How the ‘Willy Wonka Of Design’ Reimagines Corporate Leadership
“Total bombardment” is how experience design pioneer Nelly Ben Hayoun describes her presentation style. Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore earlier this month, that descriptor was just about the only moment where minimalism took hold.
Ben Hayoun warned the audience that her speech—built on 275 slides, covering topics ranging from philosophy to film and delivered “at the speed of light”—would last longer than the prescribed 15 minutes. When the good doctor did wrap up nearly half an hour later, it was to rapturous applause.
Through the bombardment, a theme emerged: Ben Hayoun advocates reimagining corporate structures and designs experiences to help disrupt the hierarchical model businesses typically adopt. “The key is to look at what is going to be the next phase of design, and for me, it’s going to be leadership,” she said. “Designers have a key role to play in changing the way leadership has been defined for so many years.”
Organizational change is Ben Hayoun’s stock-in-trade. At NASA—not the only space agency Ben Hayoun has worked with—the French designer created the International Space Orchestra (ISO) to encourage staff from different managerial levels to connect. The ISO, an orchestra composed of the American space agency’s employees, has performed live with major acts like Beck and Sigur Rós.
Ben Hayoun’s novel experiences don’t end there. The Other Volcano is a production where an artificial, but genuinely erupting, volcano is installed in the participant’s front room. Super K Sonic BOOOum imagines what happens when a particle travels at the speed of light and scales it up to a size humans can experience.
The designer’s phantasmagorical creations have earned Ben Hayoun the nickname “the Willy Wonka of design.” Rather than a chocolate factory, Ben Hayoun runs a design studio in London.
In 2017, her studio launched the University of the Underground bringing in Amsterdam’s Sandberg Instituut as an academic partner. The organization holds classes in out-of-hours night clubs and teaches a fully-accredited M.A. in Design of Experiences. Currently, the university enrolls just 15 students for its two-year degree and counts Noam Chomsky and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, as its board members.
Though the university is completely free, it’s also a charity, and Ben Hayoun excitedly urged her audience to donate. Then, naturally, she hurried to her next topic of discussion.
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.