It is very common for products and technologies presented in science fictions and films to come into real life years later, like submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and touch screens in science movie Minority Report. It’s always been amazing for us that how these futuristic technologies and ideas are created by filmmakers or novelists.

Yesterday, I have the honor of chatting with concept artist Scott Robertson to find an answer to this question at the “Talking with Masters” series event jointly held by Knowledge and Innovation Community and Autodesk. Scott also shared with us his career as a designer, his design principle as well as his experience as an entrepreneur.

Scott Robertson is an American concept artist known for his transportation design work and contributions to movies like Star Trek, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, etc. As a serial entrepreneur, Scott started a design consulting company with his friend Neville Page after graduation from collage. He was also chair of Entertainment Design at Art Center College of Design and is the founder of Design Studio Press, a publishing company dedicated to art and design education.

Could you start off by telling us a little about the work you currently doing?

I am currently finishing my next book on how to render, like shadings and reflections. It is about the fundamentals of the three big topics of light, shadow and reflectivity. The book is almost done and it’s going to press in the first week of June. I am also doing workshops on and off around the world. I am about to start a “top-secret” industrial design project. Maybe I can say what it was in one year.

As an automobile designer, how do you balance the functionalities and designs?

Automobile design is quite constrained by the package, so there’s not a lot of freedom. You have to work with the package first, and then, if you are working with a heritage brand which has a lot of history, you have to cater to and involve history of the brand, because there are certain expectations. Designers are trying to find out a way to be respectful to the pre-existing package, but it is hard to find a balance point to be both respectful and innovative.

From cars to entertainment, could you tell us how and why you decided to enter this peculiar niche?

If you are doing the styling work, most people want to start something pretty new all the time, but this preference is not going to work when you are cooperating with a heritage automobile brand. It is understandable that those companies don’t want to take a lot of risks. But with entertainment, I can do whatever I want. I always like the innovative first part of an entertainment project. With the blue sky, any options are open. It’s really fun for those who like the front-end part of the process, because it is almost all conceptual. You can design a whole world that’s not ours. If you like the detail work of making real products, entertainment is not that satisfying, because we don’t really make anything. It’s almost all stay digital and imaginary. But if you like imaginary world, it is perfect, which I do.

Working as concept artist in entertainment industry needs lots of imaginations. What things in the world inspire you?

When I was an industrial designer doing more product works, I used to go to movies to find inspirations. But once you start to design the movies or video games, then where do you look? I think nature is the best inspiration. If you are a curious person, you can find inspirations everywhere, architecture, artwork, photography, travel and painting. My colleagues also inspire me, we push each other a lot.

Which of your projects are you the most proud of and Why?

I like the bicycles I designed long time ago. It’s not a product that going to be landfilled, recycled or thrown away. It is a product that people really loved and normally they will hand them down to other people or keep it in the family. It is a functional thing and aesthetically very pleasing. I still have the first bike I ever designed, which is 26 years old, in my studio and it’s still contemporary looking. Probably because it’s timeless. Secondly, I think it’s some of my books.


Concept Bike by Scott Robertson

From a design standpoint, what are the main similarities and differences between these two worlds?

Car design are about real products, everything has to be built and real customers are going to use them. In entertainment we still have to worry about some of the constraints, but key point here is get entertained by that design. The design becomes more whimsical and toy-like. Although these things can move and be animated, we don’t have to worry about safety. As for similarities, both automobile and entertainment designs are trying to create an immersive and amazing experience, but they achieve the same goal with different methods.

How do concept artists unlash their imaginations in presenting the futuristic technologies in science movies? How do you keep up with the ever-changing technology trends?

We do it with great illustrations, which communicate an experience and an idea for technology that doesn’t yet exist. Conceptual artists show what they think will be the desirable future products or experiences, and then technology could be invented. With the illustration, everybody can look at the image and understand what they are trying to accomplish. But it might take years to accomplish that.

We don’t catch up with technologies, we are years ahead of the technology today. Designers can design the experience of a certain product not concerning themselves with the technologies today or the near future. Designers show the illustration of a completely-real product, but they have absolutely no idea on how to make it. Without that image, you can’t get all the decision makers together to decide upon a direction for a technology budget and where the R& D teams should actually put their efforts. If you have an image and show it to directors of a car company, they can show it to their R&D engineers. Without an image which they can agree upon, it would be difficult to figure out directions. (At the presentation, Scott showed some of the illustrations he made 13 years ago for BMW. The car company is going to release products based on his concepts this year.)

You and Neville Page are close friends since early age. You have worked together in several fields of industrial design, toy design, entertainment design, can you talk about your cooperation and friendship, how you influenced each other?

Both of us are industrial designers and we have been great friends for almost 30 years. We have complementary skills, he’s more into organic surfaces and does a lot of creatures and characters, while I’m more into automobile and architecture environments. We have the ability to work together, one is that we know each other so well, two we work based on the same methodology, same lateral thinking. It’s very easy when we approach a problem, whether it’s a creature, technology, environment, or a script for a pitch, we use exactly the same problem solving methods. We also enjoy each other’s company, which makes it so much easier.

Neville once mentioned that no matter in what filed, creature/character design or product design, the principle of design can be applied to any thing. What’s your principle for design?

First it’s curiosity, or whether you are curious enough to want to learn is big part of our principle. Secondly, it’s passion and determination, which come with each other, because it takes a lot of hard work. Even if it’s just entertainment, the whole idea is to want to improve. Finally, action. It is not just about thinking, it’s about going out and making things happen.

What are some trends that you see happening in industrial design?

I don’t follow trends. The things I do in my own book is far from reality. People are buying the book but not the things I am designing. So I don’t have to worry about the bottom line or the engineering specifications. I am very fortunate cause I can do a lot of whimsical concept designs that are much more theoretical, which don’t follow the trends. I’m not trying to design for a certain customer base, so I don’t follow the trends that much.

What is the role of modern digital tools and technologies in the design process?

They are changing the ways that we can actually design now, because they allow us to design things that in the past would take far too much labor. Let’s say if I want to explore translucent materials to render it 2-dimensionally with pens, it would take a long time and we would stay away from that. But now we can render it in 3D programs. It’s making new materials more available. Also there’re certain level of abstraction that you can do with 3D programs, which again because the labor investment in drawing and painting you would never strived for in the past. It allow us to invent and design things that we have never able to draw or render.

As a serial entrepreneur, what’s your advices for people with similar design backgrounds who want to open their own business?

First person they should hire is a bookkeeper accountant. The success of a business really relies on making all the numbers work. But without a proper support for the business, it would be very difficult for the creative peoples to success in their own business. Designers have good ideas, passions and energies, but they don’t have a realistic understanding of business. As soon as you get involved in other parts of the business, it means you are no longer creative, cause you are wasting too much energy on things you are not good at.

What’s your understanding and vision for Chinese market.

It getting very exciting in China from outside observation. But my hope for China is to find its own design voice. I have to say it’s a little depressing to come to Shanghai and find it feels like a western or European city. China is transforming quickly but it doesn’t feel Chinese to me. I’d love to see Chinese designers start to develop the Chinese aesthetics and then have the general public accept that, as opposed to the general public buying only based on brands. But I don’t know whether that’s going to happen in the next twenty years, because educationally there’s a lot of works to be done. If you want to be competitive, you have to look ahead and see everything happening in the rest of the world.

image credit: Scott Robertson

Emma Lee (Li Xin) was TechNode's e-commerce and new retail reporter until June 2022, when she moved to Sixth Tone to cover technology and consumption. Get in touch with her via lixin@sixthtone.com or Twitter.

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