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Keynote Interview: Thomas Thwaite

Thomas Thwaite, designer and technologist, will be a featured keynote speaker at this summer's Desktop Summit 2011 in Berlin.

Thomas is perhaps best known through his Toaster Project. The Toaster Project was an attempt to build a toaster from raw, self-mined materials. The project exposed the complexity of seemingly simple and everyday technology. It leaves us to wonder how technology will change our lives in the future, and shows how we all need others to get even simple products.

William Carlson contacted Thomas to ask him about his projects, his views on technology and what makes him tick.

William: I always admire designers who look to future uses of technology. Who are your heroes? What have they said or done that influenced you?

Thomas: That's a difficult question! I've not really thought about it before. But here goes (in no particular order):
Alan Turing - I just read a biography of him. He wasn't too concerned with fitting in, stood up to the majority view when he believed it to be wrong, was flawed, committed suicide in a rather poetic way by biting into an apple dipped in cyanide, and of course changed the world, (kind of helped save the world too), but died before being given the full recognition he deserved. He also attempted to make things from scratch... not only a programmable computer and all that, but he would play around with chemicals to see what he could produce on a desert island...

My Parents - Well, I think 'heroes' is perhaps the wrong word, but I recognize their influence... They're both from rural New Zealand where a sort of practical, DIY, 'she'll be right/no prob' ethos prevails, which I think influenced me. Not only that, I sometimes catch myself saying something my Dad would say... I guess it's the same for many people!
My friend, Dr Patrick, talks sense. David Bowie, combines chilled with spectacular. Um, Stanley Kubrick, Werner Hertzog?

William: We don't really know what title to call you for the event. I'm sticking with technologist at the moment. How would you describe yourself?

Thomas: Yes, I have that problem myself... What am I? Answers I give when asked in the pub or something are: "Errm, a designer, sort of, but I haven't designed anything useful", or "Errm, a designer, but kind of on the fringes of fine art, and science, and technology... a 'speculative designer'' ... I think technologist is suitably vague too. :)

William: Do you have a particular working philosophy?

Thomas: For a working philosophy, I guess, looking at future technologies involves coming up with kind of weird, intriguing proposals and scenarios - if they're not unexpected, then you're not really saying anything new. I wrote some bullet points for a design magazine recently about what makes me tick:

  • Design is primarily about communication, and it's very good for that. Traditionally my focus has been on communicating aspects of commercial products/services to the consumer. I try to use these communication methods, both with audiences and with experts to capture/distill complex ideas into a proposal or a story or an object, to talk about other things than commercial products/services--large questions about where society is heading.
  • So sustainable design say, can be about selecting environmentally benign materials for a specific product, or it can be about the fact that the global population will hit 10 billion in the next 50 years. One is focused on a micro scale, the other is a macro view.
  • The world seems to be getting more complex, and complex problem need to be looked at through multiple lenses - technology, science, economics, bureaucracies, as well as mythologies, beliefs, trends. Design is good at dealing with complexity.
  • I like the idea that we never experience 'the future'... By the time a futuristic technology becomes widespread, it's been so integrated into society that it's become commonplace. I use the mundane in my work quite a bit... I also try and inject a bit of humor into things too - it's not a good thing to get too heavy.
  • The general press often confuses me with an artist (basically anything not industrial design and creative seems to be art for them). For a while I was wondering if they were right... but after a bit of thought I have confirmed that I am certainly a designer. Design isn't scared of communicating to audiences, that's what I like about it - the design methods of drawing from many different disciplines, talking to the widest range of people, testing ideas, presenting them visually in whatever media, and so on.

William: What makes you happy about what you do?

Thomas: Well I think kind of trampling across boundaries between disciplines, areas of knowledge and so on, makes me quite happy about what I do. So I can be doing research on something from a range of directions - browser tabs open for a particular project I'm doing at the moment range through medical prosthetic suppliers, journal articles on the evolution of flying dinosaurs and stress response in childhood, Ebay auctions for deer skulls, WW2 gas rattles, and orthopedic slings etc... and then I'm off to this workshop to mold some fiberglass... So I guess I really like the variety in the work I've found myself doing.

William: Thanks a lot Thomas! We look forward to seeing you at the 2011 Desktop Summit in Berlin this August!

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