Design in Motion: The Everyday Object and the Global Division of Design Labour

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


The practice of design has become obscured by global networks of production, circulation, and consumption. Traditional design studies tend to focus on high-profile products, presenting heroic designers as the primary authors of works of design. This approach is inadequate for understanding design in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Contemporary design is better understood as an iterative and distributed process of give-and-take among actors, human and non-human, including people, tools, places, and ideas. It is a process that is influenced by conditions along the commodity chain that fall outside of the designer's traditionally recognized sphere. This research demonstrates that commonly held conceptions of designers as sole authors and of design work as a largely intellectual, creative activity distanced from manufacturing, misrepresent the real practices and relations of design labour in the current global economy. Two object ethnographies follow the production, circulation, and consumption of everyday, mass-produced goods: the Vanessa steel-toe boot by Mellow Walk and the Non Stop flatware by Gourmet Settings. These case studies map networks of design labour across continents, countries, cities, and generations. Primary research includes 18 interviews, observations of environments and practices, and the analysis of material evidence. This process reveals actors whose contributions have typically been omitted from design history, and describes practices of design that contest traditional depictions of designers, design work, and evidence thereof. This research contributes a fuller and more accurate understanding of the range of creative labour and labourers involved in the design and development of goods for global markets while challenging the view of these goods as placeless and culture-free. This work challenges established hierarchies of design, including who is perceived as contributing to design, which countries are seen as superior sources of design and manufacturing expertise, and the hand-head dichotomy that underwrites how design has been conceived within production and the global division of labour. Understanding how the work of design is distributed and how it has changed in response to globalization gives insight into the politics of production and consumption.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • York University
Award date1 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


  • Design history
  • Design studies
  • Design practice
  • Material culture
  • Globalization
  • Global value chains (GVCs)
  • Actor network theory
  • Mass production
  • Circulation
  • Consumption
  • Distributed authorship
  • Collaborative design
  • Ethnography
  • Design Thinking
  • Creativity
  • Division of labour
  • National identity
  • Craft
  • Industrial
  • Post-industrial

Field of art

  • Design


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