'SUPER' Masters Thesis- SVA 2014.
The objective of Richard Clarkson’s Products of Design Thesis entitled ‘Super. Moments of Remarkable' was to help people feel powerful by allowing them to realise their true potential in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles we experience in life. Richard explored this challenge through interactive design and positive-cognitive psychology. Inspired by both a childhood fascination with Superheroes and using cartoons as a an outlet to deal with the stress of over-exposure to information as an adult, Richard’s initial research focussed on trying to identify and define what Superpowers really were. As the research moved into cognitive psychology, the thesis shifted in perspective from a collection of objects to a platform of experience. This culminated in a one-night event at a local gallery space, which focussed on a journey through seven different Superpower simulations.
Early research on superpowers was comprised of conducting surveys of a range of participants, in order to discover what they considered to be their superpower, their superhero, and their supervillain. These conversations were invaluable in identifying this thinking space – where people could have conversations about very intimate aspects of their lives without feeling vulnerable. A key insight into the topic came from a conversation with designer and thinker, John Thackara, who encouraged Richard to split the terms ‘Super’ and ‘Power’ into two separate definitions. Thakara helped to identify ‘Super’ as an extraordinary external experience, and ‘Power’ as internal latent strengths. These ideas developed into a collection of interactive objects based on a range of superhero poses, gestures and actions. These objects included a password activated lamp, a flight simulator, a color changing chair, an ‘Iron Man’ style light glove and a power-pose activated bulb.
Through user research, Richard found the physical objects to be effective interactive stimuli for the desired thought patterns but identified a lack of understanding behind the psychology of these objects and the participants reactions. This link was discovered in a TED talk by Amy Cuddy, which explained the psychological link between a Super experience and a measurable bio-chemical change in the body. This was pivotal information as it provided scientific evidence supporting the findings made in the initial experiential object stage. This lead to further conversations with practicing and research psychologists worldwide, including Josh Ackerman from MIT, Scott Barry Kuffman from NYU, and Peggy Kern from UPEN. These conversations helped to identify the underlying theme of ‘character strengths’ and their involvement in the origins of superpower narratives. Further research into the work of those such as Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, revealed that we can identify and define character strengths as traits that exist within all of us, often without our conscious acknowledgement. Duckworth also alludes to the fact that these can be leveraged for a more rewarding and fulfilled life.
In order to further explore the concept of character strengths, Richard looked towards exhibition design, proposing a night of experiential art/design as the final offering of his thesis work. The proposal for the event was to have seven Superpower simulations for participants to work their way through, within the context of a Superhero gym. Each simulation aimed to reveal a different individual character strength of the participant. Each participant bringing their own set of skills, interpretations and values to the experience allowing their journey's through the simulations to be tailored accordingly. For instance, the flight simulator emphasised a feeling of curiosity, of truly wondering what it would be like to explore the world from the skies. It allowed people to glimpse the feeling of flight that inspires the curiosity character strength. The aspect that made the experience unique was the ‘second level’ of the simulations, which was activated when the character strength reflected in the simulation aligned with the character strength the participant most associated with in the beginning of the journey.
On Friday 25th April, 2014, guests were guided through the very first Super performance with actors playing roles drawn from Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey structure. The final outcome of the performance was a membership application pack to the ‘Superhero gym’. Each pack included information about the specific power that had been revealed to the individual during the experience.
Super inspired a realization in the participants that they could use their newfound power and potential to overcome any obstacle in life, allowing them to experience the moments that make it so incredible to be alive.