The Ligatures of Life



The ligatures of life: Communication design and difficult exhibitions

Wahlin, Willhemina E.
Charles Sturt University; 2019



The increase of ‘difficult’ exhibitions within contemporary exhibiting marks a significant shift in the way communities tell their stories. Upending the more traditional, heroic narratives of nationhood, difficult exhibitions speak of genocide, gender violence, contested histories, war or death, presenting unique pedagogical challenges for exhibitors and visitors alike. Despite the availability of related literature from a wide range of disciplines, the contribution from Communication Design has been negligible–even more so from a practice-led perspective. Addressing this gap via a methodological bricolage, ‘The Ligatures of Life’ frames the difficult exhibition as a performance of ideology, employing multimodal, semiotic resources as its actors. This research has questioned the role of the designer across four distinct projects for the non-profit organisation, PROOF: Media for Social Justice: Broken?, Unearthed: Stories of Courage in the Face of Sexual Violence, Picturing Moral Courage: The Rescuers, and Ferguson Voices: Disrupting the Frame. In order to better understand the designer’s role and establish a model of best practice, an interpretive model has been developed that combines critical hermeneutics with social semiotic, multimodal analysis. The CHaSSMM Model has shown significant value in fostering a critical distance between the designer and practice, revealing underlying power structures, and assisting in the articulation of tacit knowledge between an exhibition’s team.

Original language: English
Qualification: Doctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution: Charles Sturt University

Woodward, Margaret, Principal Supervisor
Bremner, Craig, Co-Supervisor

Award date: 03 Apr 2019
Place of Publication: Port Macquarie
Publisher: Charles Sturt University
Publication status: Published - 21 Apr 2019


The What, Who, How & Why Building interpretive support models for the design of pediatric health education materials

Willhemina Wahlin and
Belinda Paulovich

Designing information for pediatric health education that is easily interpreted by patients is complicated by factors including attitudes and complex power relationships. This study examines such factors in relation to three pediatric health education case studies on asthma management, chronic functional constipation and rehabilitation. They emphasize direct communication with pediatric patients with a view to increasing patient empowerment. Strategic graphic design is employed in collaboration with clinicians to create multimodal semiotic resources. This paper examines these cases within Wahlin’s CHaSSMM Model (Wahlin 2015), which combines social semiotics with multimodality and critical hermeneutics. CHaSSMM’s potential is making explicit the project’s underlying power structures and meaning potential of multimodal, semiotic resources. It begins with an overview of the pediatric health education case studies and the CHaSSMM Model of analysis, and then explains how CHaSSMM can provide support for the planning and interpretive stages of design projects.

Doi: 10.1075/idj.23.2.05wah

Issue: 2

Volume: 23

Page Numbers: 162 –172

Publication Date: 2017

Publication Name: Information Design Journal

Difficult Exhibitions in Difficult Sites: An Investigation of Exhibition Design Practice for The Rescuers in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Willhemina Wahlin and
Leora Kahn


This study looks at the design practice behind the exhibition, Picturing Moral Courage: The Rescuers. This ‘difficult’ exhibition, which has been displayed within the public spaces of 13 cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) since 2011, centres on the stories of ordinary people who saved the lives of ‘others’ from enemy groups during genocide. We examine some of the practice-led questions that were raised during the design of the exhibit, and outline a propositional conceptual theoretical model of analysis that combines critical hermeneutics with social semiotic, multimodal analysis, in order to support design practice.

Doi: 10.1080/14606925.2015.1054208

Issue: 4

Volume: 18

Page Numbers: 535–554

Publication Date: 2016

Publication Name: THE Design Journal


Difficult Design: A Designer's Responsibility?

Willhemina Wahlin

special lecture

postgraduate design program

Parsons The New School

New York

November 2016

In this Special Lecture, delivered to postgraduate students in Parsons The New School's design program, Willhemina Wahlin discussed her work with PROOF: Media for Social Justice, as well as her doctoral research that examines the role of designers in 'difficult' exhibition projects.

The presentation can be viewed below.

The Ligatures of Life: The designer’s role in telling the ‘difficult’ stories of genocide

Willhemina Wahlin

Special Lecture

Genocide Studies Program

Yale University

new haven

December, 2015

In this Special Lecture for students of Yale's Genocide Study program, Willhemina Wahlin discussed her work with PROOF: Media for Social Justice and her doctoral research in designing 'difficult' exhibitions. With a focus on the creation of representations of people's testimonies of trauma, Willhemina explained the interpretive role of the designer, and in particular how she works together with PROOF's Curator, Leora Kahn.

The presentation can be viewed below.


October 2017: Practice Research Symposium, RMIT, Melbourne
June 2017: Practice Research Symposium, RMIT, Melbourne
July 2015: 12th Annual Meeting of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, Yerevan, Armenia
November 2014: PhD by Design, Goldsmiths, University of London