“Purposeful aimlessness”: Thomas Heatherwick

Screen Shot 2012-08-07 at 14.56.39Just back from a wonderful exhibition on the work of designer Thomas Heatherwick and his team at the V&A in London. Its on till Sep 30th, so do pop in and see it if you are in London.

Heatherwick Studio’s profile has gone truly global in the last week, thanks to the design of the “cauldron” for the 2012 Olympic games. If you managed to miss this, the cauldron is made of 204 copper petals, one per country competing, which lit up one by one, and then raised up from the ground.

Heatherwick has also designed the brilliant new buses for London, which re-invent the iconic “Routemaster” model of the 1950’s. Can’t wait to jump on and jump off one of these buses when they start running.

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I always find exhibitions like these enjoyable in their own right, but also a source of inspiration.

1. Thinking by doing

I’ve blogged many times on our belief in the power of prototyping, and this is central to Thomas’ work. According to the exhibition, he has “developed a way of thinking through making, formulating ideas by testing materials in the workshop.” I love the way his experimental approach is described as “purposeful aimlessness”: playing around with things as a way of generating ideas, rather than starting with a drawing or discussion.

Its also interesting to note that Heatherwick make the majority of their models in house, rather than out-sourcing the prototyping, as this encourages designers to experiment.

2. Collaboration is key

The Heatherwick Studio was established from the start as a collaborative venture, with architechts, engineers and product designers working together. And Heatherwick believes these people need to be together physically, even in today’s digital age, with the workshop a central fabrication space at the heart of the studio. Steve Jobs thought the same way when influencing the new offices of animation studio Pixar, designed in a way that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.”

3. Inspiration comes from everywhere

One of Heatherwick’s most famous designs is the “Seed Catherdral” which was Britain’s pavillion at the 2010 Work Exp in China. Inspiration for this design came from Heatherwick’s childhood playing with Play-Doh figures that grew hair when you squeezed coloured paste through the holes in their heads. This led to a design using 60,000 silvery “hairs”, each one an identical rod of clear acrylic with several seeds at the end. The seeds were used as “a symbol of potential and promise.”

In the duration of the six-month Expo, more than eight million people went inside the Seed Cathedral, making it the UK’s most visited tourist attraction and it won the event’s top prize, the gold medal for pavilion design.

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In conclusion, Heatherwick is a true inspiration to think less, and do more, harnessing the power of prototyping to bring to life ideas. So, if you’re stuck on a project, perhaps its time for some “purposeful aimlessness.”