Design, Art and Space Odyssey

The first time I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was the summer I turned 17. Every time I watch the beginning I get transported to that night, home alone in the dark, staring in anticipation as the music played on the blank screen. That summer I got my first job. We were three boys sitting in the office we had rented, trying to figure out how to start a design studio. We were staring at the blank screen in anticipation for it all to start.

 Kubrick cast mime artist instead of actors as the apes. They studied chimpanzees to get more authentic body language.

Kubrick cast mime artist instead of actors as the apes. They studied chimpanzees to get more authentic body language.

Act 1: Dawn of Man

That year I learned more than I had in the two years of Media and Design School. While I finished my third year of Upper Secondary School, I worked nights and weekends at our little design studio. And at the end of the year, we had gone from making PowerPoints to creating a million kroner identity for a local housing company.

2001: A Space Odyssey is fascinating to me on two levels. It’s an epic depiction of mankind’s origin and future in one epic glimpse, from bone to bombs to rebirth. It deals with the most human questions, what differentiates us from the apes, and what separates us from machines? But when I was 17, what fascinated me most was the combination of two of the 20th century’s most brilliant minds, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. The man who pushed the artistic limits of Hollywood, and the man who dared to imagine a radical future of technology.

Act 2: From the Earth to the Moon

A year after my graduation we moved Railway from Lillehammer to Oslo. I got an offer to start a typography apprenticeship at one of Oslo’s biggest communication agencies at the time, Dinamo. So I took the step into the agency world. While I designed magazines for print and web in the daytime, I helped Sondre and Andreas build Railway in the evening. This was quite practical as we all shared an apartment that doubled as the studio’s offices. Good times.

 Nobody had seen outer space when the sets where made. But thanks to some of the most advanced optical techniques in the history of cinema they where able to create a realistic illusion.

Nobody had seen outer space when the sets where made. But thanks to some of the most advanced optical techniques in the history of cinema they where able to create a realistic illusion.

After two years Railway had grown from three employees to ten. I had moved on from designing magazines at Dinamo to a role as digital designer at Geelmuyden Kiese, a PR-firm turned creative agency. It was fun and I learned a lot. But I had started to see limitations in the traditional way of working in advertising and communication. I was creating short lived campaigns with no sense of solving real problems or creating value for the user. After finishing the biggest project I got to work on, a brand startegy for Oslo Airport, I quit my job.

Act 3: Jupiter Mission

I have a book about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its black, shaped like the monolith and filled with behind the scenes photos and sketches. When I looked through it I realized that it wasn’t just Kubrick and Clarke who made Space Odyssey into a legend. It was the exceptional dedication of the team working on the set too.

Kubrick and Clarke strived for a perfect realism of space before anyone had been on the moon. That’s why they invited NASA scientist as advisers to the movie. They also reached out to some of the 60s most influential artists. The mashup of rocket scientists and Avant Garde artists showed what can be achieved when technology and art unifies.

The cross pollination of different disciplines was something I experienced after I quit my job and re-joined Railway five years after it all started. When I returned we decided to eliminate the few advertising clients we had, and focus on the important stuff. We shifted from selling websites and visual identities, to selling innovation processes and products for real people.

Working side by side with our developers Helle and Ole, I started learning to prototype in code, and working with our content strategist Jørgen, I started to write better articles. Inspired by IDEO our team began doing co-design workshops and rapid field testing. This made me conscious of some of the negative effects my energy can have on other people in the creative process. In addition it gave me the experience of working with people outside the creative industry.

Act 4: Jupiter, and Beyond the Infinite

In the last 6 months Railway have done a radical shift, from design bureau to innovation studio. And in that time we have added clients such as the insurance company Gjensidige, the grocery chain Rema 1000 and the media house Aftenposten.

The final act of Space Odyssey is the most controversial. This is where Stanley Kubrick and the rest of the film team spent the most time experimenting. When the movie was funded and the project begun, it was estimated to take two years. It took four. But that experimentation innovated not only film as a medium, but art and technology as well.

I’m fascinated by this unrelenting experimentation in the intersection of art, design and technology. This is what I want to explore further in my work.

 The Stargate was inspired by experimental filmmakers from the 60s. Special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull built a machine to get the effect.

The Stargate was inspired by experimental filmmakers from the 60s. Special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull built a machine to get the effect.

I recently convinced the others at Railway to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey one evening at the office. After almost three hours including intermission, they were either asleep or completely confused. Stanley Kubrick has famously said that the movie is not made to be understood the first time you watch it. But I’ve seen it more than a few times and I still don’t get it. The power of Space Odyssey is that we are left guessing.

While I don’t have a clue what the meaning behind the movie is, the movie itself represents something very important to me.

As creators we have a responsibility to shape the future for the better, with each thing we put into the world. I believe in taking technology into our own hands and envisioning a future where our lives are not dictated by screens and robots, but where it enables humans to experience a better life. To solve underlying and hidden problems in our societies and systems. To make everyday objects as meaningful as art. Not to redesign how we poke, like, blog and tweet. But to rethink the way we work, sleep, love and eat.

 Artist Liz Moore sculpted the Starchild. This stands as her most remembered piece as she died in a car crash a few years later.

Artist Liz Moore sculpted the Starchild. This stands as her most remembered piece as she died in a car crash a few years later.

In the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey the astronaut Dave Bowman is reborn as the Starchild and returns to earth. The original script showed the Starchild destroying the spaceships from the beginning of the movie, and revealing to the audience that they were really atomic weapons. It was supposed to be a message of peace. But Stanley Kubrick decided to leave it out. Why?

To me, that single detail leaves a strong message. In the final seconds of the movie, the Starchild turns its gaze toward the camera and in one piercing moment it looks directly at you. As if to say: It’s up to you.

WritingJens Obel