Doctoral Research

Douglas Atkinson

Working Title: Digitally Capturing Touch Usage in Garment Design Development

Douglas’ doctoral research aims to understand the meaning-making role played by forms of touch during the process of garment design development, additionally speculating on how the documented touch practices might be captured or replicated digitally. Thus supporting existing meaning making paradigms as garment design development activities are increasingly digitised, both in industry and education.

Research Questions

  • What are the contemporary touch practices of fashion design learners during the creative process of garment design development?
  • What are the perceived purposes of, and understandings or meanings derived from these touch practices?
  • What features of these touch practices can be captured using digital touch technologies?
  • What are the speculations and social imaginaries of fashion learners on the future application of digital touch technologies in the fashion industry?

As touch experience is both individually subjective and socially constructed, Douglas contrasts autoethnographic, sensory accounts of his own garment design development practice with data gathered during sustained ethnographic case-studies with Postgraduate fashion learners at two UK Arts and Design Universities. In analysing the ethnographic data, the methodological and analytical approaches of ‘Multimodal Ethnography’, ‘Sensory Ethnography’ and ‘Thing Ethnography’ are layered. Respectively focusing on the structuring of meaning making through touch, the subjective, emplaced sensory experience of participants and researcher and finally the perspective of a non-human ‘thing’. For example a tool or material which is utilised in the process of garment design development. This accounts for diverse perspectives and creates a balanced ontological focus between humans and the things we manipulate, in line with Posthuman and New Materialist philosophies.

img_9505Participant design for a VR sculpting glove, allowing the user to generate form and manipulate fabric in three dimensions


A concluding workshop will be held to explore the social imaginaries of the research participants. Facilitating them to create design fictions exploring how they think emergent and unfixed digital touch technologies may impact the fashion industry in the future. The objects created to represent these design fictions (physical diegetic prototypes) will be analysed through the emerging practice of Anticipatory Ethnography, testing whether engaging with a prototype through touch can situate and emplace a researcher in a proposed future scenario. Thus helping to engage with questions of the social impact of emerging touch technologies and how the future might feel?

Douglas’ doctoral research will contribute to understandings of the role of touch in fashion practice, the role and potential agency of non-human things in the process of garment design development and to the exploration of emerging ethnographic methods. Insights gained from the research are hoped to inform future garment design development software and interfaces, along with fashion design pedagogy.

. . . . . . . . .

Lili Golmohammadi

Working Title: Loneliness and Digital Touch Communication Technologies

I am currently in the exploratory stages of the first year of my PhD, familiarising myself with the literature to date on the areas of loneliness, touch and digital communication technologies. In order to consolidate my focus, I have been mapping these at different levels – exploring some of the ways they have been conceptualised and researched, both as separate topics and in relation to each other. Although much has been said about each individually, research connecting the three is still rare.

One of my starting points has been to unpack recent media discourses that suggest we are experiencing an exceptionally high level of loneliness in the UK, as reflected in headlines warning of a ‘loneliness epidemic’, ‘crisis of loneliness’ and ‘Age of Loneliness’, along with suggestions in some academic literature of a new form of contemporary loneliness. The initial stages of my research are about trying to understand these discourses and why they are happening now.

Loneliness Crisis
Figure 1: Headline from the Guardian reporting the ‘loneliness crisis’ (2018).
Crisis of Touch - Guardian
Figure 2: Another Guardian article reports on a ‘crisis of touch’ and argues this may be a contributing factor to higher loneliness levels.


Some of my working research questions at this stage include:

  • How is this emerging loneliness ‘epidemic’ or new form of contemporary loneliness being formed /constructed? What moral discourses are being realised?
  • How are digital communication technologies and touch positioned in these discourses, and why are they being positioned in this way now?

A common example that speaks to the second question can be found in concerns regarding our increasing engagement with digital technologies. These argue that technology is making us lonelier; that we touch each other less at the same time that we touch our technologies more. I am interested in unpacking these ideas and asking how the introduction of digital touch technologies might alter this interactional landscape (and related concerns) further.

Leading on from the above, I am exploring the relationships between touch and loneliness, unpacking the connected discourses of too-little touch – touch being reduced in our day to day lives as it becomes subject to new forms of social and institutional regulations, in turn impacting on existing and new forms of professional touch. I am also looking at contexts and spaces where there are more extreme examples of tactile deprivation, for example in certain health care settings, asking what the place of touch might be in alleviating the experience of loneliness and what forms of touch might be most effective if so. Here, I am asking questions around tactile loneliness and what this really means.

‘Anti-loneliness’ tech design

Following on from the above, I am also investigating the concept of ‘anti loneliness’ technology design, interrogating system and product interventions used in studies of loneliness and its alleviation.

My working questions here are:

  • What digital / digital touch technologies have been used in studies on alleviating loneliness?
  • How do they impact on experiences of loneliness? How do they function and how do they change interactions?
  • Which contexts and groups are positioned by digital design as being lonely? How does this create a market for loneliness, ameliorable via digital intervention?
  • How do certain technologies and their affordances mediate and ‘speak’ to loneliness? (E.g. VR; presence/absence, immersion, embodiment?). Where is touch in this?
  • How do existing digital touch technologies in these studies filter (regulate, govern and discipline) touch in contexts of loneliness? How might they impact on longer-term touch practices?

At this early stage, I am still to develop my methodology, however I envisage participatory design workshops will form part of my process.

Further updates coming soon…