After John Eaves had designed the new Enterprise for Star Trek: First Contact, the next thing on Production Designer Herman Zimmerman’s list was a new bridge.
The bridge of the Enterprise-D had consisted of a circular room enclosed by walls, with a prominent wooden arch. On the “E”, the walls were replaced by an open framework with gently sloping ramps and multiple levels.
“We left the framework, but removed the walls,” Eaves writes in Star Trek: The Next Generation Sketchbook — The Movies, Generations & First Contact, “so that you could see other stations beyond those [former] walls.” This was meant to add scope and function to the set.
We also built a main console in the back, with doorways on either side that lead to the right and left sides of the observation lounge. So if you were at the front of the ship looking back and those doors were open, you could see all the way through into the observation room, then out into space.
In the real world, the observation lounge of the Enterprise-D was actually next to, rather than behind, the bridge set, which is why there could be no continuous scenes between the two. That shortcoming was remedied with the Enterprise-E.
Next to the doors to the conference lounge were the turbolifts. Moving forward to either side of the screen, one finds a door leading to the captain’s ready room and another to an airlock.
Zimmerman took Eaves’ sketches and began drawing up construction plans. When all was finished and the set was built, it wound up being much larger than the Enterprise-D’s.
There was some hesitation about the size, as Eaves’ original idea was to have a smaller bridge to fit the sleeker ship.
[B]ut it wound up being a great thing; it was a beautiful set, with warmth and depth, and the colors Herman chose gave the bridge a sense of ballistic beauty and great function.
There had been other design concepts that did not work. Eaves explains that the script originally said all stations must face the captain’s chair. “When we did a rough pass on that, it just didn’t look right.”
Also, at one point, Troi’s and Riker’s stations are at something of a diagonal to the captain’s chair, so that Picard can read the displays on the backs of their consoles. But those were eventually eliminated, since they would [end] up being too enclosing on the characters.
One change that did make it was to raise the captain’s chair slightly above the others, allowing him to oversee the rest of the crew. On the Enterprise-D bridge, the three command chairs had been on the same level.
Although the new bridge was more functional, certain traditions remained.
“Doug Drexler, who is quite the Star Trek expert, took a look at one of my sketches for the bridge,” Eaves remembered, “and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to have a row of blinkies blinking running lights under the viewscreen. It’s a tradition on every Enterprise. Those lights simply must be there.” Compliance was swift.
As time went on, Zimmerman decided that the “E” should have a new type of viewscreen. Rather than a projection-type screen, he wanted an image to form in midair. In response, the art team designed a “screen” that was in fact a light image projected from the floor and ceiling, rather like a two-dimensional holograph. The crucial issue of the traditional blinkies remained, though.
According to Eaves, the team “wound up designing a detailed area on the floor that acted like a holographic projector array,” and they attached the blinking lights to that.
So when the viewscreen came on, the lights on the back of the bridge would go down, and an image would appear on our new viewscreen — with, of course, Doug’s running blinkies.