Projects in Design Discourse

This page is a gateway to my projects, all of which explore the things people believe, say and write about design, in other words, design discourse. Design is imbued with meaning in a number of ways through mediating discourses as my projects have shown. This page makes connections between my projects, showing design discourse and mediation to be continuous threads of enquiry in my work. Click on the images for more information about each project.

  1. Mediation

Mediation has provided a useful focus across my research and published work. It is foregrounded in sections of The Design History Reader (2010), Writing Design: Words and Objects (2012), and Made in Italy: Rethinking a Century of Italian Design (2014) and it underpins Design at Home (2014) and Iconic Designs (2014).

My Designing Domesticity project examined the design historical utility of domestic advice literature (books on interior design, homemaking and etiquette) and therefore involved reflection on the place of mediating discourses in the field of evidence used by design historians. The review of the literature of design history that I conducted for my doctoral research resulted in two very different publications in addition to those directly associated with my Designing Domesticity project: ‘The Production-Consumption-Mediation Paradigm’ (2009) and The Design History Reader (2010). The PCM Paradigm presented a new model for understanding the development of design history in which I argue for:

mediation as a third stream in design history, with three currents: first, the mediation emphasis continues the consumption turn within design history by exploring the role of channels such as television, magazines, corporate literature, advice literature and so on in mediating between producers and consumers, forming consumption practices and ideas about design; second, the mediation emphasis examines the extent to which mediating channels are themselves designed and therefore open to design historical analysis—indeed, these channels have increasingly constituted the design historian's object of study; third, the mediation emphasis investigates the role of designed goods themselves as mediating devices.

The PCM Paradigm has been influential, as a growing number of studies of mediating discourses which cite it have shown. When Berg publishers invited me to edit The Design History Reader, I again reviewed the literature of design history and sought to present the works which have influenced design historians and the course of thinking in the field. Working with co-editor Professor Rebecca Houze (Northern Illinois University), we produced:

the first anthology to address Design History as an established discipline, a field of study which is developing a contextualised understanding of the role of design and designed objects within social and cultural history. Extracts range from the 18th Century, when design and manufacture separated, to the present day. Drawn from scholarly and polemical books, research articles, exhibition catalogues, and magazines, the extracts are placed in themed sections, with each section separately introduced and each concluded with an annotated guide to further reading. Covering both primary texts (such as the writings of designers and design reformers) and secondary texts (in the form of key works of design history), the reader provides an essential resource for understanding the history of design, the development of the discipline, and contemporary issues in design history and practice.

Developed from my PhD, my first research monograph, Design at Home: Domestic Advice Books in Britain and the USA since 1945 (Routledge 2014) offers an extended analysis of the role of mediating discourses in forming, disseminating and negotiating ideas about the consumption and practice of design in the home. Domestic advice books do this through the mediation of real ideals that readers consume as a source of pleasure in their own right, regardless of their application to lived domestic practices. These ideals prescribe readers’ ideas about their homes, the design of their domestic spaces and the behaviours to be accommodated within them. Design at Home shows how a genre of printed text can be important in understanding an area of design, design in the home, which has been hard for historians to access.

2. Writing Design

In 2016, I revisited my thinking on Writing Design for a keynote lecture at the NORDCODE conference at the University of Southern Denmark, in which I added to the PCM Paradigm further consideration of design without words, first addressed in Writing Design: Words and Objects, and a new consideration of the literary value of writing about design. I developed this for publication as a chapter ‘The Written Object: Design Journalism, Consumption and Literature since 1945’ in A Companion to Contemporary Design since 1945, edited by Anne Massey (2019). During the writing process, I delivered a research seminar presentation available to watch here. Read more about my Writing Design project.

A strand of my work on mediation entails consideration of the ways in which writing constitutes design. My Writing Design project starts from recognition of the fact that words are present at all stages of the design lifecycle. In 2009, I conceived and co-convened the Design History Society annual conference on the theme Writing Design: Object, Process, Discourse, Translation at the University of Hertfordshire, encouraging design historians to reflect on the place of writing in their research. From the conference, I sole-edited two publications: 

3. Categories, Labels and Intersections

We work to understand the world partly through categorisation, by assigning names and labels to the things we encounter: ‘Design’, ‘craft’ and ‘art’ are examples. In 1999, to accompany an exhibition at UH Galleries of the work of Chatwin:Martin, for which I wrote the catalogue essay, I convened a conference at the University of Hertfordshire, 'Dangerous Liaisons: Relationships between Design, Craft and Art', and developed a special issue of the Journal of Design History on the same topic. In my work on the relationship between these phenomena, including my introductory article for the Journal of Design History, I concluded that it is practice at the intersection of these categories that really enlivens them. Read more about my project Dangerous Liaisons, about relationships between design and craft here. My study of the relationship between design and craft continues in my current research for The Hand Book project and my joint project with Prof Rebecca Houze (Northern Illinois University), Design History, Design Heritage.       

My interest in the labels and categories continued in research on the relationship between design and craft and the Made in Italy label through close analysis of the production, consumption and mediation of Alessi spa household goods. This work on national identity in relation to Italian design history was contextualised with a further study of national identities in an age of globalization. Read more about my work on my National identity and Globalization.

4. Narratives and Stories about Design

Iconic Designs_COVER_FINAL_FINAL.jpg

More recently, I have explored design discourse from the vantage point of reading, rather than writing, in my book Reading Graphic Design in Cultural Context (2019) co-authored with Dr Nicolas P. Maffei (Norwich University of the Arts, UK). This book is based on more than twenty years of teaching undergraduate students of graphic design and illustration about how to read the instances of graphic design and illustration which surround us in order to understand their full significance. It promotes, therefore, a practice of attentive reading of narratives associated with design informed by salient theoretical approaches from semiotics, sturcturalism and post-structuralism, post-colonial and feminist theoretical approaches and more.

Having established the importance of mediating channels in imbuing design with meanings and communicating those meanings, and the significant role of writing in this process, I have examined the role of narratives and stories in design discourse. My sole-edited book Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things (2014) begins with an introductory chapter that interrogates the overuse of the word ‘iconic’ in relation to a variety of phenomena including design, before examining the process by which designs are deemed iconic. This process of iconization is, I argue, a product of mediation rather than being a result solely of the attributes of those designs deemed iconic. 50 short chapters by 43 different authors follow, each of which questions the iconicity of a focal design and explores the stories attached to that design in a critical way. The chapters are organised to demonstrate the ubiquity of ostensibly iconic designs across our landscape and cityscapes, on our screens, in our workplaces, homes, and on bodies. 

5. The Hand as a Mediating Device

One of my two current research projects, The Hand Book, examines the hand as a focal mediating device which is hidden in plain sight and yet remains largely unexplored by design historians. The hand mediates between the individual and the world. In my project, the hand becomes a mediating device for exploring the relationship between hand making and machine manufacture. This has been an abiding tension in design history, and my research will revisit this issue while also extending the discussion to communication, adornment, therapeutic practices, and contemporary maker culture, digital interaction, prosthetics, and hands-free technologies. 

This project is supported by a British Academy / Leverhulme Small Grant for 24 months from September 2018. I will be blogging here about the progress of the project.

6. Design History / Design Heritage

My other ongoing research project Design History / Design Heritage responds to a gap in the interaction of design history and heritage. It asks: What is the place of design in a heritage studies which is increasingly persuaded that all heritage is intangible? And, what is the place of heritage in design history, where the heritage industry is viewed critically as offering inauthentic and authentic experiences? The project brings design history and heritage studies together to examine the relationship between them and answer these questions. In this project I am working with Professor Rebecca Houze (Northern Illinois University and an international group of design historians. 


I will be blogging regular about the progress of this project and adding updates to the Design History / Design Heritage project page.