Concept design and the thin line between reality and fantasy

by Andrea Musso on July 30, 2009

I don’t know about you, but I love a good science fiction movie. I grew up watching films like Back to the Future and I must admit I’m still waiting for 2015, hoping to see if flying cars will be landing in my neighborhood or if those self adjusting jackets are going to come in several colors. But, geekiness aside, there are some key elements in which design –along with a good marketing campaign- intervenes, making these kind of movies possible. Whether it’s concept design, and to some extent product placement and reverse placement, the eye and the mind of the designer are always there.

You might be wondering what product placement is and how it can be related to the world of design and its imprint on the silver screen. This being a form of advertisement, it’s a way for branded goods or services to be placed in the context of a film, which sometimes remains undisclosed at the time such a product is featured. Reverse placement, however, is more difficult to find, as it implies creating products in real life to match those depicted in fictional settings.

If we look up carefully sci fi and action movies from the last twenty years, we could certainly name several cases that have made product placement part of the plot, basically those which are based on video games, comic books and even action figures. But there are also products portrayed as we know them or which have been modified to become some sort of breakthrough yet recognizable product. And that’s when the designer steps in.

Such is the case of the Delorean DMC-12, used as the time machine for the Back to the Future trilogy, styled by American production designer and illustrator Andrew Probert and production designer Ron Cobb. These movies are a paradigmatical case in how many ways product placement plays a key role in concept design. The finest example of this is of course the DeLorean, a stainless steel, gull-winged car which was styled to take part as the time machine used by Marty Mc Fly and ‘Doc’ Brown to go back and forth in time and space. Despite being a commercial failure, the DMC-12 became a cult object and it was initially set to return to production in 2008, thanks to the rise in popularity by the cult state of the movies.

Taking a closer look at the environment of the 2015 Hill Valley, we can find many examples of styled-for-the-occasion product placement and concept design. The creativity displayed in concept designs can be seen in hovering/flying cars, hover boards-conveniently manufactured by Mattel®- and the wonderful pieces of clothing that are Nike’s self- adjusting sneakers and jackets. Among other quirky devices, we can find electronic IDs run by fingerprint scans and telephonic eyeglasses. But, as the need to advertise actual brands needs to be fulfilled, we get to see how the McFlys use a Black&Decker food Hydrator, drink Pepsi from a very stylish bottle that resembles a glass with a lid and even have in-wall fax machines provided by AT&T, among regular product placement of ‘vintage’ products such as Apple computers, Perrier and Texaco®.

Yet, this paradigmatical case of study regarding concept design and product placement wouldn’t be complete without an example of reverse placement. The sneakers Marty wore in 2015 were just a concept design until almost 20 years later when Nike –upon request of many fans who ran the Mc Fly 2015 project– released the Nike Hyperdunk 2015, also known as ‘Air Mc Fly’. The limited edition of 1000 pairs was inspired in Marty’s futuristic sneakers and hit the shelves in the summer of 2008. Of course they didn’t include any electronic devices, but they have the look and feel of the most famous fake shoes ever known.

There is no doubt that the influence of industrial design at the service of concept design for the movie industry is much more powerful than we can eventually think. I might never see any flying cars landing in my neighbourhood, but I’m sure the ideas those concept designs inspire, help enrich our everyday life and challenge our senses beyond the imaginable.

About the author – Andrea Musso is a freelance designer from Argentina and is currently engaged in the design and production of ceramic ware. You can contact her at

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one } September 14, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Great Site! Just passing through! Eat soup!


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