Design with a fuzzy feeling

In a studio in East London, a pair of inventors work to extract the extraordinary out of the ordinary to craft the intuitive, responsive objects of the moment.

Clara Gaggero Westaway, co-founder and creative director of Special Projects © Sofía Villanueva

Clara Gaggero Westaway is someone whose sense for style shines through at first glimpse, prompting me to assume that she belongs to an artistic clique. “There’s so much art around us, that we (Italians) just develop this deep artistic sensibility” she tells me over coffee, in her studio, a chic and fun space in London’s East end which I cannot stop complimenting. She is the co-founder and creative director of Special Projects, a design and invention studio that she runs with her husband, magician, inventor and electronic engineer Adrian Westaway.

Clara, who has an easy, wholehearted smile and youthful short hair, was brought up in a little village in the alps. The daughter of a mechanical engineer and a fashion boutique owner, was exposed to two very different aspects of design from a very early age, so always knew that one would be her career, but found it hard to decide between the two. Soon after graduating in industrial design from the University of Turin Clara gave fashion a try. She was living in Berlin at the time and together with a good friend set up a fashion studio, but her need for science crept in soon after. “Design needs a purpose, so I moved to London to study industrial design engineering at the Royal College Of Art in London, an ma that turns you into an inventor”.

Design and invention studio Special Projects © Sofía Villanueva

Situated on the famed Fournier Street in East London, home to Gilbert and George and Tracy Emin, Special Projects is an unconventional space full of wonderful curiosities: a secret door camouflaged by a bookshelf, huge hardcovers about magic, old measuring devices and patents hanging on the walls. That’s just the office and welcoming area. Then, there is a basement workshop, a vast space with large working tables where hundreds of tools hang neatly organised according to size. That is where the prototypes for their groundbreaking objects are created.

“Designers should use magic thinking just like magicians and try to create surprise, delight and fuzzy feeling in the things they create,” Adrian Westaway tells the crowd that gather to listen to his Tedx : Turning The Ordinary into Extraordinary talk. Adrian is half Scottish half French and a magician since the age of 11. He’s also a full member of the Magic Circle (world’s most famous magicians association initiated in 1905 by twenty three amateur and professional magicians) and a fellow of the Royal Commission of 1851, an award body for advanced study and research in science, engineering, the built environment and design. With such a background there’s no wonder that in his inventions and designs he aims to create that fuzzy feeling, awe and surprise associated with magic. But surprisingly enough the process of achieving that elevating feeling requires no trickery — it’s a thorough process of research aimed at understanding the emerging needs of people.

Design and invention studio Special Projects © Sofía Villanueva

So, when Samsung approached them in 2008 to look for solutions as to why not enough old people were using smart phones (less than 5% of the users were sending a text a day), they knew where to look for answers. Instead of locking into their studio trying to design “the next big thing” they visited homes in the UK, Italy and Norway, and spent entire days with “real people”, discovering insights into people’s behaviours in playful and creative ways: asking them to design their dream phone using a banana, coloured pencils and stickers was by far the most successful experiment. While there they never discussed technology because “that’s a scary topic”, they chatted about magic and aspirations instead. What hindered people’s regular interaction with mobile phones, they learnt, was not their age, or their presumed lack of techie skills, but the clumsiness of the phone’s manuals. “Only after we fully understood the things that were familiar to them could we begin adding a surprising and delightful twist”, says Adrian in his Tedx talk.

The “surprising and delightful twist” came in the form of a very familiar object found in every single household: a set of books. Beautifully designed and easy to use the manuals guided the users step by step through the whole process of setting up the phone and using it.

When people were given the books and asked to set up their new phones, they giggled with excitement”, Adrian explains. The manual, which was shown at MoMA in NY, is a reference in innovative design and was recently part of the exhibition Design Diversity in Vienna — a show that challenges assumptions on design for older adults and calls for more inclusive design (designing for people of all ages).

“There is no such thing as a pure digital experience” Clara tells me while opening the glass cabinet that serves as a display for their awarded inventions. “It’s very important to think about the physical environment where your product will be used and try to understand the people that will use it.” As such, the ideation process of Special Projects can only start with research: user research, technology and trend research and the core of experience design, a field they are obviously spearheading. Since “the age of image as brand is closing and (…) brilliant design cannot create value that doesn’t exist”, as Patrick Newbery, principal at Method put it for WIRED magazine, brands are forced to adapt to the emerging, ever more sophisticated needs of their customers. One of them, arguably the most prevalent, is the need for interaction and engagement.

Bit-Planner, a physical calendar, that ‘magically’ synchronises to a digital one © Sofía Villanueva

The next object I am presented with is a sleek black cube that opens to unveil an even sleeker white object resembling a white iPhone. it’s a blood pressure monitor called Qardioarm — the first clinically validated, wireless and buttonless object of its kind, which they worked on at their first award winning design agency, Vitamins. There is no monitor either — your measurements pop up on your iPhone through a connected app that shows, stores and shares your medical details with your doctor or family. The product that eased the lives of one in three British people who are suffering from high blood pressure, was developed in partnership with a small start-up and relied on a very modest budget, yet last year it won a red dot award, the product design competition existing since 1954, and it’s now available for sale in 35 countries.

With this example I fully grasp where their designs become a form of magic: transforming indispensable yet thwarting objects into enjoyable ones that make people giggle, this is where the synergy lies.

The surprising parallels between design and magic that define Special Projects’ practice turned them into beloved lecturers on innovation and experience design at top Universities in London and abroad. Adrian’s regular module — Magic in Design — is a nomadic workshop where students are taught how to design objects that take customers on a magical journey without revealing their methods — in design, just like in magic the tricks and technicalities needn’t be revealed. The last such workshop was in October at the Royal College Of Art, in London — the place where Adrian and Clara met ten years ago as students and decided to turn a rather ordinary narrative into an extraordinary one.

Written by Catalina Bolozan
 Photography by Sofía Villanueva


Originally published at 1984boldideas.com on January 21, 2015.

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