A Day In the Life: Interview with Clara and Adrian Westaway of Special Projects
Last week we met Clara and Adrian from Special Projects, a very special award-winning invention studio in Shoreditch, where they merge their understanding of technology, design and magic to create truly unique items that seamlessly integrate with the world around us.
1. What time does your day start?
Clara: Around a quarter to eight.
Adrian: Quite late actually, in the grand scheme of things.
Clara: We come to the office for ten. We do some exercise before… I try to do either some training or some yoga… Adrian goes to the pool. We separate first thing in the morning then reunite here at ten!
So do you work later into the night then?
Adrian: We tend to work until seven on average. We’ve tried starting work earlier… At 9am or earlier, but we’ve been designing and inventing long enough now to know that starting at 10 just works for us!
We once had a super expensive business advisor come in for 2 days and we were going through everything we do and at the end, she told us we need to start at 9… We tried it for 3 weeks and it just didn’t work at all so we went back to 10!
2. Are you tea or coffee people?
Clara: That’s a good question! I think I’ve been a coffee person for a long time. Of course growing up in Italy where we drink coffee from the age of 2! But recently I’ve tried to stop both tea and coffee… I’m more of a liquorice tea person now. We’ve just done a big research trip to the United States to research theme parks… So I guess after a themepark overdose, everything was just too stimulating…
Adrian: And it wasn’t very good coffee over there either. See we had to try everything out… We had a bucket list and we were just testing and trying everything… We had those massive cups you get in the U.S. that you can refill… When I’ve got an unlimited thing I just keep going back. We were probably having 20 Cokes and Gatorades every day!
Do you find liquorice tea gives you a similar kick?
Clara: No – but it’s amazing. During the first week of no tea and coffee you have headaches and feel terrible, then after you are basically much less tired. Your energy doesn’t go up and down it stays level throughout the day.
Adrian: I like tea and coffee. I try to have just 2 coffees a day then I’ll have a cup of tea as well and then a tonne of herbal drinks. We’ve been working this way long enough – and we want to work a lot longer – so we try not to burn ourselves out. We pay quite a lot of attention to our health… We don’t work past 7pm and we don’t work at weekends. Sometimes design studios can be quite proud of working nonstop whereas we are the opposite… When we speak to our clients, I think they appreciate the fact that we try to do things in a balanced way.
Do you find that putting up those boundaries makes you more productive?
Adrian: Yeah, definitely. It’s one of these things – you get into design because you genuinely love it… When you’re a student you’re obsessed with it, and then when you’ve been doing it for a really long time you do need a break from it but it’s something you love so it feels weird not working at weekends when you’re very much doing it because you love it. But we’ve realised it’s really beneficial to have a little break from it and it makes our work much better.
3. Tell us a bit about your job. You guys are industrial designers, or how would you describe yourselves?
Clara: We usually say inventors. Industrial design is part of it for sure, but I guess we invent completely new products or systems or services. So I guess inventors is more appropriate.
Adrian: It’s really difficult to describe it in one word, and the word designer means so many different things to different people. We say inventors to step slightly to the side of designers.
4. So what does Special Projects do?
Adrian: Essentially we get asked to invent new solutions for all sorts of different things. Sometimes quite serious medical devices – we’ve just done a blood pressure monitor, we’ve done a weighing scale which just won a Red Dot award! The scale is designed on several principles – one is discretion – it doesn’t actually display your weight but sends it to your phone instead and all you see on the screen is a smiley face that tells you whether you are going in the right direction or not. It recognises each person who uses it so everyone in the household can track their weight. Right now we are working on a new concept for a theme park and also on the future of some products which I can’t say much about. So very different fields – every project takes us to a totally different place.
Do you only do one project at a time or do you juggle several?
Adrian: We usually do at least two at a time. Some projects are much longer term and some of them are very early research stages. Sometimes our clients don’t even know what the problem they are trying to solve is… They’ll give us very wide open briefs where they’ll just say ‘we want to look at the future of travel’ and that’s the brief, so it’s very varied. For things like that, we’ll do a lot of research at the beginning, which takes a bit longer so we can be doing other projects at the same time. But there’s this great feeling of all the different projects flowing together into one in some ways, so it’s really nice to be doing a couple of projects at the same time just because you might be looking for one thing in one place but but find the answers over there…
5. Can you tell us about some of your past inventions?
Adrian: We had a project from Blackberry based on digital interruptions… So when your phone buzzes in your pocket and you’re in the middle of talking to someone you aren’t sure whether to pull it out and have a look or not. We worked with Blackberry to look at ways of sending a secret message from within the pocket and basically we made a system that uses braille technology to print a micro-message onto your finger… You just squeeze your finger onto it and look really discreetly… Rub your finger and it disappears. It’s the ultimate wearable technology – you don’t even need a device, the skin is an interface.
And we did a project for Samsung based on teaching older people how to use smartphones. We did a lot research on how to best explain smartphones to them and one of the concepts we created was a set of books. When we were looking at our own families and the people we did research with, setting up the phone was always one of the frustrating moments – when you have to take the back off, put the simcard in… This book we made would essentially guide you through the step by step setup process in quite a magical way… The first thing you would see is the simcard and it tells you it’s the heart and sole of the phone, then it shows you where it goes on the phone, then the battery and so on… And step by step it tells you how to set up the phone. It’s amazing because people were actually giggling when they were setting up their phone and we’d seen them want to chuck their phones across the room before!
Clara: We’ve also been working with a startup called Qardio and they wanted us to invent a blood pressure monitor. We spoke with lots of people that had high blood pressure and we found that it’s not just a condition older people suffer from… there’s lots of twenty-somethings that should measure their blood pressure twice a day too… So we thought okay we need to design something that fits a huge range of the population, fits their lifestyle… their taste. We found that the current blood pressure monitor is really designed to fit on a hospital table – you know those horrible things with the pipe and the cuff and basically people weren’t happy to have one of these at home and they weren’t using them and not measuring their blood pressure twice a day. Also they couldn’t carry it around with them. So we thought let’s design something that people can carry around, that fits into their bag and it looks very discreet – something that if you saw it, it could be a glasses case for example. The idea is you open it and there’s a magnetic switch that turns it on automatically then you just unroll it, put your arm through it and all the interaction happens on the screen so you can forget about it, there are no buttons or anything. Usually when you measure blood pressure you see the numbers going up and you get what is called the white coat syndrome… You get scared and it goes up more. So with this we get you to look at relaxing images on your phone and you can get a more accurate reading, reflective of your real environment.
What are the most important elements of your design process?
Clara: We have 5 values in everything we design… one is purity – all the things we design aren’t shouting at you, we like them to be calm.
Adrian: Also empathy. We spend a lot of time in the research process, spending time with people before we even put pen to paper to start designing. We’re really lucky that we get to work with clients that really understand the value of that and they give us freedom to research at the beginning. It means we just have so much more time to explore and get to know the people who are going to be using these things. It’s really important to us we never lose sight of the people who are going to be using the products.
Next is magic because every project we do we try to have some sort of magical moment in it – so with the book when you first open it and you see the sim card there’s this tiny moment – not like a Vegas magic trick – but a small fuzzy feeling… All our designs are using practical magic to achieve something.
Another value is the unexpected and that’s really tied to the research but when we’re designing anything like the blood pressure monitor or the weighing scale, these are two well known things, so when we start on those projects we don’t just want to make another one that’s the same as everything else… So we’re frantically trying to search for these unexpected ideas that will push us in new directions. For the blood pressure monitor it was just discovering that existing ones look horrendous, then people don’t carry them around, don’t take their readings and that can have negative effects on their health. So deciding to make a blood pressure monitor that’s very non-descript – it could be a pair of sunglasses in your bag – in fact we set ourselves the that brief if someone was to take your bag and empty it out it wouldn’t immediately be ‘what’s that’… it would blend in in some way.
And of course, as inventors, experimentation is a fundamental factor in our work. We never stop experimenting and learning.
6. What brought you to this area?
Adrian: Clara studied product design in Italy and worked in fashion before… She ran her own fashion brand in Berlin for 3 years… And then came to London to study industrial design at the RCA, which is where we met. But it wasn’t industrial design in fact, it was innovation design engineering – just to make things more confusing! I studied electronic engineering before, also I’m very into magic (I’m in The Magic Circle) and then came to this course, so in a way I would say what we do now is truly a fusion of all of those things.
7. What does your typical work day schedule look like?
Adrian: There really isn’t a typical day! It really changes so much – for a month we were going to literally every interactive theatre, themepark, any sort of experience based thing around the world. So it very much depends on the project…
Clara: Or we could be in hospitals… When we come back from researching, we distill the research into insights which happens in the studio so we might be meeting for between 4 and 10 hours with the people involved with the project to discuss what we found. Then there is the design element where we actually transform what we’ve learnt into a concept or a product. That sometimes involves freelancers so we would be meeting them constantly, checking how things are taking shape.
Adrian: It starts with the immersion phase, then the distilling phase, then the design phase where we are bringing everything together. We’re fortunate to be in London because there’s a lot more local fabricators and makers than you would imagine. Once we make stuff we also often make films… After the design there’s a whole part of presenting it so we might make a whole fake concept film showing it being used – it’s a great way to bring these things to life because a lot of the time what we’ve designed isn’t even technically possible but it will be in a year’s time.
8. What kind of projects are you currently working on on?
Adrian: We’re working on a concept based on a new type of theme park… It’s super exciting and a big project for us. Most of the stuff we design you could put on a table… But increasingly with things being connected to the internet, you don’t really design a product – you design more of a service because there’s also stuff that goes on on the smartphone so you’re designing a whole experience because it’s no longer designing a plastic thing. So for us, the theme park is the ultimate experience design project. We’re working with a big tech company on some internet connected consumer projects… But we can’t really say more than that!
Clara: A lot of internet connected products – we’ve been working on iOT for the past 5 years but now it seems to be a bit more defined.
Adrian: Any manufacturer of anything now whether it’s light bulbs, hoovers, blood pressure monitors, doors, locks – are re-considering their products for this new age. A lot of people are contacting us to see if there’s new ways to use their products.
Clara: The notion of internet connected products is becoming really mass market. John Lewis have opened a whole section on internet connected devices… Because we always work with projects 5 years in advance, when we were first talking about these things it felt so sci-fi! But now we have all the heaters internet connected, the lights at home and again you need to learn to use it and make it fit into your life, so it’s not a stress or a weird thing. For us, it’s freed up time – we can set the radiators to switch on when the temperature drops outside or it knows when we are coming close to home and the lights switch on… It’s super magical!
Adrian: It’s true and I think that our experience in magical things have been super useful in creating those new connected experiences because in a way with iOT everything is becoming magical.
Do you think people worry about such data being used for marketing? For example internet-connected fridges?
Adrian: Totally, as it comes closer into the home, it will become an issue. Some smart TVs have functions where you say ’TV on’ and it turns on but in order to do that it needs to be constantly listening until it turns on. So it is a huge issue but services that have a clear benefit seem to be doing okay because you are getting something good out of it – like fitness tracking is doing quite well and people aren’t too worried about the privacy issues because they have such a benefit.
Up to now companies that understand that by being transparent they will integrate better into people’s lives, there’s no need to be cheeky and trying to get more marketing… If they say look you can use this product for free if I can collect your marketing data or else you pay £5 a month and I don’t collect your data. It’s a clear deal and you decide where you stand but up until now it’s been a bit shady and it has played on the ignorance of consumers.
9. When is your most productive time of the day?
Clara: For me it’s 3pm until midnight. I guess because I get all the duties out of the way and I can get into the flow here, then thinking time at home.
Adrian: 10am – 12pm for me. In this sort of job it’s funny because even if you get ten minutes of pure, amazing clarity on a project that might be enough to just completely change it.
Do you ever have days where you’re just stuck or have a creative block?
Clara: Well not really because we research with people beforehand and we collect so much inspiration and so many ideas there that when we are stuck we just go back to the research and it unblocks it. It’s just a method… We don’t believe in being designers and closing ourselves in a room and having a lightbulb moment. You go out, you talk to people, see something – it would be really difficult to design a blood pressure monitor without all the research we did. We would have just made a stylistic modification of what’s already in hospitals but by going out there and understanding the people that use it (or don’t use it), that gave us so much information that allows us not to get stuck.
Adrian: Out of the 50 or so projects we’ve done we’ve finished all of them so there’s not been that writer’s block moment that stops the process. That’s not to say there’s not moments when ideas just come in – but we don’t rely on that because that would be bad for business!
10. What do you consider the greatest achievement in your work to date?
Adrian: One thing is we teach, on average, one day a month at the RCA or Queen Mary University. Also in Copenhagen at the Institute of Interaction Design, and Clara’s taught Design Thinking at Oxford University. That’s really rewarding, especially actually because students have said that Clara’s lecture changed the way they design and that’s so exciting. It’s important for us to do some teaching – it keeps us energised and connected.
Clara: Also, the Samsung user manual was the first mobile phone user manual to be in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We’ve been featured in design museums here but that was our first big exhibition so it was a good moment! Then in general I really like seeing the products we’ve designed making a difference in people’s lives – that’s what we want to do – so when you finally see something out there on the market and people are using it, sending good feedback, it’s nice!
11. If there was any other job you could do, what would it be?
Adrian: My gut is to say a magician full time, but actually I wouldn’t be. Yeah I would love to be the rector of the RCA – but that’s when I’m 60! People do approach us with opportunities or permanent roles in really exciting companies but we just keep saying no, we love what we’re doing! I’d maybe do the same thing but for magic… It would still be designing magic tricks which is pretty much what we’re doing now in some ways.
Clara: It’s hard to imagine my life not being a designer or an inventor… I guess if I was living in a tiny village I’d like to be a hairdresser – hair is just another material in a way. I’d love to be a gardener as well. I think they’re all creative materials so there is an element of design in them. Maybe a journalist in another life…
12. What is the one app you could not live without?
Adrian: I love the Apple Notes app – boring, but I use it all the time!
13. Where is the after work hangout?
Adrian: It depends… around here basically. It’s so nice to be here because we can just walk up to meet friends at Columbia Road, London Fields or around here. There’s not a particular place…
Clara: We like variety… It depends if we’re going for food or meeting someone.
Adrian: We’re trying to celebrate more! Sometimes we’re so involved with what we’re doing that we forget to celebrate so we’re trying to celebrate when cool things happen. We really like Hoi Polloi, Satan’s Whiskers, Bistrotheque, Brawn…
14. Who is your professional role model?
Clara: Definitely Coco Chanel… as a women working in an industry that was populated by men I sometimes feel parallels with her. We really like Elon Musk too. So for me a mix between Elon Musk and Coco Chanel…
Adrian: I would say an obscure magician called Paul Harris just because his brain is absolutely insane… But you wouldn’t really find anything about him online. He’s a true wizard basically.
15. How do you balance your personal and professional life?
Clara: We don’t! We got married and we work together!
Adrian: At home we don’t talk about work in general. Sometimes it’s okay because work is really exciting but if it’s about seeing an email or something, those things we don’t talk about. And we don’t work at weekends.
Clara: It’s also important for us to see each other outside of work. We love working together and we love the creativity of each other. It’s very beautiful to work together… You share a part of your life not many couples share but of course we want to keep on sharing the other part of your life too!
Adrian: We get to travel quite a bit with work too, it’s quite fun to be able to travel together… We always try to add on some interesting stuff to the trip.
16. What are the top 3 qualities you look for in an employee?
Clara: People that are hard working, passionate about what they do and they should be special. The 2 girls that work here are very special… Alexa flies and she’s very determined, very driven and very good at design too! Joanna wanted to be a chef or a graphic designer – she chose the graphic design career but she also has a food blog and she cooks amazing vegan lunches. So there is a passion underlying in what they do… This is a mission driven business so you need to have that fire.
Adrian: There’s an important element that regardless of the work everyone gets on, and that they’re good considerate people.
17. What is the one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur starting out?
Clara: Don’t forget the design element… Some people don’t hire a designer or a graphic designer and you literally half your chances of success because the system and service is not being designed properly. It’s one thing to have an idea… But you must design it and go through all the possible situations, thinking about the system before you implement it. People have an idea and just do it without really engaging designers or someone with the training to plot out the user journey… So really think about how a person will get to know about this thing, or download and use it. What we do is walk through all of these steps and make sure that the concept or the service works… Once all this is clear then you can have your whole company and everyone working there aligned. When people don’t do that you see startups that have been around for 1 or 2 years coming to us saying ‘okay everything’s a mess, can you help us sort it out’, and it’s much harder than when they come at the beginning and say ‘we have this idea and we have 2 or 3 months to get everything sorted out before we start hiring people’. Don’t leave the design element to last!
Adrian: From our experience with working with startups, the ones that get design have jumped over so many hurdles from day one because everything started on a good foundation… You see it now with the rise of Chief Design Officer positions and placing that importance of design at top level rather than being an aesthetic afterthought. Design is really the translation of some function to a human… It’s the interface between you and the product and it’s just so important. The other piece of advice is the cheesy one and it’s obvious but especially for entrepreneurs and startups I do believe you truly have to be passionate about it. We have met people who aren’t… they just want to make money which is fine but it’s the ones who are truly passionate about what they are doing that find a way to do it.
For more information about Special Projects, visit their website here.