Why Her‘s production designer thinks about function before design

K.K. Barrett has worked with Spike Jonze on many films, and helped design Her, a film that famously centers on the relationship between its geeky protagonist and what seems to be a post-Siri talking operating system. At Gigaom’s Roadmap conference on Wednesday, he naturally talked about how the design process for this semi-futuristic technology worked – and also about his own attitudes towards gadget design.

“I think of technology as a tool, something that’s a means to an end,” Barrett said. “I don’t care about the design of the tool unless it functions really well. Design as function is different in my mind to aesthetic design – I do want it to be pleasing if it works very well as a tool.”

On the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson, who played the “Samantha” OS, Barrett said it had been a good choice to go with someone with an unusual voice rather than the “flat voice or common voice” that is often used for virtual assistants today. He said such systems would “eventually need to recognize our hesitancies” and other human quirks.

Barrett explained that, when he and Jonze began designing the film, [company]Apple[/company] hadn’t brought out Siri yet – that only happened during the process, leading the team to keep bringing forward how far in the future the film’s aesthetic was supposed to represent. “At the end we decided we were one release away from now,” he said. “The script had nothing to do with technology. It was a human story about human connection, or lack thereof.”

That said, it turns out the most challenging thing Barrett had to design for the film was the protagonist Theodore’s smartphone-like device. “The first thing we started designing on day one was the device and it was the last thing ready on the day we started shooting,” he said, explaining that this was over a three-and-a-half month period.

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