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Design and Material Culture

Ling Cai

International Brand Experience Leader, Writer, Postgraduate Design Historian, Curator

Specialising in branding and consumer-experience design leadership, Ling has delivered major digital transformations for local and international organisations across industries and geographies. She has contributed to a globally inclusive brand strategy, collaboratively building enjoyable narratives resulting in more engaged audiences with broader participation and new value creation for long-term success. The V&A/RCA History of Design Postgraduate Programme has helped her re-imagine connecting the past with the present for a sustainable future with new knowledge and insight. Drawing on interdisciplinary approaches and thinking across boundaries, Ling seeks to contribute to the debate on how we can work together to face complex challenges and generate maximum social benefit combined with opportunities for personal well-being in the 21st century.

My current research focuses on the museum visitor's experience linking design history with practices. I have interests in the interaction between contemporary audience experience, digital direction, responsible design, material culture and virtual environments. My MA dissertation explored the visiting ecosystem in the context of new media, investigating specifically the narratives of the Victoria and Albert Museum mobile visitor experience in the Digital Age, with a close look at the changes that have taken place in the last eight years (2012-2020), which had thus far been little considered. The study shaped an understanding of sustainability storytelling from a historical perspective, and examined its implications for today's museums, individuals, and communities.

I am also the author of 'Shaping Innovation: Design Thinking, the 1950s to the Present', 'A Corno Ducale Hat and Doge Silvestro Valier: Design and Human Experience in Late Renaissance Venice (1600s-1700s)', verse novels and poetry books, including, A Back Day (written in English), My Loves (Italian) and The Green Tuscan Hills (Chinese). 

Image (top): Kate Bailey, ‘Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser’, exhibition teaser, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Virtual Reality recording, YouTube, 21 October 2020. Screenshot Author’s own.

Image (left): © Author's own.

The V&A Mobile Visitor Experience — Mixed media digital picture, by Ling Cai, 2020. Content: The Ceramic Staircase, built between 1865 and 1871, © The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, photograph by Marcus Ginns, copyright © 2021, reproduced with the permission of the photographer.


The Internet has changed the way we live. There has been a concomitant move towards accessing museums via the Internet, ranging from searching for exhibitions and collections to engaging in virtual tours. The results, however, have been notably fragmented, which prevents the possibility of an enjoyable visiting experience. The thesis thus asked: 'How can the history of connecting the V&A visitor experience via mobile technologies between 2012 and 2020 offer an understanding of a sustainable visiting ecosystem?' I argued that a connected and personalised narrative with multi-entry points flowing naturally between physical and virtual spaces based on individual preference and circumstance – is crucial for modern museums, which was an area that had previously been unexplored in any great detail in museum-visitor studies. Building upon extensive primary sources, the research combined a mixed-method framework with a history of design and material culture, incorporating innovative experience-design methods to answer specific research questions.

Overall, the study created a foundation for further conversations. It contributed to examining contemporary museum culture, consumer behaviour, and human-centred design innovation, while highlighting the need to work together to bridge the gap between physical and virtual museum spaces and – ultimately – to create a truly connected and delightful visitor experience.  

The Nineteenth Century V&A Visitors (Was known as the South Kensington Museum) — Picture Galleries (originally occupied by the Sheepshanks Collection). Possibly 1876, Museum number: 8089J. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Audio Tour at the State Museum in Amsterdam (1952) — Verzamelde Historische Filmbeelden channel, Youtube, <> [accessed 21 September 2020]
A Visitor with an Adaptive-Augmented Audio Guide in the Macke Laboratory (2003) — A. Zimmermann, A. Lorenz, ‘LISTEN: a user-adaptive audio-augmented museum guide’, 2008, 389-416 (391).
The V&A Virtual Reality Event Viewed on Mobile Devices Anywhere at Anytime (2020) — Kate Bailey, ‘Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser’, exhibition teaser, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, YouTube, < >[accessed on 22 October 2020], Screenshot Author’s own.

Medium: Written Thesis (20,000)

Status: Completed (March 2021)

If you are interested in knowing more about my research topics or would like to stay in touch, please do not hesitate to reach out via my website, blog, or book-space.