Photo: Sam Diephuis

Remembering Syd Mead, In His Own Words

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of visionary artist, futurist, illustrator and conceptual designer Syd Mead. Known for his incredible depictions of the future, Mead’s illustration work attracted a diverse range of companies, from automakers and steel merchants to architecture firms and technology giants. It also garnered the attention of Hollywood directors, who tapped him to work on science fiction films like Blade Runner, Tron and Aliens.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact Mead’s work had on the design community. His fantastic images of future scenarios influenced multiple generations of designers in all industries. Mead’s unique ability to visualize the future gained him notoriety in many different circles, and people saw decades and even centuries into the future through his watercolor and gouache paintings.

The majority of his futuristic visions were utopian in nature — all the women were beautiful, all the men were handsome and all the cars were shiny and elegant. Even when it depicted a dark, dystopian society (Blade Runner, 1982), his work was enchanting. It blazed a course for optimism in the design community and started many down the path of industrial design.

The following images, described by Mead in his own words, are just a small fraction of the incredible body of work he leaves behind.

Future Bugatti (1957)

Future Bugatti (1957), watercolor

“While studying transportation design at Art Center College of Design, we were often given an assignment to render an all new ‘look’ for a classic automobile. I chose the 1929 Bugatti Type 41, better known as the Bugatti Royale. I was fascinated by Ettore Bugatti’s use of elongated, flowing fender lines, and attempted to emphasis that feature to capture the elegance of that era in a modern, sports car platform.”

Future Rolls-Royce (1967)

Future Rolls-Royce (1967), gouache

“This rendering was created for an article in the 1967 summer issue of Automobile Quarterly magazine, which speculated on changes in the design of the American car in the next 25 years. This illustration carried the caption “Tomorrow’s luxury car will offer its passengers comforts and conveniences that are only being hinted at in present day automobiles.” Arrivals have always seemed to me to be the best time to showcase the social interaction between man and machine.”

Car Styling Magazine (1976)

Car Styling Magazine (1976), gouache

“When asked to provide a unique piece of art for the July, 1976 issue of Car Styling Magazine, I was happy to explore what I considered to be the dominate trends in the automotive design world at that time. As in all my illustrations, value, reflection, coloring, and construction are primary considerations when creating a credible, yet exciting visual image.”

Sentinel II (1985)

Syd Mead Sentinel II (1985)
Sentinel II (1985), gouache

“A reprise of the original Sentinel cover art, we now view elaborate aerial vehicles occupying the upper trans-lobby level of the Norcon Center transient complex. In the foreground, a private scarlet biostat vehicle has just landed. In its shade, the mechanoid pilot exchanges conversation with the platform starter, while the emerging lady accepts the leash of a colorful, pre-reserved fashion pet from the scarlet liveried doorman. Beyond, the early afternoon sun flares off the Norcon mega rise warming the residential slopes. Far below, the vast tangle of expressway systems speed automatic traffic to a myriad of destinations.”

Yesterday’s Tomorrow (1990)

Syd Mead's Yesterday's Tomorrow (1990)
Yesterday’s Tomorrow (1990), gouache

“This illustration was created to promote and accompany a traveling show for the Smithsonian Museum, focusing on how man’s dreams in the past for a better tomorrow are constantly evolving into our dreams of today.”  

Cyber Race Arrival (1991)

Syd Mead - Cyber Race Arrival
Cyber Race Arrival (1991), gouache

“A scene on a captured artificial planet called ‘Megarena’ with an enormous entertainment area in the background. The sleek vehicles are ‘Agees’ (anti-gravity). The arriving patrons exit and are moved along the floating walkway toward whatever amusing section of Megarena they have chosen. The stylized foliage, elaborate medieval type costumes and feeling of immense space are all expressed with brilliant color and soft tones. They are all scenario elements that I never tire of depicting.”

Pebble Beach (2000)

Pebble Beach (2000), gouache

“The fun of imagining future forms of transportation involves story, technical rationale and an enjoyment of wondering “what if?” In the year 2000, I was invited by the Automotive Fine Arts Society to provide art at the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach, in Monterey, California. As the guest artist, I created a three-panel triptych to add a futuristic perspective to the historically accurate depictions of classic autos from the past.”

White Hypervan (2005)

White Hypervan (2005), gouache

“The Hypervan vehicle — seen here in front of the family estate — is a high-speed intercity highway transport idea. The body mass is carried high on the chassis allowing control of laminar flow under the cross section. The wheels are narrow in tread and large in diameter, providing great ground speed per revolution and minimum ‘suction’ drag. I delight in contrasting high-tech mechanics with genetically manipulated steeds, embedded with control chips in their brains. Control is performed via a hand-held remote at the end of the ‘classic’ single rein, while handlers, dressed in ceremonial garb, stand by for contrast and excitement.”

Black Hypervan (2008)

Black Hypervan (2008), gouache

“On a pristine marina plaza, a small group of individuals and their robotic escorts congregate near their personal Hypervan. This particular model features a polarized oculus over the rear passenger lounge area. The front wheels are slightly turned and the chrome cylinder in the center contains pressurized reserve gas for the power-generation unit. The vehicle is armored to at least B standard. The lighting package is LED plus thermal imaging.”

Megacoach (2010)

Megacoach (2010), gouache

“The Megacoach is a recreational vehicle for specialized use, rather than for actual point-to-point frequent trips. The power source is electro-mechanical, with final drive being an electrical-traction motor in each rim gear wheel. The cabin is comfortable for four or five passengers, but has a narrow profile and uses gyro balance to keep it upright. The motive source is a biomass-fueled generator feeding power to electric traction motors in all four wheels. The drive torque is transferred via rim-drive. Entrance is through a stainless steel port on the left side.”

Syd Mead considered the body of work that has provided day-to-day challenge over many years while offering clients his unique design and problem solutions his legacy and he was most satisfied with the inspiration he provided to an audience of all ages. He considered the opportunity to be a guidepost for ambition in others a priceless gift of fortunate circumstance.

Mead officially announced his retirement on September 18, 2019, and died on December 30, 2019. He was 86 years old.

RIP, legend.

Many thanks to Peter Aylett of for contributing to this article, parts of which have been republished with permission


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