Thomas Heatherwick is one inspiring man. If you don’t know his name, I’ll introduce him to you as a top UK magician… of design. You don’t have to be a magician or designer to learn something valuable from his approach and you’ll see why in a minute.
You know his work even if you think you don’t. In fact if you’ve been in London in the past two years you’ve probably even ridden in one of his works: his fresh answer to the London Routemaster bus. What inspires me the most about his work (I strongly recommend reading his book “Making”) are the questions he and his team ask about the design problems they face. They’re often led to ingenious solutions because of asking good — and sometimes even preposterous — questions: “How can you make someone want to eat your business card?” is one I remember from the book. The solutions the questions lead them to are often so simple in appearance that they look like the work of a magician. Have a look at his studio’s rolling bridge in Paddington if you want to see what I mean.
How long since you were in the Museum of London? Now you have a good excuse to go and admire the remains of the London 2012 Olympic cauldron. When you’re there, pay attention to the projections where Heatherwick explains the thinking that went into the magical design of the cauldron. They asked themselves, ‘What makes you remember any Olympic year’s cauldron?’
He explains in the interview that from this question they realised that most people rarely remember the cauldron itself. Instead, if anything, they remember the moment of it being lit. The famously lit cauldron in the 1992 Barcelona games by an archer is a good example of this.
Heatherwick’s studio decided that they needed to make the design of the cauldron more about the moment of it being lit than about the physical object itself. This meant it was suddenly about something much greater; the design became about the single convergent moment of 205 countries coming together into one extraordinary flame. You didn’t miss the moment, did you?
One good question led to an inspired solution.
This idea stuck with me because working as a professional magician I realised that so much of the best magic is really about designing moments as well. A cool ‘trick’ is no more than a stunt; if left at that, it runs the risk of being forgotten by most the next day. But I think the best magicians design their magic into something that stimulates audiences… something that they can connect with or care about, that makes them feel something, that transports them somewhere else. It’s no longer about the magician’s trick — it’s suddenly about something much greater. As a magician, if I can do any of that, then for me I’ve hit the bull’s eye.
So if you find yourself shipwrecked just off the coast of Idealandia, or you’re not getting the results you want, you can always go back to the beginning and think: ‘what questions am I asking about the problem?’ You don’t have to be a designer or a magician to benefit from this — I think everyone can gain by taking on Heatherwick’s approach. It’s here where the magic lies.
Images source: De Zeen Magazine