Design Attitude


Some thoughts on goats, designers and circularity
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December 2019

This is a post on Design Research. Not specifically about either critical making or research-through-design, but about conceptual-material practice and thinking-through-making processes in general and specifically the type of design research (Ontwerpend Onderzoek) I have gotten familiar with during the RE-source project (www.re-source.info). In the following paragraphs I will make a case for designers being like goats and playing tag. Bear with me.

It might sound odd but in the following you will learn as much about goats as you will about designers and research. Goats have made a strange habit of popping up at pivotal moments in my life. In my final year attending Art Academy, Mischa (a friend of mine) had a picture of Argan goats up in his studio which we both found to have an odd magical appeal. Three goats in the top of a tree. The image has stuck with me ever since. The second time I had a close encounter with a goat was in the hills of Sonoma County in California as I was biking to Mexico in the weeks prior to starting my MA in Comparative Arts & Media Studies. I can tell you from personal experience, male goats are surprisingly big. When they come at you, I was advised, go for a judo-like headlock and redirect them towards the area you want them to go in. Preferably away from the lady goats and towards their own private pasture (poor goat). The third time goats made a profound impact on me was when I got the opportunity to move to California to work as a goat herder on a farm. Doing so would make me a decent amount of money, give me a VISA, a studio to work in on a hill (anyone who’s ever been to Sonoma knows that is not a bad place to be) and hopefully the opportunity to work on a book and my artistic practice. At least so I thought. Long story short, I was back after a little over two months having traveled the states but herded not a single goat and a maxed out credit card. (All well worth it). Before my departure I did receive a copy of Thomas Thwaites’ book GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human. A book I would only start reading a year later, after the dust of my US trip had settled. 

Argan goats in a tree, much like the newspaper clipping Mischa had in his studio in 2012

Ludacris said it: ‘when I move you move, just like that’ and ‘when I move you move, just like that’ 

In light of the transition I talked about ‘There’s something happening here. Buffalo Springfields phrase from For What It’s Worth “What it is ain’t exactly clear” takes on new meaning. 

I learned a lot from that book. The most important thing being the proclivity for curiosity and proximity found in goats. It’s that combination of closeness and curiosity that I would like to discuss. There is a lot we can learn from goats. Both for the humanities and design (for any of us, really). And it has to do with closeness and ‘joining in’ or joining with. 

You see, goats are neophilic animals. They are curious and when confronted with a novel situation they are less likely to ignore it and as Thwaites puts it “cower in the corner like sheep would”. They explore the world and they do so with their most sensitive manipulator, their mouth. Goats don’t just eat anything, they are fussy eaters who feel and taste their way through the world much like a baby would. Up close. If they want to know what something is, they reach out and touch it.

At the time I was reading Thwaites’ book I had just started my research into the design practice in the RE-source project together with Ginette Verstraete, Ester van de Wiel and David Hamers. In the RE-source project I filmed, interviewed, observed, discussed, wrote about and talked with five designers doing research into residual material flows. I did so in order to be able to investigate the capacity of design interventions in urban spaces to help make residual materials into resources. What were their strategies? How did they work? What words did they use? What did their presence do?  But also to see what circularity could be outside the dominant frame of ‘material/energy efficiency’. Surely the Circular Economy, hyped and buzzed as it is, was not just some engineering model of neatly closed loops. Out there in the real world things are always more messy, leaky and vibrant than on a flowchart or closed loop diagram. What in the world was Circular Economy? And, if it was different from what we had been doing the past decades, surely it would not be a case of implementing a couple of new protocols and regulations. The transition towards circularity was precisely that, a transition. The fabric and logic of our thoughts and actions would transform, our experience of the world would change.

As the name indicates, Design Research is a special kind of doing research. The biggest difference with what we might call conventional modes of (scientific) research is the importance of creativity, of making and intervening, and deliberately doing so. Design Research in the RE-source project was performed on location with a focus on the empirical and, as such, is a mode of doing research that is very much ‘hands-on’. It deals with how things are going on, it has a focus on process, practice and movement. 

Nothing and no one can prepare you for crossing the English Channel on a small sailing vessel or surfing big waves by talk alone. Tacit knowledge – the things we know but can’t say- and, let’s be honest, the complexity and unpredictability of the world, are but a few things standing in the way. If you want to know what football is, you’ve got to engage in it. If you want to know what circularity is and how we can transition towards it… I’ll put it this way: as a mode of research Design Research is less concerned with saying something definite about things (what) but it deals with experiencing how things are going on in specific situations. That’s why the design attitude found in design research fits so beautifully with the transition towards circularity, both have an eye for entanglement and process.

Think about it. Nothing happens in general. Things happen in particular, in specific places and moments, in unique situations. That’s why designers go out there, into the world. They explore the present situation ‘by touching it’, like the goat, with their ‘most sensitive manipulator’. The goat has to make due with her mouth to feel her way through the world, trying to make sense of things. The designer does so by making and intervening. Through sketch pads, camera’s, conversations, feeling, mapping, making and intervening in all kinds of ways, the designer makes sense of how things are going on. We often simplify things by using abstractions, summaries or other forms of making things seemingly coherent and understandable, clear. And in doing so many things fade into the background, get obscured. Abstraction, extraction and linearity form a group that feed off each other. This is not the blog to go into that in detail but let me say this: by abstracting things we cut them off from their surroundings, context and the web that holds them in place and produces them, constitutes them. It obscures their relationality and sets them up for extraction. After all that which is not connected can easily be picked up can’t it? More on that some other time. Back to design, circularity, and entanglement.

Design Research performed by designers isn’t anything like implementing a design ex nihilo. Designers don’t set out with a pre-established plan and simply execute it. No. They curiously investigate. Not by passively describing and observing but by creating, producing and consequently by making things move. They poke the present situation with their design actions. The phrase ‘touch and go’, used to indicate a precarious situation with insecure and unknown outcome, describes this perfectly. Also, if you think about it, it describes the actual way of doing research quite literally! By touching things and moving with them. Coincidently touch-and-go forms the acronym TAG. We’ve all played that game when we were children so this should come quite naturally to us all: like in the game of tag it’s a dynamic of ‘I move, you move’. Like in dance, sex, conversation, hiking, swarms of birds or the interplay of riverbank and riverflow. 

We do not move through a silent, static world. We are entangled in this roaring complex mess where things are not so clear cut as we sometimes like to pretend. To understand and work with the complexity of things it is not sufficient to study them from the outside, to look at them as if they are static objects. By performing Design Research, we stand up and move into the world to experience and interact with things in practice. We get a feel for how things are going on. We move and make things move to understand them in all of their complexity. Now, isn’t that a much more interesting and fun way to go about our lives? Not fixating things but moving, playing, or dancing with them. In doing so we discover all kinds of new possibilities and unforeseen connections. Suddenly the world isn’t headed for some sense of efficiency but possibility. This requires radical change on our behalf, a rerouting and rerooting. 

In the RE-source project, playing TAG with the concept of Circular Economy, like a goat I remind you, resulted in all sorts of interventions and new possibilities, new directions for thought and action.