The world of “extreme experience designer” Nelly Ben Hayoun

We talk to Nelly Ben Hayoun, the “Willy Wonka of design” about harnessing volcanoes, collaborating with Space scientists and dealing with disasters.

Photo by Neil Berrett
Photo by Neil Berrett

“I believe that by taking an extreme approach you really get people to actively engage with something – and that is what motivates me.”

Experience designer and director Nelly Ben Hayoun knows a lot about working at extremes. Among her projects so far have been a series of “semi-domesticated” volcanos, installed in people’s living rooms, and an International Space Orchestra made up of NASA astronauts and Space scientists. She’s also training to become an astronaut.

Ben Hayoun’s latest project – Disaster Playground – is a film that investigates future outer-Space catastrophes and the measures put in place to deal with them. She says: “I got frustrated with films like Armageddon and Deep Impact, where the only answer to dealing with a near-earth object is basically Bruce Willis with a big drill.”

Training exercise for an asteroid impact. Photo by Nick Ballon
Training exercise for an asteroid impact. Photo by Nick Ballon

Originally from southern France, Ben Hayoun’s path to becoming an experience designer has been a long and rather winding one. She originally studied medicine before realising “I would probably be a very bad GP” and switching to textile design and fine art in Paris.

Then followed a period making kimonos in Japan. “I could have done this forever”, Ben Hayoun says, “but something was missing”.

Since she was a child, Ben Hayoun says she has always been interested in storytelling and performance. Some early forays into this saw her create a “fictive wedding” for her grandma – dressing her up in napkins and inviting the neighbours round to eat couscous in their garden – and moulding plaster round her aunt’s arm in a bid to create a fake arm that instead resulted in a hospital visit to have the cast removed.

Ben Hayoun says she fully found her way of approaching storytelling after enrolling on the Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions course, set up by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. She says: “It was the most unique experience and all the things I learned before Design Interactions came together while I was studying at the RCA.

“It was a bit magical at that time – I was free to experiment and test out how to best tell stories and perform. This is where I started to think that design could work hand-in-hand with theatrical methodology and that designing experiences also meant thinking in terms of script, performance, installation and architecture.”

After a period working for immersive theatre group Shunt, Ben Hayoun set up Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio to focus on experience design.

Disaster Playground screen graphics by The Machine
Disaster Playground screen graphics by The Machine

She says: “I design ‘extreme’ experiences for the public to access the surreal and fantastical in science. That means I design dark energy in your kitchen sink, while a volcano erupts on your couch and you are travelling in Space on board your Soyuz chair while being bombarded with sonic booms and neutrinos in your bedroom.”

Although a lot of her recent work has focused on film, Ben Hayoun says she doesn’t work with a preconceived outcome in mind: “One day it could be a film, another a chair, or an opera, or an installation.” As an example, the Disaster Playground project takes in a film, an exhibition, a concert and a series of workshops and debates.

One of Ben Hayoun’s great skills – and the reason she can get these “mega-projects” off the ground – is her ability to collaborate with people and to get people to work with her in often challenging situations.

Although her CV proudly notes that she has worked with stars including Beck, George Lucas, Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack, Ben Hayoun says her collaborations with NASA scientists and astronauts have been the most rewarding.

One of the big questions that arises from projects like the International Space Orchestra film is how someone like Ben Hayoun (who is frequently described as “the Willy Wonka of design”) manages to gain access to such controlled, process driven environments.

Ben Hayoun directing Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. Photo by Nick Ballon
Ben Hayoun directing Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. Photo by Nick Ballon

Ben Hayoun says her experiences working with NASA have been “the most challenging and nerve-wracking, but absolutely sublime”.

Her secret to good collaboration appears to be a combination of charm, directness and fearlessness. She says: “In my practice, when taking on a project, I’ll go into someone’s office and try to find a way to challenge the interviewee. If you’re an expert in your discipline, you’ll get annoyed when a designer questions or challenges your research and the creativity comes from that conflict.”

She adds: “I think the biggest barrier is the notion of ‘polite’ collaboration. There is a connect between art and science and design but they are not merging. The innovation comes from conflict between these disciplines, rather than working politely harmoniously together.”

As well as working on individual projects, Ben Hayoun is also head of experiences at Wetransfer and consults with companies including Google, Mattel and Jaguar. At Wetransfer, Ben Hayoun works to develop partnerships to build what she calls a “critical” digital platform. This has included a collaboration with MoMA and a political series based around the European elections.

Ben Hayoun with meteor showers expert Dr Peter Jenniskens. Photo by Nick Ballon
Ben Hayoun with meteor showers expert Dr Peter Jenniskens. Photo by Nick Ballon

Ben Hayoun says that while she doesn’t look to commercialise her work per se, projects like the Westransfer role have kept her and her studio going for the past two years.

Financially, she says: “I look at ways to do it differently – new ecosystems to sustain a business and develop that niche. I look at how to tell a story through multiple channels, so you might not buy the exhibition but you might buy the film – having multiple outcomes adapted to the audiences.”

With the Disaster Playground film now hitting screens around the world, Ben Hayoun is turning her attention to her next major project – The Life, the Sea and the Space Viking. She describes this as “a submersible Space odyssey, on board a Viking boat, which merges Space colonisation, creative vision and life ethics… Deep under the sea to the greatest height of outer Space.”

Although Ben Hayoun’s practice might seem quite singular, she says that people are able to follow in her footsteps. “Making your niche in design is hard but possible”, she says: “You just have to work, work, work, work again and fail again and again to get there.

“Eventually all will come together and you will be able to turn every no into a yes.”


Disaster Playground will make its London debut at the BFI Southbank on 30 June. For more information visit www.disasterplayground.com.

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