The search for intelligent extraterrestrial life is over. She exists, and her name is Nelly Ben Hayoun, a woman who purports to be from the South of France, though I don’t buy it. She is out of this world (bad pun, true fact), bringing to earthlings a level of enthusiasm, an accessible language, and a hunger for intergalactic collaboration.

All exaggerations aside, I’m fairly certain AIGA has never before experienced a person like Ben Hayoun or the projects she’s engineered. Her work for organizations such as NASA and the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) on projects like the International Space Orchestra and the Disaster Playground documentary (trailer below) are just a small part of the insane array of exciting and audacious activities on her CV.

As Maira Kalman once said, “Sometimes knowing too much can stymie you. Curiosity is more important than knowledge.” Consider Ben Hayoun living proof of this. She doesn’t get mired down in the finer points of rocket science. Rather, she’s concerned with expanding the human experience through “disruptive” projects that put people in places they couldn’t normally go, like in a “Sonic Booum,” when sub-atomic particles slam together faster than the speed of light (pictured below).

During her raucous, fast-paced talk at the 2015 AIGA Design Conference, Ben Hayoun delivered a “total bombardment” of ideas intended to spark wonder. It might be hard to pin down exactly what it is she does (there’s a reason she’s called the “Willy Wonka” of design), but her main goal is to make science both exciting and accessible to everyone by creating “tangible experiences.” It’s just that her idea of tangible is outrageous, high-energy, often zany, yet always incredibly smart.


“Super K Sonic Booooum” by Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio

“Super K Sonic Booooum” by Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio

“I don’t believe you need to be an expert to be a part of any matter that can affect all human beings,” says Ben Hayoun. “What you need is collaborators with expertise. You need to work with them to bridge understanding and intent. My work seeks to make abstract scientific work real by creating tangible experiences that connect real people to real science.”

Ben Hayoun hopes her illuminating work will bring new attention and funding to organization like SETI, and that her ideas and performances will motivate the citizens of the world to think beyond national borders, religious conflicts, and tribal politics. If you think that’s ambitious, she’s also planning to travel to outer space with her friends at NASA. Of course, if anyone can do it, it’s Nelly, and if she can pull it off she’ll be far closer to home than she is on planet Earth.