In Real Life: What GI Joe and Coin Collectors Can Teach Us about Digital Ownership

How to Bring Crypto Collectibles to Life

This summer, our team of IDEO CoLab fellows (myself, Trip Vest, and Indigo Hansen) explored crypto collectibles and how we might allow owners to display them in a clear and meaningful way. This unearthed insights about the future of digital ownership and the relationship between humans and objects — both analog and digital.

What can collections of personal cards and vintage chairs (image credit @localstrange) teach us about crypto collectibles?

Think about something you collect. You may not even consider yourself a collector per se. Perhaps you don’t have shelves of curated items, boxes of Beanie Babies, or binders of cards, but maybe you have a box at the back of your closet, as I do, with notes from loved ones or coins from other countries. If you wanted to share this collection with someone, how would you do it? If it were me, I would take down my box, open it, and tell someone the stories behind each of those precious items.

When it comes to crypto collectibles, the process is quite different. Crypto collectibles are digital assets that exist on a public blockchain, usually Ethereum. These items often take the form of what are called non-fungible-tokens (NFTs for short). Unlike with bitcoin where each individual bitcoin is (theoretically) equal to every other bitcoin, NFTs are each demonstrably unique. Not all crypto collectibles are NFTs (i.e. a provably unique asset) but they are all digital assets that a user actually owns. For example, even if the surrounding architecture of a game or platform ceases to exist, crypto collectible assets remain yours and have the potential to be displayed used in new settings.

The Challenge with Crypto Collectibles

The crypto collectible space exploded last year with the launch of CryptoKitties, an NFT-based game where you collect and breed digital cats. However, it remains difficult to share a diverse collection of these items and yet more difficult for non-collectors to understand their value. For a newcomer to the crypto collectible space, individual CryptoKitties might not look different from any other digital image, such an easily-shared .jpg or .pdf. Part of understanding the craft and value of a crypto collectible lies in the blockchain structure upon which it’s built, and that’s not visible or easy to understand. In light of this, our CoLab prototyping team wanted to know — what does a digital collector’s case look like for curated, digital collections and how might we use it to share our stories?

To search for a possible answer, we spent six weeks building iterative prototypes and engaging in deep design research around people and their prized collections. Below are some of the core findings we drew from the experience about ownership, crypto collectibles, digital goods, and how this technology might affect our future.

A collection of entertaining Post-It notes from our brainstorming.

What can we learn from the world of physical, tangible collections?

The first step in our research was to immerse ourselves in the world of collecting. We spoke to owners of collections both physical and digital, large and small, personal and very public. We wanted to know what gave their items subjective and objective value — why collecting mattered to them. Our findings fell into three core themes that we then explored through prototyping: context & storytelling; access & identity; and community.

A moment from our prototyping process: a collector explaining to us how they might arrange and explain their digital collection for others.

Context & Storytelling

We found that context and history can be an important element for telling stories about an item — and therefore integral to determining its value. Oftentimes, this can be learned just from the physical state of the object. If we see something we know is very old but note that it’s well kept, we can infer that perhaps someone valued it enough to take care of it. If a painting has been altered or damaged, we can infer things about its history, creation, and the circumstances it has endured. A physical item’s relationship to time, whether it has been kept “mint” or worn with the lines of use, instantly helps collectors relate to an object beyond surface level.

Crypto collectibles are comparatively impervious to time. In some ways, this is a benefit: we need not worry about how their changing appearance might devalue them, or if they could get damaged. However, we found this benefit was also a barrier to understanding because crypto collectibles don’t outwardly show their history. Showing up-front how a digital item is connected to time—and can be irrevocably changed by it—can serve as a catalyst for a viewer to ask questions and learn deeper stories about the object’s history.

We wondered:

  • How might we add context and stories to crypto collectibles?
  • How might we tie crypto collectibles to time in a way that made them more easily relatable to humans?
Context & Storytelling: A prototype that explored the visual organization of crypto collectibles online and how real stories might be attached to them.

Access & Identity

When speaking with collectors, we could see how much their items meant to them through the surprising, delightful, and often touching ways that they displayed them. As we walked through their storefronts and warehouses, we saw how owners displayed their collections as an extension of their identities. A GI Joe collector’s meticulously laid out scenes might depict a strong army behind an action figure whose origin was the same as the collector’s home country. A vintage pinball game collector might place a favorite machine at the back of the room, a reward for someone who took the time to explore.

By contrast, crypto collectibles today don’t have an easy means of exploration or display. They exist in flat, grid-like structures, void of the ability to easily view, or tell the stories behind the items. Viewing these is not the same immersive tour and is currently lacking the personal touch of the collector as a guide.

Yet, the internet can be a powerful tool to connect with others and augment the experience of crypto collectibles. It might allow us to surface these stories and the “what about that one?” discoveries in new ways that’s aren’t possible in the physical world. The flexibility of a coded world could allow for new display systems that still feel equally meaningful, real, and personal to owners.

We wondered:

  • How might we empower collectors to arrange their collections in a clear and flexible way?
  • How might we encourage serendipitous discovery of unique items and stories?
Access & Identity: At the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco, the vintage games were displayed in a way that invited discovery, and many included handwritten notes from the owner with instructions or information.


Across our conversations, we noticed the tight communities built around collections. These were rallying points for collectors to share their latest additions, discuss updates and rumors, and build personal relationships around their passions. Whether GI Joes, Magic cards, Decentraland plots, or pinball machines, the social community built among collectors and enthusiasts was a big part of what made collecting meaningful.

The crypto collectible world is not without community (far from it, in fact) but it can be challenging for newcomers to join. This community’s online nature gives it potential to share and experience collections globally. So many of the stories we heard about community with physical collectibles were about spontaneous moments around items; one collector saw another collector’s item accidentally damaged and surprised them by replacing it, or two strangers who both collected antique designer chairs would meet once a year in a much-Instagrammed two-man summit. We all recognize and immediately contextualize comic books, antique watches, or pinball machines. Even if we don’t understand the finer points of these crafts, we understand them as part of our world and have an entry point if we wanted to learn more or become experts. Simply purchasing a crypto collectible can feel intimidating to the uninitiated. We wanted to find a way to mimic the real world collector communities in their ability to create organic connections between experts and newcomers, to build curiosity, and to make sharing crypto items easier and more understandable.

We wondered:

  • How might we help new members more quickly acclimate to a crypto collectible community?
  • How might we create a setting that fostered communication and sharing about collections?
Community: At the CoLab’s annual Blueprint event, our team’s web app prototype allowed guests to attach photos and memories of the event to a collectible.

Early Design Principles for Crypto Collectibles

Exploring these collections showed us that crypto collectibles are much more than just cryptoassets — they’re forms of expression with a wealth of creative potential. Using the core themes we discovered, we outlined some early design principles for opening up potential in the crypto-collectible space, which may be useful for anyone looking to design there. These are questions you can ask yourself to guide your designs:

  1. Am I giving the owner a venue through which to showcase the personal meaning behind their item, beyond the financial?
  2. Am I offering opportunities for interaction between collectors, and between experts and novices?
  3. Is the context of the items clear and relatable to a non-crypto-educated audience?
  4. Am I offering the owner of the collectible a unique experience of their item?
Some of our prototypes explored ways we might give digital collectibles more space in the physical world, giving the owner a unique experience of the item.

The Future of Crypto Collectibles

Crypto collectibles have the potential to be powerful, not just as collectibles as we imagine them now — unique digital pets, items, and game pieces — but as unique digital artifacts of our personal history. Imagine, one day, stories linked to items, allowing for digital archaeology that looks back over the ownership history of a piece of art. Attaching different media might allow us to look into trends, language, and meaning over time.

However, in order for them to achieve this end, we have to make crypto collectibles more comprehensible and user-friendly to more people. Ownership is a fundamentally human thing; what we choose to own is a representation of ourselves. Through crypto collectible storytelling, we can make a powerful digital tool a more human one.

Rachel Balma is a multidisciplinary designer, artist, researcher, and writer. She is currently completing her MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York. You can learn more about her on her website here.