The creative portrayal

fountainheadMost of what I know about the world I know from movies. From Vietnam to corn syrup, the majority of the factual composition of my brain comes from celluloid, for better or worse. As an Industrial Designer, I’m constantly trying to find simple ways to explain to people exactly what it is that I do, often to blank faces. This got me thinking: how are designers portrayed in the movies? Wider still, how are all creative people portrayed in Hollywood? I think there are a few archetypes, which I’ve outlined below. (I’ve been rooting deep within my cinematic memories for examples, but please get in touch if you know of any more.)

The Writer: Hollywood loves a writer. I would argue there are more movies about writers than any other creative character, perhaps because film is a narrative art. It’s easy for writers to write about writers. Perhaps the best movie about writers is Barton Fink, excellently portrayed by John Turturro, though it also displays many of the tropes of the writer protagonist. The writer is quiet, introverted, often old fashioned – for the longest time, writers used typewriters in movies, long after most had moved to a PC. The writer likes solitude, silence. The writer is tortured: by his publisher, by the deadline, by the characters in his story. The writer is an outsider. The writer is interesting, smart, insightful. There are some excellent movies about writers, from the wild ride of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the structure breaking American Splendor or Adaptation, but most tend to abide by the well understood rules in the portrayal of a creative writer.

The Inventor: from Rick Moranis in Honey I Shrunk the Kids to Doc Brown in Back to the Future, the inventor is almost always portrayed as a wacky, white-coated character with wild hair, spectacles and chaotic living conditions. A character who is wildly secretive and socially awkward, the inventor is a classic Hollywood anti-hero. I suspect there aren’t many such characters in real life. Most lab physicians, chemical or mechanical engineers I’ve met are calm quiet types, but the social awkwardness is a truism, as is the predominantly male makeup of such characters. (A subset of Inventor is the Mad Professor, from Dr. Frankenstein, to countless Superhero movies)

The Architect: this one’s a doozy. Architecture is a go-to employment for any character who is lovable, creative, yet feels trapped in an urban environment, or in a big corporation. The architect has big ideas, but no-one will listen. The architect carries rolls and rolls of blueprints. The architect visits building sites wearing a hard had, he meets with builders and points at things. The architect is a bland job which is non-polarising for any character who needs to appear employed, without his job becoming an important narrative element. Tom Selleck played an architect in Three Men and a Baby. Do you remember? No of course you don’t, it’s not important, but you did remember that he was lovable, educated, smart and maybe a little creative. Woody Harrelson was an architect in Indecent Proposal, but again, just to make him into the nice guy. Liam Neeson in Love Actually, Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy, Matt Dillon in You, Me and Dupree… you get the picture. There are movies where architecture and architects play a central role, such as the Fountainhead or Towering Inferno, where the role is expanded, but typically ‘The Architect’ remains a proxy for ‘nice guy’.

The Fashion designer: Want a totally wacky character? Want to add some zing, some spice, some drag queen sass? Then your character is a fashion designer. From the characters in Sex and the City and the Devil Wears Prada, to Will Ferrell’s excellent Jacobim Mugatu in Zoolander, fashion designers are perpetually portrayed as vapid, bitchy prima-donnas. I’ve met a fair few fashion designers and there are definitely some who fit that mold (as excellently lampooned by Sacha Baron-Cohen in Brüno, and the documentary The September Issue perhaps illustrates just how real the stereotype can be), but increasingly fashion designers are smart, sensible business people. Perhaps slightly breaking that mold is Audrey Tautou Coco Before Chanel, which is a little more calm about the fashion industry, but it’s a period piece which focusses more on the love story than the design work.

The Painter: See The Writer, but dial up the internal torture and money worries.

The Graphic Designer: This is a little more rare, perhaps because it’s less widely understood as a profession. There are characters who work at magazines, and there are characters who work at Newspapers, but actually designing type and layout? Not so much. Halle Berry played a graphic designer in Catwoman, falling asleep at her drawing board. Jessica Lange played a graphic designer in Scorsese’s Cape Fear, at one point discussing how to draw a logo with Juliette Lewis. Generally speaking, the Graphic Designer is simply another ‘Architect’ character: likable, creative and trapped by a corporate life.

The Advertising Creative: An associated go-to character, although displaying quite different traits to the Graphic Designer. The Advertising Creative is a brash, hard working, hard living urbanite. The Advertising Creative is some parts writer (struggling with copy and straplines), some part architect (struggling to remain creative in a corporate world) but crucially is far more business savvy and less likable than most creative characters. Dudley Moore’s Emory Leeson in Crazy People is a wonderful example, as is Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement, and Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back, but the clearest example of the character is Richard E Grant in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. In TV land, the character has been immortalized by Don Draper et al in Mad Men, firmly sealing the traits of the role.

The Industrial Designer: This is very rare, and often strays into Inventor territory. In a movie, if you need a character to create a new product it typically happens in a boardroom, on a whim (see Tom Hanks ‘I don’t get it’ scene in Big). In Elizabethtown, Orlando Bloom plays an Industrial designer who gets fired from Mercury Worldwide Shoes, and Ewan McGregor played a vehicle designer in The Island, but the roles are fairly inert, a typical ‘Architect’ persona, designed to make the character employed without any polarising characteristics.

The UX designer: see ‘Inventor’ but lots more computers (Tron, The Lawnmower Man and Brainstorm are good examples)

So what have we learned? Across the board, characters who have ‘creative’ jobs are considered interesting, from the flamboyance of the fashion world to the intellectual introspection of the writer, Hollywood loves creative characters. Creative characters are well educated, and with the exception of the Mad Professor or the Advertising Creative, they are likable.

What is interesting is which part of the creative process is used for each of the character stereotypes. Writers and Painters are tortured by the pre-creation ideas phase, Inventors tend to focus on the experimenting phase, Architects and Designers are often portrayed tackling the implementation phase, and Fashion tends to focus on the presentation or post creation phase. I’ve called this the Hollywood Design Index.HOLLYWOOD DESIGN INDEXPerhaps that goes some way to explaining public perceptions of each segment of the design industry, and without getting too overblown, it could have a longer term effect on how each industry is understood. Typically the portrayal of designers in Hollywood is a very pale reflection of reality, but then again, the portrayal of soldiers, politicians, lawyers or doctors is no doubt just as clichéd.


Super Structure

A view from the bottom while transiting through Newark International Airport last week..or two weeks ago. Fuzzy on that. A visit home and then to see some friends and do some touring around Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which reminds me that the American North East can be lovely to visit. Um..take my word for it even if I just share an architectural photograph of the airport..
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Cinema City

Or…in this case, cinematic architecture. Jonathan Rennie presented a project yesterday that I found most fitting in the vein of design fiction / architecture fiction. For the studio class run by Geoff Manaugh (@bldgblog) called Cinema City, a graduate studio that starts with this brief and asks the students to consider what they may. There were some interesting projects. This one in particular stood out for me. It was an unconventional approach in an architecture class to present a series of fictions about the future of cinema.

Monday December 13 14:06

Continuous Machinic Cinema

This project explores a particular narrative for the future of cinema and, in turn, it proposes new possibilities for the moving image and its place, content, viewers & screen.

The project proposes a scenario of technological discovery and development where:

** Guerilla film distribution occurs in new places via Lawn Bowl and Shot-put film grenades;

** With anamorphic lenses the perpendicular hegemony of conventional cinema watching is broken;

A shift in content to QR coded cinema is predicted and, in turn..

** A future point where non-narrative images are viewed by post-human machine optics is proposed, with screens affecting the fabric of the city.

The project is a sneak preview for a future of cinema, proposing a continuous cinema that is freed from both the spatial confines of the movie house and the literary expectations of narrative — told by and to non-human machines.

FInal Panels_Further Revised.indd

In the first proposal, guerilla film distribution is done by throwing film grenades, a “weapon” first proposed by the Soviets and designed to be surreptitiously deployed during the Olympics. The weapons are found again by Jonathan during his project research, including documentation and some diagrams describing the clandestine Soviet project.

In the second proposal, Skynet — an extraterrestrial orbital satellite platform — finds QR codes in the landscape of earth. The QR codes embed stories and films that the satellites share with one another. Over time, as they see the same films over and over again and become bored — they begin to look for QR codes elsewhere, perhaps interpreting barcode-like structures in the landscape at different wavelengths — for instance an infrared folliage rendering may appear to contain QR codes. They seek out new films in this way, perhaps even instructing terrestrial machines, such as the cranes at loading docks or tractors in large farm fields, to construct new QR codes containing new cinema and stories.

Still 1

Jonathan also ginned up a sort of graphic novella/short story to go along with the proposal so that each QR code that you see in his poster documentation points to a page in the comic. You can see the full graphic novella here: QR Cinema

Why do I blog this? This is one of those architecture projects that plays at the far end of the spectrum of architecture’s inherent speculative nature. The spectrum runs from the pragmatic *planning what will be* (traditional floor-plan stuff) all the way across to *speculating to help think* (architecture fiction), with *proposing (cardboard models, photoshop site renderings, camera-tracked little films showing the space as it would be) somewhere in the middle.

I enjoy considering the spectrum of realizations as things move from idea to their material form. In this case, Jonathan has used the architectural brief to propose a speculation about machines reading the landscape to interpret meaning, or to watch movies that are referred to by the QR codes they (think?) they see. This is using the landscape as an interface, which I find super intriguing.

What does this help us think about? Well — it’s a fun Sci-Fi comic he’s done here, so there’s that on its own. Aside from this, we can start to think about Cyphertecture — embedding machine-readable (or maybe only-for-machine) texts in physical structures. Like, for example, this bit of landscape cyphertecture from several years ago

Space Invaders: Google Earth Edition

DIY Media? Fan Art in Google Earth

Space Invaders upper right..Cylon Raider bottom left.

Geoff has the more lucid discussion of this point, but suppose cornice details became machine readable physical cuts and bumps that would represent some meaning for, say…Google Street View cars? I’m not saying this is entirely practical, but I could see a day when bold marks like this that are required to exist (for any number of reasons — local services to identify what building they are at definitively, etc.) on new structures. This then becomes turned into an aesthetic to make it more pleasing as a facade, and so on. In any case — Jonathan’s work certainly gives me things to think about in an entirely fun, imaginative way.
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Future of Technology Conference University of Michigan September 24-25

Friday October 16, 15.04.18

I’ll be speaking at the Future of Technology conference at the Taubman College of Architecture, Planning and Urban Design on September 25th — the conference is on the 24th and the 25th. This courtesy of my chum John Marshall, who I visited last year to be a guest in his fantastic Heliotropic Smart Surfaces design studio which, if I remember correctly — John and Karl had no idea (in a good way!) what would happen other than that they would look into “smart” and the sun and surfaces. Brilliant guy, he is. That’s the way to run a creative studio. Optimism and enthusiasm and a tinge of creative recklessness.

Friday October 16, 11.34.47

Anyway. That’s where I’ll be. In Ann-Arbor.
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Week Ending 051410

Not A Drill

Well, the house is proving a persistent but not at all unwelcome distraction from blogging stuff, but that’s okay. Managing to set up even a M*A*S*H*-like *Man Lodge was mitigated by, like..unpacking scores of boxes containing mostly books, old disk drives or bits and bobs from the old Laboratory workbench. But, alas — the embryonic Laboratory / Man Lodge is clear enough to hold a desk, stereo and bicycle with room to pace contemplatively whilst sipping a tincture of Port in a purloined *Oriental Brewery beer glass ((evening) or mug of coffee ((morning)).


Last week felt the blitz from weaving my brain back and forth between meeting builders and minding some quite engaging and provocative studio projects. Lots of fun in the studio these days. Maybe the second time in the *two years ((the anniversary for being a proper, full-time Nokian passed on Friday)) that I felt that a big project really was a big project. ((Not to say the others were not — rather that the calibre of engagement, requirements, expectation and leadership might suggest that this is not a drill.))

So — there’s been lots of work getting into the material, defining the shape and contours of it. This is the work of describing to ourselves what it is and what it means — moving from intuition and the vague vernacular of the *top-level, into the material itself. You run across the dips and bumps and questions that can only come from digging deep into the material in a very materialistic way. How do you translate intuition and instinct into something that is communicable beyond a vague — “it’s kinda like”? Clearly it takes time and a willingness to get beyond the unease of not knowing how to talk about something, or even those moments when you think — you know what? This is the stupidest thing in the world — no one will like this. We’ll be ridiculed.

In the midst of doing this it becomes clear that design cannot be done without the designing. You can’t just write or PowerPoint it. If you don’t break a sweat or nick a finger — if *you don’t — you’re not doing the design work. The things you find out from materializing an idea rather than just screenizing it — if you don’t get into the material itself, make the thing and keep making it over and over — you won’t find the depth of it.

And — you can’t just specify requirements, or get all high-falutin about the implications, or assume because you’ve stated your point but haven’t been able to enroll others in your mission that you’ve done the work. Cause, haven’t. So..that’s that.

That current flowed through the week itself.

Then there was this crazy crit session at the USC Architecture School. Wow — Neil had his hands full. The architects he brought in were, like..I don’t even know. Rarely even handed with the students — maybe that was just apparent to me. I don’t really believe in critiquing by pummeling. Anyway — I said all I need to say in an earlier post. But — that was something I did last week.

The Drift Deck work continues apace, although we missed our call last week because of various and sundry commitments to other things.

There was a bit of play getting back into *Max/MSP for some prototyping ((never ceases to amaze me how Baroque that thing is — what a wrestling match)) and *Logic which is exploding heads in the Laboratory.

That’s it.

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