PhD:Designing for Ambivalence

In 2019 I completed a practice-based PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. My research, called Designing for Ambivalence: a designer’s research into the role of smartphones for mothers and young children, investigated the role of smartphones during the care of young children, focussing on situations of mothers who have the primary role of childcare.

1. Ambivalent Objects

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

During the trajectory of my research, I 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. My PhD 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.

Informed by critical design and feminist psychoanalysis, the work involved a series of suggestive designs that I used as conversational probes in tailored events with participants and at public events. I used these experiments to explore ambivalent attitudes towards uses of smartphones during childcare and, more generally, towards the role of technology in family life. My supervisors were Professors Bill Gaver and Janis Jefferies. My viva examiners were Professors Jayne Wallace and Les Back.

Two grants from the EPSRC Balance Network enabled me to run design led workshops as part of my research. Conversation Pieces explored the complex role of smartphones during childcare. Material Desires explored the management of home and work identities. These activities became integral elements in my investigation. I have also received a grant from the Foundation Scotland’s Fran Trust and a grant from Goldsmith’s Graduate Fund.

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’

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

Scan 1

Sketch exploration. Comfort Object


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


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

4 picture 1st workshop

Workshop with participants


Public engagement event at the V&A digital design drop-in, November 11th 2017