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Jeremy Faludi, 24 Jan 06

Saturday was the Compostmodern conference in San Francisco. As we mentioned before, Compostmodern is a green design conference for graphic designers and industrial designers, put on by the IDSA and AIGA. It was non-technical but interdisciplinary, with speakers ranging from magazines to clothing to futurism to architecture. I felt it was a successful day, inspiring and engaging people while remaining realistic.

Here are some notes on selected speakers:

Kalle Lassn (founder of Adbusters) and Paul Hamlett (originator of the conference) reminded the graphic designers that they have enormous power to create culture, and that what the green movement needs more than anything else is to change consumers' desires. "Graphic designers are to the information age what engineers were to the steam age." He advocated that designers push back on their clients to use advertising messages with more eco- and humanitarian consciousness, and said that today's designers are sissies who "kiss corporate ass" compared to the progenitors of graphic design (like Bauhaus). Despite all this, he was surprisingly soft-spoken. Personally, though, I'm dubious about graphic designers' ability to do this--the supply of designers is bigger than the demand, so unless you're a rock-star, you generally get fired when you say no.

Chris Hacker had what I felt was more realistic advice. He is heading the newly-created design group at Johnson & Johnson, and was formerly head of design at Aveda, with a slew of successful green packaging under his belt. His advice was to be subversive. If the client isn't enthused about green, sneak it in. Tell the client about it afterwards, as an aside ("Product X is now cheaper and easier to use, oh, and by the way, it's also more eco-friendly, so you won't have to worry about future legislation that would probably require Y...") This is a common tactic for people trying to do green design, but it's the first time I've heard someone officially admit its predominance. Hacker described his design process, including the eleven questions he makes his designers ask: things like "do we need it?", "how can we make it durable / multi-functional?", "how can we encourage reuse?", etc. He also emphasized how green design can be an improvement by all measures: for one Aveda bottle, he switched from using 15% recycled plastic to 85% recycled plastic and saved a million dollars per year in manufacturing cost.

Roian Atwood from American Apparel had a lot to say about the garment industry and their successful bucking of the trends. America's textile industry is dead--98% of clothes sold in America are foreign-made, and of course tales of sweatshops are infamous. But American Apparel makes all of their clothes in the US, from materials almost entirely grown/made in the US, and pays their factory workers $13 - $20 an hour plus benefits. Far from struggling along for the sake of a mission, they're growing wildly. They're a vertically integrated company, from farm to store, and at present their main obstacle to offering more organics is the lack of spinning mills left in the country, which makes it difficult to specialize. And for those that haven't already heard, they don't use models for their ads--they're workers from the company or anyone off the street, with no airbrushing and minimal makeup. Their much-lauded practice of having no logos on anything was actually an outgrowth of the fact that they started as wholesale suppliers of "blanks" which brand-name companies printed their logos on--when American Apparel started retailing for themselves, they didn't want to compete with their existing customers.

Atwood, Hacker, and other speakers like Grace Hawthorne and Shoshana Berger of ReadyMade magazine emphasized what we call the "bright green" aesthetic--not crunchy granola hippie, but urban, modern, cutting-edge looks for eco-friendly and socially-responsible products.

Other fun speakers were Ron Radziner, one of the architects responsible for Heavy Trash; Paul Saffo of Institute for the Future, a forecaster who introduced people to the S-curves of history (the nonlinearity of progress, always achieving less than you'd guess in the short term but more than you'd guess in the long term). This helped inspire those that are frustrated with the seeming lack of progress on green issues, though it does leave unanswered what and when the tipping-point will be. Paul Hamlett also pointed out that the AIGA national org has gone carbon-neutral through purchasing credits, and looked forward to the day when designers don't have to be engineers and policy wonks on order to design green.

Oh, and one of the coolest things about the conference was a small one: for the lunch and water-bottles that were provided, all the packaging plastic was made from PLA, and the "silverware" was made from potato starch plastic. Many conferences forget details like this, but they're important. We can't just talk green, we have to be green, too.

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Thanks for the report from the field, Jer!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 24 Jan 06

Are audio versions of the presentations available anywhere? The conference sounds really interesting!

Posted by: Corinna on 27 Jan 06



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