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KE Voices: Peter Hall on the digital divide and the role of collaboration in design practice

Colourful illustration of a digital workspace with several screens
  • Written byAnnika Loebig
  • Published date 25 July 2022
Colourful illustration of a digital workspace with several screens
Ernestine Chua, 2021 BA (Hons) Illustration and Visual Media, London College of Communication, UAL | Photography: Ernestine Chua

Peter Hall started his career as a design writer and lecturer after receiving his postgraduate diploma in printing and publishing at London College of Communication, back when it was still known as London College of Printing. He later went on to work at prestigious institutions including Yale University and University of Texas at Austin.

With a PhD under his belt nearly 2 decades later, which he received under the supervision of design theorist Tony Fry, he eventually returned to UAL as the course leader of Central Saint Martins’ BA Graphic Communication Design course.

These days he is a Reader in Graphic Design at Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts, which has allowed him to devote more time to his research focusing on mapping and visualisation as critical and participatory practices.

One such research project includes Plastic Justice, a pan-European collaboration tackling microplastic pollution. We had a chat with Peter about his background in teaching and KE, current research interests and the role of collaboration in design practice.

Hi Peter! Looking at your background in journalism and design writing, how has journalism influenced your research practice and Knowledge Exchange?

For me, journalism is absolutely fundamental to what I do. That kind of learning in public and the reliance on experts, like going straight to the source, is a form of primary research. It never occurred to me that there was a difference between that and reading around a topic before you interviewed people. Now in the academic world, I keep seeing correlations, like the value of that kind of primary research as a really fast paced way of learning, but also a way of grounding your literature review and your academic research. To me, journalism has been fundamental, but also how you use certain methods for tackling complex problems like microplastics pollution.

Whether we call it research or KE, I think it's where design belongs: in collaboration.

— Peter Hall

Knowledge Exchange is the term we use in Higher Education to describe how we collaborate with external partners. How would you explain what KE means in your own words?

I like the idea that it's a collaboration with external partners. To me, coming from design writing and journalism, I've always had a perspective on design practice as being something that's absolutely entangled with industry and external organisations. As a practice, design depends on collaboration, so KE makes perfect sense for it. In fact, I'm a little bit suspicious of completely removed, theorised design practice. So, for me, whether we call it research or KE, I think it's where design belongs: in collaboration.

Could you tell us about some of the outcomes of the Plastic Justice project?

We’ve published what we called “the repository” in our grant bid, but might be better known as the Plastic Justice website. This is meant as an ongoing online repository of our findings and live feeds of some of the most fantastic lectures we've had.

We've also had a lot of events, most of which have been online-based. Students also attended a learning activity in Barcelona, which is connected to the final intellectual output, called the Plastic Justice Verdict. That's a policy brief based on the project findings.

In-between those two, the website and the policy brief, what I've been working on most is the teacher's guide, known as Plastic Justice Advocacy. That's really about reflections on what we've learned about teaching and learning and the whole process.

It also includes a citation of the Convivial Toolbox, published by design theorists Sanders and Stappers. It provides methods for design students and teachers to bring people together in participatory, collaborative co-design. That's become quite a good chunk of the teacher's guide.

Besides microplastic pollution, could you tell us about any other collaborative research projects that you’re interested in right now?

I have an ongoing interest in the world of information security, and previously worked on a grant using visualisation methods. In a way, it's like Lego-based visualisation methods to help people understand the networks of trust and security and insecurity in data sharing. That was part of a big EU project called TREsPASS, which was looking at socio-technical perspectives on data security and information security.

I've also just finished working on a paper, or a book chapter with a colleague that I worked with on that last project. She's a professor of information security at Royal Holloway, University of London. The paper is about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the digital divide. Quite a large segment of the population was completely thrown when everyone went online, because they weren't able to do things like claim housing benefits, or get their welfare support systems and mechanisms going. They didn't have reliable internet access or digital literacy.

So, the area of research we're looking into pursuing now is more about the digital divide. The KE link, again, is that it's always external. In this last case, we were working with a community hub in Northeast of England and seeing how they had provided, in some ways, quite informal support services to local people who couldn't get online: Suppose you wanted to get your housing benefit organised, and you couldn't, because you didn't have internet access. You'd phone the community hub and say, 'Can you help me do this?' and they'd take info on the phone, type it up and then post the letter to you to sign, so then you could file your claim. It's really interesting to me how these workarounds happened.

For any potential partners reading this and thinking about working with you and your students, what type of projects are you keen to work on in the future? 

We've talked a little bit about doing some kind of Plastic Justice 2 with our European partners. It's been very informative to see how students in other countries tackle the projects and where the commonalities are to students and teachers. So, we were interested in doing something else on plastics. That conversation is yet to happen to where we might go with it.

As mentioned earlier, I'm also interested in pursuing this problem connected to data and security and visualisation, and the user interface. That's the dividing line between those who are digitally literate and financially well-resourced to be able to have the latest, greatest machines that can get online at the fastest speeds and those who are not, and then how we support a more shared use of resources. How can we help people access online services when they can't? To me, that's a really interesting area of research. So, I suppose, if there's two worlds I'm interested in, one is data and the digital divide and the other is environmental issues. So those are my main lines of interest going forward.

Peter is currently co-writing a book with a colleague at York University in Toronto, called ‘Critical Visualisation’. It critiques contemporary notions of data visualisation and is set to be published this summer by Bloomsbury Academic.

Download the Plastic Justice Advocacy Teachers Guide [PDF 13.7MB]

Find out more about Plastic Justice and check out his reflections on the project.

You can also find more of Peter’s work by visiting his website.

KE Voices is a series of interviews where UAL academics talk about their involvement in Knowledge Exchange (KE) activities, reflecting on how creative thinking and practices can be applied to tackle real-world challenges in collaboration with businesses, charities, local communities and other education institutions.