A master of science fiction movie gadgets moves over to the real world

Mark Coleran, creator of "fantasy user interfaces" for films like The Bourne Ultimatum and Children of Men, is now focusing on solving real-world problems. John Pavlus with Fast Company Design explains.

You don't know Mark Coleran's name, but you've seen his work. He's the designer who creates the futuristic computer screens that characters in movies (like The Bourne Ultimatum, Children of Men, and Mission Impossible 3) use when saying things like "Enhance!" But now he's the design director of Bonfire Labs, an agency who specifically hired him for his "fantasy user interface" (or FUI) skills.

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.

But what on earth do flashy movie UIs have to do with solving real-world design problems? Plenty, says Coleran: "[The FUIs] look fantastic when you see them in the theater, but a lot of that is actually grounded in reality — stuff that's not mainstream yet, that I've been researching and experimenting with." Case in point: Coleran's design for a near-future music player in Children of Men looks uncannily similar to iTunes's "Coverflow" interface, which came out nine months later.

A master of science fiction movie gadgets moves over to the real world

A FUI from Children of Men, which appeared almost a year before iTunes' Coverflow interface was released.

Coleran had plenty of experience designing real-world UIs before joining Bonfire (including the innovative interface for a creative project-management application called FLOW). But he says Bonfire hired him to be more of a "visual concept designer" for their interactive and advertising clients — sort of a Syd Mead for UIs, "looking at the bigger picture rather than the detail of individual buttons," says Coleran. "My background from the film work, plus my experience in engineering, electronics, and graphic design, sort of fits with these interactive projects. There's an element of futurism, where you can play the 'what ifs' out to their logical conclusions. Not just for the sake of it, but if you know the rules, you can break them to get something better."

A master of science fiction movie gadgets moves over to the real world

A FUI from Michael Bay's The Island. Images courtesy of Mark Coleran.

A master of science fiction movie gadgets moves over to the real world

From The Island, a gunsight used by an assassin.

But Coleran doesn't just throw out the rule books on user experience and "human interface guidelines." In fact, because many of his clients know his movie work, he spends a lot of time talking them out of doing something like Children of Men or The Bourne Ultimatum. "One of my biggest frustations is when people will say, 'We have these specifications and requirements, now execute it just like we saw in the movie,'" he says. "What they don't realize is that the requirements for those movie FUIs were completely unlike the ones that they're dealing with. In a movie, you see an interface for at most a couple of seconds. In real life, every design decision has a consequence, and it doesn't go away. It's there day in and day out. Those human interface guidelines are there for very good reasons."

A master of science fiction movie gadgets moves over to the real world

A computer interface for The Bourne Ultimatum

A master of science fiction movie gadgets moves over to the real world

One of Coleran's mockups for a touch-based map interface.

So how do you push the UI envelope while respecting what already works? "It comes back to pure design," Coleran says. "Everything has to be justified; you can't say I put this here because it looks cool. At Bonfire we're trying to come up with new patterns — not just user interfaces, but whole new models for experiencing TV or magazines or music — and mocking them up in the same way I did the FUIs. But now, I may actually get to execute them in real life."

This post by John Pavlus originally appeared at Fast Company Design.