Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of the Arts, English and Media


Jean-Paul Sartre’s conceptualisation of material possession contains rich insights for this study located at the intersection of visual communication, mobile UI design, human–computer interaction and design philosophy. Possession is a relational concept concerning more than just the ownership of things. It contributes to an understanding of self-identity via an individual’s relationship with the objects they see, use, use up and create. Initial ideas for a contemporary conceptualisation of digital-material possession presented in this study expands on Sartre’s philosophy enabling technologies such as the iPhone, including its hardware and software components, to be positioned as an entanglement of possessions. Likewise, the unique relationships between humans and their non-human technological and appearance-dominant things can be included among the many human–possession relationships that constitute an individual’s self-identity. This thesis uses the set of iOS7 app icon graphics and their redesign, conducted as part of this study, in the critique, expansion and application of Sartre’s material possession to the contemporary context. Reflection on the redesigned iOS prototypes shifted the original practice-based design research approach, to instead underpin a Research through Design investigation of the nature and agency of iOS graphics as exemplars of appearance-dominant digital-material possessions. Reflection on the prototypes through the lens of possession created a feedback loop between the speculative prototypes, Sartre’s philosophy of material possession and its expansion for the contemporary digital-material context. Possession and digital-material possession have interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary relevance. In the design context, together they enable increased understanding of the role of the designer, their design activities and design outcomes, and the role of individual users of designed things, their co-creation activities and outcomes. Beyond design, digital-material possession highlights Sartre’s contribution to the philosophy of technology.

FoR codes (2020)

330316 Visual communication design (incl. graphic design), 460702 Computer graphics, 460806 Human-computer interaction, 360104 Visual cultures



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.