SUPERFANTASTIC reveal why quality over quantity always wins with their designs, clients and merch
Having spent many years creating award-winning work at other agencies, creative director (and designer) Mark Neil Balson and marketing strategist Daniel Josef Okorn have united their skill sets to launch their very own holistic creative practice, SUPERFANTASTIC. In a noise-filled creative world, the pair offer an integrity and human-led approach, promising work that is both authentic and long-lasting. We chat with Balson and Okorn about working together as a couple, their love of design, and the many wonderful sources of inspiration that have impacted their careers.
PT Hi Mark and Daniel, how are you?
SF Hi Poppy, we’re doing well, how about you?
PT I’m good thank you! How did you two first meet? And why did you decide to launch a studio together?
SF We met many years ago at a record store that Mark worked at, bonding over shoegaze bands and Warp records. You can say that Slowdive and Aphex Twin brought us together. Our friendship quickly grew into a relationship and we’ve been together ever since.
We always knew we wanted to launch a studio together but the timing never seemed right. That said, during the lockdowns and the move to work-from-home paired with a bit of disillusionment from our corporate jobs, we started to seriously think about it and decided that we both felt ready.
PT What’s it been like so far? Is there anything you would have done differently?
SF It’s been great yet challenging in the best way. We’ve never collaborated so there was a learning curve to determine our ways of working. Being able to build something together that is equal parts of the two of us has been really rewarding.
If we were to do anything differently it would likely be to do it earlier and trust our instincts that we had what it takes to build something successful.
PT Where did the name ‘SUPERFANTASTIC’ come from?
SF We wanted our studio name to be unfussy and approachable, and have a bit of humour to it. It had to be memorable because we will likely reinvent and experiment with our visual identity regularly.
We also wanted to include ‘fantastic’ in our name, as a way to pay tribute to ‘Les Mouches fantastiques,’ a Montreal-based publication from the early 1900s. It’s known as the first LGBT underground magazine in North America.
We’re committed to doing work that inspires us for people we connect with.
PT Prior to launching the studio, what were your creative backgrounds?
SF Mark has worked for 15 years as a graphic designer both in Canada and abroad, including time in Spain working at Atlas and in Canada at Underline and Cossette. Daniel has worked on the client side for about 13 years in various marketing roles with a focus on lifestyle brands, design and hospitality including time at Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn, cannabis brand Tokyo Smoke and The Drake Hotel.
PT How have your experiences influenced the studio and your creative ethos as a whole?
SF As a couple, we’ve always supported one another to take roles where the work was exciting over any other criteria (ie. job title, salary). This helped us define work’s place in our lives and allowed us to collaborate and learn from some amazing people.
Visually and thematically, the studio is an extension of our shared interests. We’re committed to doing work that inspires us for people we connect with. If a client is passionate about what they do, generally we can find a path into the work and feed off that energy. We would rather work over an extended period of time with a client we love than move on. We’re very much about quality of client partnerships rather than quantity.
We’ve thrown the line ‘integrity is the ultimate disrupter’ around a bit because we believe good clients are starved for creatives that will commit to solving their briefs without compromising. At times, we’ve also entered into partnerships that allow us to become co-owners or stakeholders of a brand/project we are working on. It’s a big world and we are willing to travel, so we hope we can maintain this approach in the long term.
PT Why do you think you work well together? How do you balance each other's skill sets?
SF Given we’ve been together for over 15 years, we inherently trust each other to make the right decisions for the studio and our client’s projects. Collaborating comes naturally to us. Individually we have distinct interests that often combine into something neither of us would develop on our own.
In terms of balancing our skill sets, what we’ve really come to understand is that we can help our clients through the entire lifecycle of their projects. We can take them from research and strategy through design to actualising their project in the real world through experiential. We’ve found this to be a massive differentiating factor for the studio.
Attitude, whimsy, atmosphere and humour are elements we value deeply in our work.
PT What themes or topics are you most drawn to in your creative practice? Why?
SF For the studio itself, we’ve always seen a clear aesthetic thread that runs through post-punk/new wave, 80s Japanese industrial design, the work of Jil Sander and Raf Simons. It felt really organic and authentic to us, because we lived through the era and love these references.
Our design work has always been about finding a way into the work that feels novel in relation to what the client is asking for. This is usually interpreted through a minimalist typographic approach with enough of a twist to spark our excitement. Showing a clear intention is critical and something that we critique the work against.
Modernism has been the core approach but our love of design really started with Peter Saville and The Designers Republic. There is a certain rationality that we love about creating order. That said, without contrast, it’s not going to be interesting. Attitude, whimsy, atmosphere and humour are elements we value deeply in our work. Some creatives feel that clients won’t understand or value these aspects but we disagree. We owe it to ourselves, our clients and the work to be honest and transparent at all times.
PT Can you tell us about some of your favourite projects?
SF One of our first major branding projects as SF was for furniture brand, Avenue Road, which has showrooms in Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Dallas and South Beach. Collaborating with their team, we developed a new identity that cements the brand in the luxury category with a new confidence and range that was previously missing.
We’ve also been working with The Bentway, a not-for-profit arts and urban space organisation similar to New York’s The Highline. We’ve done a few experiential projects with them to engage with the community around seasonal onsite art installations including Pulse Topology by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. We are also finalising a visual identity refresh that should launch before the summer.
PT Who would you say have been your biggest creative mentors or sources of inspiration?
SF Shortly after we got married, Mark had the opportunity to join Atlas in Mallorca, Spain in a senior role as the two partners merged their separate studios. For Mark, his time working with Astrid Stavro and Pablo Martín was transformative on many levels. Their uncompromising commitment to doing the best work, their sense of craft and open process were in contrast to his past experience.
While working with Fogo Island Inn, Daniel worked alongside founder Zita Cobb who developed a new business model to merge art, design and culture to better the local economy of the island's communities through regional storytelling. During his time with the project, he worked with a small team to produce a design conference bringing together thought leaders like Bruce Mau and Ilse Crawford to explore the relationship between the culture of a specific ‘place’ and how design is informed by it.
PT You’ve also launched a collection of products – they look great! Out of curiosity, why candles and clothes? What was the inspiration behind creating your own products?
SF Our ethos for the studio when we launched was to spend 50% of our time on client work and 50% of our time on self-initiated projects. We’ve always loved the classic staff jacket because the visual unity it provides signals that the work comes ahead of any individuality. Similar to our design approach we wanted to focus on quality over mass-produced, low-cost items. We partnered with some of the best manufacturers in Canada to ensure everything was produced locally and to our standards.
As for the candle, it was purely selfish. We love the ritual of burning a candle during the workday and thought “why don’t we make one that represents the scent of the studio.” We worked with a Paris-trained perfumer to develop the scent, which is resiny and warm, with hints of wood accord, musk and leather. We love the outcome so much and the response thus far has been great.
PT What are the next steps for you as a studio? How do you hope to evolve or expand in the future?
SF Our first year wildly exceeded our expectations and validated our choice to start the studio. We hope to continue helping our existing clients evolve while expanding on the type of work we’re doing. We’d love to circle back to the type of work we were previously known for, such as editorial and book design. In terms of expanding in the future, we’re interested in exploring client partnerships abroad, setting up short-term satellite offices in new cities and continuing to grow our small team. We want to ensure we always grow at a pace that allows us to maintain the balance, spirit and quality we are currently enjoying.