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.
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 Apple released in the fall of 2006, almost a year after Coleran completed his work on Children of Men. Coleran didn't invent Coverflow — Apple purchased it from an artist and programmer earlier in 2006 — but it is an example of Coleran's method of combining and taking inspiration from up-and-coming UI concepts before they enter the mainstream. In the image below, Coleran also borrowed (with permission) the background from a 3D desktop concept called Bumptop.
Of course, Coleran had plenty of experience designing real-world UIs himself 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."
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."
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."