Designing the Extraordinary

27 Aug, 2019

Thomas Heatherwick

Cast your mind back to 2012. The nation was caught up with the Olympic volunteer “games makers”’ and the mood enhancing triumph and tears of sports people. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony culminated with the lighting of the astonishing Olympic cauldron designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Arguably, this is when this designer gained notoriety with the British public.

He is to me, one of the most influential and innovative designers in the UK today across a wide range of disciplines from architecture, furniture, fashion, and product design to engineering, transportation design, and urban planning.

According to Heatherwick, the breadth of skills found at his studio is a reaction to his frustration at encountering "sliced-up ghettos of thought". Rather than separate disciplines he brings them together. Something I believe in and we strive to offer and deliver at The Graphic Design House. Rather than silos of graphic designers, art workers, brand and digital design specialists I believe like him it’s about seeing briefs as three dimensional design challenges.

He has said: “Design is more like solving a crime. The answer is there, and your job is to find it. So we go off and do bits of research that essentially eliminate suspects from the enquiry. And then you follow up leads and gradually narrow down the potential solutions. Ultimately what you’re left with is the answer.”

Indeed designers think differently. They are able to visualise what has never been, turning thoughts or briefs into the tangible. They stay curious, ask questions and steadily broaden their knowledge and experience. Studies have shown that curiosity primes the brain so we learn faster, it enables us to discover and embrace the unfamiliar and becomes stronger the more we use it. It opens up more,’ out of the box’ thinking and ideas. Most impressively, it means great designers are extremely versatile.


As a child, Thomas Heatherwick frequently worked on inventions, anything from mechanical birthday cards to go-karts. He gained a degree in 3-D design from Manchester Polytechnic, then went on to study a Furniture MA program at the Royal Academy of Art.  Here he met designer Terence Conran who came to give a talk and becoming his mentor after seeing his plan for a gazebo made for his degree project. Upon graduating, he established the Thomas Heatherwick Studio. Conran asked him to make an interior display for the Conran Shop, and this led to his first public commission. Mary Portas saw the display stand, and commissioned him to make a window display for the 1997 London Fashion Week at the Harvey Nichols department store.

Since the early days  he and his studio have designed, The Rolling Bridge (also known as "the curling bridge") as part of a redevelopment of Paddington Basin; the East Beach Café at Littlehampton, West Sussex; the controversial ‘ B of the bang’ in Manchester (which Danny Boyle attributed to his decision to approach him for the cauldron); Worth Abbey church interior redesign; the UK's Pavilion, "Seed Cathedral", at the Shanghai Expo 2010; the new Routemaster bus for Transport for London, the renovation a 300-year-old paper mill for Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery; Coal Drops Yard at Kings Cross; the Vessel in New York and the new Google headquarters to name a few!

Whether you like or loathe Thomas Heatherwick designs, he epitomises just how far a spirit of curiosity can take you. To paraphrase the 2012 V&A retrospective he continues to “Design the Extraordinary.” and I welcome that.

Nicola Carruthers- Managing Director


27 Aug, 2019