We have seen the future, and the future is mostly blue.
Or, put another way: in our representations of the future in science fiction movies, blue seems to be the dominant color of our interfaces with technology yet to come. And that is one of the many design lessons we can learn from sci-fi.
Designers and sci-fi aficionados Chris Noessel and Nathan Shedroff have spent years compiling real-world lessons that designers can, should, and already do take from science fiction. Their book, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction is a comprehensive compendium of their findings.
To give you a sense of how exhaustive their research is in this field, take note that the lesson above–future screens are mostly blue–was determined empirically. Shedroff and Noessel catalogued virtually every interface from every sci-fi movie from 1968 through 2011 and determined an average color per year.
So why is blue the chosen color? Noessel posits that, because blue is so rare in nature (if you discount the sky and the ocean, which are arguably not blue) there’s something fundamentally mystical, unnatural, and inhuman about it.
Whether or not screens in the future will, in fact, be blue, is beside the point. Make It So is about applying the ways we conceive of the future to the design of our present moment. After all, if sci-fi is about letting our imaginations run wild and create imagined worlds, then there are plenty of design lessons from looking at the experience of the characters moving through those worlds. Even if your sci-fi world is 1000 years in the future, those choices are in constant dialogue with the present.
Even the first sci-fi film is a sign of its times. In Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), there are hardly any interfaces!
Hence, Science fiction can help us understand what we want in the present. And, when components of science fiction saturate the public imagination, it can affect how we design things. Consider the MicroTAC, one of Motorola’s first cell phones. It did not sell well.
The MicroTAC had a mouthpiece that flipped down. When the Motorola designers took this phone to Argonne National Laboratory for their advice, the Argonne engineers said they had make the phone the wrong way–it ought to open upwards, not downwards. Like on Star Trek.
Motorola’s subsequent generation opened upwards. It was wildly successful. It was called the StarTAC.
Star Trek also may have helped create the entire image-under-glass paradigm that governs our digital world. The interface, known as LCARS, is cool-looking. It’s distinctive. And it’s actually the result of a budget shortfall.
Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t have as much money for set design as did the original series, which had panels wired with jewels and glowing buttons. Instead, they cut out film and put them over glass panes.To this day, people still modify their computers and tablets to make them look like an LCARS device from the 24th Century, by way of the late 80s.
The most interesting lessons from sci-fi come when you assume, for the sake of argument, that everything is in sci-fi is there for a reason–even things that look like mistakes. There’s a word for this, apologetics, which usually refers to the act of attempting to close logical loopholes in theology.
Take Star Wars, for instance, in the scene when Luke and Han Solo are in the Millennium Falcon blowing up TIE fighters.
If they’re fighting in the cold vacuum of space, why do we hear the ships exploding? Sound doesn’t exist without air.
George Lucas probably figured that a silent gun fight would probably have been way less dramatic. He wanted to make the scene feel real to the audience, even if it was less true to reality. And if we move from the point of view that what works for the audience will work for the user, we can ask ourselves–could this make sense? Is there an explanation that can warrant hearing ships exploding in space?
Well, what if the sound is the interface? Audio is a much more efficient gauge of surroundings, since it spans 360 degrees, whereas vision only covers 120 degrees. It might be that there are sensors on the outside of the Millennium Falcon that provide 3D sound inside the gunner seat. So when we hear ships blow up, we’re actually hearing an augmented reality interface that Luke and Han hear. Maybe?
Here’s another one. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Floyd is on a satellite, making a video call to his daughter back on earth. You see his daughter button-mashing the controls on the video phone, but, strangely you don’t hear any of the buttons.
Maybe the sound designer was sleeping on the job, but this really is the way that phones ought to work. It could be that the system was context-aware enough to acknowledge that its user is a child, and disregard her button-mashing.
With design thinking, there are logical excuses for every interface discrepancy. And it makes sci-fi that much more fun to watch.