Exploring the potential of materials to ‘fire imagination’ and ‘advance conceptualisation’

Fellow MA Graphic Media Design student Andy Renmei and I were tasked with conducting an interview exploring key issues that are shaping current and future design practices.


We are both interested in the theme of social transformation (in relation to completely different fields: genome editing / and econosociolegal peace-building respectively).

We began reading about speculative design, the utopic/dystopic futures that it might address, and relationships between emotion and design.

We planned to explore the potential of ‘speculative design’ methods to imagine and effect ‘everyday utopias’—that is, social changes that are ‘doable and viable given the conditions of the present’ yet also ‘anticipate something more, something beyond and other’ (Cooper 2014, p. 4).

We intended to allow the interests of our yet-to-be-chosen interviewee to determine the ‘everyday utopias’ in question.

Materials scientist and designer Zoe Laughlin, co-founder/director of the Institute of Making at University College London, was top of the wish list of interviewees from the outset. Reading publications by Zoe and other materials scientists it became clear that an understanding of materials, even a materials-based approach, is highly compatible with the speculative aspects of design that we wanted to explore.

We gradually focused all our attention on the possibility of interviewing Zoe.

Our intention was to use the interview as the basis for a short film exploring the potential of materials as speculative tools: to ‘fire imagination’ and ‘advance conceptualisation’ (two elements of the Institute’s strapline).


We prepared for the interview by attending an open day at the Institute, reading her published work and watching her media appearances.

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“At the heart of the Institute of Making is the Materials Library – a growing repository of some of the most extraordinary materials on earth, gathered together for their ability to fire the imagination and advance conceptualisation.”

Institute of Making

We each chose items from the Materials Library that we felt spoke to the theme of social change. Then we agreed a common short list of four for Zoe to ‘perform’ as part of our interview.

This process enabled us to specify that we were interested material transformations as metaphors for social transformations.


Finally we planned lighting and other technical details, and then storyboarded the shoot. The credibility of our storyboarding was improved by the fact that Andy attended an Institute of Making open day to infomally observed both Zoe and the location.

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The storyboarding process itself helped us to specify our hopes for our film:

  • It was about the potential of materials, especially their physical properties, as a tool to explore key concepts (memory, healing) related to social transformation.
  • It would communicate the ideas that materials are surprising and metaphorical, and that they matter.
  • It would leave the audience feeling inspired and curious.


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We first asked Zoe some more general questions about how she thinks and feels about materials (her intellectual and emotional relationship with them), the importance of curiosity and the meaning of transformation in the material sense.

We then asked her to speak about four materials from the collection. Below are some extracts from each discussion.

Muscle wire

Bioactive glass scaffold


Self­-healing concrete


We had about 20 minutes of good quality filmed material which closely matched our plan: An introductory discussion on materials, a section on material transformation, and then the performances/discussions of our four selected materials.

To help us extract maximum conceptual content we isolated the audio, and listened independently and together to identify the key concepts introduced by Zoe, and loosely map them to our own.


In the interests of time and clarity we chose two materials and a handful of concepts around which to structure the piece.

Using a transcript of the sound, we agreed a basic four part structure and edited the sound file accordingly.

We then each did a first audio visual draft of two sections, and reviewed and edited them separately and together in several rounds.


Zoe Laughlin was the ideal interviewee: fully attuned to our project, well prepared and warm, and keenly aware of visual criteria  such as ensuring enough contrast to show off the materials. Most of all, she is patently devoted to and delighted by her work, and to the possibility that through it she might inspire and enthuse others to experiment and grow.


I have since returned to the Institute for their geology themed public open day.



I sense I shall be back…

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