Wednesday, June 13, 2018

OKUDAGRAMS PART 1: HOW ONE MAN DESIGNED THE FUTURE WE ALL LOVE

I recently purchased a number of original graphic panels that were used in the production of "Star Trek: The Next Generation". While researching them, I discovered that these pieces are truly works of art that were integral to the success of Star Trek in it's rebooted forms. I also rediscovered my love for the series, much of which I had not seen in many years. Both of those facts lead to this series of articles on the subject of these amazing bits of design.

Everyone knows that the original Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry. As creator and producer of the original series (1966-69) he is the acknowledged source of all things Trek. But, while the concept is the product of a single man, it's not an exaggeration to say that Star Trek itself is the product of thousands of creative people working to make that concept a reality on film. Costume designers, production artists, scenic designers, art directors – all had to come together to visually create the  fantastic future universe that we collectively know as Star Trek.

Star Trek designer Mike Okuda with an original Sickbay panel.
When we think of that rich visual presentation of Trek's various incarnations, there's one consistent element that acts as a unifying visual thread throughout all the various pieces and parts. That element is commonly called an "Okudagram". In short, Okudagrams are the interactive-looking control panels and surfaces that appear throughout Star Trek. They are named after their designer, Mike Okuda, a graphic designer who joined the Star Trek production world back in 1985 with the making of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. From that very humble start Okuda's work would go on to help define the very look of the Star Trek universe. On a personal note, as graphic designer myself, Mr. Okuda is one of my personal design heroes. His work has greatly influenced my own over the years.

LCARS panels cover every control surface of the Enterprise-D
Even casual viewers of Star Trek came to know these ubiquitous pieces of design because of the popularity of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise-D is literally covered with them. Every control surface of the bridge, engineering, sickbay, the holodeck – you name it – all feature Okudagrams. Dubbed "LCARS" for Library Computer Access and Retrieval System, these panels became synonymous with the look of 24th century Starfleet technology. They would be seen not only on the Enterprise-D, but on every type of Starfleet facility – every ship, Starbase and outpost had them which gave an instant kind of recognition to these locations. Alien ships would get their own unique design treatments which would help define the visual worlds of the Klingons, Romulans, The Dominion and myriad other races. The style would be used faithfully throughout the runs of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Enterprise would get its own version of Okudagrams, one meant to convey an earlier use of the technology. Okuda was designing what would become known as a user interface, the now common term for screens on computers, pads and phones. But he was doing it thirty years ago!

Data's Ops station shows the LCARS interface.
At first glance the colorful graphic panels might be dismissed as simple set decoration that is used to convey a high-tech future. But, while it's true that LCARS do serve that function in many ways, they are so much more than mere ornamentation. Those panels are actually a refined story-telling device that help reveal countless details to watchers. They convey information that is key to zillions of plot lines in a way that is simple to understand and visually engaging while being uniquely Star Trek.

The original Star Trek's controls – lots of switches, knobs and blinky things.
In a 2010 article on arstechnica.com, Okuda explained why the controls looked so different from the original series' physical switches. "The initial motivation for that was in fact cost. Doing it purely as a graphic was considerably less expensive than buying electronic components. But very quickly we began to realize—as we figured out how these things would work and how someone would operate them, people would come to me and say, 'What happens if I need to do this?' Perhaps it was some action I hadn't thought of, and we didn't have a specific control for that. And I realized the proper answer to that was, 'It's in the software.' All the things we needed could be software-definable."

Okuda's sleek approach to interfaces began with the original cast movies.
And so, to keep things sleek, simple and elegant, Okuda designed touch-screens before anyone really knew what a touch-screen was. The implication was that the screen could dynamically change as the user interacted with it. Most of the time the panels could not be seen clearly so the idea worked perfectly. And instead of having to physically build a panel with all sorts of expensive details, Okuda designed a flat piece of art for each station. That would be translated to the pieces seen on-set in a process that was far more cost-effective than the traditional style of earlier years. And it beautifully fulfilled the need of looking futuristic.

In "Rascals" the crew gather in Engineering to ponder an LCARS image.
There's an old adage in film-making: show, don't tell. With the LCARS approach, that became simpler than ever. Instead of having a character stand in front of the others and tell them a piece of information, a custom panel could be designed for a specific episode that helped the characters to convey that information in a more interesting way. How many times did the characters gather around the bridge science station to get an update from Data? What about the numerous mission briefings in the conference room or in Engineering? Sometimes an actual animation was used but most often it was a simple, static image used to help things along.

Data and Geordi explain things in the conference room in "I, Borg".
Riker and Jellico argue in "Chain of Command".
Dr. Crusher is surrounded by LCARS in Sickbay.
The panels themselves were made with basic items of the day – film negatives, photo gels and plexiglass. But when assembled and placed on-set, the sleek, futuristic environment became alive with light and sound. I'll discuss the construction in detail in the next chapter.

Stay tuned!

LLAP,

Don

3 comments:

  1. Looking forward to the next article.

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  2. I've always wondered if there was a written style guide to ensure consistency.

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  3. Always been a huge fan of the Okudas!!

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