Evil products by good designers?
In her presentation, Astrid talked about the way her relatively late autism diagnosis has helped her identify and make better use of a number of autistic traits in her working process. She threaded insights from this process of discovery through her journey as a designer and specifically her research into ethics, or more simply: doing good.
She explained how her fascination with ethics came about: “I work a lot with other designers, and I was very troubled by the fact that I’d never met an evil designer but there are many evil products in the world.“
Three years ago, she decided to research this conundrum. The resulting project is called “Goedmaken“, a play on words which can mean both “making something in a good way“ and “making up for something“ — both things an ethical designer should be thinking about.
Astrid summed up her career up to the present moment: “I’ve worked as a creative director, as a director, I’ve had many roles. A few years ago I decided to become independent because I felt like I needed more space. I worked on many, many things, mostly as a designer but also as a maker, a blue-collar philosopher — I didn’t get any degrees in it. I hope to be punk and I’m also the founder of the foundation “lekkersamenklooien“ (“happily messing around together“), which has been around for seven years now. With the foundation, Astrid created materials to help schools with their maker education. “All these projects were about helping people discover their own space and take up their own space in relation to other people.“, she summarised. “So in hindsight everything is connected. But probably at my age everyone sees everything connected in hindsight.“
Recognising the power of autistic traits
Taking stock of her career in this way, Astrid concluded that it has been quite good, and something she is proud of. She reflected: “I always think that if I had known earlier that I have autism, it would have been different, because knowing you are autistic in the world I came from would really have something to hold you back.“
However, finding out about her autism later in life has allowed her to look back at her career and identify the way her autistic traits have actually functioned as a positive force.
“Usually, I find it a very happy thing to have. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is also a curse sometimes, but when I balance everything out I’m actually very happy with the way I am.“
She continued to described five of her autistic traits and how they have been useful to her, clarifying that “of course the traits are different for every autistic person but for me these ones are very important in the work I do“.
“This might be my favourite one“, Astrid shared: “I don’t have any talent at all for corporate politics. I’m the kind of person who introduces herself to the boss three times because I always forget his face.“
She told us that being oblivious of power structures in companies and among clients she works for is something some clients find bothersome — “I’ve offended a lot of VIP’s by not acknowledging their importance“, she admitted — but others appreciate because it brings an open mind and unbiased perspective to each situation.
“I do a lot of co-creation with the people I do projects for“, Astrid explained, “Because I value everyone so much that I find it very hard to be right, I look for answers everywhere.“
An insight she gained through often asking for peoples personal experience is that our society places more value on “official“, or learned, knowledge than it does on “unofficial knowledge“ — the things you learn by living.
Taking these thoughts to her students, she encourages them to share their personal knowledge and traits with each other. “I want to show them that there’s an immense set of knowledge already present in any group. If you learn to express your special traits in a safe way, you gain so much knowledge by just connecting to each other.“
Ich MUSS verstehen
The next trait Astrid explored with us is hyper-focus on a topic of research. “When I discover a topic that touches me, I delve into it all the way.“, she said, identifying herself with the Hannah Arendt quote “Ich muss verstehen“ — I have to understand.
“Today was a day like that: I planned to work on a book that I’m making but I ended up watching two documentaries and reading a book about climbing Mount Everest.“ While this can sometimes derail her work, at other times it is useful, because the intense research can be the beginning of a new project.
She described the process for the Goedmaken project: “I read many official books on ethics, I made a podcast where I talked to experts, and I made many drawings about what I learned.“
Astrid also mentioned the downsides of this: The research can get so detailed and deep that it becomes isolating, since other people are not as interested in going down the rabbit hole. It also has to do with impostor syndrome: “I fill myself up so I know everything, so I have the illusion that I can become a true knowledgable person who deserves space in the room.“
While researching ethics for designers, she again encountered a hierarchy in the value we place on different kinds of knowledges. The knowledge created in the academic world of philosophy is valued higher, but not made available to ordinary people. This gives many people the impression that they can’t call themselves ethical designers without undergoing many years of study and making a lot of personal and professional sacrifices.
In conversations with other designers, Astrid often encountered the same response whenever she brought up ethics: “That’s difficult, that’s for other people“. The story was very different when she framed it in terms of “doing good“ — in your job, your studies, your children, everything — people had a lot more to say about that.
Reading the room
The third trait Astrid mentioned is being hypersensitive to everything happening in the room, which is useful when collecting knowledge from conversations with people. “But I also get very tired when I do this, because everything is input.“, she added.
Letting it simmer
The next stage in Astrid’s process is letting all the knowledge she gathered in previous stages simmer for a while. “This is my favourite phase“, she said — “You just wait until new connections and thoughts appear in your brain. To me this is magical, it’s like an exploded view of everything. There are no rules, the connections are unexpected.“ She added that it’s important to make time and space for letting the brain process all the previously acquired knowledge: “In this phase I always sleep a lot.“
The answer doesn’t exist, but your answer does
During the simmering stage, Astrid was able to reflect and take stock of her insights into ethics in design. A preliminary conclusion she reached was this: There is no universal answer to the question “What is good?“, but there are many individual and collectively negotiated answers. It’s a question that can’t really be answered, but needs to continue being asked. “And that’s great, because that way we will never stop thinking.“, Astrid concluded.
A book in progress
As someone who is both a designer and a book lover, it was clear to Astrid that she wanted her research to take the shape of a book. “Not one of those books that nobody reads and you just use to lift your monitor on your desk — “, she clarified, “but a very small book as a summary of the research so far, it’s unpretentious and not very good, a kind of in-between product that’s always developing.“ Future versions will include feedback she already received from students and other sources. Astrid brought a box full of these DIY-ethics books for guests to look at and take home for free.
Playing the fool
The final autistic trait Astrid reflected on was being perceived in one way or another as “different“ or “quirky“, and put into the ‚out of the box’-box despite also possessing a wide range of professional expertise. “When people ask me to deliver a keynote, I’m usually asked to be the opening or the closing speaker to deliver some kind of punch, to create this extraordinary energy that apparently doesn’t come from the other speakers.“, Astrid gave an example. “I’m never sure if that’s a compliment or if I’m actually hired as a clown.“
She concluded: “Being the misfit, being out of society is a fun thing, but when you’re establishing a practise as a professional designer, it can also be a trouble.“
How to autism…
Astrid reflected on how both the inside and the outside world can be difficult to cope with at times due to her autism. Finally, she shared some of her insights on this topic, which she refers to as “How to Autism“
… as an individual
Astrid said that for individual people, autistic or not, it is important to know and understand themselves in order to be able to share what you need without falling into a victim mentality. “It’s important to stand up and connect, to get into it and to give, but also understand when you’ve given enough, which can be a difficult boundary to establish.“
… as an organisation
Organisations on the other hand have the responsibility to establish a safe space for talking about needs, and for discussing expectations openly and fairly. “Use hierarchy only to make sure things are running smoothly and safely. Be attentive and allow space and time — don’t only use the ideas of those who shout the loudest.“ As is often the case when discussing these topics, these adjustments would help not only autistic and other neurodivergent people, but would be beneficial to everyone.
Wise fools — embracing the misfit role
She ended on an inspirational note: “I think embracing the misfit role is actually very cool. As neurodivergent people we can be the fools in any organisation, the medieval fools who roam the courts, but it’s very important not to put yourself at risk and to know yourself and your field well, so that you can be this wise fool that nobody can ignore.“
Q&A - on the human spirit and allowing space and time
“In your presentation you focused mostly on the mental level. What about the human spirit in the ethics research?“, someone asked.
“I’m very happy you mention that“, Astrid replied - “because it’s totally about the human spirit. Talking to people, many of them give examples like It’s this feeling I have…, It’s this religion I was taught…, It’s the love I got from… — connecting to your inner spirit in your work is actually the only way not to wear yourself out. So it was a big part of the research.
“Did you change anything about how you approach projects after you learned about your neurodivergence?“, someone else wanted to know.
“Actually I did.“, Astrid reflected. “I did a lot of analysis of it, looking at myself as a designer — but then I found that the most important thing I learned since my diagnosis is that I allow these traits to really be there and to take up the space and time they need, instead of being ashamed of certain aspects of them. So I think it helped me to be happier and more balanced.“
Freedom in Patterns: Why Gamelan is intriguing for people with autism
Gerard talked about his love for patterns, music, the gamelan, and how it all relates to his autism.
Gerard opened his presentation with a memory: “When I was 10 years old I played the accordion. I didn’t read the music or listen to the notes that were there but I got into a funny emotional state where I saw patterns. That was really calming for me. When I stopped playing it was like waking up from a very nice dream.“
“Music has this kind of function for me“, he said. “It lets me dream away. I wanted to study it to understand how this process works.“
He showed us a drawing he made in the 1970s, colourful beehive shapes, announcing: “This is a drawing I made in the 70s, and now you will listen to the beginning of my clarinet quartet.“
Listening and watching carefully, we could see the rhythm of the clarinet quartet represented in the shapes and colours of the drawing.
Next, Gerard showed us a video recording of a gamelan performance.
“This is a specific kind of gamelan: Dutch-Javanese-Suriname gamelan.“, he explained. “We call it Javanese Suriname, but maybe this is the Dutch variety of it.“
He related this to another kind of pattern he identified in childhood: “When I was 10, I walked to school stepping with my left foot and then my right foot, as usual. But then I thought that this was not fair to the other foot. When you start with the left foot and then the right one, next you should start with the right one and then the left one.“ He demonstrated this more unusual walking pattern.
“And then you should turn it around again, and again. If you keep doing that, you end up with an infinite rhythm.“
A theory of infinite rhythm quite similar to that of Gerard’s walking patterns was also being developed by one his teachers at the conservatory, the Danish composer Per Norgard. “What’s special about this is that when you do it at half the tempo, you still get exactly the same pattern, and same if you do it at quarter tempo and so on. So you can add many layers to it.“
Gerard was amazed that it was possible to represent infinite rhythm in musical notation in this way. “This is his basic theory of infinite melody, but it has only two notes, so you might as well call it rhythm.“ He promised to give us an example of melody later.
Per Norgard demonstrated this rhythm on a kendang, one of the drums used in gamelan ensembles, and Gerard brought his own kendang to show it to us as well. “He had a Balinese kendang, this is a Javanese one“, he clarified, and played the first 64 beats of the infinite rhythm pattern (high-low-low-high, then low-high-high-low, repeated indefinitely) in an impressive tempo.
Gerard mentioned Leo Kanner, one of the first people to study autism in children.
Kanner coined the term “autistic aloneness“, which he posed that these children were feeling. Gerard commented: “I always felt this aloneness, because I’m very interested in these things, but I’ve never had an audience like you who would listen to me talk about them.“
Recursion in gamelan and in jazz
Recursive patterns like the one Gerard showed us occur often in gamelan music. Norgard studied the Balinese drum in Bali and was inspired by the patterns he encountered there.
Gerard had a similar experience: “I learned to recognise the recursive nature of Western music after studying a lot of Indonesian music.“
He elaborated: “In Indonesia you often see that they play a melody in a lower register and then the same melody in a higher register but in double time. And maybe another one on top of that, again in double time.“ He then began recognising the same kind of pattern in a lot of jazz improvisations: “When you listen to jazz music for example, you hear the bass player two octaves lower than the soloist, and the soloist is playing in double tempo doing basically the same thing. It’s a kind of recursive system, but not in the mathematical way, it’s recursion with a lot of freedom.“
Patterns in jazz improvisation
Gerard decided to write his thesis in musicology on jazz improvisations.
“I compared the improvisations of John Carter with those of John Coltrane. I identified all the patterns they used, then threw out all the patterns they had in common, so I from the rest of the patterns I could find what defined their own individual style.“
He later used the same method of pattern detecting in a project called “Mediate“, to explain the differences between people’s individual handwriting.
“I’m just totally into patterns and I love whatever comes out of it.“, he said.
How to catch a bird
In order to show us infinite melody as well as infinite rhythm, Gerard played an excerpt of his daughter Vera van Wolferen's animated movie “How to catch a bird“, for which he composed the soundtrack using recursive patterns with the five tones found in gamelan music.
Practising infinite rhythm
Next, Gerard had prepared a practical exercise: he first showed us two easy melodies to sing, then lead half the audience to start singing the first melody, before cuing the other half to join in, layering melody and rhythm.
“So now you can feel it yourself.“, he said after calling the collective performance to a close. “Music is something that should be a part of your body, you should sing it and clap it and play it.“
The philosophical part
Finally, Gerard placed his insights about patterns in a philosophical context. “This is not a new philosophy, it’s something every anthropologist can tell you: on the one hand we have structures, what we see and hear, and in these structures we find patterns. And that is how I recognise a word or a melody or a face.“
He continued: “We learn these patterns in a context, and through that context, we give them meaning. Some patterns belong to a certain context, like church, school, your family, it can be anything.“
To illustrate this idea of context, he quoted Enzo Ferrari: “Race cars are neither beautiful nor ugly, they become beautiful when they win.“
For Gerard’s music, the ideas of recursion and infinite rhythm provide this context. “People often tell me that when I do all this stuff with patterns, I don’t get beautiful music. But I don’t like to make beautiful music, because I think that already exists. You look at all these shapes and you think they’re beautiful or ugly or whatever, but when you find out the the context, they become beautiful.“
He concluded his talk in a humorous way: “So that was my story, about my autistic aloneness, and maybe I made some of you enthusiastic too. But if nobody wants to talk about it that’s okay, I’m used to that for 67 years already, so it doesn’t make much of a difference.“
It’s safe to say that Gerard’s enthusiasm for patterns and the gamelan also infected the A/artist audience.
Q&A - On fractal geometry, minimal music and gamelan cultures
Are you familiar with fractal geometry?, someone asked, and Gerard replied: “Yes! Fractal geometry is a mathematical way of thinking, you find it in nature of course, if you look around “— he pointed around at the illustrations in the Haeckel room - “And I think that the reason we can perceive recursion at all is because that is probably how our brains work.“
Someone else wanted to know whether Gerard’s compositions could be compared to minimal music by composers like Steve Reich. “No“, Gerard said - “His compositions are built around recurrence more so than recursion. But from a certain perspective you could say that it’s all minimal music.“
Finally, someone inquired about the differences between Surinamese, Javanese-Suriname and Javanese-Suriname-Dutch gamelan. Gerard explained:
“People from Indonesia came as labourers to Suriname, and they started to reinvent their own culture in this new place. Some things went right with that and some things went a bit funny: so for instance this instrument, the kendang, has a diaphragm in the middle with a small hole inside. But in the reconstruction in Suriname they built the same drum without a diaphragm, so they had to adjust the playing technique to get the same sounds.“ Later, many of the same people came to the Netherlands and reinvented their own culture yet again, merging the different iterations of the gamelan into another whole, what one could call the Dutch-Javanese-Suriname gamelan.
Let’s play gamelan
To round off the evening, Gerard invited the audience to join his gamelan workshop, which we had set up next door: “About twelve people can play gamelan at the same time. I’ll help you get started with playing it, and you’ll know the joy of knowing a simple pattern that gives you a deeper feeling of connection with the others. And when you have enough of it you can stand up so someone else can try it.“
The gamelan workshop was a big success and will be repeated during museum night!
(old) event information
Tickets included a vegan meal and a drink. We offer a great discount price for student participants.
Student price: €4,50
Full price: €15,50
We hope to see you on October 16th! If you have any questions, please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This event is primarily for neudivergent makers, however anyone who is interested to learn is also very welcome to attend. Please note that the formal presentations will be in English, whilst table discussions will be in both English and Dutch. This event will be hosted by the A/artist Program Team, a project at Mediamatic which platforms artists and designers who identify as/with the ASD or DD spectrums. The program started in 2021, focusing on hosting regular roundtable sessions and publishing articles generated through these discussions.