The Secret To Black Mirror’s Dystopian Appeal? Design

The futuristic show keeps its design comforting and realistic, so its real surprises are even more harrowing.

The popular British television show Black Mirror has been riding a new surge of popularity among American audiences since coming to Netflix last December. Much of the show’s genius–and appeal–resides in how familiar, and even welcoming, the near-future dystopias feel to viewers.


To really understand the essence of this uneasy attainability re:form’s Rob Walker sat down with Joel Collins, co-founder of Painting Practice, the visual effects company responsible for most of Black Mirror‘s design.

In the interview, Collins discusses several examples of his team’s aesthetic mission for the show, which he describes as “plausible and disarming.” He points to one particular episode, “The Entire History of You,” in which everyone has a chip which lets them rewatch every moment of their lives–mostly to their demise–to highlight his point.

The technology is referred to as a Grain, and Collins points out that the entire visual feel of that episode is quietly “earthy,” with lots of wood and stone and vaguely Scandinavian textures in the set design. “Everything’s got a kind of natural feeling,” he says.

This goes for the tech, too. The Grain’s timeline interface is circular, with the user’s life episodes marked off in chunks of concentric circles. Partly this is because a round eye ought to have a round interface. But also, the rings echo the rings of a tree, Collins explains. “So you’re scrolling through something like tree rings, to bring out your memories.”

“It has a kind of feeling of nature in it, which I don’t think the audience will necessarily ‘get’,” he continues. “But somehow it makes you feel comfortable. You don’t know why. But you don’t think it’s offensive, and it’s got a feeling of the natural order of life.”

These and other insights sprinkled through out the piece point to an uncomfortable idea: that good design could actually lead to our downfall. While design itself may be neutral, it has helped make technology more approachable and invisible–which has in turn made our attitudes towards it more complacent–thus providing opportunities for its social misuse.

For the full interview, and more about Black Mirror‘s design process, head over to on re:form.


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I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.