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Miranda Clow

PhD Work

Paper Work: Design, Trust and the Materials of the Fire Insurance Industry, 1680–2017

My thesis is concerned with the interaction of design with trust. Its starting point is the challenge in the twenty-first century to design trust, particularly in the digital world. But I use the history of the fire insurance industry in Britain in order to explore this. I study the industry in three periods of time: the end of the seventeenth century when fire insurance businesses first arose in London; the beginning of the nineteenth century, when many new companies rose and fell; and the end of the nineteenth century up to the outbreak of the First World War, an era of great change in financial services. For my two later periods, I focus on one particular fire insurance company, the Sun Fire Office. 

The paper archives of the insurance industry form the heart of my study. I aim to get at the different ways by which this material – both in its printed manifestations and also in the guise of minute books, indexes and lists – was designed to perform trust for the insurance industry. I show how paper upheld the internal processes of a company, how it shaped its employees, how it promoted it to the public, and how through newspapers it created a discourse of trust around insurance.

MA work

From Nothing to Something: The Making of the Sun Fire Office in the Eighteenth Century

‘From Nothing to Something’ examines the paper remnants of a fire insurance company in the eighteenth century. This research was driven by the desire to explore how an immaterial product had been cloaked in materials in order to make it tangible. I sought to understand the choices that the Sun Fire Office, founded in 1710, had made in designing its genres of paper. I was fascinated by the nature of the relationship between people and company that these choices were intended to build, in the setting of the City of London’s dynamic financial district.

The handbill and the receipt shown here are examples of the paper produced by the Sun Fire Office. The design of both of them was bound by the conventions of the printing industry and of other printed ephemera. In the use of an emblem of the sun, the Sun Fire Office adopted the practice of its rivals in the fledgling fire insurance industry. By these means, the insurance industry put its own twist on wider cultural practices such as house signs and the identifying marks used by craftsmen.

However, the printed matter of the Sun Fire Office was set apart from other ephemera of the period by the size of its print runs and by the carefully composed language shared by the genres, both visual and verbal. In this way these sheets of paper were groomed to be a set of objects of value, and a new dialect of corporate trust was developed.


  • PhD


    School of Arts & Humanities


    History of Design, 2014–

  • MA Degree


    School of Humanities


    MA History of Design, 2013

  • I am working towards a doctorate in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art, where I also completed my MA. Prior to this, I read Classics and I worked for some years on the edges of the City of London. 

    My thesis considers the role played by design in the history of the British fire insurance industry in the eliciting of trust within insurance companies and in their relations with the public. My research is funded by TECHNE, an AHRC funding consortium with a focus on interdisciplinary study.

    My work as a researcher and a writer aims to bring together contemporary design practice and the history of design, in order to complicate and broaden the understanding of design in the past. I am interested in exploring design in its most humble, hidden and ordinary, yet surprising, manifestations.

    I have written about popular and unpopular culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for the Royal College of Art’s journals Arc and Prova, and on Unmaking Things, the website of the V&A/RCA History of Design programme. I have given papers at conferences at the RCA, the V&A, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the Society of Antiquaries.

  • Degrees

  • MA, History of Design, Victoria and Albert Museum/Royal College of Art, 2013; BA (Oxon), Classics, University of Oxford, 2003
  • Awards

  • TECHNE-funded PhD, 2014–2017; Gillian Naylor Award, Victoria & Albert Museum/Royal College of Art, 2012