While experimenting with building objects from all kinds of different materials is a designer’s field, third year BA Design student Kaddie (Katharina) Rothe wanted to go even further: to build new materials altogether. Her project “I am a nanodesigner”, a collaboration with Dr Russell Binions from Queen Mary, University of London, aims to build a bridge between science and design and to provide a different perspective on the emerging and highly hyped field of nanotechnology (as you may already know if you went to their lecture at Goldsmiths last month.)
Kaddie doesn’t have a background in science (“I’m not a geek”, she says), but what she does have is curiosity and a sense of wonder. It all began with thoughts of the things we are all made of: carbon atoms; dinosaur molecules- yes, we are all recycled from dinosaurs, if you think about it! Kaddie started searching online for a scientist who could help her investigate these curiosities and this is how she found Materials scientist Russell Binions. He allowed Kaddie in his lab at QMUL, where she had the chance to witness all kinds of interesting experiments, and eventually helped her figure out that she wanted her final project at Goldsmiths to involve designing something from atoms instead of workshop materials. Kaddie also asked for advice from science writer Phillip Ball, as the task of getting involved with a science-related project seemed quite intimidating without any previous knowledge of the subject; he put her mind at ease by pointing out that scientists are generally not taught to apply critical thinking to their work, a look from outside the box that she could provide- because, after all, critical thinking is what a designer does.
Kaddie’s tutors were initially quite surprised that she had managed to secure the collaboration of a scientist- it’s not something that happens very often, perhaps due to certain preconceived ideas between practitioners from science and design. Scientists are very committed to their standardized manner of communication, that allows their research to be understood by other scientists all across the world, and may see creative people as naïve, or lacking the logic framework that they have. However, once you get to know the people in the science field more closely, you realize that designers and scientists have a lot in common, explains Kaddie: they have the same goals of bringing good into the world. In the light of this, collaborations between scientists and designers seems, in fact, like a logical step, which is fortunately more likely to happen now that younger scientists have different mentalities and the government is also encouraging them to communicate about their work to the public in a more accessible manner.
Kaddie’s collaboration with Dr Binions resulted, besides the aforementioned Goldsmiths lecture, in eight workshops at QMUL, where chemical experiments,such as attempting to turn a chunk of coal into fat, were performed in order to illustrate the concept of nanotechnology (transforming materials at a molecular level). Kaddie was there to ask the outsider’s questions, and Dr Binions, to give the scientific answers; both of them were also there to prove that science doesn’t have to be intimidating and scary, and made everything more fun by giving character traits to carbon atoms and visualizing what happens at a nano-level with a molecular puzzle designed by Kaddie. Scientists do, in fact, use sometimes a puzzle made of sticks to explain how atomic bonds form, but it’s not a very appealing one. Kaddie’s version, colorful round pieces that bind together perfectly, is less accurate to reality (there is a lot of space between molecules, even if we don’t perceive it), but appears more intuitive and easier to understand. Kaddie also developed a manual that could help facilitate collaboration between scientists and designers (in this case, it’s about nanotech scientists, but it could be applied to other disciplines), and set up a Facebook page with the same goal- the “I am a nanodesigner” project wants to bring the two environments together and also to make science more accessible. So far, it seems like a promising idea- Kaddie says that the workshops received very good feedback, questions and proof of interest from the audience. Perhaps Kaddie’s project, complete with stylish, attractive branding, will encourage more people to
But why is nanotechnology important in the first place? Well, its potential is huge and yet unexplored; the applications of bucky balls (spherical carbon molecules) or newly discovered materials like graphene are only beginning to be investigated. Nanotechnology will likely be a big part of bioengineering, biohacking, medical research, IT, etc. Which is why the contribution of interdisciplinary designers could prove to be very important: the social and cultural implications of such a new, emerging field are not yet understood.
We will see a presentation of this project at the Undergraduate Design show soon, but beyond that, what did Kaddie and Russell each take from their collaboration? Russell was not present to give me his opinion, though Kaddie told me that he’d continue to use the molecular Lego she designed for him, for example. As for her, she is very excited to have finally found her niche. The BA Design course at Goldsmiths is brilliant for letting you try out so many different things and giving you so many options, says Kaddie, but she was not feeling as comfortable as other students working in the workshops, and she spend a lot of time thinking about how she would fit into the design industry. But now, she knows: “I want to work with real science, technology science, commercial engineering. I want to be a nanodesigner”.