Arlene Oak, PhD, MA(RCA), BFA, BSc

Professor, Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sci - Human Ecology Dept


Professor, Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sci - Human Ecology Dept
3.12 Human Ecology Building
8905 - 116 St NW
Edmonton AB
T6G 2N1


Area of Study / Keywords

Architecture & Urban Planning Design Material Culture Science & Technology Studies Social Interaction Sustainability.


Job/Research Area: Professor - Material Culture & Design Studies

My research in the area of material culture and design studies explores how language (especially talk) is implicated in the creation, mediation, and consumption of the material world – a diverse environment that includes buildings, fashion, consumer products, graphic design, museum artifacts, works of visual art, urban settings, and many, many other items. 

My main interest is the relationships between objects, language, and perceptions of personal, social, and cultural identity. To explore these relationships, my research especially focuses on the processes of designing and making. These rich, creative encounters between people and things involve descriptions, interpretations, negotiations, justifications, and criticisms – all of which can be studied to deepen our knowledge of how people and objects are entwined.

I study how talk helps to shape the material world, because I am curious about how people and things are connected; I value the complexity of our human-made environments; I enjoy the intricate processes of planning and making; and I want to deepen and possibly even improve our understanding of how people live with and through, things.

My educational background includes studio-based design practice (furniture, products, graphics), design history, and the social psychology of design practice. I investigate both past and contemporary aspects of creative practice through perspectives and methods associated with social psychology, history, and anthropology (e.g. conversation analysis, oral history/narrative analysis, ethnography).

My education includes a PhD in Social & Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge (King’s College), an MA in the History of Design and Material Culture from the Royal College of Art, London, and a BFA in Design and an MSc in Clothing and Textiles, both from the University of Alberta.

PhD Dissertation Title: Identities in practice: Configuring design activity and social identity through talk. 

MA Thesis Title: Graphics Recording Change: The Beatles album covers as a shift in cultural forms from Modernism to Post-modernism. 

I would be delighted to talk to prospective or current students who are interested in material culture studies at either the undergraduate or graduate levels. If you are thinking of studying at the graduate level, I would especially appreciate hearing from you if your interests have relevant links to aspects of my research. Have a look at some of my projects and/or publications and feel free to get in touch.

Current and past graduate students have studied topics such as:

Personal narratives of bicycles; the study of city council meetings as settings for urban design practice, an investigation of makeover TV 'reality' shows in terms of how renovation and restoration are negotiated, a study of quilt documentation projects, an investigation of craft practice as a form of sustainability, an analysis of the University of Alberta quad as urban planning, the relationship between artifacts and authenticity on museum websites, the uses of design history by design practitioners, how the concept and practice of research/creation may be developed in the university environment, how the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is experienced by nurses who work within it, and others.


Past research

Project title: Thinking while doing (TWD): Connecting insight to innovations in the construction sector.

Funded by: SSHRC Partnership Grant (Research-Creation), awarded 2013

Principle Investigator: Professor Ted Cavanagh, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

This project investigates ‘design-build’ architecture education, wherein students both design and build (relatively) small-scale, innovative structures that make effective contributions to the needs of local communities. My role as co-applicant is to head the 'Insight Group' of social scientists and cultural theorists. We follow the ‘design-build’ projects, collect data (in the form of photos, and audio and visual recordings), and then analyze this data in order to understand and potentially improve the social aspects of creative practice. Currently we are still mainly in the data-collection phase of this research, with the first Insight Group outcomes presented at the conference of the Society for the Social Studies of Science, in Denver, November 2015. 

Project title: Material culture and creativity in the media. 

Since my research is based around considering how people talk about the material world, from clothing to buildings, I am very interested in how material objects and their creators are presented on television and in film. To this end, I have ongoing research activities that engage with ‘reality’ and ‘makeover’ TV programs in which buildings, products, and/or people are made, remade, and critiqued. Projects in this area include studies of the TV program ‘What Not To Wear’, the UK-based show, ‘Grand Designs’, and the USA-based show 'Architecture School'. Additionally, in association with research interests in material culture and popular culture, I am investigating the presentation of popular music, and popular musicians (e.g. the Beatles, Prince, David Bowie) in relation to material culture, on film and in museum exhibitions.

Project title: Exploring education in design innovation

Funded by: Killam Cornerstones Grant, University of Alberta, awarded 2014

This research explores the creation, presentation, and interpretation of the concept 'innovation' in university-level design education, particularly in the contexts of education in product and service design for healthcare settings. This project involves acquiring and analyzing data that includes the 'real' activities of collaborative design education (meetings, critiques, presentations) and reflections upon these activities (interviews). This research is engaged with an extensive, collaborative network of designers, scholars, and professionals in the health sciences in Alberta and beyond. 

Conference proceedings

Oak, A. & P. Lloyd (2015) 'Wait, wait, Dan: your turn': Assessment and authority in the design review. In R. Adams (Ed.) Proceedings of Design Thinking Research Symposium 10, Purdue University.

Oak, A. (2011) The Smart Condo: Innovation and interaction in the pedagogy and practice of inclusive design. In Include 2011: 6th International Conference on Inclusive Design: The Role of Inclusive Design in Social Innovation, Refereed Proceedings ISBN 978-1-907242-29-5.

Oak, A. (2010) Imagining and representing the user in the practice of universal design. Gerontechnology, 9 (2), 150.

Oak, A. (2009) Considering practice through Symbolic Interactionism and Conversation Analysis. In D. Durling, C. Rust, C. Lin Lin, P. Ashton & K. Friedman (Eds.), Undisciplined! Proceedings of the Design Research Society Conference 2008 Sheffield Hallam University, UK.

Oak, A. (2000) Assessing Voices: Assessment talk in design education. In Chambers, E. and Lack, K. (eds.)Evaluate and Improve: Investigating lecturers’ teaching in the arts and humanities: Proceedings of the Humanities and Arts Education Network Conference, Open University, 152-164. 

Oak, A. (1998) Assessment and Understanding: An analysis of talk in design education. In Wertheim, S. and Bailey, A. (eds.), Engendering Communication: Proceedings from the Fifth Gender and Language Conference, Berkeley Women and Language Group, University of California, 415-426. 

Papers presented at conferences or scholarly meetings


1) Paper title: Oak, A. Managing Mess: Practice, Data & Design Build

Presented at: Humanities Computing Conference: Hit Return: The Once and Future Digital Humanities, UofA, March 2017.

2) Presentation title: Oak, A., T. Cavanagh, & S. Verderber. Design-Build Exchange: Workshop presentation.

Presented at: ACSA 105 Annual Conference: ‘Brooklyn Says, Move to Detroit’, Detroit, 23-25 March, 2017.

3) Paper title: Oak, A. Practicing Connection: Cross-disciplinary engagement through design-build, 7 April, 2017.

Presented at: Building on the Common Ground: Structures for Inclusion conference, Portland State University’s Centre for Public Interest Design and School of Architecture, 6-9 April, 2017.

4) Paper title: Oak, A. Building in the Future Perfect: An Existing structure prompts an imagined place, 6 May, 2017.

Presented at: Space & Culture 20th Anniversary Conference: The Idea of Place, University of Alberta, 5-7 May, 2017.

5) Paper title: Oak, A. Building Now, and Then: An existing structure prompts an imagined place, 2 September, 2017.

Presented at: Society for the Social Studies of Science Conference: Insensibilities, Boston, 30 August-2 September, 2017.

6) Paper title: Oak, A. Collaborations & Contributions: Interdisciplinary engagement through architecture education.

Presented at: Association of Architectural Educators: Architecture Connects Conference, Oxford Brookes University, UK, 6-9 September, 2017.


1) Paper title: Oak, A. Thinking While Doing: Designing, building, exchanging knowledge.

Presented at: Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Conference, Seattle, 17-18 March, 2016.

2) Paper title: Oak, A. & Nicholas, C. Managing Mess: Exploring how to design and conduct research into practice.

Presented at: Design Research Society Conference, Brighton, UK, 27-30 June, 2016.

3) Paper Title: Oak, A. & P. Lloyd. "Cracking open co-creation': Stories, values, representations.

Presented at: Design Thinking Research Symposium 11, Copenhagen, Denmark, 13-15 November 2016.


1) Paper title: Oak, A. & P. Lloyd. Hearing asking, seeing evasion: How video analysis reveals (gendered) performance. Co-authored paper presented by Prof. P. Lloyd.

Presented at: 4th International Visual Methods Conference, Univ. of Brighton, UK, September 2015.

2) Paper title: Oak, A. & J. Petrov. Image-Fashion-Text, and Talk: Discourses of dress and authority in ‘What Not To Wear’. Joint presentation with Dr. J. Petrov, Alberta College of Art & Design, Calgary.

Presented at: Textual Fashion, University of Brighton, July 2015.


Paper title: Oak, A. The material culture of music: The album covers of Folkways Records and the Beatles. Joint presentation with Dr. J. Greer, Department of Art & Design, UofA.

Presented at: Object Lessons: The symposium of the Material Culture Institute, University of Alberta, May 2013.


1) Paper title: Oak, A. The Smart Condo: Innovation & interaction in the practice of inclusive design.

Presented at: Include 2011: 6th International Conference on Inclusive Design; Session on Healthcare, Royal College of Art, London, UK, April 2011.

2) Paper title: Oak, A. 'What Not to Wear': Following the ‘rules’ of dress, identity, and relationship.

Presented at: AP/IB Conference: Exploring Global change: People and culture, University of Alberta, Edmonton, March 2011.


1) Paper title: Oak, A. Memories in translation: Recollection and imagery in practice.

Presented at: Oral History Society Conference: Record, Create: Oral History in Art, Craft, and Design, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK, July.


1) Paper title: Oak, A. Explaining things: Stories and social roles in encounters about design.

Presented at: Design History Association Conference: Writing Design: Object, process, discourse, translation. The University of Hertfordshire, UK, September.

2) Paper title: Oak, A. Negotiating the urban: Conversations about future places.

Presented at: Canadian Sociological Association Conference at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. Carleton University, Canada, May.

3) Paper title: Oak, A. Interaction and collaboration in design.

Presented at: Design Principles and Practices Conference. Technical University, Berlin, February.


1) Paper title: Oak, A. Fashion - Image - Talk: Dress in the media environment.

Presented at: Fashioning the World: MCRI Workshop, Edmonton, August.

2) Paper title: Oak, A. The social nature of design: Symbolic Interactionism and Conversation Analysis.

Presented at: Architectural Design In Dialogue with dis-Ability Research Group Workshop. Katholieke Universiteit, Belgium, July.

3) Paper title: Oak, A. What can talk tell us about design?: Considering practice through Symbolic Interactionism and Conversation Analysis.

Presented at: Undisciplined! The Design Research Society Conference. Sheffield Hallam University, UK, July.

4) Paper title: Oak, A. Reflections on the crit: Identity and design in talk.

Presented at: Art and Design Pedagogy Research Symposium. Univ. of the Arts, London, UK, July.

5) Paper title: Oak, A. Fashion, talk, and TV in the 21st century: Dress, identity, and relationship in the televisual environment.

Presented at: Fashion, Community and Culture Symposium, Material Culture Institute, University of Alberta, May.


Paper title: Oak, A. Performing Architecture: Talking ‘architect’ and ‘client’ into being.

Presented at: Design Thinking Research Symposium 7, Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London, UK. 


Paper title: Oak, A. Negotiating Places: Conversations about urban planning.

Presented at: The Design History Society Annual Conference: Locating Design, at the London Metropolitan University, UK. 

Paper title: Oak, A. Discussing Design: Crossing boundaries between words and things. 

Presented at: The National Design Conference, The Design Exchange Toronto, Ontario.  


Courses currently or recently taught include:

Hecol 201: Introduction to Material Culture

Hecol 662: Themes in Material Culture

Sustainability Council: Certificate in Sustainability Integrative Project: Advisor

Hecol 465/565: Research Methods for Material Culture and Design Studies / Methods of Qualitative Analysis

Hecol 360: Dress & Culture


HECOL 201 - Introduction to Material Culture

The study of a range of objects and environments (from clothing to buildings) within selected time periods, and the study of particular perspectives through which such items can be interpreted. Students explore and learn about the connections between personal, social, temporal, and cultural contexts and the objects and environments that contribute to these contexts.

HECOL 662 - Themes in Material Culture and Design Studies

An overview of disciplinary themes and approaches to theory and research as they relate to the interdisciplinary fields of material culture and design studies. This course raises issues that are relevant to the study of diverse objects and creative practices, from art to engineering.

Browse more courses taught by Arlene Oak

Featured Publications

Lloyd, P & A. Oak

2017 January; Analyzing Design Thinking: Studies of Cross-Cultural Co-Creation

Lloyd, P. & A. Oak

Journal of Design & Culture. 2016 January; 8 (2):155-180

Oak, A. & P. Lloyd

2016 January; Analyzing Design Review Conversations

Oak, A.

Design Studies: The International Journal for Design Research in Engineering, Architecture, Products and Systems.. 2013 January; 34 (1):34-56

Oak, A.

Oral History in the Visual Arts. 2013 January;

Oak, A.

The International Journal for Design Research in Engineering, Architecture, Products and Systems.. 2012 January; 33 (6):630-648

Oak, A.

Design Studies: The International Journal for Design Research in Engineering, Architecture, Products and Systems,. 2011 January; 32 (3):211-234

Oak, A.

About Designing: Analysing design meetings. 2009 January;

Oak, A.

CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts,. 2009 January; 5 (1):51-63.

Oak, A.

Craft Perception and Practice. 2007 January; 3

Oak, A

Journal of Design History,. 2006 January; 19 (4):345-355

Oak, A

Artichoke: Writing About the Visual Arts,. 2005 January; 17 (2):16-33

Oak, A

Working Papers in Art and Design: An International Refereed Journal for Research in Art and Design. 2004 January; (3)

Oak, A.

The International Journal of Art and Design Education. 2000 January; 19 (1):86-95

Oak, A. & P. Lloyd

CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts. 12 (1-2):55-72

View additional publications