Course Spotlight: Behind the Scenes of the Incredible CoAD Superhero Studio

Written by: Shydale James,
The superhero-themed collaborative design studio strikes a pose at the 2015 New York City Comic Con, where the students spoke with experts and marketed their projects.
"The superhero theme is something that excites across all disciplines and ages, and inspires collaboration on a completely different level.”
During the 2015 fall semester, there was a collective of interior, digital and industrial designers and architects holed up in the Idea Factory on the lower level of Cypress Hall creating the legends of tomorrow.

The widely-acclaimed Superhero Studio is a collaborative design workshop headed by Assistant Professor Martina Decker. It allows small teams of students across all disciplines of the College of Architecture and Design to collaborate and draw from their imaginations (and comics mythology) to create masked vigilantes.

And these aren’t your run-of-the-mill costumed do-gooders, either.

The visionaries were given creative carte blanche by Decker to create the superheroes of their dreams—and they pulled no punches.

From a rapid-healing, gender-fluid Capoeira fighter to a cybernetic enhanced military vet and fire-wielding scientist, Charlie and Aiden, Kayokin, Crimson Vortex, Lycan, Natsumi and Naomi Jones are all fully-realized, New York City-based avenging superheroes and heroines with layered backstories, incredible powers and personal struggles—eager to unleash a can of youknowwhat.

“They’re all coming together in the superhero continuum that we’re creating but they mostly operate as individuals,” says Decker, during a midsemester studio visit.

The boundary-pushing course, which is only offered during the fall semester (and debuted in 2013), was born out of a circus studio Decker taught in 2012.

“The students created completely immersive environments,” she recalls. “One of the groups actually designed a superhero circus and I found the conversations around that project so stimulating that I realized it was something that should be a full-on semester project. The superhero theme is something that excites across all disciplines and ages, and inspires collaboration on a completely different level.”

The studio also primes the students for life in the real world, where they will be expected to design environments from the perspective of their clients without allowing their own desires to take over the process.

“Having a client like a superhero with such strange abilities—like a cyborg—or someone who has a hearing disability, really creates an entirely new set of objectives,” explains Decker. “I think being able to move away from our own likes and dislikes, and really start contemplating the client is a fantastic tool for learning.”

Playing to the strengths of their respective mediums, the architecture and interior design students were tasked with designing the interior spaces of the superhero lair and headquarters; the industrial designers are in charge of the props and prosthetics needed to imbue the crusaders with superhuman powers; and the digital design students came up with vivid visuals that expound on the compelling narratives of their handiworks.

A visit to the Superhero Studio reveals sketches tacked to boards, colorful 3-D renderings splashed across computer monitors and physical models strewn about crowded workstations inside the Idea Factory, which also doubles as the 3-D Materials Dynamics Lab.

“Gather around, everyone. We have another visitor,” says Decker. The students, like fourth-year interior designer Cheryse Damon, who “chose the superhero studio because I knew it would force me think outside the box” assemble in a circle to give the presentation they gave to the architecture department the day before.

“We’ve had a lot of guests this semester,” says Decker with a smile, noticeably pleased with the positive reception of the course.

Another reporter has already visited the popular studio and, recently, a therapist came in to give the heroes a psychoanalysis based on the origin stories created by the students. And there was also a lively field trip to New York City Comic Con to speak with experts and do market research to influence their design projects.

As each group breaks down the psyche of their archetype—their intricate narratives; why they’re seeking vindication; the meticulous design details of their domiciles; the storyboarded plans for the short, live-action trailers in the works—it’s clear straightaway that this idea-driven mission to forge a league of superheroes has provided the students with their own arsenal of superpowers, too: the ability to explore deeply, collaborate effectively and design above measure.

Check out this NJIT 1UP for behind the scenes footage from the 2015 Superhero Studio.