In this blog Mark Stuckert, Lead Designer at The Sequence Group, shares his thoughts, feelings and inspiration on Fantasy User Interfaces and designing for sci-fi.
Take inspiration from everything around you
I get really inspired by the best in the business — Antibody/Elastic (Patrick Clair, Raoul Marks etc.), Ash Thorp, Bao Nguyen, Blind, Blur, Danny Yount, Decca Digital, Gmunk, Ilya V., Abulkhanov, Joseph Chan, Lorcan O’Shanahan, Perception, Spov, Territory … and that’s not even an exhaustive list!
But while art is obvious, inspiration can come from places you don’t even expect – I love looking at operating systems and applications, for instance. Mac OS to iOS; early versions of Windows (I grew up with 3.1)l some of those really old Xerox interfaces – places like that are a great to draw on for inspiration.
I also love looking at super-specific programs — on r/FUI, for example, you can find reference images for software used by the US Air Force or NASA. These are programs that aren’t necessarily consumer-facing, so they often look slightly off-kilter and unique, especially as the years go by with feature creep.
And this is just a small part of my inspiration. It really can be found in the most unexpected places: you just need to keep your eyes open.
Think about form and context
Try to think about the overall shape of what you’re trying to create, but always keep context front and center in your mind. In some sci-fi universes, a futuristic shape is something with a lot of extraneous angles, edges, details, random bits of detail and so on, but in others, like Ex Machina or Batman v Superman, the interfaces can looks like a Dieter Rams version of Mac OS or Windows. It’s all about what works in that world: the shapes you create can easily be intricately detailed or hyper-minimal. I like the hyper-minimal trend myself — flat boxes, big, open type, clever use of blank space – that sort of stuff.
When it comes to animation, think about how these interfaces work and what they’re doing. The way tiny type and little animations interact is all part of making sure the whole screen feels “alive” while also feeling realistic. That said it’s kind of funny – if you look at an actual computer screen, there’s probably not much animating or blinking there. You have to “overact” a bit for film or cinematics, but again, if you go the hyper-minimal route, you don’t necessarily need a lot going on.
I think once upon a time you really had to sell the “computer-ness” of stuff as not as many people knew about even desktop computers when the technology was first emerging. But almost everyone knows about interfaces now — desktop, mobile, etc. — so you have a lot more freedom to get creative.
Consider the functionality of what you're trying to create – but let your imagination fly too!
Someone once said that you have to find the “internal logic” of a thing – you’re essentially making self-imposed rules for systems that you’ve created. Like you’ve got some little sliders in a box, and they only slide on the X axis, for example. You can make up a reason why – like maybe this thing is scanning a system laterally (a stretch, I know). It doesn’t have to make perfect sense but it provides you with some direction when you’re thinking about how these interfaces will animate and move.
Consider color, lighting and atmosphere as well as shape and form
I don’t think nowadays there are any colour rules — Prometheus had a lot of that rad neon, Her had really muted warm tones, Batman v Superman — specifically Lex Luthor’s OS — was very white and neutral. Again, it just has to make sense in context.
In Halo: Fall of Reach we stuck to the established visual language of that world: I created very blue interfaces with some red and yellow highlights, combining cool and warm colours. Colour should usually play against the palette of a scene … or not, if you want them to fade into the background. Context is everything!