I am a cultural geographer and design theorist interested in the social, cultural and spatial complexity of design, and how this is manifest in a range of social practices. Through this interdisciplinary research I currently focus on three substantive themes: informal design; social complexity; and mobilities (see Research section).
My research has been published in a wide range of peer-reviewed journals, and edited books, and my sole authored book Shipping Container was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016 as part of their influential Object Lessons series. My latest book, Deviant Design, again with Bloomsbury Academic, is nearing completion.
I joined the University of Edinburgh in July 2013 as Senior Lecturer in Design Cultures before taking up a Readership in August 2018. At Edinburgh I have served as ECA's Deputy Director for Postgraduate Studies (2013-2016), the School of Design's PhD Coordinator (2013-2015), and from June 2017 to January 2018 as acting Head of the School of Design. Since 2017 I have been a member of the AHRC Peer Review College, and am currently the University of Edinburgh’s representative on Panel B of the AHRC Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities. I also peer-review for a broad range of international journals and academic publishers.
My teaching reflects my broad range of research and scholarly interests, with a particular focus on the centrality of design to everday experience. Pedagogically I am interested in how cross-disciplinary perspectives from design studies, social and cultural geography, anthropology, and sociology, can promote more complex appreciation of design's place in society. I also pursue hybrid forms of pedagogy that bridge the perceived divide between practice and theory.
I currently teach a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses within the Design & Screen Cultures provision of the School of Design, alongside teaching on the new MA Design for Change programme. These courses include Multi-Sensory Cultures; DLab(1) Design for Social Change; Disseminating Design Practices; Subcultural Expression: Exploring Visual and Material Worlds (not currently running); and Monsters and Misfits: Hybrid Objects and Interdisciplinary Fabrication (not currently running). I also supervise a number of PhD candidates in the School of Design and other schools in ECA, and have supervised six PhD students to completion.
Design is at the forefront of social, cultural, economic and political change — it has shifted significantly from traditional conceptions of it as an artisanal or industrial art and now seeps into all aspects of social life. It also inflects upon significant future global challenges such as climate change, technological futures, and intervention in a range of geopolitical contexts. My research engages with these types of change in all their complexity, but particularly the socially malevolent aspects of design as well as more beneficial manifestations. These concerns are at the heart of what I do, and they also feed into the research interests of members of the Critical Change research group which I co-convene.
Within my research I have developed a number of interlinked, overarching themes through which a range of distinct projects intersect, coalesce, and occasionally clash.
I have a long-held interest in the informal nature of design and particularly how people design their own approaches to solving problems without relying on professional designers. Framed around the broader context of adhocism my research in this area has engaged with a range of cultural, social and geographical manifestations of 'making-do', including the use of improvisation in J.G. Ballard's Concrete Island; the promotion of indigenous cultures of making through the Foxfire series of publications; vernacular approaches to architectural environments in the Outer Hebrides; and forms of problem solving in anarchist cultures. More recently my research in this area has developed through my involvement as a Co-I on the ESRC-funded project ‘Energy and Forced Displacement: A Qualitative Approach to Light, Heat and Power in Refugee Camps’ where the research team has engaged with forms of local, indigenous innovation and resourcefulness in the context of energy technologies within refugee camps in Burkina Faso and Kenya. These aspects of informal innovation in humanitarian settings form an important trajectory for my ongoing research in this area.
Throughout my academic career a central theoretical foundation has been the imbrication of order and disorder, particularly through Michel Serres’ writings on this. The enmeshing of the two informs my research into the highly complex social dynamics of design where I consider the dissolution of traditional conceptions of good and bad design, efficiency and inefficiency, as well as licit and illicit forms of social action. Deviant Design, the new book I am currently completing, deals directly with the unstable nature of design’s place within society, notably socially malevolent forms of design thinking and practices seen with the ways in which drug smugglers adapt objects, as well as the cultures of counterfeit products and brands. Complex social dynamics also inform my research into social change and design futures, particularly through the geopolitical upheavals of humanitarian crises seen in my work on refugees and indigenous innovation.
The final strand of my research is design’s relationship with mobilities, particularly the material and epistemic infrastructures of how things and ideas circulate, including illicit objects and knowledges. To date the most significant outcomes of this research have been around my work on shipping containers and the geopolitical importance of these seemingly mundane forms of design and material culture. In Shipping Container(Bloomsbury, 2016) I argued that these ‘world objects’ highlight the power of logistics and distributive space, including their use in drug and people smuggling. Another key focus of this research theme is the unacknowledged importance of mundane forms of packaging design including void fillers used in distributing consumer artefacts. As with shipping containers my work on mundane packaging highlights the socio-economic force of these apparently insignificant pieces of design.
In areas related to my research and teaching, including: design cultures; cultural geographies of design; illicit design; informal design practices; social design; design for change; humanitarian design; design mobilities.