Skip to main content

Toni Rutherford

Toni Rutherford is a design historian in training, having worked in art and design education for 12+ years. Toni is the recipient of The Jordan Bequest Scholarship from the Victoria and Albert museum which has allowed her to take the next challenging step in her career as a researcher, maker and educator.



Degree Details

School of Arts & Humanities

Toni’s research looks into the exchange of information between makers and education systems. Her dissertation will trace the skills, education, material and technological information exchange in the nineteenth century making sector. With the focus object of the dissertation being armatures used within sculpture, Toni will look at the use and history of the word ‘armature’ in this context. Using case studies to allow analysis of material supply routes, manufacture, geographic and ethnical data to gain a better understanding of the networks involved in sculpture workshops.

In March Toni and her family all became remote learners and teachers navigating many digital platforms to educate, research, entertain and generally stay sane. The Digital Discomforts group project for the RCA2020, has allowed Toni to navigate the world of collaborative public facing projects. Showcasing how design historians start conversations about hushed topics and ask awkward questions before diving into full blown research projects.

Screenshot 2020 07 02 at 16 02 56

Quarantine, lockdown, social and physical distancing, pandemic: words we usually only encounter in dystopian literature and movies have become the defining motto of our lives. As we adjust to life under new rules, we, as MA students on the Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum’s History of Design programme, like everyone else, have had to radically alter our approach to studying and working.

As first-year students, our contributions to RCA2020 form a work-in-progress encounter with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This serves as a springboard for collecting, discussing and sharing ideas on the topic of Digital Discomforts. The project explores issues brought about by the impact of digitization and the web, such as structural inequalities in digital access, the design of sites and content encountered online, user experiences in the internet and evolving conversation channels.

Resulting from intense weeks of collaborative work, the following diagrams are representations of our practice as design historians, intended to reflect real-life corridor-conversations we would have usually had in person as part of our studies. Impromptu, spontaneous and intellectually unpredictable these conversations embrace spelling mistakes and thematic jumps as characteristic of the method of communication. Our diagrams show the twists and turns of such informal, creative encounters. You may find them sometimes difficult to navigate, or even difficult to read. This is a deliberate dramatisation of the experience of digital inequality, bringing with it digital discomfort.
ableismArchiveDesignDigitaldigital discomfortsdisabilityGenderlibrariesRace
Launch Project

digital dicomforts and disability fv

The aim of this conversation was to discuss the issues and assumptions surrounding access and abilities when using digital interfaces. Issues that were explored include: the difficulty for researchers with dyslexia and dyspraxia to engage with screens; the lack of flexibility in digital learning interfaces; zoom fatigue; and noises, fonts and colours which limit accessibility and pose potential risks to certain users. These were balanced against the benefits that online teaching has provided for those with mobility issues and limited access to physical resources. The overarching questions that guide these responses are how digital experiences are designed either as user-centric or human-centric, and how these choices belie assumptions of a universal way of processing digital information.

Remote working with instructions

In this conversation, participants discussed the ways in which remote working has posed difficulties for students’ learning experiences. In the context of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA where online lectures have been a main teaching tool in the past few months, students grappling with the requirements of Zoom learning featured prominently in the discussion. Struggles in feeling connected to peers, issues with privacy and surveillance, ‘touch up’ features, and the curation of Zoom backgrounds were highlighted. With these issues in mind, the conversation concluded by asking how users can adapt to these features, and to what extent digital design responses which seek to alleviate these issues have been successful.

Libraries archives chat

Despite the availability of digital repositories, physical libraries and archives have remained an essential asset for design historians. This conversation unravelled the types of discomforts that students have experienced as a result of a lack of access to these resources. On the one hand, it revealed the ways in which design historians have adapted their research methods in order to accomodate this lack. These resources and dealing with catalogue algorithms which promote certain terms and languages over others. Critically, the conversation highlighted the need to question the disproportionate distribution of knowledge in the digital archive, and how digital libraries and archives can act to eradicate these biases.

PublicSpaces 1

Reflecting on permanence in an increasingly digital world, this conversation is centred around moving from discussions that could previously be had in person, to the effects of life lived increasingly online. What is the impact of (the lack of) physicality on issues like memory and action? Do we run the risk of “forgetting” current events more easily because of their fleeting digital presence? Can we expect anything to change in the future, through the impact of recorded events? In discussing such questions, examples of recent events including the removal of imperialist monuments and recordings of protests prove central for navigating the relationship between public spaces and the Internet.

Previous Student

Next Student

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
Royal College of Art
Registered Office: Royal College of Art,
Kensington Gore, South Kensington,
London SW7 2EU
RCA™ Royal College of Art™ are trademarks
of the Royal College of Art