Design has the power to intervene, engage and disrupt

Linda McNair
Jan 6 · 3 min read
“The Other Volcano” Experience by NBH Studios

Meet Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian. She runs “an interdisciplinary ‘Willy Wonka’ design studio which devises subversive meaningful events and experiences.” Michael Beirut, partner at Pentagram and co-founder of Design Observer, describes her as “part designer, part performance artist, part space traveller…[Nelly] is an inexhaustible source of renewable energy that, if harnessed, could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. Indescribable.”

Photo: Nick Ballon

Before starting her studio, Nelly received a BA in Textile Design at ENSAAMA Olivier De Serres (college of applied arts) in Paris and an MA with distinction from the Royal College of Arts in Design Interactions. She also holds a PhD in Geography (Human geography and political philosophy) from Royal Holloway.

If that isn’t enough, Nelly also assembled and directs the International Space Orchestra (ISO) — the world’s first orchestra of space scientists and astronauts from NASA and through this has collaborated with Grammy award-winning musicians such as Beck, Damon Albarn, Bobby Womack, The Prodigy, Penguin Café, Ed Banger Records, Savages and most recently Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or YouTube.

Which of your projects best represents how interaction design can improve the human condition?

Inspired by Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, ‘Homo Sapiens I Hear You’ is a monthly seminar series I conceived and directed in 2018 that questions and re-thinks humanity’s essential needs, and whether the modern practice of design addresses them. I facilitated conversations with a rotating cast of pioneering critical thinkers and present eclectic reference material from around the world.

In your opinion, what far-reaching impact does interaction design make?

Interaction designers pioneer experiences. For me, our mission should be to reveal meanings and power structures through experiential practices and to foster critical thinking within institutions across the world.

In our studio, we do that by consulting and working with leading scientists, creatives, writers, brands, politicians, policy makers, musicians and engineers all over the world. We’re unique in that we challenged public engagement mechanics through theatrical, experiential and design practices. We like to question systems in education, design, distribution, communication, public speaking, politics, economics, history and sociology.

Through our bold cooperative approach, we like to rethink the role of the designer as an instigator, a connector, an author, a social sculptor, an explorer, a mythologist and a provocateur.

Who do you admire and why?

Hannah Arendt is one of my biggest inspirations. Her work formed the basis of Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios new film I am (not) a monster.

Hannah was a political theorist whose book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and essays such as Truth and Politics (1967) have enjoyed a recent spike of interest due to the relevancy of our times.

In the film, I interviewed Hannah’s former students as well key philosophers and activists across 16 cities looking for the origins, mechanics and power dynamics behind knowledge. I am specifically interested in plurality, and by this I mean using multiple viewpoints about any topic in multiple contexts.This is especially important in our current climate where the temptation of totalitarianism seems to be making a come back.

What advice would you give to designers coming into the field?

Have curiosity. Be flexible and have an open mind. The current pace of technological development opens up new opportunities for designers to intervene, engage and disrupt.


The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) is a member-supported organization, focusing on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience.

Linda McNair

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