The Accidental Futurist: Steven M. Johnson's Alternate Realities

A designer dreams up everything from hot-tub cars to shoes with headlights—and sometimes predicts the future

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His website says he's "searching for value in ludicrous ideas." His recent book, Have Fun Inventing: Learn to Think up Products and Create Future Inventions Easily, is jammed full of ludicrous ideas. And his products and predictions, like solar-cooker cars, multiple rotating-wiggling basketball hoops, factory-made pre-damaged cars, and the "SMAXI," the Smart Car NYC taxi, among his favorites, are ludicrosities.

"His concepts are so silly, so transformative, so lateral to the lateral thinking that we strive for that even he calls them 'sneakily outrageous,' and they are. That's what makes them perfectly relevant," says Liz Danzico, chair of the School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design program, who recently had him lecture to her master's students.

So, who is he?

Steven M. Johnson (b. 1938) is a former urban planner and future trends analyst from California, who defines himself in terms of Chinese astrology as a tiger "with a tendency to rush forward, defend the weak, and be foolishly brave." Since the early 1970s, he has been creating scores of alternative products and systems—on paper—that he hopes will benefit "or at least amuse" his fellow consumer-citizens. "His ideas, and his methods for arriving at ideas, are somewhat unique," he writes in the third person on his website. "He has perhaps benefited from having had little formal instruction in art, nor training in engineering or industrial design. Curious images have filled his mind during weekends and odd free moments."

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Johnson might be the love child of the satirists Bruce McCall and Glen Baxter. In fact, design critic and former Dwell editor Allison Arieff described him as R. Crumb meets Buckminster Fuller. His distinct sardonic sensibility was borne of insatiable subversive desires. "I guess my story is unusual for a few reasons," he told me recently, "one being that I sneered at art classes in high school, bypassed art school, and only took a couple of art classes in college, the main ones being pencil drawing classes taught by Bauhaus founder Josef Albers, when I was in my first undergraduate years majoring in English at Yale."

Another is that prior to his sideline as an inventor-cartoonist he entered the work world as a salaried assistant city planner in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and '70s. Then in 1973, "over the hill at 36, I became editorial cartoonist for Sierra Magazine, and in 1974 was given an assignment to think up 16 imagined RVs of the future. For the assignment I ended up creating 109 ideas, and discovered that I liked to think up alternative designs, and that I had something of a knack for inventing." But from 1994 to 2004 Johnson gave up invention-cartooning to work as a future trends analyst at Honda R&D in Southern California "and wanted to give my best energies to my job, preparing research and PowerPoint presentations for the Japanese president."

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Since returning to his true passion, he has produced an invention a week for a feature titled Museum of Possibilities for Neatorama.com, where he invites readers to name ventures like shoes with headlights and left and right directional signals, motorized lawn furniture / lawnmowers, front and back bras, motorized bumper-car shopping carts, motorcycle helmets covered with hair (in various mullet and pony tail styles), and more. He has yet to take out patents on these inventions.

Making a fortune is not Johnson's goal. "Creating comedic images is fun for me; it allows me to be mischievous." He also admits that most cartoonists and comedians "desperately crave attention. We permit ourselves to tap into our craziness and mostly as a way to impress others with how nutty we can be. While I like inventing unique things that have never before existed, I find I am too lazy to spend time focusing for very long on a single concept. Spinning out multiple, vaguely possible solutions to real or imagined problems is for me an exciting mental adventure; I love to surprise myself with ideas that I pulled out of the air. On my business card I describe myself as a Possibilitist."

Johnson's first book, What The World Needs Now, was designed to spoof an L.L. Bean catalog. "I pretended I was showcasing existing and why-had-no-one-ever-thought-of-this products. For example, I offered a "Boulder Tent" as a solution to the problem of backcountry crime. No one would know you are there!"

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In the 1980s his work appeared in Road&Track magazine alongside the fantastic whimsical inventions of Philip Garner, author of Philip Garner's Better Living Catalog. Johnson's work was as delightfully absurd as his, but Garner actually made his gadgets, while Johnson simply drew his on paper.

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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