Many Angeleno viewers of the movie Her were taken not just by the story but by. . . the subway map. This representation of an idealized subway system for the Southland was created by noted graphic artist and illustrator Geoff McFetridge, who also designed the interfaces on the computers and handhelds used by Theo Twombly in the movie.
Alissa Walker recently caught up with Geoff at his studio in Atwater Village. You can hear their discussion on this segment, and read Alissa’s explanation of the thinking behind his design, below. For more on the cityscape of Her, listen to production designer K.K. Barrett on this DnA.
For Angelenos, one of the best moments in the Oscar-nominated movie Her is watching Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly ride an elevated train through a Los Angeles of the near-future, dance through a bustling subway station, and emerge at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
The scene got a surprised laugh from everyone at the screening I attended. After years of nimby battles and funding shortfalls, director Spike Jonze had just completed the Subway to the Sea!
As Phoenix’s character walks through the station—it was shot in the Hollywood and Western station of L.A’s real-life Red Line—you can even catch a glimpse of the subway map. A screengrab of the scene was posted to Reddit, but it’s not that easy to see, so I asked its creator, local designer Geoff McFetridge, if he would send me the original file. Soon I learned that as the film’s “graphical futurist designer,” McFetridge designed most of the graphic elements in the film, including the computer interfaces which play a large part in the film, from Twombly’s monitor at his job at Beautiful Hand-Written Letters, to the iPhone-esque OS device which we come to know as the character “Samantha.”
I met McFetridge at his Atwater Village studio where his work tables were stacked high with notebooks full of sketches from the film. A frequent collaborator with Jonze, McFetridge also works as a graphic designer, illustrator and artist for clients like Nike, Patagonia, and Pepsi. His design for the film was not altogether a departure from his other work, seeing as he often designs logos and icons for clients, however, McFetridge had no experience designing what interaction designers would call graphical user interfaces (GUIs). This allowed him to approach it very differently than, say, designers at Apple might.
McFetridge began looking at the monitors of the future as a frame, and the interface within it as a work of art. In this way, he was inspired by the artist Mark Rothko, whose paintings feature blurred bands of bright colors. He decided that the digital workspace, whether it was on a desktop monitor or a mobile device, would use these types of color fields to denote hierarchy, pushing the task at hand to the center of the screen. He designed hundreds of icons and other elements which would make the interfaces feel as if they were part of a very rich and developed design language.
In his early concepts, McFetridge was employing the concept of “flat design.” This is a recent trend where designers are moving away from traditional “skeumorphic design,” where elements are designed to mimic real, familiar 3D objects (like the way the calendar on a Mac computer has a leather case and torn paper), to using more abstract colors, shapes and patterns that look like they lie flat—almost like cut paper might appear on a screen.
Funnily enough, just as McFetridge was finalizing his own flat design look for the films’ screens, Apple released images from the iOS 7 update for its iPhone: A dazzling example of not only flat design but brighter colors as well. McFetridge’s interface future seemed on the right track.
Another detail that might not be immediately obvious to viewers of the film is that McFetridge envisioned that each interface in the film is completely customized for each user’s personality. Twombly’s interfaces are designed for his preferences, by some unseen designer, aided perhaps with the artificial intelligence of the OS. McFetridge also thinks this is something which will happen in real life. With so much time spent on our devices, it only makes sense that the screens we peer into will eventually become an extension of ourselves.