an angle, to dramatise that it was a tandem-wheel telescopically-balanced car, so it looked like it was floating.

Well Engel put his foot on it, cracked it off and it fell to the floor. So I was like, ‘Okay, that’s the start...’ [of the end]. Then they made his design into the show car, which was a very naïve wedge shape in plan view from a sketch from his Pratt [Institute] graduation portfolio.

I rendered it beautifully in an auto show environment, but that was my first confrontation – being confronted with the fact that when you work for a big corporation you’re part of the idea-manufacturing business, and they may or may not use your idea, and you have to accept that.

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Mobilage arrival (1975)

CDN Why did you leave Ford so soon and how did you get your big break?

SM There’s always a connection. It’s right time, right person. John Reinhart had been chief designer at Ford Advanced Design and was now at US Steel. Aluminium was making inroads into the stainless steel market so he needed a marketing book. He went to Ford where he still knew all the modellers and they said [adopts hand-to-face whisper] ‘John, there’s this new kid from Art Center’... that’s how I got the commission for the first book.

I was blessed with falling into a relatively small company in Chicago doing point-of-purchase publications with huge corporate advertising budgets. I did the first 120-page US Steel book in a month. I painted all the pictures and did the layout and got $10,000. A salary back then was $4000! Half went on a ’56 Mercedes SL Gullwing [alas, long since sold]. Now it’s a million-dollar car.

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Lancia Delta rendering for Giugiaro (late 1970s)

CDN As part of the US Steel brief, did you have to think about what could be done with steel that couldn’t be done with aluminium?

SM The brief was anything bright that was stainless steel. The first book’s illustrations were based on the ideas of the clay modeller who had made the linkage to Reinhart. He designed some of the vehicles I had to render. They were kind of cheesy, but for $10,000 in 30 days I was like, ‘what the hell’.

The first book was so successful it went ‘horizontal’ to the whole design industry. The second book was all mine and by that time, I’d quit Ford. The fourth collection was a portfolio never bound into a book: US Steel was facing a lawsuit, so it said, ‘let’s just print them and get them out of our hair...’

CDN Why do you think the US Steel books were so well-received?

SM I knew that to be a good car designer, I ought to look at something other than cars. So I did futuristic, strange machines. But I was always running into the US Steel advertising department because they had agencies that could be very difficult. I was doing high-gravity imaginative things but they used to say: ‘Where are the wheels?’ Anyway, the US Steel books were very successful, and literally launched my career.

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Playboy van (1975)

CDN The ’60s sounded like a good time for you?

SM I was a partner at the Chicago company Mead Hansen, and US Steel was the flagship client. By the mid-60s I had a three-storey mansion, a Corvette, Cadillac and a Mercedes. I’d go down the art store, buy about $100 worth of stuff and crank that into about $10,000 by the end of the month. The proportional expansion in earnings [was vast], compared to now where you need a computer and all these online accounts.

The kids that come out of college $200,000 in debt today have to start pretty far down and pay back their debt too. I did eventually get my own design made for Ford [when it was a client rather than employer]. It was a running custom vehicle for its light truck division. We used a ’63 Ford station wagon chassis. It was all hydraulic, the top went up and down. I also redesigned the Ford logo stack – Ford, Lincoln and Mercury – to consolidate them into a cohesive system: Lincoln was black, Mercury red and Ford blue.

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Singer proposal (1976)

CDN Why did you set up Syd Mead Inc. in 1970?

SM There was a dust-up [at Mead Hansen] between the New York and Chicago offices regarding bonuses, so one of the ex-sales guys asked me to join another business in NY. That lasted a couple of years, but his unit was later dissolved. So there I was without a job, card payments to make, and living in this big Albert Kahn-designed mansion near downtown Detroit in an enclave called Indian Village.

I started Syd Mead Inc. with no clients. I mean, how insanely optimistic can you be? But I got a call from Knut Yran, a Norwegian hired as design director for Philips Electronics, and ended up with a consultant account for 12 years. I turned down jobs at both GM and Chrysler – as an ideas guy – as I’d just started my own company.

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Philips Wittcar electric car proposal (1973)

CDN What kind of work did you do for Philips Electronics?

SM Philips funded my new company. I’d go back and forth to Europe for weeks at a time and did futuristic designs for every single thing they made: computers, the interior of its corporate jet, television sets, refrigerators, cassette recorders, the first laser-disc recorder and the most expensive lawn mower in history. All for its NAT (Netherlands Advanced Technology) lab.

The in-house design department could not wrap their head around the fact I was visualising a theoretical product based on pretty firm technical stuff – but maybe five to six years into the future. My work would be shown to management to get them ready for the idea that future cameras are going to look like this, or tape recorders are going to look like that. Then their advertising departments got on board. Companies that make such concepts have an advantage as they can educate their buying public prior to launch.

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Moskvitch, Raymond Loewy studio (1978)

CDN When did the Californian move happen and why?

SM I moved to California in 1975. There was no snow, and I didn’t have any business in Detroit after the US Steel thing folded. I worked for Raymond Loewy’s New York and Paris studios, and didn’t have to commute because I worked from home.

CDN How and when did Hollywood come calling?

SM I got a call from John Dykstra who had already won an Oscar in 1978 (as part of a four-man team) for Best Visual Effects on Star Wars. He had my US Steel books and his partner Bob Shepherd said: ‘Syd, would you like to work on a science fiction movie?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ That movie was Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). I did the final design for the V’ger spaceship’s back end on a cocktail napkin at a hotel bar in Eindhoven.

I lost the napkin. But they flew my sketches back two times a week via courier. Then I got a call from Ridley Scott’s team asking to get involved on his next film [Blade Runner, 1982]. He was looking for special effects people and I ended up being the first person hired on the official staff list.

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Blade Runner Spinner (1981)

CDN Where did you get the inspiration for the vehicles in Blade Runner?

SM The Spinner was in the script with a brief to be a flying car, but they didn’t know what it should look like. I knew about an aerial vehicle technique called an aerodyne, which is an internal lift feature on planes like the Lockheed F-35 and Harrier Jump Jet.

I thought, ‘that’s the answer, then I don’t have wings or propellers, it’s all thrust’. That’s how the Spinner happened. The two things out front stabilise the front thrust, while the main thrust comes from the rear.

CDN Why do you think Blade Runner is still so admired today?

SM The most important thing is that Blade Runner never violates its own technical premise. Director Ridley Scott and producer Michael Deeley had to work on a very short financial string – both were essentially fired by their financiers but stayed on and made the film.

My job was to design the vehicles. We made about 20 or so full-size, including three Spinners, the taxi and Sebastian’s truck. As the character Sebastian was a tinkerer, to my mind his truck would be made out of parts scavenged from a local junkyard, so I had to think about what parts would be in a junkyard in 2019.

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Blade Runner Taxi (1981)

CDN You were credited as a ‘visual futurist’ on Blade Runner. Is that a title you’re happy with for your wider work?

SM Yes, I made the title up on the phone. I’m a visual futurist, because it’s visual and I’m doing future stuff. I knew it had to be bumper sticker-friendly.

CDN With Tron released the same year (1982), you must have been busy?

SM I did Tron and Blade Runner almost in tandem, but the movies were never isolated jobs ‘in-house’ for me.

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Turn X Gundam robot (1990s)

CDN Given these films’ genres, and your futuristic artwork, were you always a fan of science fiction?

SM Sci-fi to me is reality ahead of schedule, and it’s fascinating from that standpoint. But a lot of sci-fi is so bad.

CDN What film are you most proud of?

SM The film 2010 (1984) for which I designed the Leonov spaceship, because I felt more involved. I was on-set with Blade Runner too, but doing other jobs as well, so I didn’t get a sense of the story until I’d seen the film a few times.

CDN Are you more of a collaborator or a solo artist?

SM Both. It depends.

CDN Are you aware that so many car designers cite you as an influence?

SM That’s because I’ve hung around long enough...

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Biomorph Vehicle Arrives on Resort Reception Stage (Sentinel book cover, 1985)

CDN It’s more than that, lots of people have ‘hung around’. It seems to be the way that you are able to think so freely...

SM It’s a trick of mindset. You have to forget the rules, but have in the back of your mind what the problem is. You have to watch yourself performing but be your own in-progress critic without seizing up too early, because you’ll lose the whole randomness, that is the marvellous thing about creativity.

CDN Who inspired you?

SM Myself. I’ve had mentors, like Knut Yran at Philips, Raymond Loewy and Strother McMinn, an instructor at Art Center. And Chesley Bonestell, my parents gave me his [space art] book when I was a kid.

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Syd Mead in his studio (1985)

CDN What’s your favourite part of the creative process?

SM It’s the successful solution to whatever the problem is. I do pen and ink drawings, and then I shade them in shades of grey with these dry marker pens, and then scan them in with a colour setting. The colour look-up table in Photoshop differentiates a little bit from the shades of grey and signs of colour in them. So I just scan in a black and white shaded drawing into colour, then you can use all the channels and colourise them.

CDN What do you think of digital tools and processes?

SM I have an Apple laptop but I’m not a power user. It’s more for documentation. Everything is now scanned. The guys that do digital rendering are very good, I admire them. But managing the software and learning how to use it as easily as I do with gouache would not be time-efficient or cost-effective.

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Running of the Six Drgxxx (1983)

CDN As a commercial artist, what do you think of fine art?

SM My favourite saying is: ‘fine art often offends both words’, and the current fashion in both corporate and media graphics is a very carefully-studied naïveté, which is a violation of its own term, to make it look like a very smart kid drew it. It’s a hazy area of ridiculousness. These professionals are being paid to do a drawing style that a five-year old could do, or I did when I was five years old, but probably better.

CDN You’re unusually well-placed to talk about how the future has been envisioned over the decades. How do you see the future now?

SM The engineering is in place in terms of experiments. The future keeps catching up with itself, that’s the characteristic of technology. As a profession, futurists do extensions of current technological trends and then boost them a little a bit. So along comes a self-driving car, which has been a dream since the ’60s easily, and they’re caught short, because they don’t know how to treat it as a phenomenon which is not technological so much as social. The auto companies are very worried about the trend, because with multi-user vehicles you don’t need as many of them.

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Hypervan (2003)

CDN Have any of your visionary designs come true?

SM That’s hard to say. You have to take into account simultaneous discovery first of all. There’s every possibility that two designers will come up with the same thing completely independent of each other. Or so close that it looks like they copied. This mural [on his living room wall] is a Concours d’Elegance of the future. There are robots and a floating surveillance sphere but also vehicles that [still] don’t look like anything around today.

CDN What is your favourite non-car design?

SM In 1973, Norwegian Caribbean Lines asked me to design a new cruise ship as I was working for Philips and it was doing all the onboard communication devices. I’d never done a ship before, so I got all the profiles of the liners built since 1900 photographed to the same length, so I had a composite of the progression of silhouettes.

Second step was to get a cross-section of the QE2. Then I started work. I thought, let’s bring the hull up past the gunwales and have a swell that goes into the twin funnels, because twin funnels were a Norwegian Caribbean ship characteristic, plus an atrium down the middle. The naval engineers at the time said, ‘That’s ridiculous. You’ll lose all those cabins.’ So I said, ‘Well, charge more for the inboard cabins because once you’re in the ocean there’s nothing to look out at there, except maybe flying fish twice a day’. Now all cruise ships have atriums in the middle. It became true, because they got bigger and it’s a good idea.

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Syd Mead in his home studio (2015)

CDN Which car did you wish you had designed?

SM The ’61 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. A fantastic car. It has a short cab, which was fashionable back then. Long hood, trunk, cab. When you make a sedan out of it – and [this is] the reason I like my ’72 Chrysler Imperial – it’s so big that the four-door cabin doesn’t overtake the length of the car. Now, because cars are getting shorter and people are not, you have the rear doors practically over the rear wheel; the cut and the rear window peak is either over the rear axle or a little bit behind. I admire these guys and what they are doing with these new proportions, because it’s very difficult.

CDN And which one are you glad you didn’t?

SM I’m glad I didn’t design the Pontiac Aztek. Like, hello! What the hell is that supposed to be? I have no idea how it came about.

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Megacoach (2010)

CDN Do you think cars will even be called cars in another 50 years?

SM No, they’ll be ‘mobility solutions’, whatever they happen to be. See my rendering of the 200th running of the Kentucky Derby? There are two guys in the lower right-hand corner wearing ‘gyro’ or ‘wheel pants’. I came up with the need for something like a courier in a crowded environment where his footprint on the ground is no bigger than the person. Those wheels can fold up against your ankle when you walk and fold down when you want to skate. You have the gyro in the small of your back.

A lot of the car companies have made lots of [bigger] mini-pods but I think it’s going to go to stuff like this. An individual transport idea. There are already ride-on things by Honda, with wheels made up of other little wheels so it can go diagonally, very ingenious.

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The 200th running of the Kentucky Derby (1975)

CDN They’re very slow, though...

SM Well, how fast do you want to go? We’re always going to have people who want their own thing. We don’t use horses for transportation any more but people still have them as pets to ride for pleasure, and I think cars will drift in that direction. We have four cars. Two are not driven that much, two are daily drivers that have to be insured, filled with gas and maintained mechanically and are used, if we are lucky, six percent of the time. But anywhere in the world, if you can afford a car, you buy one. It’s still the mass-transit idea of choice.

CDN What do you think of car-sharing?

SM There is a social contract everyone has to agree to. If it arrives with last night’s vomit or hamburger wrapper on the seat, it’s not going to work.

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Hypervan (2005)

CDN What advice would you give an aspiring designer?

SM You have to remember everything and be aware across a very wide spectrum. If all you know how to design is side-views of cars, you’re not going to cut it. You have to match your evocative, hopefully unique, vision into a very tight matrix of pre-established demands, and that takes a lot of skill. You have to invent your way around the problems.

CDN In the sixth decade of your career, have you chosen to slow down?

SM Oh, I’m slowing down. When I was working on the first Airbus interior with Raymond Loewy’s New York studio, I was rendering for five hours, sleeping for six and then rendering for four to six more. On a 24-hour schedule for a week. And smoking. And drinking. And driving downtown and getting Coney Island wieners to munch at 4am in the morning. Delicious. I used to live on those. I don’t do that any more.

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Gouache still favoured by Syd Mead

CDN What do you do to relax?

SM We go to eat, meet people. I’ll do drawings for myself, cartoons and things like that. And cooking. I’ve done beef wellington, chicken wellington and pork wellington. It’s really just a technique of wrapping and chemistry, but it’s interesting – because you can eat it.