Digital and Branding
Territory Projects

Why Aliens Matter — freedom from conventions

07 Aug 2016

Screen Graphics

Helena Corvin-Swahn
Prometheus, screen UI by Territory. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
As creatives, clients and users, we are all surrounded by genre conventions. For good and bad, these familiar category short hands emerge out of initial disruptive chaos, through trial and error, to help us navigate quickly and easily. They are everywhere.

Colours, physical and virtual forms, signposting and interaction behaviours are all based on shared understanding and respect for convertions.
Think about how road signs and stoplights are designed and how the information is structured, and what red and green means for drivers and pedestrians. Notice that red, orange and green have been adopted into UI and even packaging design to alert users to certain types of information.
Brands also rely on conventions. Think about how brand names are contracted, shrunk down into logos, marks and icons — small visual short hands for the longer name. Think about how those print and signage conventions have been adopted online as URLs and social platforms feature a thumbnail or avatar to represent the brand, even our selves.
The same thinking applies to interaction design. Who doesn’t understand online UI iconography today? The ‘sandwich’ menu icon, the magnifying glass that invites us to ‘search’, the cog that means settings… Beyond that, we are all familiar with the swipe action on tablets, the ‘make smaller’ pinch, the enlarge …
Designed to help us, why do brands and creatives try to ‘break’ these conventions?
Marti Romances, Creative Director at Territory’s San Francisco studio explains, “The drive to innovate is partly driven by the need for brands to stand out from the crowd, to offer something new or unique. It’s also driven by our creative curiosity to find other ways, better ways to express an idea or engage with the world around us”.

Territory Studio UI Reel

This constant drive towards innovation is primarily thought about in the context of products and services. But, as Marti explains, it effects UI and UX design as well.
“Incremental innovation, as we think of it in UI and UX terms, tends to reference conventions, evolving familiar expectations and behaviours in a way that the user is comfortable with. Think Apple’s original skeuomorphic Graphical User Interface design, launched in 1984, which helped us navigate our computers by presenting computing logic using everyday visual icons. This in no way suggests that the innovation was less than radical — Apple’s GUI caused a paradigm shift in User Interface design, but it felt familiar”.
In the same vein, Marti shares how radical product innovations often ask that we change the way we interact, and learn new behaviours. Think the iPod click wheel. Revolutionary at the time, the click wheel transformed the actions we associated with gadget interfaces. Today, VR — a technology that will ultimately transform how we engage with the world around us — is going through a process of defining ways for users to interact with new and richly textured experiences.
The field of speculative design encompasses imagined and conceptual products, services and interaction behaviours that go beyond our current technological capabilities. While they may reference conventions, they offer a new perspective on how we engage with the world around us.
“Territory’s heartland is innovation, says Marti, “and we’re passionate about it — incremental, radical, speculative and probable — the studio work on projects across all of these areas, and each one has its own challenges”.
The studio’s speculative work is most readily seen in their fantasy UI for science fiction films, where spaceships, weapons and gadgets are used by humans, aliens and animals…
Even trees.

We find that the ideas that people respond to are the ones that give audiences a glimpse of a possible future that while different, ultimately feels very human

Marti Romances

So how does the studio achieve this? How does the team free themselves from the conventions they work with and within every day? How do they step outside of them long enough to not only imagine something new, but refine it and develop it and realise it for the film narrative?

“That’s where director Ridley Scott and Prometheus, the Alien prequel, comes into the story”, says Marti. “It was a defining project for Territory that transformed our creative approach and made us who we are today”.

Read about Territory’s fantasy UI for Prometheus at Inventing Interactive.

Helena Corvin-Swahn


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