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Bringing Paper Puppets to Life

Annie Thomas (EDI ‘23) discusses her Thesis project journey and how she arrived at the framework for a stop-motion animation kit for children.

Annie Thomas’ Thesis project can be thought of as the journey of a thought as it evolves into reality.  

Thomas (EDI '23) graduated from Northwestern's Master of Science in Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program in March. Her recently completed Thesis project resulted in the framework for a stop-motion animation product aimed at children – Paper Puppets. 

But it didn’t start out that way. Not even close.  

“I came into the fall quarter with three ideas and ended up scrapping all of them because they didn’t really get me excited,” Thomas said. “You really want to have something you’re excited about when it’s going to be the only project you’re working on for an extended period of time.” 

Indeed, the Thesis project does involve an extended period of time. Students spend two full quarters on a topic of great interest to them and put into practice everything they have learned during their EDI journey. 

Students work with industry mentors and alongside their fellow students to test their skills in one of the EDI program’s main focuses: human-centered design.  

For Thomas (EDI ‘23), that focus helped her evolve her initial scrapped ideas into her final project.  

“I’ve learned so much about the human-centered design process from EDI,” she said. “I wanted to ultimately create a product that would be addressing legitimate pain points in a creative way.”  

As a student at South Eugene High School in Eugene, Oregon, Thomas dabbled with two-dimensional animation and even considered pursuing a career as an animator.  

As she thought about her Thesis project, she realized there was no product to serve as a beginners’ kit for kids interested in animation. Thomas thought she could solve that problem. 

Her solution was Paper Puppets, a physical kit that incorporates stop-motion animation to guide kids through the process of bringing a story to life. 

“Stop-motion is such a rudimentary form of animation and storytelling, which makes it easy for kids to get into if they have the right tools,” she said.  

Paper Puppets provides those tools.  

At first, Thomas, who had never tried three-dimensional stop motion before, worried her kit would not be overly innovative; frankly she feared the product would be a collection of pre-existing tools, and that idea did not excite her. Thanks to her continued emphasis on user testing and human-centered design, she discovered an area filled with potential.  

Being able to make that type of realization is what initially drew Thomas to EDI. 

"I was interested in EDI because it gave people like me with an engineering or technical background a way to add design into our toolkit," she said. “You learn quickly how you have to be mindful about the entire user journey with a product like this when you start testing it out with people. I was pretty proud of the end result.”   

But the journey isn’t finished. Due to the time constraints of the Thesis project, Thomas’ idea has yet to complete its evolution from thought into physical product. That, however, remains her end goal.  

“I am hoping to keep working on it on the side,” she said. “ I really do think stop-motion is a wonderful way to introduce kids to the world of art, animation, and storytelling. Making that easier for kids would be super cool.”  

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