Food for thought – a recipe for co-reflection

In our latest blog, PHD candidates Rachel Warner and Tot Foster share their recipe for “co-reflection” – partnering up to encourage, critique and support one another through the trials and tribulations of doctoral study.

This article is the culmination of the musings of two women who meet to co-reflect. Our definition and practice of co-reflection is evolving, but here we offer the reader a taste of what can be gained from two minds sharing both thoughts on their research, and lunch.

Who are we?

We are two mature PhD students with careers that led to our current research journeys. We met at a Design Star* summer school, over a mixed leaf salad, and the relationship developed with afternoon scones – ‘let’s see what happens?’

We are very different; in career (film and design practice), in approaches (‘go with the flow’, versus disciplined), and even in personalities – as evidenced by one kitchen of chaos, and the other immaculate. Yet we have recognised in our differences what we have to offer one another. Since our first meeting we have met at each other’s homes, chewing through our research ideas, and dipping into literature notes. In unstructured peer to peer co-reflection we have developed a supportive and productive relationship.

The ingredients for our co-reflection:

2 women
2 PhDs (par-baked)
Coffee, soup, quiche
Equality and informality
Active listening
Constructive questions
Friendly feedback
Audio recorder (no notes – keep the conversation flowing!)

Do we have a method?

We can’t define our method for co-reflection; but this is the point of our approach, to have unstructured informal discussion free from expectations. So, what kind of things do we end up talking about?

  • The practical
    • Good transcription software
    • Relevant design literature
    • The troubles of the charity sector (the context for both our research projects)
  • The intellectual
    • Challenging one another to help find the strengths and weaknesses of our approaches
    • Questioning each other’s professional practice to tease out how our studies can benefit from our professional experiences
  • The gossip
    • Our experiences of supervisions
    • Presenting approaches and fears
    • Motivation throughout a PhD
    • (and of course) What’s for lunch?

Our insights on our co-reflections

Reflection is, on-the-whole, a solitary process. You can write memos drawing together nuggets of experience from the field. You can sketch processes in the hope that visualisation will provide understanding. You can hurriedly jot down notes of lateral ideas that occurred to you whilst cooking. But when someone is on a parallel journey – offering a supportive ear, requiring you to clearly articulate your thoughts, questioning your assumptions – then a transformation comes about. Somehow the fog clears. New ideas form and old ones regain their sparkle, and the direction of travel becomes obvious. Perhaps, even more importantly, you feel confident.

We have recognised through this process that a PhD is a hard and lonely task, and that family, friends and supervisors – fantastic though they are – cannot meet all our needs. And where it is particularly hard for them to help is reflection, particularly when ideas are still nebulous, out of focus, and in the realm of intuition not evidence.

So, we set the voice recorder between us and just talk – free form and chaotic – let the conversation take us where it will. The result is a brief spell of mental clarity, and a feelgood factor – two characteristics often lacking half way through a PhD. What we’ve discovered is a five-star recipe, that works for us.

We hope this encourages you, the reader, to find your source of co-reflection, your temporary muse, your sounding board, your sympathetic but critical ear.


Rachel Warner

Rachel Warner is a PhD candidate studying at the University of Reading. Her research explores design processes with a focus on documents produced by not-for-profit organisations that facilitate complex decision making for housing in later life. The design of a document can play a significant role in facilitating complex decision making activities, and the design process is a key factor contributing towards an effective design.

The focus on not-for-profit organisations situates the research within real-world design practices that are subject to real-world factors. An ‘information design lens’ is used that incorporates existing research on topics such as designing documents for the public, and information design processes employed within design-led communities. Use of this information design lens along with document analysis and interview data will contribute towards an understanding of designing documents for complex decisions.

Tot Foster came to research after a career in television and non-broadcast film

Tot Foster

Tot Foster

production. Seeing that many small charities do not engage with video, despite wanting to use it online, she decided to find out why, and  how they could be supported to make their own films.

Her PhD, at the Open University, asks whether a production process, based on design thinking, could be developed to suit the particular needs of small UK charities; for example using minimal money and staff time, prioritising ethics, and making their work visible. The process uses the technology they have to hand, and the skills of staff, volunteers or service users working in collaboration. She is currently working with four case study charities; testing whether this process can support them in producing video content themselves.

* Design Star is a consortium that ‘aims to develop future intellectual leadership in design: research leaders of the future who are equipped to make a difference to contemporary social concerns, knowledge production and creative practices’ The summer school brought together Design Star students from a spectrum of disciplines, and although the timetable provided some structured learning, often time spent over a cup of tea led to connections and a sharing of mutual interests.

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