heatherwick design performance theory

Designing a Moment

Thomas Heatherwick is one inspiring man. He’s a UK designer who uses a powerful secret weapon that we can all put to work to be more creative. It will revolutionise whatever project – ‘creative’ or not – you’re working on today. It all hinges on a detail of the Heatherwick design theory. You’ll see what I’m on about in a few minutes…

If you don’t know his name, Thomas Heatherwick’s studio has become a titan of contemporary design around the world in recent decades. 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 team designed the fresh answer to the London Routemaster bus.

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I strongly recommend you read his book Making. It reveals a lot of the thinking that goes into the studio’s vastly creative projects. I’d go so far as to call it a Thomas Heatherwick design theory. What inspires me the most about how he works are the questions he and his team ask about the design problems they face. When I work as a magic consultant or create a new magic show, I have to come up with good solutions that will produce the desired magic effect. Because of this, the different processes designers use to arrive at their clever solutions fascinates me. So let’s look more at this idea of questions revolutionising whatever you’re working on…


Heatherwick explains 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 incisive questions lead them to often inspired creative solutions. Have a look at his studio’s rolling bridge in Paddington if you want to see what I mean. Can you guess what questions could have led them to that design solution?

How long since you were in the Museum of London? Now you have a good excuse to go admire some remains of the Heatherwick Studio’s 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?’

Thomas Heatherwick design theory in action in the form of the design for the 2012 London Olympic cauldron.

In the interview Heatherwick explains what seemed to be a lightbulb moment. They asked this question and discovered something important. The Heatherwick design team learned that most people rarely remember the cauldron itself. Instead, people tended to remember the moment of it being lit.  The 1992 Barcelona games is a good example of this. An archer shot a flaming arrow across the stadium. It landed in the cauldron and it burst into an explosion of flames. People remember that. Or in 1996 when Mohammed Ali, trembling from Parkinson’s disease, struggled to handle his torch. People remember that.

So Heatherwick’s studio decided that they needed to ask a new question. “How can we make the design of the cauldron about the moment of it being lit?” They decided that question would be a more valuable goal post than pursuing any particular aesthetic for the sake of it. This transformed design ideas into something much greater. The design became about the single convergent moment of 205 countries coming together to create one extraordinary flame. The moment gives me chills. And that unforgettable moment they designed created an unforgettable sculpture as well. You didn’t miss the moment, did you?

One good question led to an inspired solution.

This idea stuck with me because as a 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 or challenge. When you leave it as that, people will not remember it 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.

Thomas Heatherwick studio design for the Olympic Cauldron in elevation.

Thomas Heatherwick design theory : The nutshell

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 putting this Heatherwick design theory to work for them. It’s here where the magic lies. – CH

Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

Images: De Zeen Magazine

2 thoughts on “Designing a Moment”

  1. It’s a purposeful question for writers to ask about their scenes, artist’s to ask about their paintings, teachers to ask about their lesson, etc. Thank you for bringing these thoughts to the forefront for all creatives!

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