The Daily Heller: Designing a Brainwave Ecosystem

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Wetlands is an interactive ecosystem based on brainwaves, launched in lockdown by Lucy Hardcastle Studio, in collaboration with neuroscience experts. For this self-generated project, intended to showcase the studio's experimental approach, data is collected from tactile experiences with a range of materials—from frosted acetate, matte latex, raw silk, sandpaper, dried slime, velvet, cashmere and textured glass—with Hardcastle wearing a headset that tracks the brain's electrical currents (EEG) and blood circulation (PPG). She then generates a graph from this information, which is used to create the visual landscape. This digital ecosystem suggests metaphors that already exist in Hardcastle's existing projects, like fluid, reflections, textures and particles.

Hardcastle is regarded as one of the leading voices of the digital art and design movement. She earned her master's in information experience design at The Royal College of Art, having previously studied Textile Design at Chelsea College of Art. Through this combined background of visual communication in a multitude of mediums, use of emerging technologies and craftsmanship, she has carved a niche within the intersection of design, advertising and art. In our Q&A below Hardcastle explains her approaches to experience and design.

What inspired you to do this experiential work?I started seeing the potential of experiential design during my masters at the RCA in information experience design. Prior to this I was making images, films, objects and textiles, but I had a strong desire to make work that was more responsive to the senses as a way to generate emotive or impactful reactions. I was inspired to create work that put the audience first, and [also by] the idea of a user or viewer influencing a piece of work through their own interactions, as a vessel to challenge the perception of the digital and virtual within a design context.

How, in fact, have you applied it to commercial clients? And has it come as something of a mystery, or is this what the creative directors of your clients' offices primed for?I believe that clients come to us for how we respond and deconstruct a brief into either a sensorial or experiential outcome. Experience design can broaden how a client tells a story to their audience.At the studio, when working on a project, we’re not initially focused on a specific medium, but more about what outcome or end result makes sense for what the client is looking to convey. As a creative director, key parts of my process involve the concept, narrative, overall vision and execution. We tend to break down a client brief into the bare elements of it, which may be certain codes, themes or properties that can then be represented in either a metaphoric, abstracted or hyper-real way. We find stories within those bare elements that can be drawn out to find new narratives and create an unexpected interpretation of the brief, while ensuring that it feels poetic, which is a key part of our creative language.

With the current Wetlands project, how does this transform, if at all, from the artistic to the pragmatic?We’re very passionate about creating work that is grounded in research prior to us applying our artistic and creative license, as a gateway to being inviting and engaging for an audience. Wetlands had a similar process and fits into our design theme, described as "Poetic Data Visualization," where we began with the raw data of our brainwaves, and translated it into a landscape that’s essentially a 3D graph. We definitely wanted to aim for more of an abstracted, aesthetically driven look for Wetlands, as a way to balance the scientific elements; in that sense I wouldn’t call the work pragmatic, as it’s still a personal artistic response to the data. So, you see this as theoretical and/or experimental rather than functional?Absolutely, we see it as a way of showing the potential of digital or web-based storytelling in a more speculative and experimental sense. This is the voice we aim to lead on, and have collaborated with scientific organizations in the past such as King’s College London, to find a harmonious balance within that spectrum. Wetlands to me is definitely functional, but it’s more about the function of play and exploration than anything else, as well as creating an intersection between science and art.

And finally, is this "experience" or "design," or is there absolutely no difference?I would say that Wetlands is both experience and design. To me, there is a difference, as there can be design that is indirectly part of our lives, that we may not consciously witness. Without an awareness or presence of it, I don’t believe it’s an experience. Design will always come first within my process, but the ultimate goal is to create an experience for the user that is something memorable or provides a new perspective.