For more than 15 years, Randy J. Hunt has designed and built “multi-sided” marketplaces. These include Supermarket (now defunct), Etsy, Artsy, and Grab (Southeast Asia’s superapp). Prior to that, when Hunt studied at SVA’s MFA Design program, he founded and directed Citizen Scholar Inc., a studio that worked with clients in education, environment, arts and social good. For Hunt, what began as the craft of building online brands evolved into creating long-term value through design contributions that strengthen an entire enterprise.
Currently, he is leading design strategy at the digital asset exchange Kraken. I asked him to weigh in on the present and near-future since the metaverse seems so hazardous (for some of us, or maybe just me) to navigate. He spoke to the SVA MFA Design students a few months ago, and I think I finally understand. After this conversation, you will, too.
You avidly embrace the future; the looming transformative technologies (e.g., blockchain, bitcoin, NFTs and all the other shorthand, compounded and initialized words) do not scare you. So, first off, a simple question: What triggers your belief (or at least your optimism) in this new virtual world (or space, if you prefer)?
My interest and participation with any new area is rooted in curiosity. I like to experience things firsthand and form a perspective informed by that experience. I value the perspectives of others, but it is all-too-easy to come to conclusions about new technology through observation and borrowing the opinions expressed by others without firsthand experience. The first time I was exposed to the non-finance part of the Web3 community was through friends involved in art and music. I loved their experimental thinking and how generous they were with their time and advice. This kind of creative online community was something I hadn’t experienced since the early days of building for the web.
So in this new metaverse, what is the upside for us? And then the down?
Upside: New participants and getting access to the space. Today we’re seeing artists with widely varying backgrounds (culturally, socioeconomically) creating successful projects and finding support in the broader community.
Downside: The acceleration of the tokenization (and therefore financialization) of many things. When it becomes easier to buy, sell and place a value on things, it tends to increase the speed and frequency of transactions. Some may see this as negative.
How can designers play a meaningful role?
Let’s focus on the NFT part of the space (but the same could apply more broadly).
Content: Designers, writers, animators and 3D artists have the technical skills to create the kinds of content that are central to most art and visual NFT projects.
Tools: Designers can be part of creating tools that help others create and participate.
Explanation: As the world needs to learn about this space, designers who are knowledgeable can be a part of explaining and educating. Designers’ ability to simplify the complex, communicate visually and make things easier to use is always relevant and in demand.
Culture: Designers can create and join communities of learning and support.
You agree that designers are hired (i.e., work-for-hire) to make some of the digital products (e.g., NFTs) that are endemic to this new era. What can designers do to take more entrepreneurial control?
This for-hire mode is a secondary development in the NFT world. Most of the notable projects that exist today have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit and control from the creators. I’m intentionally using “creators” to refer to a group that is inclusive of designers and also includes others who are part of the creative development (conceptual work, writers, community managers, etc.). Where the for-hire element has come into play is where brands and other people less-rooted in the space want to launch projects but don’t want to spend the time and energy to understand it deeply. They hire others to help them do it. There’s a third, rather fun, scenario, where projects have multiple creators or artists they hire to participate as part of their overall concept. For example the POP! project and Vogue Singapore’s NFTs.
You work in this “space.” But what is it that you do for your company? Are you (and do you find value in being) a designer/entrepreneur?
I help us look at customer problems and opportunities and then initiate and guide projects that use design to address them. It’s one part observing, one part imagining possible solutions, and one part communicating and motivating others to participate in those solutions. In concrete terms, these projects can range from new or refined features in our apps to focus our brand design on our most important needs.
At a personal level, I’ve been sharing my art and creating NFTs. My hope is to share my work and that viewers would enjoy the act of looking at and thinking about it. To me, that’s value enough. And if people are collecting it, then I believe they’re seeing that as well.
How should this technology be integrated into the future of design education?
We should look to the mid-’90s when the web was already showing utility and value, but most education hadn’t embraced it yet. What can we learn from the past? Cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology and the decentralized web (Web3) are in a similar state today. They will become increasingly integrated in our day-to-day lives.
How will you integrate it into your creative life?
When I first embraced NFTs, it was as an experiment to share my own art. Now I also see it as an opportunity to support other artists as well. I think some of the most interesting projects and artists in the space are doing unique work that is only possible because of the nature of the medium. [Hunt’s NFT work can be found here.]
Project-based creative work is great for new technology areas like crypto and NFTs, because you must learn about the technology while also applying what you learn as you learn it. This is very much what is happening in the space for professionals and active participants daily. Guiding work like this does require facilitators who have a high degree of curiosity and enthusiasm that can ensure the learning is up to date. Perhaps every program needs a web3 expert-in-residence.