UNNC graduate breaks down design medium into 'matters'

29 July 2020

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Jiani Zeng, a UNNC graduate of Product Design and Manufacture, was honoured with various top international design awards including 2020 Graduate Student Merit Award by Industrial Designers Society of America, 2020 Red Dot Award: Best of the Best, Core77 Design Award and Platinum A’Design Award. She has just obtained a M.S. in Engineering and Management from MIT. 

“The latest digital fabrication and manufacturing technologies are transforming the traditional industrial design,” said Jiani. Her work “Optical Textiles” was selected out of 4170 pieces of work from 52 countries and was awarded the Red Dot: Best of the Best. 

The award-winning piece originates from Jiani’s MIT thesis, where she first introduces the concept and application of “Illusory Material”. It is a lenticular 3D printing technology that enables the designer to create dynamic colour and texture in a controlled manner. This creates opportunities to design and prototype products with dream-like material expressions that only exist in the digital world.

“In the future colour creation may not be based on layers of chemical paints, but a combination of 3D printed optical lenses and simple colour blocks, and designers can manipulate the colour, texture, and refractivity of materials across time and different viewing angles.” said Jiani. 

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The “Optical Textiles” project

During her study at MIT, Jiani focused on creating tangible and responsive experiences. Her work exists on the boundary between the digital and physical realms, reinventing material expression and exploring new design opportunities with emerging technology such as AIoT, soft-robotics and multi-material 3D printing. 


Thanks to my study at UNNC, I have a solid foundation in traditional design process and a decent understanding of User Centred Design. Then in MIT I learned to explore beyond the logic of design thinking and traditional manufacturing methods.

Jiani Zeng
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“Bubble”, the wearable technologies project that Jiani participated

This is reflected in “Bubble”, a project that Jiani did with other researchers from MIT Media Lab. It is a pneumatically actuated wearable device with light, silicone actuators that enables people with hand disabilities to grasp objects. Although not yet put into commercialisation, Jiani said: “even a very conceptual idea or research can inspire people to do good to the world.”

In 2019, Jiani founded Butlr Technologies Inc. with Honghao Deng, a former researcher at MIT Media Lab and graduate student from Harvard University. Butlr's vision, context-aware responsive architecture, is a future where the built environment is as customizable as a streaming music podcast, based on simple, intelligent architectural objects. They developed a smart system that uses small, low-cost sensors to track the motions and body heat of customers to modify room temperature and lighting for ideal comfort. 

This technology has been adopted by many retailers and nursing homes in the US and Japan. Recently, Butlr was featured in CBS’s California by Design show, Tech Crunch and many other popular media. They aslo raised $1.2 million in seed funding, just as the pandemic was reaching its peak in the United States. 

“I believe designers should have consistency in criticising existing design methodology and experimenting in both the digital and physical worlds. Many of my projects aim to push past the limitations of traditional design, removing the need to simply replicate materials that already exist. I break down design medium into 'matters', restructuring and reinventing materiality to create unique expressions, forms, properties and experiences.” concludes Jiani when speaking of her envision in design.