Design Fiction Principles: Notes from Design for Screen

Alien Food

A relevant short essay by Piers D. Britton in theThe Routledge Companion to Science Fiction underscores some of the loose principles (loose, because they aren’t quite principles — more a swirl of useful insights) the Laboratory has been gathering around the concepts of Design Fiction. ((Why gather principles? Well, to understand how better to create/construct/author *Design Fiction))

In the essay, Britton starts out by emphasizing the importance of the visual and aural aspects of science fiction on the screen. This is obvious, of course — but worth underscoring because it relates immediately to the appearance of things that may not be real but have to be perceived (“seem”) real. Our common sense has to extend from now to the visual story — the appearance of otherworldlyness should be coextensive with what we understand today.

The point Britton emphasizes at this point is that design in screen-based science fiction works to create the appearance of a coextensive world — extending now to then. And that design for science fiction is oriented toward verisimilitude. what, Britton asks. Verisimilitude is of limited value in itself. For him, the important corollary is that screen science fiction appeals to a “viewer’s sense of the tactile properties of unfamiliar phenomena.” I hadn’t really thought about the design elements in a film as textures, so I found this intriguing. Britton makes a broad cut through the history of screen science fiction delineating texture as an element of the design. ((For example, buildings, vehicles, weapons, etc.) He says that, in the 1920’s-60s, textures were modernist, sleek, streamlined, and that after the 70s, it becomes layered, scorched, rough-hewn, layered (cf. Star Wars, Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica, Alien, etc.)

This I can follow — and its something I can vaguely recall thinking when I first saw Star Wars with my brother, with our much older half-brother carting us along. The banged-upness of the Millennium Falcon is one of these signals of a kind of verisimilitude that is drawn from the present to create a legible future (or past, in the case of Star Wars, but the direction of time matters less than the appearance of something that is *coextensive with today.)

Britton says that this by itself may not help understand the nuances of the screen science fiction genre. He’s curious about how design generate meaning? By looking at specific *texts, we may gather a fuller understanding of the role design plays in the story. But, first Britton takes a moment to point out his conviction that design imagery cannot possibly obscure the story. He says that design is spatial, narrative is teleological; narrative is words; design is not. “..rather than ask how design relates to narrative, as though the two had the potential to harmonize or quarrel, it is more productive to ask how design can operate within the whole imaginative and conceptual experience invoked by screen entertainment.”

((I guess there’s some sort of disagreement within the world of science fiction lit-crit people on this point — or maybe its just a disagreement between a couple of them — to emphasize the role design plays in the story. I think it may go along the lines of design and story being opposed in some fashion. Like — someone may feel that design ruins the story and, well I can imagine someone saying something along the lines of: “the book is so much better..the film just ruins the original story.” Or something like this. If I was still in school and not spending more time in the Laboratory, I might follow this one up. But — it could be an intriguing argument as, presently — I feel that design can tell a story, or pivot a story in a way that a narrative on its own cannot, which isn’t to say that a narrative is hobbled without design, but rather having a physical prop in the hand or on a screen does something that the story telling by itself is less capable of. And, even beyond this point — the making of the physical prop is a nice tangential, additional approach to figuring out the story itself.))

Britton then goes on to ask two questions:

* 1st: how does design uphold the “meta-reality effect” of science fiction?

* 2nd: how does design compel reflection and contemplation about the story’s underlying ideas?

These are two questions worth asking and I’d like to sort out the substance of them, but as far as how satisfying the answers, I’m only sure Britton answers them in a way that would be of use most directly to a lit-crit sort.

He uses two examples to address these questions — Blade Runner and Firefly. I’m not at all familiar with Firefly, but the point Britton makes about Blade Runner is easy enough to state to be worth mentioning.

Britton points out the specific textures of the fashion design in the film which serve to defamiliarize while still being evocative of recognizable forms. In Blade Runner, the costumes are drawn from the 1940s and the 1980s without becoming nostalgic. There is this *defamiliarization driven by texturing and contrasts (Deckard’s trench coats and Tyrrel’s vaguely art-deco octogonal glasses versus the punk-inspired costumes and hair styles of the rebel replicants, for example).

I find this bold contrast curious — this point about the collision of textures (punk versus the 1940s and art-deco) and the possibility that defamiliarization contributes either to this “meta-reality effect” or that it excites reflection on the underlying ideas of the story.

So, if I were to quickly conclude the most useful insight here it would be around this point — a subtle, defamiliarization that might compel the viewer/reader to step out of their routine, or what they might conventionally expect — this can go somewhere to “exciting” contemplation or a deeper engagement with the material than they might if they were seeing something they expected.

((Parenthetically, we’ve used this general principle I think to some modest success both in the design process and the communication of work — rather than showing things people might expect such as PowerPoint decks, bullet points or *slides — we might show a short visual loop and, much more often than not, the substance has nothing to do with what the audience might expect. It forces at least one question — what is this? And then you can answer the question and have a conversation.))

Why do I blog this? Some reading notes as I prepare some material for a talk on design fiction for the fall.