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All images via Special Projects

Work / Product Design

Special Projects on why, sometimes, design is best kept simple

Husband and wife team Adrian and Clara Westaway run a boutique design and invention studio based in London called Special Projects. Its work focuses on projects where something completely new has to be discovered, invented, understood and designed. “We spend half our time working with large companies like Samsung, Logitech, and Nokia, and the other half working with smaller start-ups to help make their inventions special as they bring them to market,” Special Projects say. “Literally any company can approach us and ask us to invent something new, from theme parks and future technologies to post boxes and snowboarding accessories.” As Special Projects prepare to become part of the Design Museum’s “New Old: Designing for our Future Selves”, the duo tell It’s Nice That why sometimes, design is best kept simple.

We’re a peculiar bunch as my background is in electronic engineering and magic — I’m in the Magic Circle — and Clara’s is in industrial design and fashion. It turns out that magic is a really interesting analogy for design because it typically involves crafting a compelling user experience while hiding some insanely clever and advanced technology. 

This means that, although we often work with the latest technologies, the human element is absolutely essential in creating an engaging and captivating experience. No matter what we design, we have to find ways of connecting with people at a really deep level. 

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Special Projects: work in progress for the Design Museum’s New Old: Designing for our Future Selves

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Special Projects: work in progress for the Design Museum’s New Old: Designing for our Future Selves

Some years ago, we helped Samsung explore new ways of making smartphones easier to use for older adults. Before we even talked about technology we spent months connecting with older adults around Europe. This meant going to bingo clubs and spending days in people’s homes talking about their approach to technology. It was really eye-opening for us as we realised just how stigmatising and frustrating some of the technology aimed at older adults can be.

If you just google “old people phone” you’ll get an idea of the sort of things I’m talking about – these devices have enormous digits and giant SOS buttons to remind you how frail you are every time you use them. What’s more, they remove all of the functions we are now so used to, such as cameras, high-resolution displays and music players, making contact between the generations even more complicated than it already is. 

In response, we created a whole new way of learning how to use smartphones based around familiar mental models, and we were able to really shift the way tech companies thought about ageing. I love this project because the end result is clear and functional but also deeply delightful and magical. We were thrilled when it was chosen to be shown at the MoMA in New York.

On 12 January, the Design Museum is launching an amazing exhibition called New Old: Designing for our Future Selves. It focuses on how design thinking can help people live fuller, healthier and more rewarding lives as they move into old age. Our Samsung project is included, and we’ve also been asked to contribute a special installation for the exhibition, along with some amazing studios, such as Konstantin Grcic, Industrial Facility, Yves Behar, IDEO and Priestman Good.

Our brief was to overcome social stigmas around ageing. We were really keen on sharing some of our learnings from working with older adults in the past, and we wanted visitors to actually experience the way we carry out our research when we invent new products. We thought that the best way to do this would be to actually spend time with older people – in the exhibition. 

We’ve spent the last few months working with the Design Museum to arrange for an incredible team of over 70s to come to the museum and sit at a specially designed table. Members of the public will be able to sit with them and ask any question they want, and then the older person will ask a question in return. 

For example:
“Is it true that people don’t grow up?”
“When did you last make a sandcastle?”
“What made you the happiest in life?”

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Special Projects: work in progress for the Design Museum’s New Old: Designing for our Future Selves

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Special Projects: work in progress for the Design Museum’s New Old: Designing for our Future Selves

The whole area is surrounded by plants to create an intimate environment and all of the questions will be recorded directly onto a specially designed table so that we’ll be able to publish a record of the questions and answers that are exchanged between the generations. So far we’ve had an amazing response. Some incredible people like Daphne Selfe and Lady Helen Hamlyn have volunteered to take part. Sir Quentin Blake even sent us special drawings to show his support.

We’re really excited about the installation, especially as inter-generational contact is so rare in London. Hopefully it will give a chance for both young and old to learn new things about each other and also for visitors to develop a more empathetic connection to older adults as they explore the brilliant work on show. 

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Special Projects: work in progress for the Design Museum’s New Old: Designing for our Future Selves