Mad Max: Fury Road owes its critical and box office success to a surprising confluence of factors that have been touched on in numerous articles online: feminism, explosions, a flame-throwing guitarist, more explosions.
But one key supporting element has avoided too much attention - the film’s dedication to creating innovative design solutions to complicated and unusual problems.
There is a painstaking level attention to detail maintained throughout the film; every minute element of each costume and prop is reasoned; director George Miller insisted that each actor be able to describe the details of their costumes, what purpose they served and the story behind them.
To learn more, we spoke to Imperator Experiosa, Director of User Experience at the Citadel, who agreed to share his 10 principles in exchange for several gallons of clean water and half of a cheeseburger we didn’t finish eating.
The 10 Principles of Wasteland Design may differ dramatically from conventionally accepted rules, but they may nevertheless be worth considering the next time you embark upon a design project — whether it’s a mobile app or a mobile death machine.
It doesn’t matter if you’re designing an explosive-tipped spear or a first aid kit—your product should be able to immediately communicate its various uses. "Affordances should be direct and easily understood. People are going to use your product in ways you haven’t anticipated, and you can’t expect them to read an instruction manual. Because they can’t read, mostly, and also quite a few of them are blind.”
2. Wasteland Design Is Perpetually Field-Tested
“When you’re tattooing up a prototype on the back of a bloodbag, it’s easy to get carried away adding extra features like knife-blade gear-shifters and tire-shredding spike wheels. The real challenge of our job is in differentiating between the “nice-to-haves” and the “need-to-haves”. There may be hidden costs that you can’t anticipate when implementing hair-trigger self-destruct buttons, and that’s why rigorous testing is so important."
So what does a standard testing cycle look like? “Typically, we look for opportunities to test out new prototypes in non-stressful environments, like during supply runs through The Poison Mire or reconnaissance surveys in the The Great Wastes. Our testers are highly opinionated, but they’re not the greatest communicators. It can sometimes be a challenge to interpret their gibbering and screaming into actionable opinions and desires.” “Especially when they’re on fire,” adds user interface designer Mondo Enchanto, “which happens a lot more often than you might expect."
“Field tests led us to some unexpected conclusions; for instance, there weren’t nearly enough cabin firearms on the first several prototypes of the War Rig, as some of our testers learned the hard way.” In a poetic touch, their recovered skulls have been turned into hidden handgun compartments for emergencies. “It’s the little touches like this that make our rigs feel complete. Delightful details that just make our users smile. That’s the type of reaction we live for."
3. Wasteland Design Makes its Users Heard
“Good design is about feedback, allowing your users to feel heard. The decision to include removable steering wheels was implemented at the request of our users, who desired more control over the look and feel of their vehicular raiding experience.” Unfortunately, users don’t always know best. "Research showed that despite of higher user engagement while in a pursuit vehicle, average duration of use decreased noticeably as a sizable proportion of users ended up driving off of cliffs or into sheer rock walls."
“To our surprise, users reacted so angrily when we re-implemented fixed steering wheels that we had to scrap our update plan altogether. Today, most pursuit vehicles still have removable wheels — the only concession we were able to wrestle from project stakeholders was an extra wrench in every vehicle to be used as a replacement steering wheel in case of emergencies."
4. Wasteland Design is Always Evolving
Early versions of our pursuit vehicles, for instance, didn’t account for combat encounters with hydraulic saw-blades. “There are some things that no matter how much you test, are impossible to predict and plan for.” That’s why it’s so important to recognize that the development cycle doesn’t end with the launch of the product. “Our world may be an eternally damned, dry and dirty husk of pain and hopelessness, a bleak and brutal morass of savagery from which there is no escape, but that doesn’t stop the market from moving… it’s a challenge to stay one step ahead of the game, to predict what our competitors will do before they do it; but that’s what we get paid to do."
5. Wasteland Design is As Much Design As Possible
“‘Overdesigned’ isn’t a word we’re familiar with. More is always better." Pointing to the endless hostile expanse of desert around him, he continues: “That’s simplicity out there. That’s death. Our users need every advantage they can get, and yes, that can sometimes be complicated. But good user experience, for us, is an experience the user survives. Always have backup plans for your backup plan.” The War Rig, for instance, boasts two supercharged v8 engines, so it can keep hauling even if one engine blows. “It can even be repaired while in motion, if you’ve got the manpower to spare and don’t mind someone else maybe losing a couple fingers.”
And what if your vehicle catches on fire? “Suddenly that dust-cloud-generating cowcatcher fixed to the front of your car makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?”
6. Wasteland Design Makes Smart Use of Existing Resources
In the wasteland, it’s rare to find an ideal work environment where you always have access to the resources you need to get the job done. “Limits are a necessary part of the design process. Whether you impose them on yourself or they’re applied by external forces,” Experiosa continues, “they often end up streamlining and enhancing your original vision.”
So what do you do when a gas pedal breaks off and rolls out the door into the wastes? Sometimes the improvised answer is better than the original design. “We had a bunch of footsy measure doodads lying around not doing much; welding them to the gas pedal gave our users enhanced customizability without adding unnecessary complexity.”
7. No. We don’t talk about rule number seven. Nobody talks about rule number seven.
8. Wasteland Design Puts on A Good Show
How a product looks is part of how it performs. "Some people wouldn’t consider a flamethrower a very useful addition to an electric guitar. I invite those people to consider why we need the guitar in the first place: to pump up our audience of motorized psychopath pirates. With that in mind, doesn’t a flamethrower guitar seem like a better tool for the job?"
Knowing your audience is key; your product should be able to tell a story that your audience can relate to. "Visual storytelling is a huge part of our design process. People should be able to look at our product and instantly tell what it can do, and more importantly, the product should be able to make them run away screaming in terror."
9. Wasteland Design is About Accepting Your Limits as a Designer...
Finally, Imperator Experiosa pauses, and surveys the scorched horizon. “At the end of the day,” he admits, “you just have to accept that once the product is in the hands of your users, you can’t prepare for every eventuality.” Don’t let the ‘great’ get in the way of the ‘good', but never settle for being mediocre. “So we make some mistakes, so some users get eaten by roving packs of cannibals. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few skulls."
10. ...BUT ALSO UNDERSTANDING THAT THERE ARE NO TRUE LIMITS, AND WE WILL ALL GLORIOUS DESIGN SHINY AND CHROME EXPERIENCES AS WE RIDE ETERNAL INTO VALHALLAAAAA
Have you incorporated any of these principles into your design process? Let us know how in the comments!