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

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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.

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Since his work was pegged as off-beat, product design groups did not seek him out to make real prototypes. But in 1992, the editor of Desktop Magazine, asked him to imagine potential uses for the Apple Newton. "I would like to believe that I was rather far-sighted in my solutions," he says proudly, "foreseeing application of wireless communication technologies that were not yet offered in existing products. I am sure that design labs were likely thinking along some of the lines I was suggesting, though."

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Also In the early 1990s, Johnson began to push his work to the next level by addressing social issues and attempting to solve them with clever inventions or systems of his own design. His next book, Public Therapy Buses, Information Specialty Bums, Solar Cook-A-Mats and Other Visions of the 21st Century, was published in the small format of Gary Larson's Far Side books, "but was not as funny, funky, or silly as my earlier work," he says. "I addressed serious issues like crime prevention, as shown in my idea for a Swimming Pool Moat":

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The next level meant that Johnson tried to create actual, useful products. "Ideas for them come to me all the time, given that I have trained myself to be interested in inventions," he explains. "I do not think of myself as a 'natural' inventor, however, and had no trouble giving up cartooning sideline from 1994 to 2005, when I took a job as a 'futurist' in a small department at Honda R&D in Southern California." But when it came to being officially designated "futurist," he became skeptical. "Our group would bump into groups from Toyota and other car companies at annual conferences of the World Future Society. Most of the attendees were elderly white-haired white men whose notions of the future were becoming quaint and outdated. Generally, science fiction writers and authors like Arthur C. Clarke or Aldous Huxley have had a better track record at foreseeing the future than have futurists."

So in 2005 Johnson returned to cartooning. Still, some of Johnson's fake inventions and "foolish" ideas became fads or products later on. "In 1975 I started predicting (in my drawings) that store-bought clothing would be sold pre-ripped; I was almost a decade ahead," he crows. "In 1991 I showed a drawing of a small, radio-controlled vacuum cleaner that could creep under furniture. It was about the size of the Roomba, which was offered a decade later. Mere entertainment is sometimes a vehicle for suggesting what is 'in the air.'"

But there must be a few implausible inventions that Johnson would like to realize. "Twenty years ago in Public Therapy Buses, one of the chapters highlighted my ideas for a future that featured widespread application of green technologies," he says. "I made images that implied the spread of solar technology and ultra-light vehicles. A problem that I foresaw was that even if one could create vehicles using ultra-light, aerodynamic carbon fiber bodies, solar skins, and hyper-efficient batteries, these vehicles would be exposed to significant danger when they shared the same highway system with SUVs—which were on the horizon as I predicted, describing the trend as the coming of 'Mean Cars'—and semi-trailer trucks. At present, there is a lady bug-shaped solar-paneled car, the X1, which has been driven across on roads in the Arctic Circle on sun power alone by plucky Marcelo de Luz. The Continental Divide has been crossed eight times by this tiny bug of a car."

In 1991, in Public Therapy Buses Johnson described the following scene:

INTERCONTINENTAL SOLAR-ELECTRIC HIGHWAY — Early in the 21st century, Route 1SE is opened as the first leg in a vast intercontinental highway system that is designed for solar, electric, and other qualifying benign vehicles. Lanes are narrow, paving is smooth enough for bicycle tires, and Chargestops are located where solar cooking and solar battery recharging is best. Passively heated underground warming huts, free hostels (policed so they don't become Robbers' Roosts) are provided, as are free solar-distilled water and emergency solar-powered phones. Advertising billboards are outlawed except directly above underground shops.

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"This is one of my more Utopian ideas," Johnson says. "It is one I would love to see materialize some day." You never know. One can't predict, can one?

Images: Courtesy of Steven M. Johnson

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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