Hyphen America

Type: Experience Design

Context: Master's Thesis, Spring 2018 (10 weeks)

Guidance from Emilie Baltz


The Challenge

How might we engage the public in a dialogue about what it means to be American?

The Outcome

A public DIY kaleidoscope station that visualizes participants’ cultural identities


What It Is

Hyphen America was a pop-up event that I hosted in Union Square in March 2018, where more than 60 participants created personalized “Hyphen Viewers,” i.e. kaleidoscopes that visualized and celebrated users’ rich and diverse cultural backgrounds. It was intended to encourage people of color to proudly claim their unique heritage.


How It Works

The participants were asked to follow three steps in creating their Hyphen Viewers:

1. Name cultures associated with their identity

2. Pick a card with a word that best describes them

3. Place the word inside the kaleidoscope and add colors

The cards contained quotes from other immigrants of color about their experience in the country.

Step 1.

Name cultures that you associate with your identity

Step 2.

Pick a card with a word that best describes you

Step 3.

Place the word inside the kaleidoscope and add colors


The Outcome

In just two hours, we ran out of the 60 kaleidoscope kits I had prepared. User interviews revealed that many participants felt pressure to obscure their multicultural roots and identify with one culture. They had few opportunities to express as both their cultural heritage and their American identity, even when combinations of both, (i.e. ‘Hyphens’) were the most authentic.

I say American. That’s the funny thing. I say it, but still they’re like ‘what are you?’
I’ve had a lot of people try to tell me how I should identify culturally, but I feel like I’m Puerto Rican-American and it feels good being able to just say that... because that’s how I feel and it puts my own stamp on how I identify.
— “Whitewashed” Puerto Rican-American
I think it’s important to identify as something-American, because America is a place that’s all over. You’re not like American, that’s it
— "Non-Mexican" Latin American