Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun designs out-of-this-world experiences for the likes of NASA, Mattel Inc. HQ, LEGO HQ, MoMA and more. Her celebrated and respected "Willy Wonka" approach to experience design is what brought her to Brooklyn-based A/D/O's attention last year, when she was a speaker at their Common Sense Festival.
This year, Hayoun is partnering with A/D/O once again on Homo Sapiens, I Hear You, a series of monthly seminars centered around how Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can determine if present day designers are properly doing their core job—addressing basic and essential human needs. From there, participants collaborate to find solutions to flaws in the system, uncovering new perspectives designers should start considering.
With the first seminar in the series—Sleep With Me: On beds, the unconscious and the nighttime—under her belt, Hayoun reflects on the process of building the series from the ground up and why she believes it's vital for designers to keep an open mind towards non-traditional research methods:
Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun speaking during the "Sleep With Me: On beds, the unconscious and the nighttime" seminar. (All images photographed by Sara Kerens)
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this seminar series and how it all came together?
I first came to A/D/O in May as a speaker at the "Common Sense" design festival, and that visit turned into a much longer conversation with the team about the current design discourse and how we could add something new, fresh and frankly, needed. The A/D/O lens considers "The Future of Design", which goes hand-in-hand with some of my academic background in critical design. What we've envisioned, together with A/D/O, is a dialogue on the practice design—and this is achieved by looking outside of the traditional design community and bringing in "non-design" experts, inputs and inspiration. That is why we have filmmakers sharing the stage with hypnotherapists, scientists, economists and designers for each session so we can collide all these viewpoints and question them as we go along. Each month is spent unravelling Maslow's hierarchy of needs, interrogating and criticizing that egocentric model and proposing a new one at the end of the series.
Scenes from "Sleep With Me: On beds, the unconscious and the nighttime"
Following the content consideration, of course, the focus had to move next onto "the texture" of these classes, their length and how this will be presented to the public—this is my specialty. I am a designer of experiences and that is what I do for a living, designing immersive architectures, systems and experiences that bring together narratives, future thinking and science all together. Here we decided that the research seminars would be non-linear, non-conventional, non-passive classes where members of the public will participate. In a way, I thought of these monthly seminars as an expedition, a live encyclopedia, where every month you learn a new insight to apprehend possible futures. It is composed of 12 classes and associated programs, hypnosis radios and other sublime experiments.
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We decided to expand and to draw from the expertise of both international and local collaborators. As a designer, I have been greatly inspired by Cabinet Magazine, a Brooklyn based publication that publishes quarterly on one theme through various viewpoints and genres (fiction, journalistic etc.). Naturally, we contacted them and asked them to join and to define an editorial line alongside the classes so that we can share our monthly theme through their eyes. We also contacted locally based radio host Elle Clay to produce a podcast each month on our research theme with exclusive interviews with our speakers and immersive narratives, Radio Wolfgang are working on the dissemination of that content and Amsterdam-based graphic designers Our Machine have developed the graphics for the projects. So there will be lot of materials and multiple formats to distribute the classes across platforms, both digital, audio and beyond; and it is extremely exciting to work with such talented and passionate collaborators.
This series is based around Maslow's already existing Hierarchy of Needs theory. Do you think it's important to look towards history when finding inspiration for future projects?
Absolutely. I am a designer, an educator and an academic. Only in the past 20 years have designers really started to invade research seminars and make Ph.Ds. New schemes like 'practice-based Ph.D.'s' have emerged and research through making is one of the way in which designers approach this. But for all of it, the basis is that you can't start a creative project without acknowledging your peers. There is a long-standing history of humanities, architecture, design movements to acknowledge and learn from and so it is key to make references to them and to critique, rethink and reassess. So yes, you are right, Maslow is not new, and he is a man too, which I normally try to avoid when I choose reference points. Im more inclined to follow the work of feminist academics like Prof. Donna Haraway for example.
How did you finalize a list of topics to cover during these seminars based on your research?
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Using Maslow's hierarchy of needs in its pyramidal shape, we defined a framework and the basic points for the research seminars. So the three first months are on the basic needs (Sleep, Eat, Breathe), and as you keep going you interrogate friendship, spirituality etc. This is how we selected the topics. After that, it is a matter of texture and alchemy, getting various viewpoints and workshop to inspire curiosity and perhaps even new work from members of the public.
I am really excited by [all of the topics]; I like to leave space to be surprised too. And so some of the themes might look less exciting than others, but the speakers are just as fantastic from one month to the other.
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Do you believe designers can benefit from non-traditional research methods?
Completely yes, I believe in unconventional research practices, and that is what I have been working on at the University of the Underground, for example. The University of the Underground is a tuition free postgraduate university hosted at the Sandberg Institute and located in the 'underground, within a hidden network of urban spaces', under nightclubs the Village Underground in London and De Marktkantine in Amsterdam. It provides an accredited Master of the Arts (MA Design of Experiences—a full time two year program) which exists at the nexus between critical design, experiential, theatrical, filmic, semiotics, political and musical practices. Started in February 2017, it aims to teach students how to engineer situations, to design experiences and events to best support social dreaming, social actions and power shifts within institutions, companies and governments.
By questioning the social and cultural capital of education, projects are opening up discussions on the manufacture of knowledge, confronting past and present fears. As a part of the university, we put together the Unconventional Research Office, which intends to demonstrate the state of ideologies in contemporary societies, where knowledge is interwoven with the idea of the nation-state and cultural heritage while current developments in technology propose a global notion of 'collectiveness'.
The program I've created at A/D/O is distinct from the University of the Underground, but aims to offer and experiment around non-traditional processes too. For A/D/O, it is a big step forward to have the monthly seminars and to make this kind of thinking available for a very broad community of creative practitioners here in Brooklyn and internationally through the radio program and the articles Cabinet Magazine will produce monthly. So exciting times, all together.
Learn more about Homo Sapiens, I Hear You here.
The next seminar—The Last Supper: On tables, carnivores and kitchen stories—will be held at A/D/O on February 12th. Register here.