speculative design
thesis project

When & Where?

March 2021
Beijing, China


Spark AR, soldering,
embroidery, sewing

About Translucent Privacy

Translucent privacy is the final project in my thesis trilogy (also see Copycat, CopyRight? CopyLeft!, Solo Spring Festival). This project took headphone as a starting point to understand its form, function, interaction and its association with western history and social values. Then it dig into Chinese history and culture exploring parallels that potentially provide alternatives to western inventions. The final outcome is a fan-shape headphone featuring augmented reality that mediates privacy in public space. It generates an ambiguous collective semi-private space reflecting Chinese social behaviors and values, which differentiates from western individualistic culture.


My M.F.A. thesis explores globalizing design, technology and culture through the lens of postcolonial studies. The history of Anglocentric and Eurocentric design practices and design education can date back to Industrial Revolution and its production, leaving the rest of the world as manufacturing labor, material source, exotic inspiration, etc. Aligning with the trend of decolonizing design, my thesis challenge standardized design practices from studio to factory, and reimagined another realm of design and technology rooted in Chinese culture heritage and its rapid-changing present by proposing alternative design approach, aesthetics and interactions to current design discourse.

Three Challenges

The challenges of my thesis can be generally summarized into three aspects: space, time and culture identity. Spatially, there is a challenge to decolonizing design from a Eurocentric/Anglocentric way of thinking and practicing as I briefly mentioned above in the background session;

Zooming inside China, there is also a challenge of time: a tension between Chinese past and present. Due to specific historical facts including Culture Revolution, China has transformed into a modern society in less than 100 years leaving a huge gap in between traditional Chinese past and its modern present, which led to the third challenge: the challenge of identity. There are many aspects on the challenge of Chinese cultural identity, but my main focus is on the idea of self-orientalism, which commonly associate with Chinese designers re-interpreting Chinese culture in their design practices through the perspective of the west (othering the selves).


As a Chinese grown up in the 90s, my life was filled with globalizing products, media and culture. It was hard to imagine China or Chinese culture without globalization impacts. It was also hard to think about China without a self-orientalized perspective. So instead of dig into Chinese culture first, I decided to scale down my research direction and start with a mundane technology design (headphone) from the western world.

01. History of Headphone

The history of headphone design can date back to 1890s. Before headphone became an entertainment device. Like other personal devices, it was first invented as a part of military technology used through both World Wars. In 1895, the Electrophone was created to pipe live music performances into home headsets to create a group listening experience using switchboard technology, creating a headphone use case that was more social than private.1958 Inventor John Koss built the first pair of hi-fi stereo headphones which had an innovative “privacy switch” for personal, silent listening. It was popular with military men returned from the war. Later, the release of the Walkman transformed the existential function of headphones from a technology of quiet concentration to a way of creating freewheeling individual autonomy and wall-less privacy in public space. It was an entirely new sort of techno-human hybrid experience. that could be worn in public in either on or off mode, generating a sense of mobile private space anywhere. The rise of rave culture in the 70s, which began to focus attention on the DJ as a star on stage, created a new association of headphones not with privacy but with mass sociality and public performance. In today’s open-office work environments, headphones have come to serve a new need for privacy as the boundaries between work and social life dissolve. It became a crucial modern mediator of public and private space in our daily life rather as just a transmitter of sound.
  A History of Headphone Design

02. Privacy Mediation in China

In the previous historical research, the social function of a headphone as a mediator of privacy was emphasized rather than its original function. I started to question what is the privacy mediator in Chinese culture? What does privacy mean in China? Then I did another historical research looking for privacy mediator in Chinese culture scaling from architecture to personal objects. Different from headphones, I found that the private spaces formed by those objects were ambiguous which didn’t imply an on-off mode. 

Screen Wall

is used to shield an entrance gate in traditional Chinese architecture. Screen Walls are tied to the belief that evil spirits cannot move around corners, hence the it blocks them from entering through the gate they shield. screen wall is commonly decorated with symbols of good luck, such as the character for good fortune. Other than its spiritual functions, practically, it allows natural light and air circulation to enter a room, while obstructing vision. It was a solution that allows for privacy and cooling in an era without air conditioning.

Folding Screen

was originally used to prevent draft in homes, as indicated by the two characters in their Chinese name: ping ( "screen; blocking") and feng ( "breeze, wind"). It was also used to bestow a sense of privacy; in classical times, folding screens were often placed in rooms to be used as dressing screens for ladies. As many folding screens have fine artistic designs and art on them, they can fit well as decorative items in the interior design of a home.


was first invented in China. This Ancient Chinese invention was used to keep them from soaking wet when it rained. The Chinese used the umbrella to protect themselves from the sun rays. It results in creating a comfortable space in the open-air for human activities. Umbrella also played an important role in mediating relationship. In Chinese mythology Legend of the White Snake. The umbrella was a key element that advanced the plot in bringing protagonists closer in the rain.

Hand Fan

was commonly used by Chinese people throughout history, even in present days. Through my research, I found that a fan was not just used to generate cool breeze, but also contains certain functions for adjusting social spaces. The commonality between fans and headphones is not only that they are both portable/wearable objects. In ancient China, covering someone’s face with a fan was considered as a polite gesture for avoiding unwanted conversations when encountering an acquaintance on the street. (“便面” convenient face); Fans were also important implements held by ancient women. Ancient women covered their faces with fans to hide shy facial expressions. At the wedding, women would put down the fan that covers their faces, which symbolized that the wedding had been completed.(“却扇” drop fan). Fans can not only generate private spaces, but also can be seen as platform for socializing. Chinese literati wrote poems and drew paintings on the fan surfaces, and appreciated the artworks while talking about their hobbies, thoughts, ambitions, etc..(“观扇” appreciate fan)

In modern days, a fan is often used to match traditional Chinese costumes such as cheongsam. Like the headphone, the use of a fan has surpassed its original function, but has become a tool for mediating social space, or a piece of fashionable accessory.





Based on my previous research, I prototyped a fan-shape “headphone”. I embroidered a pair of ear pods on the fan surface. The form change brought a different sense of materiality and changed the user’s interaction with the device.

When one person listens to the music, he will naturally hold up the fan and covers his face and thus create a semi-private space for listening; while on the other hand, music-sharing between twopersons requires more intimacy. It seeks to decenter the western notion of individualism by proposing an alternative notion of privacy that reflects Chinese social values.

Design & Craft

In the long-standing dispute between function and form in the design discourse, Bauhaus' “form follows function” is still guiding contemporary product design. Under such guidance, ornament, as a part of the form, has been regarded as redundant and associate with backward cultures. It is more obvious in high-tech products where minimalism dominate tech aesthetics. But design needs its agency to allow it be connected to culture. So I intended to articulate the importance of ornament through my design process.

01. Soldering as Embroidery

I hand-embroidered the headphone electronics as a part of the ornament on the fan surface. In today’s factory, soldering circuit board are still handmade by factory workers (in China it is mostly women labor). This design move seeks to flip the traditional electronic device design from inside out to appreciate human labor as a part of crafting process in today’s world. 

02. Augmented Reality

In the previous research, the fan was not only a tool for avoiding social interaction and hiding facial expressions, but also contains certain function for socializing. However, having conversations about the calligraphy and painting on the fan is no longer the way for modern people to communicate. Therefore, I need to design it as a tool for socializing that fit into modern context. Today, a strange behavior may trigger people’s curiosity, which often encourage people to take photos or videos for social media sharing.I put a digital layer on top of the physical sector. If someone captures this scene with a mobile phone, he will find hidden information on a virtual layer.


I invited my friend to use my fan design onto the subway during off work time. The fan covering face created a sense of privacy for not willing to be seen or disturbed in public space. But the music sound leaking from the device also calls for certain attention. when someone uses their devices trying to shoot this unfamiliar behavior, the AR layer will appeared on top of the fan surface featuring a mountain shaped visualizer to provide a sneak peak of the music. The crane and clouds indicate a message of fleeing from the society rooted in Chinese culture, which indicates an off-duty mode in modern society. Thus it created an ambiguous hybrid space with nuanced attitudes of both inviting and rejecting for a collective interaction experience. This project also seeked to provide alternative thinkings around personal tech design that chanllenge individualistic value.