Brain Pickings

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28 JULY, 2009

Exclusive Interview with Designer Twan Verdonck


Numbers, socially conscious consumption, and how to improve your sex life.

Last month, we featured 3 extraordinary designers who design for the physically and mentally disabled. One of them was Dutch wunderkind Twan Verdonck.

Today, we’re picking his brains in an exclusive interview about his socially conscious approach to design and his latest project, the brilliant We Are Numbers.


Hey Twan, good to have you. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your brand of curiosity.

Hello Brain Pickings! Thank you for having me here!

I’m a 30-year-old Dutch designer. And I’m very much interested in the areas of open design, the nature of things and the internet (especially the concepts of open source, free services, web 2.0 and 3.0.)

Besides many things, I work for my own company, where I self-initiate design projects. I love to do the research and share my experiences with others during seminars, lectures, collaborations, etc.


In the past, you’ve shown at the MoMA. How did this connection happen, and what did you take away from the experience?

In 2005 my Boezels project was selected for the MoMA exhibition Safe: Design Takes On Risk. I just wrote a letter to Paola Antonelli and explained why my project is a metaphor of how we should deal with design, social care and industry. The Boezels are furry animals developed for snoezelen therapy. They are not only made for mentally challenged people, but they are also produced by a workshop for mentally challenged people.

Paola emailed me back telling me that she loved the project. Later on, the Boezels were purchased for the permanent collection. And they are currently on display in the Rough Cut: Design Takes a Sharp Edge show ’till October.

Of course, I was very happy and flattered when the MoMA was enthusiastic. But the most important thing for me was that now many people had the chance to see the project and get inspired to design for a good social cause. And that was the reason I started the project in the first place.


What was the original spark of inspiration behind your latest project, We Are Numbers?

We Are Numbers is an art project to stimulate the fact that, even though everyone is different, we are all equal. And to show that we are beautiful as we are!

For €30, you’ll receive a tee that’s hand-painted by me (Number 1) with your own unique number. You are then asked to submit a photo or video of yourself in the numbered tee. The first 1,000 participants will appear in an art book. So far, more than 300 people have joined the We Are Numbers art project. Besides the photos and videos, the website also shows the world map and personal links, so Numbers can track down other Numbers and meet each other.

My first inspiration started when I was visiting the Bread & Butter fashion fair a few years ago. I saw all these global fashion brands creating all these new styles every season and thought that it was not logical.

Why are we creating new things even though there’s no real reason for it? Just for the sake of commercialism and hyper consumption? Or for the sake of showing status or superiority to others by buying as many new things as possible?

Even many “eco” brands could not comfort my unease. Since they are still producing things that we don’t really need. Maybe in a slightly better way, but they still stimulate the hunger to buy, buy, buy.

So instead of developing another “hyper consumption” tee, (or an organically produced “hyper consumption” tee), I decided to make uniquely numbered tees consisting of only one simple graphic. The longer you keep the shirt, the lower your number gets in comparison to the majority of the group. An early number, such as 500, may be cooler than a later number like 10,000. And number 10,000 may be cooler than a number 100,000. So instead of going out of style, the shirts become even more stylish with time. The older, the cooler.

I think that a We Are Numbers t-shirt should be an interesting object for life. One should be able to wear and feel great in it as long as it is physically possible. One may even see it as a personal investment that becomes more valuable over time!

I ask people to submit a photo or video of themselves and a personal link, so the whole Numbers family can meet each other and start doing nice things together. We’ve already organised a mini-concert, expo and I’m sure more will follow!


What’s the project’s ultimate goal?

The ultimate goal is to number everyone around the world. Since I think it will help to bring people together and will stop unnecessary consumption and inequality.


There seems to be an interesting duality in your work, with the quest for innovation on the one hand and the outrage at disposable everything on the other. And that’s a bit of a paradox — one needs to get rid of the old in order to make room for the new, it’s the natural cycle of innovation. Is there a happy medium?

Yes, but it’s not a very difficult duality, since I always ask myself if there is a need for this new thing.

Is it a physically better thing than the things that already exist? Or, when the thing is not physically better: is the intention/nature/soul of the thing better than the things that are already there? Because then it will teach people to understand their world in a more meaningful way.

When one of the answers is yes, then I’ll go for it!

For example: The We Are Numbers shirt is physically not much better than any other t-shirt in the same price range. However, if people buy this shirt they will experience that owning just one We Are Numbers t-shirt may be cooler than buying many new t-shirts every year. It will bring creativity, new friendships, access to events, you can advertise your skills, etc.

Many people even claim to have a better sex life since they have been wearing the We Are Numbers t-shirt! ;)


Regardless of how we may feel about it, we live in a commercial culture. Are personality and self-expression even possible without consumerism? How does We Are Numbers approach this?

I have nothing against consumerism. I think it’s great when people can afford the things they need. I only think that people should buy wisely and very consciously.

I think that buying and wearing the latest fashion trends is just overmarketed and overrated as a perfect mean of self-expression and individuality. I think there are more interesting things for people to show than their latest pair of Nike sneakers. You are not what you wear.

The We Are Numbers t-shirts are at once the same (the numbers constructed from a digital matrix) and yet every number is unique. You look at the individual, not the message, or the design, or the attempt to influence through fashion signifiers linked to individious marketing.


A hat-tip from Paola Antonelli is probably every designer’s dream. But achievement in art is subjective — what do you feel is the ultimate acclaim for an artist?

I don’t know and I don’t think it’s very important.

I just think that the most important thing is to be happy with what you are doing. If others like what you do, than that’s great. But happiness is not caused by external factors. No one but yourself can make you happy.


Well, thanks for letting us pick your brains, Twan. Any last thoughts left unpicked?

Thank you very much for the interview and your time!

Please take a few moments to visit the We Are Numbers website. There are some super clever and funny photo and video submissions from Numbered people from all around the world! And you can check who is already numbered in your neighbourhood.

27 JULY, 2009

BBC vs. MTV: Poetry Season


Old rock, new roll, and why MTV has nothing on Lord Byron.

Millennials may be experts at a lot of things, but poetry isn’t one of them. To pique the MTV generation’s interest in the classic art of verse, the BBC commissioned London-based filmmaker Corin Hardy to translate Lord Byron’s 1817 poem So We’ll Go No More A-Roving into a familiar visual narrative, delivered by punk-rockers The King Blues.

The resulting 75-second short film is an inspired exercise in the creative blending of polar opposites — chaos and slow motion, high culture and street style, the “rock” of yesteryear and the punk of today — encrusted with interpretive emotional ambiguity. (Is that angry sweat running down his left cheek, or a tortured tear?)

It’s also timely reminder that the art of remix is a powerful cross-pollinator that bridges essential corners of culture.

Explore the BBC’s Poetry Season for a vital injection of classic verse into the narrative of your own modern storytelling.

via Very Short List

25 JULY, 2009

TEDGlobal Highlights: Day 4


Solid sand, the art of curation, why doing nothing matters, and how to get 700 of the world’s smartest people singing.

The final day of TEDGlobal in images and soundbites — the closing of a truly phenomenal experience.

For full blow-by-blow coverage, skim our live Twitter feed from the event.

Bjarke Ingels at TEDGlobal in Oxford

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who has the highest ration of architecture awards to age in the world, showcases some of his stride-stopping work.

Magnus Larsson at TEDGlobal in Oxford

Magnus Larsson proposes a visionary project to stop desertification -- using bacteria to solidify sand dunes into stone and build a 6000km-long desert-break stretching across Africa.

The Sahara desert expands by nearly one meter per day, literally driving people out of their homes. ~ Magnus Larsson

Dan Pink at TEDGlobal in Oxford

Dan Pink says extrinsic incentives, a.k.a. 'carrots and sticks,' dull creativity. The key to economic success is in intrinsic motivations -- autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Science confirms what we know in our hearts. ~ Dan Pink

Itay Talgam at TEDGlobal in Oxford

Maestro Itay Talgam on the intricate role of the conductor in creating not only the process of performance, but also the conditions in which this process occurs.

Interpretation is the real story of the performance. ~ Itay Talgam

Daniel Birnbaum on the art of curating -- something we can really relate to here -- as an unseen force that shapes the art experience beyond the individual objects.

It’s the gallery itself, the institution, that becomes the frame. ~ Daniel Birnbaum

Brother Paulus Terwitte at TEDGlobal

German friar Brother Paulus Terwitte contests we've become primitive hunters and gatherers, preoccupied with collecting information, instead of taking in less and deepening our life. He advocates the 'organized doing of nothing' -- meditation, prayer, contemplation -- as a way to find 'the inner voices of things.'

The most important question is, ‘Where are you in your thoughts?’ ~ Brother Paulus Terwitte

Chris Anderson at TEDGlobal, forewarning about the infamous TED crash.

Chris Anderson forewarns about the dreaded TED crash following the end of the 4-day idea binge, when sleep deprivation kicks in and dopamine plummets. We can already feel it.

Tom Rielly's satire at TEDGlobal

The wonderful Tom Reilly's (in)famous satire of the conference. Here, impersonating TED Europe's charmingly stern director, Bruno Giussani.

Parodying the Lifesaver filtration bottle, Tom mock(?)-relieves in a glass, runs it through the Lifesaver bottle, and hands it to Chris to drink. Upon chugging it, Chris proclaims: 'Trust.'

Imogen Heap's surprise performance wrapping up TEDGlobal

The phenomenal Imogen Heap takes the stage for one last surprise performance after the fantastic audience response to her scheduled act. She plays the hang, a mysterious gong-like instrument, and asks us to be her live looping device, dividing the audience into a 3-part chorus. The collective experience is utterly magnetic, and you can just see the music running through her entire body as she performs. Magic, personified.

On a personal note, the TED experience has been every bit as invigorating, inspiring and incredible as expected, and then some. Exhausting as it may have been, reporting is has been a modest effort to help extend TED’s fundamental mission — “ideas worth spreading.”

And before we return to our regular “programming” next week, a big “THANK YOU” for following and sharing in this utterly lifechanging experience.

24 JULY, 2009

TEDGlobal Highlights: Day 3


Hip hop for peace, hot air balloons, and stereotypes.

Day 3 of TEDGlobal in images and soundbites, plus a glimpse of an electrifying surprise performance at the afterparty. For full blow-by-blow coverage, skim our live Twitter feed from the event.

Photographer Taryn Simon probes the frightening side of the unseen in her fascinating book, An American Index of The Hidden and Unfamiliar.

The phenomenal Emmanuel Jal, a hip-hop artist with a message of peace, who raised the TED audience to its feet for a dance and a standing ovation. Later that day, a handful of TEDsters won €10,000 from the Dutch Postal Lottery and decided to donate it to Jal's education initiative -- the TED touch in action.

The importance of education for me is what I’m willing to die for, because I know what it can do for my people. You’re killing a whole generation by just giving aid. If you want to help, give education. ~ Emmanuel Jal

Emmanuel Jal, paying tribute to Emma McCue -- the courageous aid worker who saved hundreds of child soldiers, including Emmanuel himself, and started an ambitious education initiative.

Lydia Kavina with the Radio Science Orchestra.

Virtuosa Lydia Kavina playing the theremin, a magnificent but little-understood instrument.

Iconic designer Ross Lovegrove shows some of his work, which he calls ruthlessly economic.

Nick Veasey's stunning X-ray photography

Eric Giler showcases WiTricity, a technology that allows the wireless powering of devices. Here, Giler charges a smartphone simply through proximity to a TV.

Professional ballooner Bertrand Piccard urges us to throw environmental fundamentalism overboard. He took a hot air balloon trip around the world, which started with several tons of fuels and ended with nothing but 40 kilos left. Piccard is dreaming up his next trip, completely unreliant fossil fuel.

International relations expert Parag Khanna likens pipelines to silk roads in that they connote independence and trust.

Geoff Mulgan on social innovation and systemic change, asserting that times of crisis necessitate a reboot that sparks innovation.

Felix Thorn is a master of synesthesia. Under Felix's Machine, he performs on a fascinating instrument made from household objects like candle holders and a shower caddy. His experimental music plays with synchronized light and sound, aiming to remove the human performer.

James Balog shows images from his incredible time-lapse record of climate change, Extreme Ice Survey. Here, the retraction and deflation of polar ice over just a short period of time.

I hope we have the angels of our better nature rise to the occasion and do the right thing. ~James Balog

Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Adichie on stereotypes and how Western literature creates a flat, narrow view of Africa as one catastrophe-plagued country.

The problem with stereotypes isn’t that they’re untrue, it’s that they are incomplete and make one story the only story. ~Chimamanda Adichie

In a surprising impromptu performance, crowd favorite Emmanuel Jal kicked up the afterparty with an electrifying act that transformed TEDsters into a mosh pit of dancers doing Jal's signature dance in sync and singing his chorus for a phenomenal collective experience.

...and again...

...and again. The energy in the room could've powered a hot air balloon.

Stay tuned for highlights from the final day of TED, coming sometime between the sleep deprivation therapy and the infamous TED crash.

22 JULY, 2009

TEDGlobal Highlights: Day 2


Optical illusions, aquatic apes, and the sweat of genius.

The second day of TEDGlobal offered an endless flurry of brilliance, and we have the photos to prove it.

Stefana Broadbent on how modern technology affects connections and the overlapping relationship between the public and the private spheres. The peak for private email is actually 11AM in all countries.

Designer Aza Raskin on the importance of seamless, user-centric interface, stressing that your train of thought is sacred and you should never disturb it.

The amazingly innovative and talented Imogen Heap.

...and more

One of the incredible, techie instruments Imogen Heap plays.

Imogen Heap playing 5 instruments while singing. Phenomenal.

Biomimicry expert Janine Benyus shows some incredible applications of principles from nature to the design and engineering of technology.

French designer Matthieu Lehanneur on the theme of invisible design, as if an object's function exists implicitly and invisibly around it.

Matthieu Lehanneur showcases his living air filtration system, Andrea.

Interaction designer Beau Lotto demonstrates some incredible -- literally, as in hard to believe -- optical illusions.

Beau Lotto plays with the relationship between colors and lighting conditions to trick perception.

Henry Markram talks about the brain and the beauty of its diversity.

Chris Anderson asks follow-up questions after David Deutsch's tremendously fascinating, so-smart-most-of-it-is-probably-over-our-head talk about the nature of scientific explanation.

Public space designer Candy Chang shows some of her playful, engaging work.

90-year-old scientist Elaine Morgan, the oldest speaker to have spoken at TED, is tremendously charming and animated as she talks about the controversial Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

Breakthrough Swiss act Sophie Hunger.

The devastatingly talented Eric Lewis, whose piano play is the work of pure, raw, mad genius.

Eric Lewis, in the zone.

...and some more.

The sweat of genius, glistening on the floor below Lewis' piano -- the performance was a magnificent force to watch.

For a full blow-by-blow verbal recap, be sure to skim our live Twitter feed — and stay tuned for more coverage tomorrow.