Design Indaba 2016
Alex McDowell’s Guide to Inventing Whole New Worlds

Once upon a time, stories were linear. A character would make a series of decisions that were then fixed in the narrative, and the audience were obliged to follow them. But what if a character turned left instead of right? Where would they end up, and how would that change the story? These are questions that storytellers now need to answer, says Alex McDowell, who believes that effective world-building is more relevant than ever as virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies become increasingly prevalent in the entertainment industry.

“World building exists at this intersection of design, technology and storytelling,” he says, during his session at Design Indaba 2016. Way back in the beginning, storytelling originated as a means for tribes around campfires to define the world around them. Over time, these became cumulative myths, populated with heroes and monsters, as evidenced in the Old Testament and Greco-Roman pantheon. This aggregated method of storytelling was disrupted in the 1400s with the invention of the printing press, when single, definitive narratives became the norm.

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“For centuries now we’ve become habituated to the idea that the single author is there to control what we look at, and what we read, in a fairly linear manner,” he says. “I would say this is as big a disruption as the very beginning of cinema, that it is very fundamentally going to change the way we think about storytelling.”

And McDowell knows a thing or two about disruption; as a social secretary at art school, he booked the Sex Pistols for their very first headline gig, which he now calls the “single disruptive moment” which changed his life. Very soon after he became immersed in the punk movement, making T-shirts for Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, founding Rocking Russian Design with Glen Matlock, and co-editing the inaugural issues of i-D magazine with Terry Jones.

He has since carved out a career in film, where he has been responsible for developing a unique, holistic ideation process for storytelling which encompasses architecture, prototyping and production. This is most evident in his work on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. The production team didn’t even have a script for the first year, McDowell recalls; Spielberg simply gave them the broadest story strokes to work with. They knew the film would be set in Washington D.C. in the near future, and that it would feature “pre-cogs”; characters who could see the future and predict crimes before they were committed.

This immediately got McDowell and his department thinking about how such a phenomenon might influence the setting; with crime at an all-time low, he reasoned that population would flourish, and that the city would be forced to build upwards. This in turn led McDowell to investigate new kinds of transportation, and so on. Over 100 technology patents have come out of technologies which were first explored in Minority Report, he says, from driverless cars to drones to gesture-based computing.

Originating new ideas in a story has been part of science-fiction since its inception. How many VR developers first got the bug when watching holodeck episodes of Star Trek, for example. The best fictional worlds, says McDowell, are the ones that can function as a container for not just one narrative, but hundreds; he and his team knew every inch of their setting inside out before the script was even final.

This same world-building can be used to help solve real life problems like poverty, says McDowell Storytelling is a universal form of communication, and visuals are our common tongue, something he has found when working across language barriers on development initiatives in the Middle East, taking digital data from the real world and translating it into a virtual space.

“Storytelling started as a way to make sense of the world around us,” he says. “We’ve returned, full circle, to that tribal space. Those stories which were told to help us survive are back in our hands, probably just at the right moment. We really need these kinds of stories to help us survive this current craziness.”

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