Magazine article The Futurist

Looking at the Future through a Cartoonist's Eyes

Magazine article The Futurist

Looking at the Future through a Cartoonist's Eyes

Article excerpt

Capturing inspiration from "what if," an artist turned his imagination into a lifetime of serious futuring. Here's how he does it.

I have trained myself to be a lateral thinker, and enjoy the chance to mull multiple options. At times, such a process seems interesting in itself, as if I could happily spend time simply thinking laterally, never selecting a particular configuration.

Only after I took work as an analyst in a four-person future trends "think tank" in 1995 at an auto company based in southern California did I start thinking of myself as a "futurist." The department, one of several maintained by U.S. auto companies, was kept as a secret weapon, a form of insurance against being blindsided by cultural, economic, political, or environmental trends that could affect their business.

Earlier, in the '60s and '70s, I had done future-related work as an assistant urban planner working for several private and public city and regional planning firms. I found the work to be tedious and saved my most creative thinking for a growing sideline business as a magazine cartoonist. A competent illustrator, I could imagine a future scene in a silly, whimsical, or satirical way and draw what I had imagined.

My artwork began to appear in The Sierra Club Bulletin (renamed Sierra) and the Journal of the American Institute of Planners. In March 1974, an editor at The Bulletin asked me to imagine 16 future recreation vehicles for an upcoming four-page magazine spread, "RV-II." He gave me permission to make them look as strange and comical as possible. When I stopped sketching, I had filled a notebook with 109 images of faux RV models. The published future RV cartoons were sent around by wire service to national newspapers; four were published in THE FUTURIST magazine ("The Future of the Recreational Vehicle: A Fantasy Drawn by Steven M. Johnson," October 1974).

About to turn 36, I discovered I had an untapped ability to spin out variations and combinations of existing and future products. Later on, I listed my occupation on my business card as "Possibilitist." Looking back, I find it strange that my self-taught ability to "invent" silly products evolved and gradually allowed me to indulge in futuristic speculations.

Some Artists, Writers, and Scientists Are Futurists

Futures studies is now a profession; the subject is taught at several universities. Yet, depending on one's mental capacity, drive, and desire, the ideas generated while brainstorming inside one's own mind can yield scenarios as rich, nuanced, or prophetic as those produced by trained futurists who sit around a table discussing scenario paths, convergences, triggers, tipping points, and so forth.

Novelists have at times imagined scenarios that proved more prophetic than those of futurists. How was it possible in 1898 for writer Morgan Robertson to write a novella, Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, which described a huge ocean liner in the North Atlantic with a shortage of lifeboats, striking an iceberg, drowning approximately the same number of passengers, 14 years before the sinking of the Titanic? There have been talented science fiction writers like Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, and William Gibson, or scientists like Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, who foresaw future technologies. Verne, for example, had a deep understanding of the sciences of his time, coupled with a powerful imagination that allowed him to extrapolate technological trends far into the future.

What kind of futurist am I? In an article about my work, New York Times columnist Allison Arieff praised my drawings of future products and scenes while noting that they are often willfully and intentionally "ludicrous." Steve Heller, columnist for The Atlantic, has called me an "Accidental Futurist." These assessments hint at my peculiar embrace and practice of futuristic thinking. I'm often asked where I "get" ideas. How did I succeed for nearly six years, 1989-1995, at imagining and illustrating ideas for future products in a weekly feature, "A Step Ahead," while working as an artist at The Sacramento Bee, a northern California newspaper? …

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