Nelly Ben Hayoun designs experiences that ‘enable you to become an astronaut in a living room, while a volcano is erupting on the couch’. If that’s not enough to catch your attention, she is also the founding Director of the International Space Orchestra in NASA Ames Research Center, Designer of Experiences at the SETI Institute and Head of Experiences at We Transfer.

Ben Hayoun will speak at You Are In Control 2014, Reykjavik next week (there are still a few tickets available, secure yours at!). We took a head start and asked her a few questions already in advance.

Nelly Ben Hayoun will both speak, screen her movie International Space Orchestra (2013) and partake in a Q&A at the conference. You wont want to miss it!


How did you get into designing experiences?

Would you like the long story or the short story? I initially studied medicine for two months. I quickly realized it wasn’t for me, then moved to fine arts and textile design, then to craft kimonos for Issey Miyake in Japan.

Then I heard about critical design, created by Anthony Dunne at the Royal College of Art. I was really fascinated by the manifesto of the movement, the critical approach to design, telling stories and generating a critical platform, where the debate is as important as the end product – it is not just about the table but everything about it as well; as well as technologies and the future thinking. I was very charmed by in, thought I would give it a go and eventually got in to study under the guidance of Dunne himself.

On the other hand, I’ve been doing performances and dramatic studies. I find it interesting how to direct actors, how you can merge different disciplines of design and fine art.

Many of my colleagues in experience design are very screen focused, but to me, there was always something missing, the aspect of the live performance. So I felt like I needed to carve my little niche, bring all of these different aspects – craft, design, science, performance – together.

When working with experiences, it’s always very important to also make them tangible. I want to create experiences that are as real as possible, as plausible as possible. So if I’m working with the space theme for example, launching a rocket, I will actually work with the real rocket, and the people that used them.


What can the design of experiences do to solve the problems of our time?

As a critical designer, my work is not about solving but about finding the problems, so it’s the problem finding aspect that I work with.

I’m a member of the International Astronautical Federation, Space Outreach and Education committee. It’s a platform for different kinds of debates. A federation with political impact, it also defines the agenda. Each experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum as a pop-up, just for themselves, but through my academic background – I’m currently finishing my PhD in Human Geography at Royal Holloway – I publish papers that are worked upon, assessed and then presented to the field.

In everything I do I tend to look at the extreme, and I believe that when working with the publics, whatever the cause may be, the approach needs to be extreme to make a difference.

As an audience member, you wont necessarily know what is real or not, if the volcano actually erupted on the sofa. I want to create a reaction of ‘wow, what did I just experience? Is it sci-fi, or is it reality? Was it real or fake? Is there really a volcano erupting, or a rocket or dark energy? Is it real or isn’t it?’ I want to get them to think about it, leave in wonder. There’ll be more information available, if they want it. This extreme analog approach is also the beauty of the experience. Either you feel it or you don’t.


Usually the goal is to control, arrange, manage and organize, but you often rather talk about creating chaos. Why?

I guess all that is creative is meant to be quite disruptive. When it comes to being a part of institution, such as NASA, you will find that I am actually very square in how I do projects. When they are large, they need to be produced in a very structural manner. It’s a different story with experiences – you can never plan how the audience will react, there may be technical components that wont work, you may have to improvise.

It is another type of a chaos that follows when you generate a critical platform, such as how I did with NASA Ames Research Park, with the International Space Orchestra. In it, all of the space scientists from all of the different fields, 66 members in total, where give a role to reenact the drama of the mission control, everything that went wrong. This kind of bringing chaos creates a new kind of organizational culture in which you can explore conflicts and team dynamics. It creates a platform for critical thinking on which we can discuss how to do different roles properly – you know, if I play the trumpet and you play the tuba, we will end up having to discuss and share viewpoints despite different background, inspirations and culture.

Ideally, I want to build something that lasts, even if experiences are usually temporal. The International Space Orchestra, for example, was founded in 2012 and it is still there. We are still discussing and with each performance, such as most recently with Beck, there are new schemes, new missions and new discussions that arise in exploring the failure components and the human conditions in the space programs.


To read more about You Are in Control 2014, see here.