Re-Framing Sustainable Farming

“How do intermediate livestock farms and ranches impact the environment and public health?”  For the past two weeks, Nicole Nagel and I have thrown ourselves into this subject as part of a class project for Interaction Design Research and Synthesis (IDSE101) at Austin Center for Design.  We’ve talked with a wide variety of stakeholders, including policy makers, non-profit executives, academics, restaurant employees, governmental regulators, and, of course, livestock farmers.

When contemplating the environmental and health-related impacts of livestock farms, most people would likely point to some common themes and ideas.  Methane emissions from animals, negative externalities of pesticides and herbicides, and food poisoning due to improper raising and processing of livestock are a few that you could likely learn about through a simple Google search.  All these ideas have certainly surfaced in mine and Nicole’s research thus far, but the one thing we learned right away is that this issue encompasses a vast, infinite network of issues, research, opinions, values, and daily lives.  Design research is not like a Google search, where you can deliberately pick and choose what to focus on.  The point here is not to explore pre-determined problems with an issue, but to find new ones.

Slowly but surely, we got lost in an avalanche of data, and we seemingly got pulled in a thousand directions at once.  Utterances pertaining to education, psychology, white privilege, and food distribution all came into the fold.  This multiplicity of subjects made it difficult to retain our initial focus as our primary lens through which to see the issue.  Every time we tried to narrow it down to our initial focus, we would inadvertently uncover yet another issue that was inextricably tied into a growing web of problem spaces, of which livestock farms and ranches were one just thread amongst many.

For example, when it comes to environmentally conscious livestock farming and ranching practices, the stakeholders we interviewed kept falling back on one thing: no matter how refined the model for sustainable farming is, its practicality is in large part at the mercy of the consumer.  The food culture of the United States is such that we have become wholly accustomed to extremely cheap food.  This places an extremely tight market constraint on small, “sustainable” family farms that often pride themselves on environmentally friendly farming practices and wholesome, healthy products.  The idea of limiting the impact of livestock farming seemed to be inextricably tied to this constraint.  It was both frustrating and problematic, not only because all the farming models we were coming up with economically inviable, but more namely because they were tied into a several socio-economic systems that extended beyond the farms themselves.

Then we interviewed Dr. Megan Clayton, who works as an associate professor and extension range specialist at Texas A&M.  A large part of her job is to provide resources, information, and education to ranchers in Texas.

As with most of our interview subjects, we asked Dr. Clayton how farms could limit their negative impact on the environment and public health.  In response, Dr. Clayton essentially said this was the wrong question.  The essential issue, in her mind, was not how to limit the negative externalities of ranching, but how to preserve the intrinsically positive ones.  As an extension specialist, she was much less concerned with manure run-off, factory farming, greenhouse emissions, and the like, and much more focused on simply preserving the farmland from urban and suburban development.  This is because maintaining green, open land in Texas is critical for maintaining clean air and preventing flooding.

Dr. Clayton’s expertise thus provided an interesting re-framing for our research.  Whereas we had been focusing on the negative effects of livestock farms, we had largely overlooked the positive impacts that themselves must be preserved.  All of the sudden, all of the issues that seemed stubbornly tangled into our research focus became much more seamlessly interconnected.  For instance, whereas market constraints had beforehand appeared to hinder any and all models for delimiting the negative impacts of livestock farming, now that we can view ranching as a net positive for the environment and public health, what once seemed like market constraints now also appear as market opportunities.  The ideal models for environmentally-friendly livestock farming are no longer simply a matter of suppressing negative impacts, but also of encouraging the positive ones, leaving much more room for innovation and growth within our models.

Design research is about problem-seeking.  In this case, we found that the problems with respect to livestock farming are not only caused by the industry status quo, but also in large part solved by them.


“Products on Products”


by jay messenger

Jay Messenger Assignment 1-01 Jay Messenger Assignment 1-02 Jay Messenger Assignment 1-03 Jay Messenger Assignment 1-04 Jay Messenger Assignment 1-05 Jay Messenger Assignment 1-06


The main inspiration for “Products on Products” is that design is everywhere. Practically everything we interact with has been designed by someone. My keyboard, the Word document I’m typing in, the sofa I’m sitting in, the coffee mug I’m sipping, and so on and so on, outward from everyday objects, to services, and into society. It’s an endless sea of products and meaning-making, interwoven into our daily existence, our cognizance, and our identities.

The idea that there are an infinite amount of layers of design in our lives made me think to draw out a kind of Russian-doll sort of comic. “Products on Products” displays a series of designs within designs – or more specifically: a design within a design within a design within a design within a design – with coda at the end.

Each comic represents the position of one of the pieces we read, discussed and studied for the assignment:

Jay Messenger Assignment 1-01

“Product A: The Hat” represents the position of Maurizio Vitta taken in “The Meaning of Design,” i.e. the theory that, in our era of mass consumption, products and services begin to lose their primary function in the eyes of consumers, and instead become sources of “social significance” to those who consume them. Vitta clearly thinks this is an important paradigm for designers to recognize, but I also think it is critical that consumers recognize it as well, much like Bobby does.

Jay Messenger Assignment 1-02

Product A is then encompassed by “Product B: The Lesson,” which represents the position of John Dewey in “A Need for a Theory of Experience.” Dewey’s main point is that education needs to take the backgrounds, experiences, and inner thoughts of students into account into their education. This can be accomplished through the “principle of interaction” – i.e. displaying sympathy for students unique needs and preferences and incorporating them into curricula – and through the “principle of continuity,” i.e. the idea that students’ experiences must be manipulated, selected, and built on each other. Mr. Robertson is trying to teach according to both of these principles.

Jay Messenger Assignment 1-03

Product B is encompassed by “Product C: The Curriculum,” which represents the position of Emily Pilloton in “Depth Over Breadth.” In this frame, the designer, seen talking to a school administrator, essentially embodies Pilloton’s ideal: someone who has permanently moved to the site of their research, empathizes with the community, and focuses on a highly impactful vector, i.e. primary education. I couldn’t help but satirize the designer’s position a bit, as I personally think it’s really presumptuous to assume you can fully assimilate into a community in this fashion.

Jay Messenger Assignment 1-04

Product C is encompassed by “Product D: The Fundraiser,” which represents the position of Edward Bernays in “Manipulating Public Opinion.” Bernays views the manipulation of public opinion as an inevitable and foundational aspect of democracy; the entrepreneur in this frame is executing his right to do so. Bernays also sees public manipulation as a strategic enterprise – Bernays would likely approve of the entrepreneur’s strategy of simplifying and dramatizing the case of “The Curriculum” in a public setting.

Jay Messenger Assignment 1-05

Product D is encompassed by “Product E: The Common Sense Solution,” which represents the position of Michael Hobbes in “Stop Trying to Save the World.” Hobbes argues that many “common sense solutions” lack adequate follow-up evaluations, and are often scaled such that they are implemented in social settings that are completely unfitting for this sort of service. In this frame, Bobby and Mr. Robertson survey the aftermath of the entrepreneur’s common sense scaling of The Curriculum: a Designer Corps whereby designers are mobilized to live in and re-design the curricula of school districts across the country. It clearly didn’t work out.

Jay Messenger Assignment 1-06

“By-products” serves as both a representation of Vicotor Margolin’s position in “Global Expansion or Global Equilibrium” and as a moral for the story I am telling. Designing is provocation, whether the product be a hat, a lesson plan, a curriculum, a fundraiser, or a national initiative. With everything you design and unleash into the world, you are provoking the society such that there are new expectations, new social significances, new public opinions, and the like. Sometimes these provocations can have unforeseen consequences. This is especially true the higher the scale of your product – and I hope that this comic makes this clear.

We can’t possibly predict all these impacts, but we should at least consider them before we saturate any given market with any given product. We are expansionists – that’s inevitable – but we must try to take the Margolin’s equilibrium model into account.