Can design help people to see the bigger picture when it comes to cultural issues? Can it open doors into possible futures for companies and consumers alike? The answer is a resounding yes, according to Superflux founders and partners Anab Jain and Jon Ardern. The couple founded their experiential design practice Superflux in 2009 in the wake of the credit crisis, just four years after graduating from the Royal College of Art (RCA) with design interactions degrees.
In light of the global economic situation, Jain says she and Ardern set a goal to “question the status quo” and design cohesive solutions which aimed to overcome systemic problems, rather than just “scraping the surface”. This is how they emerged into the field of speculative design, which is born out of critical design and involves creating experiential futures, storytelling, and world building. At the heart of what they do is looking to the future to better understand the present.
“Primed to think critically”
Jain and Arden became Royal Designers of Industry in November 2022 for their work in speculative design, having been taught at the RCA by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who achieved RDI status in 2021 for their work in critical design. Jain recalls that Dunne and Raby were always trying to broaden students’ ideas when it came to technology, encouraging them to think about it in terms of “implications” rather than just “applications”. She adds that her time at RCA “primed [her] to think in more critical ways” and set her and Ardern out on a “social mission” to “bring critical thinking into the world on mass”.
During his time at RCA, Ardern became more aware of the interconnection between concepts. “We often tend to think about technology in terms of solutions in isolation”, he says, adding that Superflux is interested in “expanding that frame” and discovering its position within a larger context. The studio adopts what Jain and Ardern call a “high-fidelity” approach, which Ardern says encapsulates the notion that “no future exists as a singular”.
Defining speculative design
In the world of entertainment and literature, the speculative category often gets mixed up with sci-fi genres, meaning that some have come to interpret it as being elusive. However, Ardern believes that Superflux’s approach “allows for a certain suspension of disbelief” by visualising particular future scenarios and allows people to step into a more tangible, less abstract version of them.
Once inside that future scenario, Ardern says people can view it more comprehensively and empathically, putting them in a better position to “inform the actions of today”. In this context, Jain describes design as the “cultural anchor which connects our bodies with knowledge” and, in turn, incites real change.
As well as cultural institutions, Anab explains how their design process can benefit different kinds of businesses and organisations. She describes how Superflux helps them to “collectively imagine what other possibilities are out there”, adding that their methods draw out ideas that might otherwise remained unexplored.
“An experiential understanding”
Superflux’s projects can be categorised into client work – for businesses and brands – and artistic work for cultural institutions and galleries, which is often self-initiated. Jain says the decision was made early on to “not just be in the service of this industry”. Instead, the Superflux team have also committed to coming up with new ideas, research and experiments themselves, then finding a partner or funder to work with.
Initially, Superflux attracted clients which were more interested in technology-based projects and futures, according to Jain, but projects have since become broader. Some past clients include Google, IKEA, and education foundations. Rather than limiting their work to certain sectors, Ardern says they look for clients that are “open-minded and interested in experimenting and exploring wider concerns”.
Regardless of the client, Superflux commits to going beyond trend-based research, instead delving into “design-led and etymological research, as well as hand-on research through making”, Jain explains. Using a project called Drone Aviary from 2015 as an example, Ardern shows how projects start with getting a deeper understanding of the sector, before finding “unique insights” and focussing on real-life experience in place of relaying information they’ve been told.
For the Drone Aviary project, commissioned by Arts Council England, Superflux “explored drone parts, built drones, and went out flying them”, says Ardern. He explains that this gave them “an experiential understanding” of the technology as they could see what it was like to get a view of the sky through a screen and how it makes the user feel, as well as “understanding the limitations of the technology”.
The output of the Drone Aviary project was a culmination of installations, films and publications. This included an installation at the V&A containing a family of five drones, designed to have specific tasks and functions relating to social and tech trends, as well as an accompanying film.
“Building a tapestry of the future”
Deciding how far to look into the future often depends on the project, says Ardern, adding that the Superflux designers are always looking to “draw a thread from today out to it” to “build a tapestry of the future”. Going too far ahead runs the risk of becoming too abstract and disconnected, while staying in close proximity to the present might “narrow the space for possibility”, he adds. Jain prefers to think of their projects as “atemporal” as the worlds they create are “tangential” to our own, but Ardern believes that there is a “sweet spot” which varies from project to project”.
The couples says that sometimes they are influenced by an “emotional hook”, such as imaging a world where their son would be the age that they are now. This is true for a project called Mitigation of Shock, which ran from 2012 to 2019, according to Ardern. For this, Superflux looked at the future of climate change through the lens of food security, “teasing out how different technologies might progress” and what would happen when they meet certain resource shocks. Part of this project involved looking at how these consequences might be mitigated by the current plans we have for the future and whether they’re robust enough says Jain.
Speculative futures to come
So far, Superflux has looked into the possibilities of merging technologies, microbiology, artificial intelligence and much more, and will continue to explore these sectors in the future, according to Jain and Ardern. The studio also hopes to look towards the field of quantum computing, notions of societal injustice and inequalities, as well as climate change and ecology more generally.
Jains says that her personal interests are “topics around climate, biodiversity and social inequality”, while Ardern is keen on the impact of “culture wars” and their ability to distort how people see things.
Banner image credit: Sandra Ciampone, 2022.