Syd Mead – Futurist, Utopian and Designer

When I first came across Syd Mead’s work back in the late ’60s and early ’70s it was popular to strongly criticize his illustrative abilities as being all about the background and not about the design. I think that the truth was that all of us young designers were so overwhelmed by his spectacular technique that we never dared look past the method for fear of realizing how talented a designer Mead was, and how far we had to progress to match him.

Syd Mead was born Sidney Jay Mead in July 1933 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His family moved to Colorado Springs where he graduated from high school in 1951 and, after three years in the US Army, he enrolled in what was then called Art Center School in Los Angeles. He graduated in 1959.

His first design job was with the Ford Motor Company in their Advanced Styling Studio in Detroit. He left after two years to work as an illustrator and designer for companies like Allis-Chalmers and Celanese but his best work in this period was for United States Steel for whom he produced annual books full of illustrations of visions for the future.

Mead had a fascination for science fiction from an early age, his visions of the future were ones of a ‘Utopian Society’ where all the women were beautiful, all the men were muscular and handsome and all the dogs were long legged and elegant. The cars, of course, were equally elegant, extreme in proportion and impossibly shiny — and that is what we tended to focus on.

Syd Mead - White Hypervan

But the thing with Mead’s drawings that I so much admire now is that his perspective was always perfect, his wheel ellipses were absolutely correct and his glass, chrome and painted surfaces were easy to understand. He could draw polished surfaces in a way that makes Alias representations look dull! The late Chuck Jordan (past Vice President at GM Design) said that even when you just saw a single view of one of Syd Mead’s designs you knew that he understood exactly what the form was.

Mead went on to start his own company ‘Syd Mead Inc.’ which worked in the US and Europe where his clients included Philips in Holland and Ital Design in Italy. He later went on to work with Sony, Minolta, Dentsu, Mitsukoshi and Honda in Japan.

Some of Mead’s best-known work has been for film studios, this new direction started in 1979 with his first input on ‘Star Trek – The Motion Picture’. He also contributed to Tron, Aliens, Short Circuit, Timecop and Mission Impossible III, but it is his work on Blade Runner that is most interesting.

It must have been difficult for Mead to put aside all his Utopian views of how the future might be and instead work with a dark, constantly wet, violent and pessimistic environment. There were rumors that Mead hated to see his designs battered, rusting and mud-spattered in the movie, but his early street scene illustrations suggest he loved the project. Among the most interesting sketches for Blade Runner are a series of proposals for products rather than vehicles, again beautifully drawn and finely detailed.


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