How An Industrial Designer Is Using Magic To Invent Amazing Objects

Adrian westaway
Adrian Westaway, co-founder of London-based design studio Special Projects. Courtesy of Adrian Westaway

As a kid, Adrian Westaway loved two things: magic and making inventions. Now, as co-founder of a London-based design and invention studio called Special Projects, he has combined both of those hobbies into one fascinating career.

At Special Projects, Westaway has worked on all kinds of endeavours, from designing an interactive user manual for a smartphone to creating a physical calendar than can transform into a digital one when photographed. As a magician in the elite magical society the Magic Circle, he is able to bring his expertise into the field of design.

“Magicians are the real experts at designing experiences and hiding their technology, and that’s exactly what we have to do as designers,” Westaway said in an interview with Business Insider. “People don’t really talk about how much memory is in their iPhone — they talk about what they just did with it. That’s the important thing.”

The beginnings of a magical life

When Westaway was 11, he became interested in magic after watching the famous British magician Paul Daniels perform on the BBC. He told his mum he wanted to learn how to make his school teacher disappear with magic, and his mum suggested he write a letter to Daniels.

Westaway wrote the letter, but since he did not know Daniels’ address, he simply wrote “Paul Daniels, BBC” on the envelope. Then, in what Westaway describes as “the most amazing magic trick ever,” he received a reply from Daniels, who directed him to the library to read a specific magic book. This was when Westaway truly fell in love with magic.

During college, Westaway often performed magic for money at what he described as “really weird burlesque parties and really bizarre shows.”

“I never really enjoyed doing it for money, because you’d have to do it for five or six hours in a row, and by the end your voice is hoarse and you’re just not really into the tricks anymore. You have to be really into it,” Westaway said.

A little over a year ago, Westaway fulfilled one of his dreams and became a member of the Magic Circle, an extremely elite organisation for serious magicians. He said it took him many years to muster up the courage to apply, because he knew the entry exam was rigorous. But he made it through, and said he’s met some fascinating people, and is working to further the art of magic.

Bringing magic to design

Westaway studied electronic engineering at Bristol University, but soon realised he didn’t want to become an engineer. He signed up for a course at the Royal College of Art in London called “Industrial Design and Engineering,” which combined engineering, design, business, and entrepreneurship.

“It was like a mad inventor’s course,” Westaway said. “Basically that’s where I managed to bring all of my interests — in electronics, and design, and inventing — all together in one place. It’s sort of where all the pieces of the puzzle finally stuck together. I’d finally found my dream, what I wanted to do.”

Westaway realised he didn’t like technology that was distracting and invasive. “I don’t necessarily like big boxes of technology and flashing lights and screens and things like that,” he said. “I think technology is fantastic when it becomes more and more invisible.”

He also learned that many magical theories can also apply to design. “Magicians have a real knack for understanding what the boundary is between the sort of secret side of an object — the technology — and the kind of experience that is happening, and it’s actually a really useful way of thinking in design,” he said.

Westaway decided to bring these theories into his work, and founded a design and invention studio called Vitamins with his friend Duncan Fitzsimons and his now-wife Clara Westaway. They eventually shuttered Vitamins and opened a new studio called Special Projects, a small business that averages about four employees at a time.

“We chose the name because we’re an inventions studio, and because we’re so small that we can be quite picky about the projects we work on,” Westaway said. “We also chose the name because we wanted it to act as a kind of filter for the projects that we get.”

Enchanted objects

The company has certainly stayed true to its name. One of the special projects the company is currently working on is called Out Of The Box, an interactive user manual for Samsung that helps people who have difficulty understanding smartphones. The manual’s pages have holes for a phone. The user can then see how to set up and use the device with arrows, diagrams, and even more holes. You can see a video about the project in action here.

Out of the box

Another project that has really taken off is theLego Calendar. This is a calendar made out of Lego blocks, where each block represents a half day of work on a project. When the Lego calendar is photographed with a smartphone, the physical calendar magically translates into a digital version, and is viewable on whatever calendar app you use.

The calendar is so successful that Westaway and his colleagues are spinning it out into its own company. See it in action here.

Lego calendar

Westaway said it’s exciting to work for Special Projects because the work is so varied; sometimes they will make a totally mechanical invention, sometimes they will work with digital elements, and sometimes a mix of the two.

The clientele is also diverse. “We love it because it’s constantly changing. One day we’ll be working with pensioners, and another day we’ll be doing something with pro snowboarders, and then the next day we’ll be working with teenagers,” Westaway said. “It keeps us on our toes all the time.”

Spreading the word

Westaway is also spreading his knowledge of magic and design to interested students. Earlier this year, he conducted an “enchanted objects” workshop at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design with MIT Media Lab researcher David Rose. Students designed “enchanted objects,” or ordinary objects that can do extraordinary things with the power of non-invasive technology.

He’s also in the process of creating a course for universities that will teach design students how to be magicians, and then have them use that knowledge to invent objects. He recently tested the course at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

Additionally, Westaway teaches a class at Queen Mary University of London called “Design Innovation and Creative Engineering,” which he said is similar to the mad inventor’s course he took at the Royal College of Art.

Westaway feels that magical technology offers great possibilities for the future. “Right now, we’re talking about these smartwatches, these internet-connected door handles, and light bulbs and everything. It will get much more interesting when these things just go back to being doorhandles, or rather ordinary doorhandles that are doing something fantastic,” Westaway said. “That’s when it’s really magical, when you’re not seeing screens or flashing lights.”

As for his own favourite tricks? Westaway said he loves to read people’s minds and tell them what they’re thinking, because those tricks are minimal and pure. He said he also loves card tricks, as well as tricks that use ordinary objects like spoons and sugar packets, because they’re easy to perform on a whim.

“When I perform, I usually just do it for friends, and now I’m learning more about a lot of the theories and the sort of ideas behind magic in design,” Westaway said. “But I always have a pack of cards on me, and I’m always ready to do a trick.”