Design for Dystopia

How seductive designs help “Black Mirror” tell unnerving stories

by Rob Walker

If you still haven’t gotten around to watching Black Mirror, beware of spoilers ahead. But if you’ve heard anything at all about the show then this probably won’t be a spoiler: By and large, things go badly.

A British series that began in 2011 and made its way to U.S. viewers this past December via Netflix, Black Mirror became an immediate cult hit and critics’ darling here. It’s sometimes described as science fiction, but that’s misleading. The show depicts various near-future dystopias — worlds very much like the one we live in, but with slightly more “advanced” technologies and media tools. One way to read the results is to interpret high tech as Black Mirror’s recurring villain, at the root of every disturbing finale.

But that’s misleading, too. Really, it’s never the tech that goes sideways into some sorry abyss; it’s always us. Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has called it a show about “weak people using powerful tools” — and I’m pretty sure that by “weak people” he means most of humanity. That narrative approach is precisely what makes the best episodes so unnerving.

All of which suggests a fascinating design challenge. The fictional technologies depicted on the show have to be recognizably not a part the world we live in — but plausible additions to a world we’ll live in soon. And that plausibility usually entails making them appealing, even desirable.

After all, an overtly dystopian aesthetic — think of Blade Runner or Brazil — would immediately signal a world the viewer should fear and resist, or at least be relieved is a distant and avoidable made-up future.

But many of the imagined objects and interfaces of Black Mirror aren’t immediately frightening. They’re seductive. And that is what, in the end, makes them frightening.

When this works — and it usually does — it’s a key part of what makes Black Mirror feel, as David Carr once put it, like a show about “the present future we are living through.” This is so true that it’s now almost comically trendy to frame worries about any given technology’s most troubling possible implications as somehow “like Black Mirror.”

Dealing with this challenge was among the tasks faced by British visual effects company Painting Practice. The firm’s credits stretch across film, television, and commercials, and all manner of design, animation, and effects work. It has handled most visual elements of Black Mirror, from the title sequence to the look and feel of the design fictions within the show’s world — from the plot-central to the incidental.

In a recent phone interview, Painting Practice co-founder Joel Collins walked me through several examples of how he and his colleagues designed for a comforting, and perhaps even appealing, near-future dystopia.

NATURAL ORDER

The episode “The Entire History of You,” from the first season, is a good place to start. The hypothetical technology in that installment is scarcely visible: A small implant, hidden behind the ear, makes it possible to review one’s memory at will — zeroing in on a specific moment in time and watching this “re-do” via any nearby screen, or just within your own head. (The user’s eyes take on a spooky glow when the latter is happening.)

The technology is referred to as a Grain, and Collins points out that the entire visual feel of that episode is quietly “earthy,” with lots of wood and stone and vaguely Scandinavian textures in the set design. “Everything’s got a kind of natural feeling,” he says.

This goes for the tech, too. The Grain’s timeline interface is circular, with the user’s life episodes marked off in chunks of concentric circles. Partly this is because a round eye ought to have a round interface. But also, the rings echo the rings of a tree, Collins explains. “So you’re scrolling through something like tree rings, to bring out your memories.”

From “The Entire History of You”

“It has a kind of feeling of nature in it, which I don’t think the audience will necessarily ‘get’,” he continues. “But somehow it makes you feel comfortable. You don’t know why. But you don’t think it’s offensive, and it’s got a feeling of the natural order of life.”

Thus it doesn’t seem all that creepy or shocking (at first) that the young professionals in the episode would have incorporated this clever technology into their lives. Indeed, one woman who has chosen to go against the Grain (having it “gouged”), comes across as an irritating eccentric—like someone who refuses to own a mobile phone or adheres to some esoterically primitive diet. Her friends tsk tsk that Grain memories are much more accurate than “organic” ones.

In any case, we gradually see how this wondrous enhancer of human capability comes with dark temptations, like reliving past moments of intimacy while supposedly engaged in present ones, or endlessly revisiting a business meeting in search of perceived slights. For the principal character, obsessed with his wife’s fidelity, total recall becomes destructive — irresistibly, and naturally.

VERY GENTLE

Black Mirror is an “anthology” series, meaning each episode features a new cast and standalone story. The second-season episode “Be Right Back” unfolds in a world with lots of nifty, yet routine, devices.

The principal character’s high-tech drawing board, for example, combines touchscreen-like functionality with a more old-school easel form — a mixture partly inspired by, say, the hipster penchant for things like bamboo iPhone cases.

From “Be Right Back.” Via Painting Practice.

Collins says this undeniably appealing object was also partly an extrapolation of the Wacom stylus he uses to draw on a tablet. “If I was a designer designing technology, I wouldn’t go all Kubrick necessarily,” he explains. “I’d try and make you feel comfortable. So you’ve got a digital pen, but maybe made of wood, so you’ve got the feeling of a brush as you’re drawing.” (Interestingly, the protagonist later upgrades to another easel with a more glassy look, but you have to be paying rather close attention to catch this.)

Courtesy of Erica McEwan / Painting Practice

The episode also includes a fleeting appearance by a pregnancy-test device with a delightful interface (which nonetheless delivers distressing news). But maybe the most notable thing about all this cool stuff is how un-notable it is: really just tech-object cameos, matter-of-fact background material suggesting a world, but with only the most incidental relationship to the plot. The real story involves the death of the main character’s husband (or maybe boyfriend, I’m not sure this is ever clarified) — and the opportunity to try a service that gives her access to a version of him reconstructed from his digital and social-media identity.

The one bit of technology that plays a subtle but insistent part in moving the plot forward is arguably the least remarkable future object in the episode: a mobile phone that really looks pretty much like an iPhone so thinned-out it’s barely there. For a time this device is the protagonist’s main method of connection with the virtual reconstruction of her late husband. And it becomes most significant when she drops it and the screen shatters.

Concept image courtesy of Erica McEwan, Painting Practice
From “Be Right Back”

The borderline indifference toward the thing itself is intentional. “The possible future of these phones,” Collins suggests, “is that they will be a very simple object you buy in a vending machine. You turn it on and it uploads all your data from your cloud. The phone itself becomes unimportant.”

But the bigger point, he continues, is that none of the visible technologies really hold center stage. “It was all very gentle, gentle in a way that you’d almost not see it,” Colins says. “Because that’s not what the film’s about.

“The mistake a designer can make is to think: ‘This is my moment, and this is what this is about.’ Actually it’s not. It’s about a human story.”

RETRO RIDICULOUS

Brooker often likens his series to The Twilight Zone. I’d qualify that: It has its uncanny twists, but also sustained doses of much more dark-humored satire. This is most true in the episodes of Black Mirror exploring how technology shapes media culture. “The Waldo Moment,” from the second season, involves a belligerent cartoon character that becomes a populist hero. Essentially a digital puppet, Waldo becomes a preposterous tool for wielding (or at least undermining) actual political power.

From “The Waldo Moment”

“Charlie wanted Waldo to be really fucking annoying,” Collins recalls. “One of those characters that thought it was big with the kids, and sort of cool … but really wasn’t.” Brooker also wanted a determinedly retro look. “We have the ability to make quite a beautifully animated character,” Collins continues, referring to the sophisticated digital-art skill sets of his Painting Practice colleagues. “But Waldo is almost completely two-dimensional. We were looking at 80s TV characters — really shit ones.”

Collins has been involved in a few marketing campaigns involving mascots that have been curiously popular despite being fairly annoying, and had that in mind, too. At one point there’s even a quick shot of a Waldo giveaway toy, hinting at the figure’s pop status. (“I sculpted that toy myself!” Collins said when I mentioned this. “We had it molded, and I’ve got a bucket of them somewhere.”)

From “The Waldo Moment”

Waldo’s puppeteer controllers use the character to skewer the powerful, but eventually spiral into the sort of carpet-bombing “irreverence” that has less to do with exposing hypocrisy than with annihilating all comers for fun and profit. The absurd disparity between Waldo’s crudeness (on every level) and its consequences is of course the point of the episode.

From “The Waldo Moment”

“It’s what they say that gets you, not necessarily what they are,” Collins observes of the characters and mascots Waldo indirectly references. “He’s this ridiculous blue bear that … that does this evil.”

PLAUSIBLE AND DISARMING

“15 Million Merits,” from the first season of Black Mirror, offers the show’s most visually rich depiction of a world that’s clearly distinct from our own. The main character lives in little room with video screens for walls; he spends his days on a treadmill gamified to reward him with “merits;” the point of acquiring merits is basically to win a chance to appear on a talent-competition show.

Whatever master system explains this scenario — does all that treadmill activity have a function other than occupying time and energy? — is never made clear. What we really latch onto is the idea that there’s one guy who seems to long for an existence that you and I would recognize as human.

From “15 Million Merits.” Via Painting Practice

“The key to those environments was just keeping them really simple,” Collins says. “The invasive nature of the screens became paramount. Everywhere you go, every corridor you walk down, if the screen picks up on the fact that you’re going past it might try to sell you something, or it might throw one of your interests at you.” (Suprisingly, perhaps, very little computer-generated imagery was added post-production; for more on that see this Creative Review piece from 2011.) Even that treadmill room is reduced to a form that explains little of its function. “It’s a bit like a gym,” Collins allows. “But it’s a bit like an office, I suppose. …. It has a nice attainable feeling to it.”

Still, it’s unmistakably bleak. Which only underscores the contrast offered by the digital avatars who make up the “audience” for that talent program.

Their corresponding humans dress drably and wear dour expressions; but the avatars are individualistic, colorful, charming. Not unlike the figures in gaming worlds we know. “The idea was just to make them plausible and disarming,” Collins says. “So you’ll think: ‘Oh they’re living through their avatar, buying clothes for their avatar.’”

From “15 Million Merits”

In other words, the most visually chipper element of the episode is arguably the darkest. “I don’t know how deeply people will look into it,” Collins says. “But it’s rather uncomfortable.”

THE ATTAINABLE DYSTOPIA

Collins used the word “attainable” more than once in our conversation. It’s a term I usually associate with the buzz-phrasing pitches popular with certain product designers and brand-makers. But it makes a different kind of sense in the contexts that Brooker has invented — maybe these futures are within our grasp, and we should think carefully about just what it is we are so anxious to “attain.” (Motherboard assesses the Black Mirror technologies that “will soon be real,” here.)

When Collins observes that one of the show’s design goals “is to make the audience feel comfortable,” it’s an idea that works two ways. “You need to keep hold of the audience and their interest, because the show is making some interesting statements,” he says. “You don’t want to lose them through design.”

And going “too science fiction-y” doesn’t just risk losing the audience’s attention. It gives them an easy way out. So the design goal almost amounts to subtly thwarting escapism. “This is almost more cynical than if it was just dystopia,” Collins says. “You see it the way it could be — rather than just a fantasy you can watch and say, ‘Well this will never happen.’”

In other words, I suggest, the less the actual techno-objects draw attention to themselves, and the more “natural” and “attainable” they feel, the more the audience is forced to confront their grim implications.

“Well, that’s the whole idea,” Collins answers. “To drag you in, make you squint. ‘What’s this? This isn’t uncomfortable.’” He pauses. “And then — to make you squirm.”

Some Black Mirror fans may wonder why I’m not addressing the “White Christmas” episode that aired in the UK and on Dish TV this past holiday season. The answer is: Because I haven’t seen it yet! So, below, a Painting practice video of that special’s design highlights. Enjoy and drawn your own conclusions. But please, no spoilers.

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