Dutch Design Yearbook 2011
Off the beaten track
Design, science, and even the once 'autonomous' arts, are increasingly assessed – in the pecuniary sense – on their contribution to market economy. The creative industry, so the argument goes, is a research and development branch of innovative business. Sounds nice and useful, but what does it mean?
Research and development are two terms so often used in conjunction in contemporary economized culture that one could easily forget they are two quite different things. They occur in two rather different worlds. One looks like Stanley's and Livingstone's Africa in the 19th century, the other resembles the Netherlands of the past century. Livingstone searched for the sources of the Nile and appeared to have got lost; Stanley was searching for Livingstone. Neither knew exactly where to look, but they had a direction. One found something else than what he was looking for – not the Nile but the Congo river –, the other did, after many detours and intensive research, meet whom he set out to find: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Meanwhile, both mapped uncharted land, filled in blank spots. Their research was not undirected, they had explicit geographical, economical, journalistic and ideological motives and ends. But as genuine explorers they did not merely focus on their final destination, but keenly observed what they met under way. Thus they discovered unknown lakes, described mountain ranges that no-one ever saw before and opened up new routes. Collateral gain of the exploration of unknown territory. More important than the central question ("where is the source of the Nile," for example) was the question of 'what if:' what if we went that way? The fact that such explorations sometimes yielded new and useful information tends to distract from the high costs involved, the many times they reached a dead end. Often quite literally – the death toll of such expeditions was bizarrely high and also Livingstone ultimately died at such a dead end. In other words, the costs of successful research should include what one might call the write-down of unsuccessful experiments, the times when 'what if' resulted in a disappointing 'nothing.'
Development only starts when one is convinced that the direction taken is the right one. There is a plan and a method, and there is research-backed proof that the goal should be attainable. From Fokker, Philips and DAF to Bugaboo and TomTom, Dutch companies have only really started when there was a realistic perspective on their profitability. Not a hundred percent certainty, of course, for entrepreneurship involves taking risks as well, but still, a good businessman uses more gauging points than vague assumptions alone. He has passed the 'what if' moment. In a similar way, the idea of a 'makeable society' materializes, a development trajectory based on assumptions which in their turn are grounded in research, but which have past the 'what if' stage. The difference with the relative undirectedness of the explorers is not that the outcome is certain – Dutch society knows many 'trajectories' that have not reached their intended goal. The difference is most of all whether one starts the exploration with or without a map.
In scientific research one can see a similar distinction, that between 'fundamental' and 'applied' research. Fundamental research typically starts with the 'what if' question. What if we would mix these two elements together, for instance? This may look like messing with a chemistry set for kids, but here also there is, mostly, a question, a hypothesis that directs the experiment. In fundamental scientific research the question of 'what if' is always connected to a 'why' question, followed by the question of 'how.' Why is carbon, an element known for its excellent insulating qualities, when reduced to layers of one atom thin (graphene) all of a sudden a very good conductor? And subsequently: how can we make layers this thin? The question of what can eventually be made with this graphene – a conductive coating for touch screens, or high-speed computer chips – only comes later. One of the researchers who unveiled the peculiar properties of graphene and discovered how to make it on a usable scale is the Russian/Dutch/British Nano scientist Andre Geim. He received a Nobel prize for his research in 2010. Geim is known for devoting part of his research and that of his team to 'lateral research,' free excursions into unknown territory. In an interview he once said: "Ninety-nine percent of the time, these lateral paths lead nowhere, but if you try out things often enough, you suddenly invent gecko-tape. Or graphene!"
Geim criticizes the increasing focus of European funders of scientific research on applicability. "Curiosity-driven research is under siege from those who claim that they know best how to [...] 'engage research with the problems that society recognizes as central'," he wrote in a pressing letter to Nature. It may sound good, solving 'central problems of society,' but in practice, this mostly boils down to an increasing assessment of research in terms of its economical gain. The passionate researcher's curiosity, however, is much broader. It answers the question of gain with something comparable to Edmund Hillary's response when asked why he insisted on climbing Mount Everest: "because it's there." This is linked to the 'what if' question; one sees there is a mountain and asks how it would be to stand on top of it. Not whether that's going to make one rich.
In the arts also, there is a similar and long-standing firewall between 'free' and 'committed,' 'autonomous' and 'applied' areas. The autonomous arts are engaged with questions the artists ask themselves. The applied arts are committed to solving 'central problems of society.' Of course the boundaries cannot be drawn this easily all the time, in the arts nor in exploration and scientific research, but generally speaking they are well defined. Art's autonomy is perhaps most poignantly articulated by Frank Stella when, asked what his abstract work meant, he replied: "What you see is what you see." His art had no other intention than to be there. The contrasting statement on what is good design by one of the men who gave the profession its status in the 1950s, Raymond Loewy, is even more concise: "Good design sells." As far as Loewy was concerned, the main problem a designer should solve for his commissioner was making his products sell.
Both quotes are of course clichés in this context, but what worries me is that especially the latter – design as sales argument – is taken more and more literally and is applied more and more widely. Both in design and in science, and even in the 'autonomous' arts, there is a growing public demand that the profession concentrate on its economic viability. Economic in the limited sense of making money. That is worrying because the focus on making money, on sales, mostly leads to a choice for well-trodden paths, for charted territory. And to copying, because the high costs of research – the write-down of the times the 'what if' question yielded nothing – can be avoided by those who elaborate on proven accomplishments, using the maps drawn by the real explorers. Today, more than ever, revenue directs production and thus research and design. Maximizing sales while minimizing costs has become the industry's main goal. The contemporary product's core functionality is its capacity to hitch a ride on the bandwagon of commercial success. Cheap copies are generally better at that than expensive originals.
This narrowing – or dumbing down – of what is considered functional in economic terms can be experienced in any supermarket or retail outlet, but nowhere more intensely than at consumer goods fairs: an infinite switch yard of bandwagons. Most of what is hailed as 'new' here is completely interchangeable with last year's novelties. Most of it is redundant. At first sight, this seems to be in flagrant contradiction with the explorative essence of design. After all, the profession's history is firmly rooted in functionalism, this cultural ideology from the early 20th century that saw it as one of its central concerns to weed out redundancy from architecture, design and production processes. This central concept of functionalism seems to have been perverted into its opposite: celebrating redundancy as the most cost effective way to simulate innovation. In fact, however, it is an oversimplified interpretation of exactly this central concern: what is deemed redundant from a revenue point of view is filtered out of the design. Open-ended variation – this essential mechanism of evolution – is minimized. Exploring lateral paths is abandoned as being too risky. The dialectic of trial and error grinds to a halt. What remains is what Freud once called: "the narcissism of the small difference."
Research, by the way, has always been a rather marginal cultural activity, at least when it comes to the number of people involved and the amounts of money invested. Both in the sciences and in the arts substantially more professionals are involved in further development, application and marketing than there are in fundamental research. Still, the origin of all their work lies in the research of these few others, the pioneering work that mapped previously uncharted territory. This kind of research has always been supported by society, for only very few possessed the means to do it on their own account. And even these rich individuals felt mentally supported by the curiosity of their contemporaries and cultural peers. Livingstone, a man of humble origin, wasn't any old adventurous eccentric – well-equipped by church and state, he was rather a representative of a Christian-imperialist society that considered itself the light of the world. The motives behind the social support for explorative missions, fundamental research and the fine arts may sometimes be dubious – moral hubris, nationalistic pride, blatant pursuit of profit –, a binding feature has always been curiosity for the unknown.
Curiosity tends to defy closed systems of criteria which rule its usefulness. This leads sociologist and urbanist Richard Sennett to state that even the instances the 'what if' question results in nothing are highly functional, not only for makers – the subject of his argument – but also for society at large: "Oftentimes when we experiment and hit a dead end, we say 'now that was useless.' Well it isn't. Failure has very practical consequences for makers; it's a way of reconsidering and reconfiguring. I'd say all noise has value." Being open to unforeseen byways, to serendipic discoveries, which in developed products are often touched up, is an essence of research, in science as well as in design. A prominent researcher in graphic design, Daniel van der Velden – with partner Vinca Kruk founder of Metahaven –, bemoans the lack of reflection on unrealized projects, on explorations which have not (yet) found a marketable application. Only architecture ascribes some value to unbuilt projects, as the profession's explorers' logs. But in graphic design – as in most other design disciplines – everything revolves around a tangible final result, Van der Velden says: "sketches are not important, pitches are thrown away. Consequently graphic design deprives itself by losing some of the qualities that are honed or negotiated out of the final result."
Looking at Metahaven's work one can't help thinking that many of these 'honings' are negotiated out of regular graphic work for a reason. Letters stretched too far, a glut of color gradients, shadows and other decorational clichés, combined with often rather coarse images from hazy sources – all things a qualified graphic designer will try and avoid. But although Metahaven's research often leads to statements that go against the grain of traditional professional and aesthetic standards, it does map something: not so much uncharted territory, but rather shifts in the landscape. Van der Velden, meanwhile, is one of the most erudite connoisseurs of typography and graphic design I've ever met, so he knows which sins he is committing. Metahaven's mindset is therefore a textbook example of 'what if' thinking: We know the beaten tracks – well –, but what would happen if we took a different direction? In Metahaven's case this different direction is to explore, analyse and reconfigure the visual languages and narratives of contemporary mediated visual culture, which comprises rather more than what is admitted by accepted design discourses. It is a mindset that is first of all driven by professional curiosity, by the desire to do something with the enormous amount of material which presents itself to the designer, also and particularly outside the well-defined boundaries of the profession. To explore the potential of this material, to find out whether one can use it – because it's there –, is the driving force behind any relevant research.
Anyone who observes the motives that support the current policies of innovation and culture in the Netherlands must conclude that curiosity is an exhausted category as far as policy makers are concerned. All roads have been charted. What remains is to regulate traffic on them as efficiently and profitably as possible. Experimentation has become a hobby for those who can afford it. The rest can engage in exploration on Discovery Channel. Despite government texts about the importance of the 'creative industry' this means that – also for design – the social support for experimentation has dried up, insofar this support is represented by the Dutch government. For in this policy, also the creative industry is considered mainly as enhancer of the economy rather than as a field in which free and fundamental research into the means and media of design can take place. The counterpart of the disproportional budget cuts the current Dutch government is applying to the experimental, inquisitive and explorative sectors of the arts is a massive increase in government participation in research and development for businesses. The billion-and-a-half Euros which the Dutch government intends to allocate to nine 'top sectors' of the national economy, including the creative industry, are exclusively directed to those branches in which the Netherlands already has an edge. That the economic success of these sectors is as much based on a well-established infrastructure of scientific research, experimental design and critical arts as on entrepreneurship seems utterly forgotten. This is remarkable for a culture which prides itself for its openness and inquisitiveness.
In his essay in Dutch Heights published earlier this year the president of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, Robbert Dijkgraaf, showed his bewilderment: "Strangely enough, in this day and age in which anything seems possible and feasible, the diversity of the arts and culture is under pressure. One rather sees a regression towards the middle-of-the-road than an encouragement for developing new forms." Dijkgraaf, too, points to the negative effects of the economization of the arts, design and sciences on what can be termed the evolution of culture and society; the filtering out of economically redundant variation: "The effect of the market's mechanism on the arts is a reduction of their natural 'biodiversity' – similar to the short-eared owl, which is threatened with extinction, while at the same time there are about a hundred million chickens in the Netherlands. This loss of diversity is more harmful than figures show. History teaches us that it is the long tail of evolution which contains the rare elements that eventually provoke the biggest changes."
Research and development are not the same, even though they are inextricably linked: without research no development. Still, it remains important to observe and value the difference. Currently, R&D is often interpreted in an instrumental way, as research used for development, in which both are thought as necessary preliminary stages for market-oriented production. But research as exploration, as discovery, as 'curiosity driven' activity as Geim says, cannot be left to eccentrics on attics or geniuses in garages alone. A society that wants to be genuinely innovative must be willing to bear the costs of the cases in which 'what if' does not immediately result in something merchantable, the cases when curious explorers set off without a map, not knowing whether they will bring anything back, or return at all.