Make It So

Make It So


304 Pages


Many designers enjoy the interfaces seen in science fiction films and television shows. Freed from the rigorous constraints of designing for real users, sci-fi production designers develop blue-sky interfaces that are inspiring, humorous, and even instructive. By carefully studying these “outsider” user interfaces, designers can derive lessons that make their real-world designs more cutting edge and successful.



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Published 17 September 2012
Reads 9
EAN13 9781457102660
Language English
Document size 55 MB

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Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel


Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction

By Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel

Rosenfeld Media, LLC

457 Third Street, #4R

Brooklyn, New York

11215 USA

On the Web:

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Publisher: Louis Rosenfeld

Developmental Editor: JoAnn Simony

Copyeditor: Kathy Brock

Interior Layout Tech: Danielle Foster

Cover Design: The Heads of State

Indexer: Nancy Guenther

Proofreader: Ben Tedoff

© 2012 Rosenfeld Media, LLC

All Rights Reserved

ISBN: 1-933820-98-5

ISBN-13: 978-1-933820-98-9

LCCN: 2012943408

Printed and bound in the United States of America


To my nieces, Aleksandra and Isabella, who have yet to see their first sci-fi. However, I have big plans for them and plenty of time to combat Barbie.

—Nathan Shedroff

To my nieces, nephews, and goddaughters: Hunter, Abby, Ava, Kaili, Andrea, Craig Jr., and Evan; and to my little, forthcoming boy (and any more to come). The vision of the future is increasingly in your hands.

—Christopher Noessel


Being an interaction designer colors how you watch science fiction. Of course you’re enjoying all of the hyperspacey, laser-flinging, computer-hacking action like everyone else, but you can’t help but evaluate the interfaces when they appear. You are curious if they’ll disable the tractor beam in time, but you also find yourself wondering, Could it really work that way? Should it work that way? How could it work better? And, of course, Can I get the interfaces I design in my own work to be this cool or even cooler?

We asked ourselves these questions with each new TV show and each new film we watched, and we realized that for every eye-roll-worthy moment of technological stupidity, there are genuine lessons to be learned—practical lessons to be drawn from the very public, almost outsider-art interfaces that appear in the more than 100 years of sci-fi cinema and television. Then we wondered what we would learn from looking at not just one or even a dozen of them but as many as we could.

This book is the result of that inquiry, an analysis of interfaces in sci-fi films and TV shows, with lessons that interface and interaction designers can use in their real-world practice. We’ve learned a great deal in writing it, and we want to share those lessons with you.

Who Should Read This Book?

We have written this book principally for interface designers interested in learning best practices from sci-fi, understanding sci-fi’s role in design history, and using sci-fi interfaces in their own work.

If you’re a sci-fi fan with an interest in interface design, use this book to explore your favorite movies and TV shows more deeply and to discover new ones.

If you make sci-fi, you can learn how the interfaces you create are evaluated by audiences and influence real-world developers.

Similarly, individuals interested in media theory through the perspective of sci-fi can find insights here, though a more thorough and deep discussion of theory will have to wait for more research.

What’s in This Book?

To make the material easily accessible, we’ve organized the discussions in two sections: the first examines the elements of user interfaces in sci-fi, and the second looks at how these interfaces are used to assist basic human activities such as communication and learning.

Discussing interface elements first should make it clear where to find information, examples, and lessons pertaining to individual user interface components. These deal with inputs and outputs. Lots of examples can be found throughout sci-fi for each of these, but we’ve chosen some of the most interesting and unique.

The second section focuses on things people do. This content is organized around the flow of activities and the system interactions that support users’ goals. There’s even a chapter on sex-related systems, of which there are more than you might think at first, and which reveal some surprisingly applicable lessons to everyday, less titillating work.

All of the lessons and opportunities in the book have been gathered in an appendix for quick reference.

What Comes with This Book

There is a lot of material in this book, but we’ve still only scratched the surface. Lou Rosenfeld has been generous in giving us so much space, but there is a lot that couldn’t be included, some of which is available on the book’s companion website, There we’ll be adding material as new films and TV series are released, a list of all of the titles we’ve reviewed so far, as well as links to where you can buy or rent titles, or watch clips. We’re in the process of adding more detailed reviews of particular sci-fi interfaces, our extensive tag cloud, larger versions of the images used in the book, and more.


The topic of this book is a fun idea, but how is science fiction relevant to design?

Design and science fiction do much the same thing. Sci-fi uses characters in stories to describe a possible future. Similarly, the design process uses personas in scenarios to describe a possible interface. They’re both fiction. Interfaces only become fact when a product ships. The main differences between the two come from the fact that design mainly proposes what it thinks is best, and sci-fi is mostly meant to entertain. But because sci-fi can envision technology farther out, largely freed from real-world constraints, design can look to it for inspiration and ideas about what can be done today. See Chapters 1 and 14.

Do you distinguish between science fiction and sci-fi?

In a 1997 article, Harlan Ellison claimed the term “science fiction” for the genre of story that is concerned with science and “eternal questions,” with an implied focus on literature.1 We wanted to look at interfaces, and this led us quite often into that other category of story that he characterized as a “debasement” and “a simplistic, pulp-fiction view of the world” called “sci-fi.” We don’t entirely agree with his characterization, and it’s true that we didn’t look at literature for this project, so we don’t make the same distinction. We just use sci-fi as an abbreviation for science fiction to save space. Hopefully Mr. Ellison won’t be too mad.

Where is [insert an example from sci-fi here]?

To misquote Douglas Adams: Sci-fi is big. Really big. We couldn’t get to everything, and we didn’t have the room to include everything we got to. Fortunately, many sci-fi examples build on very similar ideas. Sometimes we passed over one example in favor of another that might be more well known or, alternatively, we included an unsung one that deserved some credit. Most of what we’ve reviewed is sci-fi from the United States, but we’ve also ventured into sci-fi from other countries. Even given what we’ve managed to achieve, we’ve barely scratched the surface. You can find additional material on our website:

Why didn’t you talk about [insert interaction design principle here]?

The lessons are derived from sci-fi, not the other way around. If no example in the survey pointed us toward, say, Fitts’s Law, then it doesn’t appear, and some principles didn’t make the final cut due to space constraints. Another style of investigation would have been to write a textbook on interaction or interface design using only examples from sci-fi, which would be interesting, but isn’t this project.

Wouldn’t this have worked better as a movie or an ebook that can play video clips?

Because our lessons and commentary involve moments from movies and television, it’s a little problematic to publish them in a medium that doesn’t allow us to show these interfaces in action. But because our focus was on studying interfaces and deriving lessons, we’ve started with media that would work best for later reference: traditional book, ebook, and website. If you’re eager to see some of these interfaces in action, certainly check out the original movies or TV shows, or come to one of the workshops and lectures we give on the subject, where we share relevant clips. And be assured that we’re exploring alternative media for these lessons and ideas next.

These interfaces weren’t designed to be studied or for users in the real world. Aren’t you being a little unfair?

Indeed, we are using real-world criteria for interfaces that aren’t in the real world—the vast majority of which aren’t meant to be. But as fans and designers, we can’t help but bring a critical eye to bear on the sci-fi we watch, and with most of the world becoming more technologically savvy as time goes on, audiences will become so, too. But it’s the “outsider” nature of these interfaces that make them fascinating to study, as their creators produce both blunders and inspired visions.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing the book?

We were surprised at how productive it was to investigate the “bad” interfaces. The “good” interfaces often serve as reminders of principles with which we are already familiar. Sometimes they are inspiring. But the “bad” interfaces, because they still worked at a narrative level, revealed the most surprising insights through the process of “apology,” discussed in Chapter 1.

What was left on the editing room floor?

One of our early ideas for the book was to include interviews with sci-fi makers and science practitioners. The interviews didn’t make it into the final iteration of the book, but these people gave their time and shared much with us, and we’d like to acknowledge them individually with special thanks: Douglas Caldwell, Mark Coleran, Mike Fink, Neil Huxley, Dean Kamen, Joe Kosmo, David Lewindowsky, Jerry Miller, Michael Ryman, Rpin Suwannath, and Lee Weinstein.

Additionally, we had early draft chapters on sci-fi doors, chemical interfaces, weapons, and spacesuits/spaceships. Early reviews of the sheer size of the book forced us to make some hard choices. Perhaps in some future work we will be able to develop this content further, but for now it will have to wait.

Why didn’t you mention [insert title] more?

Several movies and TV shows are incredibly seminal and culturally influential. Star Trek, Minority Report, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are three we can name off of the top of our heads. But we didn’t want to lean too much on a small set of movies and shows. Rather, we wanted to use these examples for their most salient aspects, then branch out into other examples from the survey when the topic warranted.

What about other speculative technology found in video games, futuristic commercials, or industry films?

The hard-core genre nerds know that conversations about defining science fiction often lead to conversations about speculative fiction instead, which is a much broader topic of interest to us, but isn’t the focus of this project. Anyone interested in these related media should read Chapter 14.