“We never intended to create a studio. We were just friends and had the same interests”, says Arjun Harrison-Mann on the origins of community-focused, experimental design practice Studio Hyte.
Along with Jordan Gamble, Ben Cain and a fourth co-founder Eugene Tan, who has since left the studio, the team have been friends and collaborators since meeting aged 16 at Birmingham Metropolitan College.
Lucky to studying graphic design even at college level in “quite an experimental and in-depth way”, long before a studio was on the cards, the group also found kinship in their working-class backgrounds and “other social influences that affect the things we believe and the ways in which we act in the world”, he says.
With all four accepted onto the BA Graphic Design course at CSM, it was during the second year that the group decided they wanted to form a studio; after graduating they – as a group, rather than individuals – continued their studies in Visual Communications at the Royal College of Art.
At this point the studio already had its name – a neologism influenced by Bruce Mau’s 1998 Incomplete Manifesto, Harrison-Mann explains, which urges designers to “Make New Words” to spur new thinking, forms of expression and conditions.
But rather than chipping away at a specific niche for the studio the co-founders took the opportunity of further study to develop their own projects and interests.
“I really tried to get as far away from Arjun and Ben as possible in terms of developing my own practice”, Gamble says. “In that first year I spent six months basically in another course completely – Information Experience Design (IED)”.
Harrison-Mann focused his work on disability justice and rights, and connected with the organisation Disabled People Against Cuts, “because my mum’s disabled and has been affected by the ongoing cuts in the UK”, he explains. In addition, “I was doing a lot of work that was more performative, more installation-based, more creative coding”, he adds.
Cain embarked on in-depth research into social housing, and “the role of AI and migration”, Harrison-Mann says, while Tan, then still part of the group “was an important part of the story” developing his own practice around moving image and interaction design.
“We always spoke about the studio being a melting pot where we were seen as individual practitioners with a shared cause”, Harrison-Mann adds.
“Individual practitioners with a shared cause”
In their second year at the RCA the group went back to spending a few days a week “growing” the studio along these lines. “We graduated from the RCA in 2017 and we just went straight into the studio”, he says.
Now there are six, with the three co-founders joined by studio manager Alex Bell, who also has an art and curatorial practice giving opportunities to queer and women artists; junior graphic designer Georgia Chambers, interested in natural forms, fungi and practical making; and junior developer Johanna de Verdier, whose work includes “looking at the potential for soil to power devices”, Harrison-Mann says. There is also a freelancer, Jons Jones Morris, a “creative coder who can pretty much do anything that we throw at him, no matter how wild the idea”, he adds.
While Gamble is full-time in the studio, Harrison-Mann and Cain teach at Goldsmiths and CSM respectively – with what they learn through teaching inevitably having some influence on the studio. Harrison-Mann has more recently formed another disability collective – called Access Power Visibility, with artist and producer Benjamin Redgrove and writer and designer Kaiya Waerea.
Five years in, Studio Hyte’s clients include art spaces, activist groups, individuals and academic research projects. Some projects are commissions, some self-directed, while the studio has also received Arts Council funding to work with community groups in Finsbury Park, North London, as part of its ongoing work with early client Furtherfield Gallery.
Community may be a common thread throughout the projects, but their range is varied. “And that’s where having people with so many different interests is really valuable”, Gamble says.
“Between us we can do work that’s addressing language and technology, or disability and rights and accessibility, or about social housing, or around low carbon practices in digital technical spaces”, Harrison-Mann adds.
The team explains that there are “four pillars” to its work: inclusivity, accessibility, low carbon and aesthetics.
Inclusivity means “really trying to work with communities and understand what it is that they’re looking for […] quite often we tend to be a part of some of the communities we’re working with”, Harrison-Mann says. “If not, it’s about trying to understand from a different perspective and to create space and not make assumptions”.
For a project that attempts this on a global scale, Studio Hyte created an identity and website for World Weather Network, which involves 28 international arts organisations spread across the world – from Artangel in London to 32 Degrees East in Uganda.
As “a worldwide network where artists, writers and communities start to report on the weather in their [area]”, responding to issues such as biodiversity loss, climate change and climate justice, Harrison-Mann says, it aims for a decolonial approach to the question “what does it mean to interpret the weather”.
Studio Hyte needed to design an online space that would connect the international organisations, unfolding as a live experience until completion in June 2023.
“It had to find a way to display all these different types of responses from all over the globe in a way that was non-hierarchical. It also had to account for 28 different languages, thinking about what it means to display those in a way that tries to platform the local narratives and the local cultures”, Harrison-Mann says.
Opening the website, the wordmark rotates through a “random selection of the 28 languages” with “blurred” transitions that “mimic cloud movements”, he says. For the immersive map, different symbols were developed to represent individual “reports” and events.
During the process, the studio discovered that people all over the world see clouds in different ways: “We had some interesting conversations about what a Western cloud looked like versus another type of cloud”, Harrison-Mann says.
“A simple idea, but a vital step for accessibility”
In terms of accessibility, the studio follows the “the Social Model of Disability: the belief that people aren’t disabled, but society is disabling”, Harrison-Mann explains.
Across most of the websites that Studio Hyte creates, accessibility controls enable users to quickly alter the experience to suit their access needs. Sometimes these are the first thing you see, acting as “a calibration page”, according to Harrison-Mann. “It probably sounds like a simple idea, but it’s a vital step if you follow the Social Model of Disability”, he says.
For Sheffield-based charity Arts Catalyst, Studio Hyte created a playful, vibrant identity that can be swapped to black and white or high-contrast settings and still retain the character established through its quirky letterforms and icons, and bespoke floating media player.
Equally, the studio is experimenting with low carbon digital design, even – perhaps influenced by another Mau-ism – inventing the tools when needed. For Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline, a climate justice project commissioned by curator Dani Admiss at the Stanley Picker Gallery, a tool was created that meant that “anytime an image was uploaded to the website, it turned it into a 2-bit image”, Harrison-Mann says.
“Using two colours as a way of reducing both the file size but also the amount of power used to load that image and display it”, he says, “the identity very much uses threshold images because that was a low carbon process”.
Beyond the digital, the studio also created a physical banner for the gallery, using Cyanotype processes and fabric offcuts.
Whereas debates in design often pit aesthetics and purpose against one another, looking to marry these in a way that works for each client is very much at the heart of the studio’s ongoing research and practice.
Harrison-Mann describes these competing needs as an “interesting and knotty thing to unpack as designers.”
“Things that are accessible can quite often not be low carbon because they require more functionality and different technical restraints to be facilitated. Whereas things that are low carbon might not always be accessible because people’s access needs can contradict, as what’s accessible for one person, might not be for another”, he says.
Seemingly no contradiction is too much: a public commission where people are “uninvited?” Sure.
For the exhibition “Uninvited” at Furtherfield Gallery, Studio Hyte created a visual identity, trailer and exhibition design.
While the gallery was closed for safety reasons during the pandemic, inside, an AI robot from artists Nye Thompson and Ubermorgan, scanned “CCTV footage from all over the world, programmatically producing a horror film to try and scare itself”, Harrison-Mann explains. Studio Hyte’s challenge was to “think about how you produce an aesthetic and identity that actually prioritizes the non-human, so the humans are the secondary audience in this case”, he says.
References included CAPTCHA tests, commonly used in computing to determine whether a user is human, which Studio Hyte sought to “subvert”.
Five or six custom logotypes were created in a “CAPTCHA aesthetic”, but the logos are all intentionally “abstracted and ambiguous”, Harrison-Mann says. Along with the “User-Unfriendly” website, this is a test: “Can you read it? If you are verified as human, should you be allowed access to see this film?”