Written by Joan Kahn with research by Marta Velasco
*Special thanks to Design Studio Press, Roger Servick and Syd Mead.
Concept Art can be approached from three different and ultimately converging perspectives: first, the themes it typically illustrates (most notably, science fiction and fantasy); second, the specific kinds of products it helps create (notably films and video games); and third, the contributions of the eminent artists who have carved out this highly innovative and dynamic field, one of whom, Syd Mead, is the subject of this article.
An American industrial designer, illustrator, and visual artist, Mead not only pioneered Concept Art but is probably its most widely acclaimed representative. A virtual ‘Renaissance man’ whose interests are as broad as they are intense, Mead’s remarkable career criss-crosses world geography, draws upon multiple disciplines in the arts, sciences, and technology, and incorporates numerous genres of creative expression. Perhaps Mead’s most significant cultural legacy, however, is the set of landmark films he helped create, which includes Blade Runner, Aliens, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Tron.
As a young adult, Mead embarked on a three year stint in the U.S. army. On his return, he entered the Art Center School in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design in Pasedena). Shortly after graduating, Ford Motor Company hired him to work in its Advanced Styling Studio. This was but the first of a long and impressive list of career experiences which took him across the US, Europe, and Asia. In 1970, by now increasingly sought after by many major corporations, Mead launched his own company, Syd Mead, Inc. Two decades later, he and Roger Servick, his long-time Manager of Business Affairs, established a home together and launched the publishing house OBLAGON. (Readers wishing to take note of the full breadth of Mead’s lifetime events and achievements are urged to consult the detailed list provided below.)
SYD MEAD’S CREATIVE PROCESS AND VISION OF CONCEPT ART
Locating the particular catalysts that are responsible for triggering an artist’s creative work is no easy feat. Fortunately, Mead has been able to identify some of these catalysts for us. For example, in an interview (see the bibliography below), he stated that in designing the elaborate environments he created for Blade Runner, he was influenced by his recollections of New York traffic jams in the rain, as well as of the geometric lights, glowing buildings, and frenetic activity of Hong Kong, where he had spent a one month’s leave following his discharge from the army. Further, for one of the robot characters he designed for a long-running series on Fugi TV (Turn A Gundam), Mead recalled that its legs had been inspired by the Pajama-like male dress of the Japanese Odo period and its chest, by soldiers’ uniforms. (The robot in question was later hailed as “the most innovative toy of 1999” by the Ministry of International Trade of Industry [MITI]).
Over the years, Mead has developed a unique vision of Concept Art and its major aspects. Following his statements below, which are drawn from his latest book Sentury II, published by Design Studio Press, are some implications for those of you who are aspiring to be top concept artists.
 Regarding Design
The creative process called design is an elaborate array of choices orchestrated with a particular end result in mind.The world in which we spend our lives is described by design, whether it is nature’s timeless process or professional commission that becomes a visual contribution to everyday reality (Sentury II, 2010, p. 15).
Here, Mead emphasizes the essential nature of design, whether in nature or in art, as well as how design influences us in our daily lives, both consciously (through the various choices we make) and unconsciously, by colouring our imaginations. When looking at the world through the designer’s lens, remember that ultimately, what guides successful designers to make good choices is the purpose, function or end result. So always keep the ultimate purpose, function or desired end result in mind as you make the essential design choices that move the process forward.
 Regarding Illustration
To create images, to translate imagination and scenario into finished illusion, is a fascinating exercise in moving intent to visual reality….the ability to elaborately illustrate scenario…is a facility that is endlessly rewarding…and enables control over how my ideas are visualized for consideration (Sentury II, 2010, p. 35).
Here, Mead points to the imperative of artists to communicate beyond themselves, and to do so through their skills as illustrators; to transform private imagination and ideation into a visual reality which, only then, becomes available to others. Mead further notes that this transformation process affords the artist an immensely satisfying sense of mastery and control. Thus the greater your skills as an illustrator, the better you will be at communicating your ideas, in depth and with great accuracy.
 Regarding Electronic Media
The electronic game universe is populated by myriad story universes illustrated with characters, environments, graphic styles, and inventive twists only limited by the vivid imagination of artists, writers, and, of course, the code assemblers who cause all this to appear on screen. My involvement with this design range has been exclusively creating science-fiction story variants… As electronic technique, memory compression, and playback devices become more exotic, the design of story stuff becomes a creative challenge of more than simply forcing result past technical limitation (Sentury II, 2010, p. 61).
In this statement, Mead raises some fascinating questions concerning the provocative relationship between creativity, technology and storytelling. For example, in what ways does technology enable, enhance, or expand human creativity and storytelling? What new challenges and opportunities for the artist arise in the wake of exponentially more powerful technologies? Clearly, while technology cannot necessarily cause an artist to become more creative, it allows him or her to be creative in more ways.
 Regarding Transportation
Cars fascinate me. Their history as transportation, their manufacture and morphology, the insistent social attachment that pervades their ownership and use—all these varied attributes make up the mystique that drives our cultural preference for private transportation. My first professional job after graduation from Art Center in 1959 was a position in the Advanced Styling Center of Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. I observed the process of creating cars from sketch to model, to full-sized clay shape to prototype, and eventual factory manufacture. The automobile is the single most elaborately fabricated artifact of our present age for retail sale. They are at once transport; a private space complete with entertainment, communication links, automated-driving task enhancements; an announcement of personal taste and economic status; and a modern companion in the most intimate sense of the word (Sentury II, 2010, p. 109).
Here, Mead points to the set of complex symbolic associations that cars have for the human psyche. They are at once vehicles of transportation. status symbols, private spaces, loci of electronic entertainment, beloved companions, and highly prized indicators, both to others and to ourselves, of who we are in the world. Watching the full process of car production from initial sketch to factory manufacture seems to have given Mead both a sense of personal satisfaction and also a broader view of manufacturing and fabrication in general. Having both a broad and deep view of how the present is designed and manufactured allows concept artists to design more believable futuristic worlds.
 Regarding Sketching
When I am not engaged in design work for a movie, game project, or corporate production, I draw cartoons and graphical images that may be humorous, sardonic, or simply weird transpositions of human and machine components, This activity is relaxing and offers a chance for the mind to wander at distance from tightly disciplined design parameters. It also provides a foil for comment and self-amusement (Sentury II, 2010, p. 157).
In this statement, Mead underlines the importance of creative day-dreaming and of ‘mindless’ sketching and doodling. Not only can such activity reduce the stress that comes from constantly working under structured directives and looming deadlines but, in addition, can refresh our creative minds. An added benefit of this activity is that it will often provoke new insights, new ‘aha’ moments, as well as creative solutions to stubborn problems. So many successful designers mention the importance of keeping a sketchbook to let your subconscious mind explore and play with the imagery in your visual library – distorting, mutating and combining forms – that it is no surprise that Mead also sketches in his spare time (as should you).
When Syd Mead met with Syn Studio director Anthony Walsh in the Winter of 2013, he stressed the preeminent role of problem solving in concept art. “The most important thing a concept artist needs to do is to THINK!” he said. By boldly pushing concept art into ever new directions, Syd Mead mapped out a territory that aspiring concept artists can both explore and further develop. Finally, his incomparable energy, brilliant imagination, and esthetic fearlessness continue to inspire all who are eager to follow in his impressive tracks.
EVENTS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
1933 Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota
1953 Graduated high school in Colorado Springs, Colorado
1953-1956 U.S Army Corp of Engineers; sent to Okinawa
1959 Graduated with distinction from Art Center School in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design in Pasedena)
1959-1961 Car stylist for Ford’s Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Center (Dearborn and Detroit, Michigan)
1961 Futuristic paintings for a U.S. Steel booklet
1970 Started own company, Syd Mead, Inc.
1976 Book of designs Sentinel published
1980: Began his work as “visual futurist ” in Blade Runner, designing city backgrounds and vehicles (see Spinner [Blade Runner]). Also worked as a conceptual artist of the electronic world in Tron, designing lightcycles, tanks, solar sailers, and carriers
1983 Worked for the film 2010 as visual futurist, designing the Leonov spaceship
1988 Conceptual futurist for UFO Cover-Up?: Live!
1990 Conceptual artist of the future as depicted in Solar Crisis
1990 Involved in The Spirit of ’76
1991 Kronolog design book (compilation of Kronovecta, Kronoteco, and Kronovid books), Bandai Publishing Ltd. Japan
1991 Designed backgrounds and spacecraft for the video game Terraforming (1992, PC-Engine DUO, Japan), also known as Syd Mead’s Terraforming (1993, TurboDuo, North America)
Production designer for the future Paris in From Time to Time (1992)
1993 Futuristic concept consultant for The Fire Next Time (TV)
1993 Kronolog II (Macintosh CD-ROM, developed as AARX) published
1995 Visual consultant for Johnny Mnemonic
1997 Alien creature design on the computer game Wing Commander: Prophecy.
2000 Worked on Mission to Mars (conceptual artist(vehicle design)
2000 Production designer in Software
2001 Published Sentury
2003 Contributed a new Light Cycle design to the PC game Tron 2.0
2004 Contributed toward Gnomon Workshop educational DVDs
2005 Worked on Mission: Impossible III (Mask Maker machine design)
2008 Was awarded the Grand Master Award in Ballistic Publishing’s ‘EXPOSÉ 6’ Digital Art Annual
2010 Published Sentury II
1979: Star Trek, The Motion Picture
1982: Tron; Blade Runner
1986: Aliens; Short Circuit
1992: Solar Crisis
1995: Johnny Mnemomic; Strange Days
2006: Mission Impossible III
2013: Elysium; Timecop; Tomorrowland
Where to get Syd Mead’s Sentury II
- Get a copy directly from the publisher, Design Studio Press
- Get a hardcover copy signed by Syd Mead, on his official Web site