Microsoft Design Expo 2008

I’ve been really impressed by the student output from the design courses at Dundee University in Scotland. I saw work from the Innovative Product Design (IPD) course at New Designers a couple of years ago and was really struck by the fact that they encouraged visitors to their booth to play with their creations. Most other booths contained beautiful models with "Do Not Touch" notices all over them. Not Dundee’s.

I was asked by Lili Cheng to find a design school in the UK to participate in this years Design Expo at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond. This is an annual event that we’ve been holding for five years as part of the Faculty Summit. We invite 8 or 9 design colleges from around the world to participate. We set a brief for their students who are broken up into teams. At the end of the project the "best" of those student groups is sent to Redmond to present to an audience of Microsoft Employees and visiting faculty.

I immediately thought of Dundee as possible participants in the event. They have a really strong faculty, both on IPD and its "sister" course, Interactive Media Design (IMD), with a really great emphasis on building objects and software with a great deal of sensitivity.

So I’ve been working with Polly Duplock, John Rogers and Graham Pullin at Dundee who took Microsoft’s brief, which was broadly about education and learning, and reinterpreted it as an exercise in understanding the dynamic between generations, particularly grandparents and grandkids. They split their 2nd year students into 10+ groups of four, each with two members from IPD and IMD. Each student got a role as either a "designer" and "builder" for software or hardware, depending on their course. Based on this role each student spent the Christmas holidays talking to one of their grandparents about their history and their collections of things. They might look into their grandparent’s photo collections, for example, or make audio recordings of them.

Each team then picked one of their four grandparents to focus on for the design of their project. They sketched, developed concept videos and built proof-of-concept pieces of hardware using Pure Data and Arduino microprocessors. We had a review of all the work in April. I have to say that I was pretty blown away by the quality and sensitivity put into all the work, and the fact that the students had been so creative in their production of smoke-and-mirror or in some cases fully working prototypes. They’ve produced a really compelling website that summarizes all of their work.


Unfortunately, we had to pick just one of the student groups to go through to the presentations in the US. After some debate and negotiation we settled on the Storymaker, Storyteller project, a pair of devices, designed specifically for Donald, the grandfather of one of the students, Neil. He had been a teacher in Iran, and had a large slide collection and a lot of stories to tell. One of the the two devices that the team designed, the Storymaker, allows Donald to tell his tales using his huge slide collection through the familiar form of a slide viewer. As he speaks it captures the current slide and his story digitally. The other, a digital projector (the Storyteller), allows Neil to listen to those stories in his own time and environment. It’s a really great example of bridging the generational divide using forms that are comfortable and appropriate to each person.

I hadn’t actually seen the project between the review in April and when the students arrived here in Redmond on Saturday. I was totally stunned by the amount of work that the team (Joanna Montgomery, Neil Dawson, Natalie Montgomery and Lee Murray) had obviously put in in the interim. The two objects had gone through this dramatic transformation. They’re beautiful, harking back to the 60s and 70s, with some touches of Dieter Rams.

The Storymaker & Storyteller

You can read a lot more about their efforts on the project’s site.

The presentations were yesterday. There were 9 teams from across the world and Dundee went last. Their presentation went flawlessly, and they came across as very confident. I was really impressed by how they presented using just images in a slideshow, as well as the two objects, as prompts, rather then using their slides as a crutch. Their project was also the only one in which they demoed their items live, which is always a risk. We were nervous about this after some hiccups during the rehearsals, but the Storymaker and Storyteller devices worked effortlessly. The simplicity and elegance of these devices, and their appropriateness to Neil’s grandfather really came across.

Congratulations and thanks to these four students, to all the students who participated in the original brief, and to the faculty up in Dundee for all your hard work. A lot of the employees here in Redmond that I’ve spoken too were blown away by the quality and emotive properties of the project. Well done!