Clara is a designer, inventor and educator leveraging human-needs to create meaningful innovation. Her mission is to improve lives through hopeful and sustainable design solutions that encourage well-being and a healthy relationship with technology. Clara has designed award-winning products for the likes of BBC, Braun, Nokia, Google, Samsung, Sonos, Lego, Logitech.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
I was born in the Italian Alps, where I was raised between my dad’s mechanical factory and my mum’s fashion boutique. I studied industrial design at the Polytechnic of Turin before setting up my own fashion label in Berlin. I returned to design engineering a few years later, this time in London at the Royal College of Art. My design method is based on my fascination to integrate seemingly disparate realms and elements: art and engineering, purpose and aestheticism, the physical and the digital.
I was running the design studio Vitamins before I co-founded Special Projects with my husband Adrian Westaway in 2014.
Special Projects is an award-winning innovation studio focussed on humanising technology. We are on a mission to enhance the unquantifiable aspects of life through meaningful design and innovation.
We chose the name “Special Projects” to define the type of projects we wanted to work on. The name has served us well; we have spent nine years helping companies to discover new opportunities by revealing user needs and transforming them into tomorrow’s most loved customer experiences and products. Empathy, relevance, clarity, magic and optimism are the values that run through everything we do.
Our headquarters are in London even though our amazing team is international. After eight glorious years in Shoreditch we recently relocated to Richmond which is an exciting new chapter for the company.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
Quite organically really. Adrian and I both worked part-time as research associates at the wonderful Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, part of the Royal College of Art. Thanks to the Centre and the College we met our first important clients, Samsung and BlackBerry. As the projects grew, we decided to start our own company and the rest is history as they say.
How did you achieve awareness?
One project was key, Out of the Box for Samsung. We helped Samsung understand why elderly people were reluctant smartphone users and designed creative solutions around the issue that empowered people to engage more with mobile technology. The project won awards and was featured in a few exhibitions worldwide. We did a series of talks worldwide delving deeper into its research and design journey.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
We don’t have investors and have never accessed loans. We have grown organically and purposely kept the team small. This allows us to be involved in all our projects and to ensure we select the right type of work for the studio.
What are the key successes?
I see success as a measure to improve people’s lives and to inspire new thinking. Most of our projects are confidential, so we are not able to claim fame for them, but seeing them enriching people’s lives daily is very rewarding.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
We have been through two global economic recessions, Brexit and one pandemic. I think we survived all these events by having clients in different markets, by keeping fixed expenses low, by being considerate and stubborn and, most of all, by supporting and being supported by an incredible team of talented people.
What are your plans now/for the future?
Most of our work is about the relations of humans and technology, its frustrations and delights. We plan to keep humanising technology and inventing a positive future.
We are also in the process of becoming a B Corp and transitioning to a Net Zero studio in the next year. As designers we understand that we have a responsibility to create products and experiences that contribute in a positive way to the world we live in.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
I think all journeys can be exciting and rewarding, entrepreneurship might not be the right fit for everyone. If predictability (of income, calendar, working hours) is less important than freedom (creative freedom, freedom to choose your collaborators), then you’ll love this enriching ride.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
I don’t identify as an entrepreneur but more as someone who wants to contribute positively to the world, which I’m doing so through my company. These are a collection of tips I received during my career:
“If it’s important pickup the phone and make a call.” Prof.Tom Barker
“Live walking distance to your office ” Alan Baxter
“A great deal is a good deal for both parties.” My Father
WIP – Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?
I am inspired daily by people from doctors and nurses through to legendary figures such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiapparelli. I couldn’t get it down to five so here are six in no particular order:
Rachel Botsman: I saw Rachel on stage at the Wired festival in Kings Cross in 2010. She was there with her newborn, and that image of her as a mother on stage has been incredibly empowering and inspiring for me.
Tracey Camilleri: Tracey invited me to teach on her bespoke senior development programmes at Said Business School – the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme. She has redefined leadership with her innovative design approach when it comes to learning programs, her focus on the humanities and what it means to be human in a world increasingly dominated by process and machines is invaluable.
My team: I work with incredible people, they inspire me daily for their creativity, their inquisitive spirit, their constant embracing of challenges and their tremendous growth. Adrian, Alexa, Matteo, Joana, Martha, Pearl, Sabina this is for you.
I due Vagabondi: I come from a tiny village on the Italian Alps which many of us have left. The impact is visible in the village highstreets and progress in general. Romina and Simone have embarked on a different patch and are revitalising an abandoned village in Valle Pesio.
My daughter: Raising a child is the hardest thing I am doing, probably because it’s a journey of self discovery. Seeing a child grow is understanding all the fears and insecurities that our life has created in us. They “feel” and express their emotions with no boundaries. Motherhood isn’t easy but it has been deeply inspiring to me.
Abi Hannah: I met Abi only recently. She has incredible stamina and clarity when it comes to launching a disruptive App to market. She has a wonderful way of conducting meetings, she strikes the perfect balance on assertiveness, openness and patience.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“To complicate is easy, to simplify is difficult.” Bruno Munari
“The details are not the details. They make the design.” Charles & Ray Eames
“I never look back, it distract me from the now” Edna Mode
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links so our readers can connect with you?
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