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29th September 2016

‘Pretty strange and magical’: Q&A with Special Projects

Wander the streets of Spitalfields long enough and you come to a door with an unassuming but curiosity-sparking sign. It reads, simply, ‘Special Projects’. Immediately you start thinking that this is where they must make lasers to destroy the sun or splice monkeys with bats or something, but what goes on inside is actually far more interesting. And useful.

This is where husband-and-wife team Clara and Adrian Westaway invent the future. Together with their small team, the duo work with industry-leading organisations across the world to solve problems – whether that means finding a way to make blood-pressure testing more pleasant, humanising bathroom scales, developing ways of teaching smartphone use to the elderly or creating complex digital time-management systems out of Lego. 

Frequently working under NDAs a foot deep, Adrian and Clara are often obliged to work in complete secrecy, turning their combined knowledge of industrial design, engineering and digital technology to develop life-enhancing inventions in an astonishingly broad range of sectors and disciplines. 

Here they tell us what Special Projects does, how they do it and how a lot of research and a little magic help them along the way…

How did the two of you meet?
Adrian: We met at the Royal College of Art back in 2005 when we studied the MA in Industrial Design Engineering. It was pitched as a sort of mad inventors’ course – literally a dream! Within a few weeks we were already working together, and had also started falling for each other – but it wasn’t easy! Clara challenged me to do one new magic trick every single day for her – I managed for about two months before winning her over! 

As husband and wife, does your relationship benefit or hinder your design practice? Or both, perhaps?
Clara: It’s a really tough question. We have lots of friends who work as couples in design and we often meet up and exchange tips. I would say that it definitely benefits the design practice – especially at the stage when an idea is coming together. It really helps to feel totally comfortable to say whatever you think, and because we’re so close that’s easy. It also means there are no politics, we don’t really mind who comes up with what part of the idea, just as long as it’s special. 

Special Projects Bit Planner
How many people work at Special Projects and what do they do?
A: We’re a small team; we have five members full-time and work with a group of really trusted collaborators depending on the needs of a project. Our work varies massively: one day we’re working on the future of perfume, the next day with wearable tech, and the next day trying to engage older people to use their smartphones. This makes it quite important for us to be flexible and bring in the right people for the project. 

Clara and I oversee everything together but her specialties are in the actual visual and physical design of the products we create. She trained in Industrial Design in Italy and has a really deep knowledge of design and materials. She also oversees the way we involve people in the research – which is something we value really highly in every project we do.

I take care of all things relating to the user experience and technology. I have a background in electronic engineering but also in magic, which works really well when looking at new technologies and trying to create new ways of experiencing them. Broadly speaking, you could say that Clara takes care of the Physical and I take care of the Digital – but there’s a lot of intentional overlap in the process. 

Alexa is trained as an industrial design engineer; she gets heavily involved in the user research and product development, and helps us run projects smoothly and efficiently. 

Joana is our visual communication designer who works on communicating anything visual, from apps to packaging and branding. 

Aline is our financial fairy who helps us with all of our invoicing and justifying the weird and wonderful expenses you have when you run an invention studio!

Kerry takes care of the logistics behind Clara’s and my multiple journeys. Last year, she organised weeks of researching theme parks in Orlando, followed by conferences in Hong Kong and Trömso, where we got to see the Northern Lights. 

While our roles are quite different we often come together at key moments in a project, and in terms of collaborators, we work closely with filmmakers, storyteller, design engineers and coders, depending on the project.
Special Projects Bit Planner
Every time we see you guys, we come out feeling inspired. Why is that, do you think? 
C: Well, thank you! It’s really great to hear that because that’s exactly how we want to feel when we come into work also. I think a big part of it comes from the fact that each project is so different to the last, which means that we’re always learning new things and getting excited about new worlds we didn’t know about (we’re working on the future of perfume at the moment which is super interesting!)

Also, as designers we always need to keep a lookout for strange and unusual, unexpected things – and remember them in case they’ll be useful in the future. 

I genuinely couldn’t recommend a better job for keeping you inspired and excited about the things that surround you!

How did you come by your name?
C: When we were thinking about names we wanted something that sounded quite serious but was also a little mysterious. We wanted it to be the sort of thing you’d see on a secret doorway in some government office that might lead to a room like Q’s in James Bond – full of strange and wonderful inventions. Secrecy is incredibly important in what we do, as we’re typically working on inventions that might come out in several years. 

It’s quite funny because sometimes clients worry that their projects aren’t ‘special’ enough – but that’s usually the sign of a really interesting project!
Out of the Box NFC Cards
What does ‘magic thinking’ mean, and how is it relevant to design?
A: Magic is a craft that goes back hundreds of years, and magicians have developed really unique ways of looking at how people will experience their illusions. It turns out that these ways of understanding deeply how people will perceive things are also extremely useful when it comes to designing new experiences for people – whether the end effect is magical or not. 

Magicians are masters at hiding the method to their effects. As designers, we also work really hard to make technologies invisible, so that people can get on with the experience we’re trying to create. 

In magic, empathy with the audience is essential, and also clarity and full understanding of the context of the experience. These are all pillars of our design process. 

We get extremely excited by this and have a lot of material we want to share on this topic over the coming year; we also teach workshops and run a class in Copenhagen where we turn designers into magicians and let them use these methods when designing new inventions and experiences. 

You both have a fairly busy schedule of teaching and talks – as well as the work you do with schools. What sort of ideas and passions do you want to instil? And what misconceptions do you hope to overcome?
C: We are so excited by the entire design process and we have been lucky to work with and learn from some incredible people. When we teach we want to share the excitement we get with every project and hopefully make something as mysterious as coming up with new ideas feel more approachable and possible.

Research is a part of the design process that is often seen as a separate discipline, but we think it is absolutely essential that designers carry out their own research, which brings depth and relevance to their work. We use some pretty strange and magical ways of undertaking research, and we love to share these methods with people – often it’s much easier and way more fun than they think. 

How do you know when an idea is going to work?
A: Because we come up with ideas all year round we have our own process that we follow. Usually the first sign that an idea is going to work is when you’ve found a problem that really needs solving. Even if you haven’t got the idea yet, you know that you’re at least trying to solve something that needs solving. Finding those problems is often as important as how you solve them.

Then, because we have a strongly empathetic process, we feel really close to the users; you almost begin to think like them – that’s usually when you know if something is going to work or not. You imagine the people you’ve met, in the places you met them, using your idea and you know immediately if it’s really going to work. 

User-centric or ‘universal’ design seems to be becoming more and more important (or at least, more of a buzz phrase in design circles) but you guys have been doing it for years. What does it mean to you and why does it matter? 
A: For us, user-centric design means putting people at the centre of your design process from the beginning. Whenever we start a new project we go out and talk to people – even if it’s a super-fast project.  It’s a sort of grounding that anchors your entire design process in real needs, inspired by people. Clara and I were luck enough to work at the Helen Hamlyn Centre, which is a mecca for user-centered design and we’ve used those learnings and evolved them ever since.

Universal design is about creating solutions that will work universally across many different age ranges and types of people, rather than designing for a small segment. We always aspire to make our designs universal and timeless.

Out of the Box NFC Cards
What has been your proudest moment?
C: One of our first projects was aimed at enabling older adults to use mobile technology. It turned out that existing phones were targeted at a much younger audience, and as a result older adults were missing out on so many of the amazing and empowering things you can do with a modern phone. We researched across Europe and had an incredible learning journey, discovering that we needed to change the way technology was taught and explained. 

We created a series of magical concepts that taught older adults how to use their smartphones, in a calm, respectful way, taking advantage of familiar mental models. It was really touching when we saw that these new concepts really worked, and how much older adults appreciated someone taking the time to explain things to them in a familiar way. 

What’s your dream project?
A: Reinventing the post box – it’s an object that’s absolutely everywhere but is rooted in the past. The way we use the postal service has evolved so much since the arrival of the internet and we’d be so excited to rethink the humble postbox!

Adrian, your roots are Scottish and, Clara, yours are Italian, and together you work with major international companies – dare we mention Brexit? Are you optimistic about the future of design and technology in Britain?
A: It’s really difficult to know what will happen at this stage and we really want to stay optimistic. Up until now London has been a magnet for the most amazing creative people, and as long as it continues to attract them and make them welcome then we have faith that we’ll be ok.

Keep up to date with the latest Special Projects news over on their Twitter.

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