Syd Mead was asked if he wanted to help out on a film – and became one of the most revered ‘futurists’ in cinema, helping define the look of classic sci-fi movies such as Blade Runner, Aliens and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Syd Mead wasn’t planning on becoming a visual futurist. The job description didn’t even exist until he invented it.

“They were doing the credits for Blade Runner and they rang and asked what I’d like to call myself,” Mead says. “I’d been doing visual stuff for 20 years and it was mostly future, so I came up with Visual Futurist.”

From organic starships and glistening space colonies, to dystopian cities and grimy spacecraft, if you want to know what any possible future looks like, Syd Mead is the man to call. As well as Blade Runner, his designs have enabled directors to realise future worlds for movies including Star Trek, Aliens, Tron and Elysium.

We meet at Mead’s home and studio in Pasadena – itself a futuristic open-plan house, with verandas and an indoor fountain – set into a wooded hillside. As well as artwork, the walls are covered in shelves of model cars. Mead is also an automobile enthusiast, starting his career at Ford before founding his own corporation in 1970.

His company’s first commission was to design cassette recorders for electronics multinational Phillips in Holland. “When I started, the attitude was to let the engineers make it work and we’ll make it look as good as possible,” he says. “And I arrive as this brash American and I’m doing these renderings for things that didn’t exist – I was hired to work five years ahead of the actual design process.”

Then, shortly after he moved to southern California in 1975, Paramount Pictures called to ask if he’d like to work on a science fiction film. “I thought, why not?” says Mead. “It wasn’t like Saul on the road to Damascus – a flash of light – it was just another job for my corporation.”

Reuniting the crew of the Enterprise, 10 years after the TV series had been cancelled, Star Trek the Motion Picture was due for release in 1979. The movie featured a giant starship, V’ger, which threatened the Earth. “It was a retread of a TV segment that had been done before,” says Mead, “[so] it wasn’t totally original.”

But Mead’s spaceship was. “The whole idea was to create an organic texture as if it had grown over a mechanical frame,” he explains. “So I looked at pictures of vines in Angkor Wat, where the jungle takes over a machine, it suggests a mystery that entertains the eye.”

 My fantasy has always been influenced by knowing how to design real stuff – Syd Mead

He finished the design in a hotel bar, along the street from the Phillips studios in Eindhoven. “I was having a Brandy Manhattan, drawing this spaceship on a napkin,” Mead says. “Once you have a pen and paper, you can draw anywhere.” The concept was realised as a giant 42-ft-long model, which cameras could sweep across to give the impression of immense size.

After the film’s release, Mead was approached by Star Trek creator and producer Gene Roddenberry to redesign the Enterprise for the forthcoming Next Generation TV series. But Roddenberry insisted that all the work was done at the Star Trek production offices. “He said you have to work here – he was a control freak,” says Mead, who declined the offer. “A friend of mine designed it – it ended up with an oval top that detaches and a bottom half that looks like a chicken with its head cut off.”

The challenge with all his designs, explains Mead, is to try to make the creations futuristic but believable. “My fantasy has always been influenced by knowing how to design real stuff,” he says. “Designing weapons and rocket ships and all these things I’ve worked on, you have to make sure they look like they’re capable of doing what the storyline says they are… and that’s why they hire me.”

But, Mead concedes, there is always a balance to be struck. For the 2013 Matt Damon movie Elysium, for instance, he was asked to visualise the interior of a giant space colony. It houses the world’s elite in luxury high above the Earth, while the planet appears to be in terminal decline. A metaphor for immigration and class struggle, the cylindrical space habitat is a utopian world of lakes, mountains and high living.

For the space colony to have artificial gravity, it needed to rotate. Mead called up a friend at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, to make sure he got this rate of revolution correct. “So, he figures it out and says it has to go past a fixed point every two and a half minutes.”

But not everything in the movie is as scientifically precise. One scene has Matt Damon’s spacecraft crash landing on the surface of the artificial world. This meant that, rather than being enclosed, the space colony had to somehow be open to space. As a result, during publicity for the film, an interviewer suggested the science was flawed. “I whispered back to him: ‘It’s a movie’,” says Mead. “Technical expertise is admirable, but for a movie you have to go over the top of reality, otherwise it doesn’t look like it should.”

Technical expertise is admirable, but for a movie you have to go over the top of reality, otherwise it doesn’t look like it should – Syd Mead

And often even the highest-tech reality is, frankly, disappointing. “The first Cray computer looked like a cheap prop from a badly funded science fiction movie, it was pathetic,” Mead says, “and it was the fastest computer in the world at the time.”

Although he’s made his name in the movies, Mead maintains that a good designer can work on anything. “Cassettes, TVs and starships – one technology is just way ahead of the other,” he says.

“I call science fiction ‘reality ahead of schedule’.”

Syd Mead’s art features in an exhibition on design from California at London’s Design Museum until October 2017

--

Join 800,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.