ST-DUO Living Machines campaign

ST-DUO are an ethically-driven Rotterdam design studio formed by Sophie Balch and Tijn de Kok. They are designing for a better world, and are the visionaries behind the Conflux Festival’s 2023 striking visual campaign, based around the beautiful and complex ‘Living Machine’: the mushroom. They discuss their creative process, developed together with intern and current WdKA final year student Noah Verhoeff.

How have you visually interpreted the festival theme of Living Machines?

What were your initial influences and source materials?

The theme Living Machines sparked many discussions and interest in the studio. With artificial intelligence making waves within the creative / design scene, generative design tools and intelligence algorithms are raising questions about our relevance as designers and the longevity of our profession. Can a festival identity generate itself? What is the role of a designer when technology is able to produce campaigns? How can we use generative systems to aid our changing profession? Graphic design has survived and embraced the computer, web, code, motion, and AI is another branch we can grow on. 

ST–DUO loves contradictions and extremes, as two quite different designers we like to explore the realms of the inbetween. The terms ‘Living’ and ‘Machine’ stood out to us as one of these differences and we set out to find the point of overlap. Where do the symbolisms of the living (organic, detailed, random, autonomous, flow) collide with the machine (structures, systematic, information, connection, data, circuits)? And how can we address the questions of how we classify consciousness? For us this kept coming back to communication, so we were looking for an organic form that communicates like a machine, and we came to Mushrooms.

Mushrooms are beautiful, in their complex organic structure. They can be seen as conscious machines due to their complex network of interconnected mycelium, which acts as a communication system between individual mushrooms and the surrounding environment. This allows them to communicate with each other, sharing nutrients and information to aid in their growth and reproduction.

Mushrooms are incredibly adaptable and can thrive in a variety of environments, making them highly resilient to changes in their surroundings. Much like machines they can also be programmed to learn from their experiences and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Can you explain some of your creative processes behind this identity?

Once settled on our source material we begin to experiment, to visualise and explore interesting ways to distort the imagery of the mushrooms, to find our own visual language. We set ourselves limitations for example keeping to black and white colours and we have many critical reflections on what’s working and where we are creating something unique.

We then systemise. The first edition of Conflux we decided to divide the programme into categories (Performances, Exhibitions, Club Nights & Conference), to aid the audience in expectations when viewing a very niche and underground line-up. To systemise our campaign identity in relation to the 4 categories we explored 4 visual treatments of the imagery to represent the life cycle of a mushroom > Growth, Distortion, Decay and Transformation. These terms, linked to the categories, became our communication concept and helped us to form a variety of visual material.

We used the tool Topaz gigapixel, an artificial intelligence that generates additional pixels for imagery to blow up and expand our visual language. The tools database is mostly photographic imagery, so the interesting and unique part of our use of it was by feeding it artwork we had created to see how it would react. Using artificial intelligence in this way expands the capabilities of our designs and is a valuable tool. Alongside this the AI also added a new level of visual distortion to the image which made the process a little more unpredictable and surprising.

Check the ST-DUO videos of Distortion, Growth, Transformation and Decay.

Can you introduce your design studio, your studio’s approach and general philosophy as designers and creators?

Our focus is to build authentic identities for visionaries with a passion-driven commitment to change. It is important to us that the clients we work for are working towards making the world a better place. Whether this is an inclusive dance group, or a boundary pushing festival we apply our skills to that cause.

We strongly believe in the value of those who stand for what they believe in, and we help our clients communicate this is the most striking way. To solidify our own morals and values into the way we design and those we work for we wrote a manifesto to form the vision of our studio; ‘A manifesto for a better world’.

The manifesto explains five attitudes. These five attitudes define the way we approach design, they also personify the kind of clients we want to work with, and in the grand scheme of things, they are the five attitudes that we believe will make the world a better place.

You can see the full manifesto on our website.
Are you interested in a collaboration or further discussion? Do be in touch!

ST-DUO is formed by Sophie Balch and Tijn de Kok. 

We are grateful to have had the creative input and skills of our intern Noah Verhoeff for this year’s Conflux Festival campaign.

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