PhD:Designing for Ambivalence


I have recently completed my PhD in the Design Department at Goldsmiths.

My research investigated the role of smartphones for mothers and young children,  combining critical and experimental design approaches with psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives. My supervisors were Professors Bill Gaver and Janis Jefferies.

My practice-based research explored the role of smartphones for mothers of pre-school children who are their primary carers. For many women, the first few years of motherhood demand the complex negotiation of maternal and non-maternal identities. A period loaded with idealisations of motherhood and childhood, this is often a time of isolation in which mothers use and adapt surrounding resources to respond to multiple demands. In this context, the smartphone is at times used for connecting to work or to non-domestic realms, and at others is given to young children to keep quiet or entertained. Transforming from tool into toy, the smartphone becomes object of competition for parental attention, but equally turns the mother into a rival since its use is often shared. Smartphones represent work, autonomy or distraction for the mother, but also play and pacification for the child, offering multiple and competing discourses that this research explores.

During the trajectory of this research, I have developed a series of experimental and critical design proposals that give form to behaviours brought by smartphones in the childrearing task. The development of these proposals formed the first stage of exploration in this research. A second stage took place in the encounters between people and the designs. At times producing both attraction and rejection, the design proposals helped me engage in conversation with others about practices, often private, that are ridden with ambivalence and guilt.

Informed by critical design, psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives, this research is an example of the possibilities for design to expose unintended uses of technology, to challenge conventional user portrayals by depicting mothers as complex users, and to explore potentials for change.

Two grants from the EPSRC Balance Network, have allowed me to run design led workshop sessions as part of my research. Material Desires* explored the management of home and work identities. Conversation Pieces* explored the complex role of smartphones during childcare. These design activities became core elements in my investigation.

I have also received a grant from the Foundation Scotland’s Fran Trust

I have shown my research artefacts at the V&A on the 11th November 2017, as part of their Digital Design Drop-in programme.

My work was on display at King’s College during October 2017, to coincide with the Anna Freud and Play Conference, held on 15/9/17.

My work was displayed at the Freud Museum London exhibition on Play and Psychoanalysis, during July and September 2017. You can see some of it here.

I have presented my work at the Freud Museum on the 9th August, 2017. Here is the link to this event.

I have presented my PhD work at the CHI 2017 Doctoral Consortium in Denver, Colorado in May 2017. You can read the paper here.

1. Ambivalent Objects

Ambivalent Objects are critical artefacts that suggest smartphones as pacifiers, evoking their intrusion into the world of mother and infant


2. Herby x 4.jpg

Herby is a phone on wheels that gets irritated when used as a toy, protesting: ‘I am not a toy’ or ‘take me to your mum’

You can see this artefact in video here

3. Uncanny Pet

An Uncanny Pet uses the metaphor of a pet. The phone is put to sleep while it charges (it snores and is made temporarily unavailable). Suggesting sleep, a concept easily understood by young children, it invites both adult and child to take a break from the smartphone.



Multiple models, 2016. Cardboard, wood, phone handset, iPhone, Lego wheels, cord, cnc machined hard foam. These objects explored the role of the smartphone as tool/toy


Sketch exploration


Sketch exploration. the smartphone as surrogate


Sketch exploration. pet/toy


Sketch exploration. the smartphone as a mediator of needs between mother and child

Scan 17'.jpg

Sketch exploration – phone as tool/toy

4 picture 1st workshop copy 2.jpg


Ambivalent Objects on display at the Freud Museum’s exhibition on Play and Psychoanalysis. London, Summer 2017


Displaying my research at the V&A digital design drop-in, November 11th 2017