The tyranny of reference points

Dec 7, 2023


Reading Time: 3 minutes

07 Dec 2023

iagt sketchbook 22 7 22


Today, no professional designer can honestly look you in the eye and say that they have no personal reference points in their design life. The simple reality is there is so much ‘stuff’ from the past together with what surrounds us today, that it’s impossible to live in a creative vacuum. And that’s all fine, creativity has never lived in isolation and moving forward has always been a process of disseminating not only the past but the present, in order to move in a different direction. In my own personal journey, I’ve had to do my own reckoning and soul searching to find a path that I am happy with.

I make no bones that I think a lot of design today suffers from ‘peak design’, where the the influences have become so circular and everything’s starting to have that same look about it…


its so funny how the path of concept art turned into streamlined artstation cinematic kitbash stuff and how everything looks the same now – Dyna Soar on Twitter

The above comment was a response to this interesting thread. The gist being that Dune the movie could have been so much more than the drab thing it was. Discounting the conversation that in general, desert peoples have always tended to use colour and pattern as, I guess, an offset to their drab surrounds, looking back at the Dune envisioned by Jodorowski with the likes of Chris Foss and Jean Giraud, we could have had a Dune that was something special visually as well as from a design point of view. But I suspect that the comment is right, influences these days are narrower as focal points, pools of influence, become smaller and more concentrated – every one looks at the same people doing the same stuff, which then influences what they do… and around we go.

Which brings me to this instalment.

My previous post threw up doodles for architectural ideas I am playing with. And yes, there are some very direct influences in them – I like the idea of brutalist and ‘academic’ architecture, so there is a rich pool of reference points for me to go swimming in. The added bonus being that much of this architecture is almost alien to us here and now, so diving back and reinterpreting ideas is almost fresh! But world building is about everything, so today’s problem is about vehicles.

Look at ANY vehicle design today, be it in real life or in entertainment and it’s the same thing. OK, not exactly, some car companies are doing really interesting things but look at the ‘entertainment’ world, and well… There’s that omnipresent, overwhelming and identifiable thread, as if in the future we’ve not managed to go past where we are now and are still designing, and making, the same stuff. Hell, I don’t even see things that look like Syd Mead illustrations! The problem is the collective ‘we‘ have an understanding of what a vehicle is and a preconception as to what it will look like based on its function. Our reference points are more of less set in stone, based on design, utility and function…. as we understand it. So when it comes to designing something different, something in the far future that may have no direct link to the here and now, then it becomes difficult. Really difficult.

I am trying to break out of that frameset and am asking myself – ‘ok, we have wheels (because wheels make sense), but what will the rest of it be if it does not base itself in our current thinking?’. And it’s a very hard thing to do, requiring one to forget a developed train of thought about things we know, and instead look at the thing in question from a completely different perspective, both aesthetically and functionally. It’s not going to be easy and I am sure many will probably hate it, because something not easily identifiable is not comfortable.

As Mr Savage said – “I reject your reality and insert my own”.

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