MDes Talks: The Capstone - Not just another Brick in the Wall

Dustin Stupp, a recent graduate in Interaction Design (MDes), is currently working as an Experience Designer at Avantgarde in Shanghai. 

I am writing this text with the peace of mind that one of the more influential chapters of my life just came to an end; that now, after iteratively researching, reading, understanding, conceptualising, prototyping, producing, documenting, in short: designing my capstone project for the past six weeks, I can sit down, have a coffee, and look back at and review this final class, that is so integral to the experience of studying a Masters degree in interaction design at the School of Design.

What is it that makes it special? Contrary to all previous courses, the capstone is an individual project and therefore requires the students to adapt their methods and organisation: While we have been collaborating before, sometimes clearly assigning roles, sometimes jumping from this to that task, now we would have to do everything on our own, which also means finding the way to go by ourselves, and not by consensus. This actually does not hold completely true. All of us have been advised by professors we had been working with the past year: Kenny Chow, Huaxin Wei, Jeffrey Ho, and most of all Eli Blevis would meet us in personal sessions to conceptualise our ideas, discuss our progress, and structure our thoughts. While it is common practice to have one or two advisors on final year projects, discussing with the four of them (and in my case actually five, as I also involved Michael Fox) presented us with multiple different perspectives and criticism. While this at times resulted in contradicting input, it made us listen to our own inner voices and find away that felt right to us. So, what felt right for me?

My initial thoughts circulated around the effects of the progressing digitalisation on society and our co-existence.

My initial thoughts circulated around the effects of the progressing digitalisation on society and our co-existence.

Finding a Topic

Many would say that finding a topic that is really interesting to you is key to maintaining your motivation over the whole course of a project. For me, the choice was merely a strategical one, as I wanted my project to relate to its context of my studies in Hong Kong, combine technology and humanity, and be up to date. Eventually, it was Hong Kong’s finance industry, and the rapid development and irrational growth of cryptocurrencies that made me turn towards their underlying technologies: Distributed-ledger-technologies (DLT) such as blockchain digitalise our daily transactions. So, up to date topic, relating technology with human interaction, relevant to Hong Kong – ticks all the boxes. After I decided on that topic, I had no idea what to do with it. I just knew that I wanted the result to be a physical installation, a spatial object that would bring this highly digital thing, distributed ledgers, back into our bodily world. This mostly because of my past experience in the field of, well, spatial experience design.

Despite being rather pseudo-scientific, the Gartner Hype Cycle gives a reliable overview on currently hot topics in the area of technology
Despite being rather pseudo-scientific, the Gartner Hype Cycle gives a reliable overview on currently hot topics in the area of technology.

Until here, my approach to this project seems absolutely subjective, and you would be right to say so. You might criticise that I limited the outcome before even starting work on the project, as this goes against what many design researchers would recommend. However, eventually this will be my final project, ideally find its way into my portfolio, and therefore should be of some use for my future career aspirations. So my advice to everyone in a similar situation: Use your professional expertise and artistic freedom to decide and do what will serve you best.

Starting Off by Sitting Down

I’m not in crypto. I don’t own Bitcoin, Ether, LiteCoin or whatever. Hell, I don’t even have a retirement plan, much less any riskier investments. Naturally, I started my project by learning about the subject. The Pao Yue-Kong Library at PolyU offers research carrels for students to rent for an hour or so a time, so I spent a significant amount of time in one of those glass boxes, first just reading, later, when I had a rough idea of the technology, its history and current developments, also writing. Weeks later, this turned out to save my bum, as the capstone also includes a paper on the project. My advice: Write it first! At this point, I only had a good chunk of research insights written down, but it later filled up my otherwise less-than-mediocre paper with some quality content. Never forget that a good designer is also a good writer. Take those papers seriously.

I also conducted a qualitative online survey to get some insight into my loosely defined target group. Loosely, as distributed-ledger-technologies may affect a wide variety of industries and products, hence users. Other projects target more restricted groups. Anyhow, the combination of primary and secondary research is what will make your project relevant, so make good use of the tools and methods that are available to you. Funnily enough, not all of this at times tedious research directly translates into the final design. For me, it did however inform all subsequent decisions I had to make.

All aboard the Train of Thought!

For example, what exactly would be a topic that the average user, viewer, visitor could relate to? According to my non-representative survey, DLT themselves are widely unknown, while their variant blockchain and its application Bitcoin are relatively well-known. However, the majority of survey participants was not able to explain their respective functioning. I therefore decided to use the Bitcoin blockchain as a point of departure for a somewhat cryptic installation intended to raise curiosity and, by fostering a discourse on the technology, awareness.

To be more relatable, I needed an image, a process familiar to the viewer. Metaphors are great for this purpose, and you will find them throughout your interactions with digital products (just think of the last time you emptied the recycle bin on your desktop). Bitcoin itself offers a very strong metaphor: Mining. As we traditionally dig the earth for gold, nowadays new bitcoins come into our virtual world by a process dubbed mining, which actually is the investment of a huge – huge, I say – amount of computing power on the task of solving a cryptographic puzzle. The solution to this puzzle is the proof of work. Explaining all this (and the ecologically and economically more sane alternatives) would go far beyond the scope of this text, but I invite everyone with interest in digital contexts to read up on the matter, as its gonna to become increasingly relevant.

Credits: RWE,
Credits: RWE,

However, as I originate from a cozy town close to the cozy city of Cologne in Germany, I do not immediately relate mining to gold as US-Americans might do, nor to opals, as Australians might do, nor to… Well, where I am from, they dig the earth for coal. Coal that would then be burnt to generate electricity. Electricity that would then be burnt to solve cryptographic puzzles. However, the open-pit mines reveal all the tools used, the enormous bucket-wheel excavators and the seemingly endless conveyor belts, which, unlike many other things, never ceased to impress as we grew up. This biographic relevance, together with the mining metaphor, which both imply the ups (gold, yay!) and downs (destroying the only inhabitable planet available to us, boo!), led me to what would end up to be ON BRINK: the world’s first real-time data physicalisation of the Bitcoin blockchain.


Illustration/ Photo Credits: Dustin Stupp, except as specified 

About the Writer

Dustin Stupp is looking for fresh perspectives on interactive communication at the nexus of technology and design, Dustin joined the School of Design as a Master’s student of Interaction Design. His academic background in communication design and art and design sciences, as well as his professional experience in interaction and exhibition design nourish his interest in designing interactive spatial experiences.

MDes Talks is a series of student blogs produced by current MDes students and recent graduates. For its third edition, the editorial team consists of writers from China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Mexico, France, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. They write about study life, living abroad, design, and what you don't know about PolyU and Hong Kong.