Posted 25 January 2024
Interview by Nicole Fan
Mention Maria Than

How creative technologist Maria Than is using AR and AI for social good

Just a year into her graphic design degree, Maria Than felt lost, low and ready to drop out. That all changed when a university lecturer introduced her to augmented reality – and the rest, as she says, is history. Fascinated by the world of creative technology, she began blending immersive tech, programming and web development into her work until they eventually became integral to her creative practice. Now a digital designer, artist in residence and associate lecturer, Maria advocates for social issues using AR filters, explores intergenerational stories about her Vietnamese heritage using generative AI, and teaches university students about the ethics of digital activism. Here, she tells us all about how she entered this emerging field and why she believes creative tech is a force for social good.

Maria Than

Maria Than

Job Title

Co-Founder, Ricebox Studio
Associate Lecturer, University of the Arts London
Digital Designer, Child Rights International Network
Freelance creative technologist and artist in residence, arebyte Gallery



Selected Clients

Responsive Fashion Institute (RFI), On Your Side UK, Feminist Internet, Artivive, Toronto Junction BIA, Our Sisterhood

Previous Employment

Associate / Visiting Lecturer at universities including UAL, University of Greenwich, Sheffield Hallam University, London College of Fashion, University of West England
Resident Creative Technologist, AIxDesign programme <STORY&CODE>, 2022
Design Graduate Fellow, The Rights Studio x CRIN Fellowship, 2019–2020

Place of Study

BA Graphic Design, Camberwell College of Arts, 2016–2019


Social Media

Maria’s Instagram
Ricebox Studio’s Instagram

What I do

How would you describe what you do?
It’s always so hard to answer this question! It depends on whether you want the long or short version. In short, I am a designer and educator – but the long version has a few more facets to it.

In my design practice, I am the co-founder as well as creative and tech producer at Ricebox Studio, which I run alongside three of my friends – Anna Tsuda, Safiya Ahmed and Bristy Azmi. We’re called Ricebox because all four of us are from different Asian backgrounds (Japanese, Indian, Bengali, Vietnamese) and rice is our common cultural staple! Our mission is to use creative tech and design for social good, and we start conversations on important topics like sustainability and racism through alternative methods of communication. I’m also a part-time digital designer at Child Rights International Network (CRIN), where I work alongside policymakers and researchers to advocate for children’s rights in creative and accessible ways.

“Our mission is to use creative tech and design for social good, and to start conversations on important topics.”

As an educator, I’ve taught in both UK and international universities. Whether I’m associate lecturing or running workshops and conferences, all of my teaching focuses on design, creative tech, the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) and social activism.

On top of that, I am a practising artist whose AR and creative tech artworks have been exhibited in various galleries and exhibitions. I’m currently an artist in residence at arebyte Gallery, where I’m preparing for my first solo show about my Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhist background; prior to that, I had been a resident creative technologist at the <STORY&CODE> programme run by AIxDESIGN, where I collaborated with animator Connie He to craft an AI animation teaser that was showcased in Amsterdam, New York and online.

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Stills from ‘Dear Upstairs Neighbour’, the AI animation teaser made with Connie He

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How do you manage all these different roles at the same time?
It was quite hard at first, but if you look closely at my day-to-day activities, all these seemingly different things are actually closely interlinked and connected. My mantra is ‘two birds, one stone’, because everything that I learn in theory is practically applied to any domain I’m involved in – whether that’s designing with AR, creating content for social media, or doing academic research.

For example, I’ve brought my experience from the teaching world into my work at CRIN, Ricebox Studio, as well as my personal art and design practice. My knowledge of creative technologies has grown massively through preparing for lectures and doing research, while tutorials have opened my eyes to the new techniques and approaches that my students are exploring.

Being a designer at CRIN has also built up my understanding of the current discussions and initiatives surrounding social issues on an international scale. That’s informed Ricebox projects like MUCChase – the AR treasure hunt about fast fashion and sustainability that we developed for the Responsive Fashion Institute – and On Your Side UK, the UK’s first national helpline service for East and Southeast Asian victims of hate crimes and racism, which we shaped the user experience and user interface for.

AR filters for MUCChase

Meanwhile, my personal ‘sandbox’ of solo projects has really expanded my practice too. As a designer, it’s very easy to get trapped in research, conceptual development and ideation – all of which are essential as they form the backbone to your outputs, but can become an endless loop that leads to nowhere. Having this space where I go balls to the wall with creative tech has allowed me to try out new techniques for fun, such as 3D-scanning when creating a video for the musician SpiderPlant. My personal experience as an AR Instagram filter designer has also fed into how I use AR within storytelling and activism, especially at Ricebox Studio.

It used to be so hard to adhere to a balance of hours, but, as of this year, I finally have most of my weekends back to relax – something that took me years to figure out!

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Yes and no. I graduated with a BA in Graphic Design, which taught me essential design principles, approaches to conceptual development and ways of pitching to clients. However, my skills in creative technologies were really a mix of formal and informal training.

AR was self-taught – in fact, the majority of AR designers I know did not undergo formal training; we all used YouTube tutorials, plus we swapped advice and troubleshooting tips on Facebook groups.

Generative AI, programming, web development and physical computing were a mix. I started off trying to learn it all on my own, but it was an absolute car crash! I lacked diligence, was so confused and had a messy approach to troubleshooting, so I took to learning from people and enrolling in online courses instead. I would say that I’m still not good enough to be hired on those skills, but I’m good enough to use them substantially in my creative works.

As for my knowledge about designing for social good and the ethics of AI, a lot of that has been either learnt through my job at CRIN, working with clients and communities at Ricebox Studio, teaching at university, or doing extra reading and research.

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I find inspiration from a ton of different places. Linh Son temple in Beulah Hill – the only Vietnamese Buddhist temple in London – is an absolute gem in terms of Viet-Buddhist maximalist aesthetics. I also often visit Novelty Automation in Holborn, a tiny arcade room full of satirical, hilarious and incredibly inventive mechanical games designed by engineer Tim Hunkin.

I’ve been influenced by many different people too, including the Viet-British designer Sophia Luu who inspired me to get back into illustration after university. She tackles difficult topics with “serious joy” – especially in her trauma-informed work on child sexual abuse called ‘Secrets Worth Sharing’ – and that inspired me to develop ‘Indulgences’, a series of AR illustrations about experiencing mental burnout on period days, which was exhibited in New York and London.

The former director of CRIN, Veronica Yates, also inspired me with her drive, principles and out-of-the-box techniques. She brought me into the world of social activism and really helped me understand how to combine empathy and design without compromising on ethos. Artistic duo Identity 2.0 too – they explore creative technology from a policy and social lens, looking at everything from data privacy to the impact of AI on marginalised communities.

For art and design references, I love the Buddhist PureLand vaporwave collages created by Vietnamese aunties and uncles in the early 2000s as well as Tibetan Thangka aesthetics. I also love drawing on Internet nostalgia, Web 1, flash games, PS1 and ’60s advertising for general aesthetics. For example, anyone who knows me would know that I am deeply obsessed with everything about Pokemon Blue and Gold – from the simplicity of the worldbuilding to the incredible 8-bit and 16-bit soundtrack. I’m also in love with Sandspiel, a browser-based interactive sandbox game made by creative coder Max Bittker, and fascinated by The Big Lez Show, an iconic YouTube series rendered in a simple Microsoft Paint animation style that’s full of insane humour.

What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
I‘ve been enjoying the ongoing production of my first solo exhibition with arebyte Gallery. Centred on my Vietnamese roots, my experience growing up as a British child in Paris and my immersion in Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism, it’s been a highly emotional and personal process that’s forced me to dive back into both difficult and joyful memories.

This whole journey of exploring the refusal, understanding and acceptance of my fragmented identity began back in April 2022, when I found a pixelated image of the Buddhist deity Avalokiteśvara on the internet. Such images, depicted in the traditional maximalist style of Vietnamese buddhist art, were really a part of my upbringing – even though none of us actually knew their origins. They were scattered around my home as well as printed on Vietnamese calendars, posters and even restaurant menus – so there is a collective nostalgia to those images, tying our parents’ traumatic experience of the war, our ensuing generational trauma and our own complex relationship to our culture together.

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Stills from ‘Home Age to Avalokitesvara’, a short film made using AI and archival footage

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Generative AI tools have been a form of digital archiving, helping me bring those stories to life as both emotional and experiential memories. Memory itself is a concept of impermanence: it constantly corrupts, evolves and adapts, and my design processes represent this. Inspired by Tibetan sand mandalas, which are painstakingly drawn but can be destroyed by the wind at any point, I’m utilising digital and AI processes to make digital projections on sand and create interactive audio-visual artwork.

Along with that, I’m engaging with handmade materials and techniques to craft around 200 Tibetan buddhist bracelets and 150 soaps in the shape of Boddhisatvas, gemstones and lotus flowers. The whole exhibition draws on the Buddhist concept of samsara, which is essentially the cycle of rebirth and redeath, and it’ll be taking audiences through three phases of refusal, understanding and acceptance as a way to help them find peace and reflection within their own lives.

“Generative AI tools have been a form of digital archiving, helping me bring stories to life.”

How have AR and AI impacted your creative process, and what is your own relationship to using these modern technologies in your artistic practice?
Initially, I was severely lacking in all those skills and felt bad seeing everyone in my network creating beautiful work with them. However, after the boom of generative AI, I got sucked into tools like Open AI’s Dall-E 2, RunwayML and Deforum Stable Diffusion – and the confidence they gave me was immense.

I’m not great at practical techniques in traditional mediums like oil painting or sculpture, and I soon realised the potential of utilising these tools to bring my ideas to life. In fact, I still remember the first time I used Dall-E 2: it really opened up my imagination as I was able to create visuals for the thoughts and concepts in my brain so quickly.

That motivated me to start teaching myself how to create all sorts of things, such as AR shaders and portals, interactive 3D avatars, audio and visual patches, generative AI visuals and more – all of which I condensed into a project called ‘My Symbiotic Relationship with Technology’.

Maria’s AR filters

“Generative AI will grow whether we want it to or not, so it’s time to see how it can be used purposefully.”

When it comes to the debate around generative AI, I think it must be adopted as a tool and not fully ignored. Generative AI will grow whether we want it to or not, so it’s time to see how it can be used purposefully to push our practices and conceptual development.

AI definitely has its drawbacks and negative consequences – especially in terms of how it’s affecting authorship within creative communities – but we must come together to mitigate such problems instead of just pushing AI away completely. I’ve always believed that if you use a generative AI platform, you must never stop at the AI’s final output – always integrate it as part of a wider design or artistic idea and process instead. Otherwise, it doesn’t bring much complexity to the table and you end up churning cheap outputs over and over again.

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
In my first year of my degree, I felt very inadequate and thought I was not meant for the creative world. I persevered and tried out so many different things – including ceramics, typography, publication making and printmaking – but nothing stuck. I was incredibly lost, mentally low and wanted to drop out, until I broke away from the traditional design references we were given and got into creative tech. I was introduced to the concept of AR by my university mentor, Fred Deakin, and became so absorbed that I decided to learn how to make my own AR experiences during the summer – even while I was sick with indigestion on a family holiday in Germany.

“I was incredibly lost until I broke away from traditional design references and got into creative tech.”

I started looking into net art, video games and animation, which led me to get involved in more creative technology projects such as ‘A Load of Waffle’, an interactive waffle piano about political waffling, and ‘Check-Out’, a web-based video game on malicious forms of UX and UI. The rest is history! After graduating, I signed up to lots of open calls and made friends via the internet, which is how I got involved in exhibitions and showcases around the world.

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‘A Load of Waffle’, an interactive waffle piano

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Web-based video game ‘Check-Out’

How did you go about landing your first clients and commissions?
There was a lot of reaching out to get commissions and a lot of word-of-mouth as well. For RiceBox studio, we had a huge network of people that we had nurtured throughout our time at university. We spread the word that we could teach AR and tutors were soon passing the message on to each other, which was fantastic! That led to us suddenly receiving cold emails from potential clients asking for commissions, workshops and educational partnerships.

In my personal practice, I received commissions through friends and colleagues who recommended me, as well as through posting a lot on Instagram. You will have dry spells sometimes, which is normal – so when I’m not producing any new works or experiments, I apply to a ton of opportunities, art residencies and awards on ArtRabbit. That’s really taught me to be resilient in the face of failure, because if I apply to ten different things, I’m often unsuccessful in nine of them. It’s crazy how much you get used to it! You simply move on, pivot, or reapply the year after.

What has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Mental health, stress, burning out and terrible imposter syndrome due to the variety of things I’m involved in. I often wonder whether I’m just “meh” at a lot of flashy things or actually good at some of them. That also makes watching everyone else succeed around me tough too, as it is very hard to toe the line between healthy competition and toxic jealousy. In those times, I have to take time off from platforms like Instagram to regroup and focus on my personal progress. Plus, drawing from my own experiences for art has also been a challenge – there is a fine line between using creative expression as a way to heal and exploiting your own traumatic memories.

Implementing due diligence in self-taught processes isn’t easy either – especially in the field of emerging technologies, as tech and design move so fast! It involves a lot of programming, coding and being updated on new trends. Also, I look very young and am quite short; my Ricebox colleagues are too, so we have to deal with a lot of patronising people who underestimate us. For example, some had the audacity to call us “cute girls” after we delivered a keynote talk at a conference full of people and didn’t take us seriously.

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
Extremely! I always try to share my work – much of which is social-media based, like AR filters – through tagging people, using hashtags and promoting what I do in my Instagram stories. I try to make sure people know what I’m good at professionally while ensuring my values come across on my feed – I won’t just take any project willy-nilly!

Through that, I’ve gotten opportunities such as being featured on Lenslist’s roundup of top AR Filter Creators and getting interviewed by Dazed Magazine for an article about AI TikTok filters. I’ve also met so many people on the internet. Jasan Waldura, for example – he’s an incredible creative technologist and Touch Designer pro with whom I have online collaborations, even though we never met! He’s based in India, but we’ve exhibited works in South Korea together and we’ll soon be collaborating again in London for my solo show.

“I try to make sure people know what I’m good at professionally while ensuring my values come across on [social media].”

What are three things that you’ve found useful to your work or career, and why?
ArtRabbit is definitely up there – it has great opportunities and I look at its listings once a week. AIxDesign Library has also been really helpful as it’s a collaborative library that contains resources about AI and design, along with the book Run Studio Run by Eli Altman – it was recommended by Alex Fefegha from the design studio Comuzi and it’s all about how to run a small creative studio.

Have there been any courses, programmes, initiatives or access schemes that you would recommend to get into your sector?
For generative AI and the basics of creative coding or computing, I’ve found UAL CCI’s FutureLearn series, HarvardX’s introduction to programming with Python, as well as Code First Girls’ web development course to be really helpful. To learn more about creative tech and computer science, check out courses on PyImageSearch, Codecademy and Institute of Coding, along with videos on the YouTube channel Coding Train.

Also, the designer, educator and artist Jazmin Morris does fabulous work through her project Tech Yard! It’s a free Southwark-based creative computing club that introduces young people to creative technology in South London.

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
It’s important to know your worth. Talk to others in your field so that you’re able to benchmark your fees based on experience – and make sure you include caveats in your contracts to account for things like late feedback, as well as add-ons that charge fees for occasions where there are sudden structural changes. Also, consider taking on small jobs for the sake of value and impact. If it doesn’t pay well, look at the value exchange, how fun it might be, or how much impact it could have in terms of helping people.

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AR filters for #MenstruationConversation by Ricebox Studio

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When it comes to applying for funding, I’ve learnt that it’s important to use the right words and phrases to market yourself. Never write your funding applications from scratch either; instead, use template phrases that can be easily edited – and keep applying to as many as you can! Nine times out of ten, you will be unsuccessful for various reasons, but keep reflecting and improving as you go along.

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Understand that the more you help others, the more you help yourself too. There’s an implicit rule of tit-for-tat: if I can’t do a project, I recommend someone who I believe is good for the job, and vice versa. On that topic of giving projects away, I’ve also been given the advice that not everything is for you – if you fail at something, it could be because it just wasn’t meant to be.

Besides, burning out is not as cool as the internet says. When you feel the signs coming, it’s time for you to put the work down and accept that the world moves on. Sometimes, you just have to pause, watch, reflect and meditate as opposed to tiring yourself out while running to the goal.

“Burning out is not as cool as the internet says. When you feel the signs, it’s time for you to put the work down.”

Lastly, if conflicts arise with a client or collaborator and you tend to get hot-headed like me, take a pause, breathe, write up an email – but do not send it! Wait a day, talk to other designers and collaborators for advice, revisit the email and always offer a solution or alternative to a problem that you see.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Learn to pivot, adapt and improvise! You’ll make mistakes along the way, but it’s important to understand the difference between making mistakes and not being made for something. As someone who often spirals into imposter syndrome, it takes me time to recognise when I make an error due to a lack of focus or misjudgement, as opposed to realising that I’m simply not a good fit for a medium, process or environment.

“It’s important to understand the difference between making mistakes and not being made for something.”

For example, I thought I was not meant for teaching due to my lack of rigour and formal training in academic research – until I realised that I was being hired for my experience and insights as a designer in the industry. Just because I’m not formally educated to teach doesn’t mean that I’m not good at it, plus my background has given me the skills and experience in this area.

Also, if you really have no idea what to do, keep trying things out until something sticks. I did for four years, trying so hard across so many mediums – so don’t let the weight of failures or blunders get you down!

Interview by Nicole Fan
Mention Maria Than