Two Museums of Future UX Design (Book Review)

Two book covers

A review of two books:
Art of Imagination: 20th Century Visions of Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy
Introduction by Frank M. Robinson, with Frank Robinson, Robert Weinberg, and Randy Broecker
Collectors Press, 2002
and
Future Toys: Robots, Astronauts, Spaceships, Ray Guns
by Antoni Emchowicz and Paul Nunnelely
New Cavendish Books, 1999

Imagine visiting a museum of the future today. You can…by reading these two compilations of science fiction imagery and objects from creative minds of the past century.

Art of Imagination is a collection of some of the best illustration of science fiction publications: novels, magazines, posters, and movies. Future Toys is a collection of futuristic robots, astronauts, spaceships, and ray guns, produced during the period of time between the end of World War II and the first moon landing in 1969, a period of scientific and technological expansion. These classic images and objects offer the UX professional a wealth of historical, cultural, and conceptual designs for the study of future user experiences. Let’s take a look.

The authors of Art of Imagination recognize that for centuries people have thought about travel to distant galaxies and being in mysterious future worlds or alternate realities. The authors have collected thought-provoking visual examples from publications in three genres that stretch our understanding. What the illustrators/designers of these images have done is to fabricate intricate, detailed worlds of people and objects, with implied structures of technology, economy, government, and society, and processes of manufacturing, distribution, and consumption.

Every single figure potentially can be considered a micro world of visualized assumptions and theories: whether it is giant invaders from Mars (courtesy of H. G. Wells) shown on the cover of Amazing Stories in 1927, a floating robot menacing a young damsel on the cover of Fantastic Adventures in 1941, a flying (white male) astronaut on the cover of Science Fiction + in 1952, or a black female astronaut sitting near her powerful looking helmet on the cover of InterZone in 1998. As one looks through the details depicted of different kinds of beings (human, alien, robotic, mixed-android), technology platforms (embedded, desktop, mobile, worn, ambient), travel (ground, sea, air, interplanetary, interstellar), agriculture (earth agrarian, hydroponic, other-worldly), cities (megasized, metastasized, underwater, floating), and other categories of human and non-human civilization, one is almost numbed by the implied “back stories.”

It would make for a good “museum visit” exercise to have UX visitors (readers) populate some kind of template that would encourage them to imagine, then fill out all of the traditional categories of UX analysis (personas, use scenarios, information architecture, look and feel, and so forth.) There is much to analyze. If any one of these images is so rich, imagine the numbing sensation of encountering a treasure chest of about 3,000 examples of the very best that illustrator/designers have produced over the last century.

The introduction reminds us that many have been enthralled onlookers and consumers of science fiction, typically beginning about the age of 10-14, perhaps younger now. The newbies of today have missed out on decades of inventive visualization which deserves to be studied anew. The lavish color illustrations are broken down into three sections within the volume: science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Understandably, the last two subject matter categories may have fewer details of technology, but even here one can find engaging examples of alien or synthetic life forms. An example in the horror pages is the movie poster showing actor Boris Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) displaying his characteristic neck electrodes for easier charging of his “batteries.” Each of the sections is divided into entertainingly titled chapters, like “Good Things in Small Packages” that loosely orient us to their contents.

All in all, Art of Imagination is an excellent resource for UX professionals trying out their analytical skills, and an excellent resource for those tasked with inventing/designing the future. At the very least, the book is a marvelous record of astounding creativity, design thinking, innovation, and envisioning.

The second book, Future Toys, focuses on actual “products” or simulations of products, with implied services. An opening quote from Warren G. Bennis sets the scene: “The factory of the future will have two employees: a man and a dog. The man’s job will be to feed the dog. The dog’s job will be to prevent the man from touching any of the automated equipment.” Much room for robots here. The book’s closing quote is attributed to Wernher von Braun: “Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft…and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor.” Much room for (human) astronauts (with ray guns) flying in their space ships to explore other worlds.

Here again the astute UX designer/analyst will find food for thought in studying the details of shape, texture, color, complexity, flexibility, and detailing of these objects…and inventing the back stories to explain the design strategies, personas, use scenarios, design details, and likely issues of real-world or future-world production and consumption. Everything from rounded versions of Robby the Robot to Japanese variations of manga cartoon characters can be found. Any ethnographer, practical semiotician, industrial designer, or cultural anthropologist will be able to trace worldwide threads of relationships. The collection of chapters follows exactly the sequence of the book’s subtitle. What is not explored in the book are differences/similarities among U.S., German, Spanish, and Japanese examples (among others), an analysis of which  might lead to insights about future cross cultural challenges.

Future Toys supplies about 1,000 images of enticing, delightful objects. As with the first book, very little is provided in detailed text about each image. The visitor/viewer’s imagination will have to invent the back story. The journey is entertaining, stimulating, and educational.

Each of these books offers a significant contribution to those who would like to understand the future, explore possible options, and know more about the history, breadth, and depth of creative imagination in envisioning the future, through the illustrations and objects produced over many decades throughout the world. The authors have enabled the visitor/reader to take a “Grand Tour of the Future” by looking at the past in the comfort of one’s favorite reading chair. The two trips are worth the price of admission.

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