Designing A Future Of Comfort, Color, And Gorgeous Gadgets In “Her”

Production designer K.K. Barrett talks about designing the striking vision of the future seen in Spike Jonze’s new man/machine love story, Her.

Designing A Future Of Comfort, Color, And Gorgeous Gadgets In “Her”
[Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]

Unlike some visions of the Los Angeles of tomorrow, the world of Her, conjured by writer-director Spike Jonze and his longtime production designer K.K. Barrett, reveals a bright future populated by human-friendly technologies.


Why no gloom or doom? “There are a number of films that cover that very well so we didn’t need to go there,” says Barrett. “This is a pleasant, soft future where everything is designed to everybody’s personal taste.”

The technology connecting Joaquin Phoenix’s nerdy Theodore to the charming operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) melts into the background–by design. “There wasn’t an effort to make things look technologically advanced,” says Barrett. “They’re just tools.”

Barrett adds, “The only technological futuristic aspect to the film, when we finally distilled it, was the brilliance of this growing entity on the other side of Theodore’s computer, that grew constantly and learned about being human from him.” (Read more about the film here.)

Barrett talks to Co.Create about how he incorporated warm colors, mid-century address books and Chinese skyscrapers to flesh out Jonze’s well-designed city of tomorrow.

(Not) Designing Samantha

The filmmakers struggled during pre-production to arrive at a visual identity for the operating system that changes Theodore’s life. Barrett recalls, “We kept asking ourselves, ‘What is his new desktop going to look like when he puts the new (Samantha) software in? Finally, Spike came to this brilliant realization, saying, ‘There’s a reason we haven’t figured this out, because it shouldn’t be anything.’ When you install the new operating system, the screen goes blank, then comes back and looks exactly the same as it did before, except now her voice comes out. We wanted to make Samantha’s voice be the center of attention.”

Jonze and Barrett eliminated the tedious keyboard-typing scenes common to many tech-driven movies by favoring voice-activated communication. To chat with Samantha, Theodore simply plugs in a plain vanilla ear bud. Barrett says “The ear piece was under-designed: How small can we make it and still make the audience aware that when Theodore picks it up and puts it in his ear, that he’s connecting with Samantha?”


Bespoke Device

To create the smart phone-like device that Theodore carries everywhere, Barrett drew inspiration from 1940’s-era accessories. He says, “Theo’s clothes were referenced from the ’20s and ’40s, and we had furniture from the ’50s, ’60s and ’80s. For the device, we decided we should go back to this more craftsman period where you carried around these beautiful things: cigarette lighters, cigarette cases, business card cases, and address books.”

Barrett and Jonze cycled through a number of iterations before arriving at the final device prototype. “We had conversations about the next iPhone and imagined they would go to a sheet of glass or something like that,” he recalls. “We actually saw a couple of movies that did that but found it distracting. We also thought about holograms but realized that’s not going to work unless you’re in a dark environment.”

Once they’d settled on retro-styling, Barrett says, “We went to some junk stores and bought a bunch of these things. There was a brass lighter we really loved that was involved in an early version.”

Ultimately, Barrett says, “It got down to being this piece that came from an address book that we found. It’s made of aluminum with two screens that opens like a little book, with leather-embossed inlay and Deco edges.”

Barrett says, “The device wasn’t designed to stand out like a gleaming new phone, but to be something you’d lay on the night stand, like your wallet or your address book. We wanted to go right past the surface of the device and into Samantha’s voice.”

Seeing Red

To underscore Her‘s bright future ambience, Barrett used blood-orange red as a key color motif. Citing Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi as a key inspiration, he says “Spike and I really loved a couple of her pictures that had pinks and reds which were very soft. I became very attracted to red.”


“We adapted it for Theo’s main costume and I kept it for the architecture as well. It’s in his house. It’s in his office. It’s in almost every frame of the movie.”

Barrett adds that red became his go-to color because “It seemed to fit Theo’s temperament–his passion, compassion, loneliness, and hopefulness. Red was the perfect thing to use in the movie and we did it every which way we could.”


Giant video screens abound, but advertisers in the future favor the soft sell over harsh propaganda. Barrett says, “We had this concept: what if we could only see advertising that was all in gorgeous slow motion and there were these beautiful abstract images? Then it becomes kind of a viral game where everybody’s trying to decipher the notion of what these different ads were.”


To conjure a near-future Los Angeles cityscape, Barrett and Jonze augmented California locations with footage shot in Shanghai’s hyper-modern Pudong District. “Spike wanted to include some other country as a stand-in for L.A. so the city wouldn’t be so recognizable,” Barrett says. “We chose Pudong, which is very dense and has these beautiful concourses above the traffic. Two stories up, you can walk around from building to building, so we used that as our main Shanghai exterior and blended it together with buildings here in Los Angeles.”

Barrett and Jonze essentially cherry-picked their favorite structures to assemble a dream city, the production designer says. “We took some of the skyline from Shanghai and put it into the L.A. skyline so things would match.”

L.A. Without Cars

Barrett’s most radical re-invention for future Los Angeles: There’s not a car in sight. Steering clear of freeway traffic jams, inhabitants ride bullet trains, take subways and walk. “One of the first things I said in designing Her was, ‘I don’t want to show any cars.'” says Barrett. “It’s another gesture of going away from technology. When you look at any film from any time period and see a car, you can place it right to the year.”


Barrett wanted to make sure the focus stayed on the characters. “I didn’t want people in the audience looking at the background and going ‘Oh, look at the cars they’ve designed!’ because that’s a distraction from the story,” he explains. “As much as I’d love to design a thousand cars of the future, this wasn’t the right film for it.”

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.