An Introduction to Alex McDowell’s “World Building”

An influential designer changes the way others design. A deeply influential designer shifts how we think about design by fundamentally changing the role design plays in the creative process, potentially altering audiences’ expectations of creative work that ranges from architecture to computer games. Alex McDowell is a deeply influential designer.

Drawing on a literary metaphor — “world-building” — to describe his approach to design, McDowell’s methods represent a cultural shift in his industry’s production process. Taking this metaphor seriously, we might be reminded that engaging literary fiction originates less often in plot outlines than it does in imagined worlds. Sometimes these fictional worlds closely resemble our own. Others are speculative and represent realities far-removed from the world we know. Either way, most fictional worlds present us with lenses with which to view familiar aspects of our own that have been accentuated, transformed, and lain bare.

Speculating about what the world “might” look like in the future is easy. More challenging, though, is realizing that speculative vision through the design process. McDowell’s work realizing a future-world inspired by Philip K. Dick’s novella in the 2002 film Minority Report is emblematic of a transformation in design process that is made possible through the use of computational media. On Minority Report, McDowell led his production design team, which began as a largely analog art department, through a transition in which they became the first fully-digital art department in the film industry — an example that many other design departments would soon follow and that foreshadowed a broader cultural shift in creative process.

As his world building team (though it was not yet called that) began conceptualizing the world of Minority Report, McDowell confronted the film’s central question through interdisciplinary perspectives: How would the area around Washington, D.C. change if violent crime was essentially eliminated? From literary speculative futures, to urban planning, to social science, to architecture, to transportation design, and more, McDowell insisted on integrating scholarship from a wide array of disciplines with ongoing conversations about the future of technology among scientists and engineers. The result was that McDowell’s world building approach would lead to a cohesive, speculative design of a future world that is both utterly foreign and believably familiar.

Most of the film’s audience will probably remember the gestural interface of the 3D screens used by the agents in the Department of PreCrime — speculative designs that, in turn, have influenced actual technologies ranging from Apple’s iPad to Microsoft’s Kinect. However, Minority Report‘s influence in design reached an even wider array of design cultures, including biometrics (particularly retinal scanning), through other imagined technologies woven throughout the film’s environment and plot.

In other words, McDowell’s world building integrates interdisciplinary humanistic, scientific, and design inquiry with emerging forms of computational media to fundamentally alter the film production process, blurring boundaries between physical and virtual environments and the distinctions between film and other media forms. In the digitally designed world of Minority Report, props could be modeled first as 2 dimensional images and later as 3 dimensional physical objects. Then, through computer-controlled milling, those models could be used to create final props by sculpting and mold-making. Bringing direction, cinematography, and design together in the virtual space of the pre-visualization stage, props, actors, and the created world interacted throughout the production process. As a result, Minority Report and McDowell’s world building process signaled a transformation in design culture that has not yet fully played out.

In 2012 Michael Mateas and I were organizing a convening titled Media Systems that would become the first joint activity of the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), together with Microsoft Studios and Microsoft Research. Given the event’s focus on the future of computational media and McDowell’s deep influence in production design over the last 15 years, he was naturally a desirable speaker to invite. The practice and ideas of world building, in McDowell’s definition, are a clear example of interdisciplinary work connecting the arts, design, media-focused computer science, and elements of the humanities and social sciences. World-building is both the creation of media and a design research practice, and in neither case is its interdisciplinarity a luxury, because the work simply must engage multiple disciplines in order to achieve a coherent vision and to push the field forward.

After the Media Systems convening, participants engaged in more than a year of continued analysis and discussion. Those conversations led to the publication of a final report, Envisioning the Future of Computational Media, which is available to download for free. Together with videos of the presentations of more than a dozen field leaders beyond McDowell, we hope to have captured both a broad vision and the specifics of particular investigations of this exciting area of interdisciplinary research.

Alex McDowell’s presentation on “World Building” was first presented at the Media Systems Workshop held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, August 26-29, 2012.

About Noah Wardrip-Fruin

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is Associate Professor of Computer Science and co-director of the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz. His books include The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003) and Expressive Processing (MIT Press, 2009). Recent projects include Prom Week (2012 finalist at IndieCade and the Independent Games Festival) and the 2014 report of the Media Systems project: "Envisioning the Future of Computational Media" (a project supported by the NSF, NEH, NEA, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research). He holds an MFA and PhD from Brown University, an MA from New York University, and a BA from the Johnston Center at the University of Redlands.