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Compostmodern '09
Jeremy Faludi, 23 Feb 09


With reporting by Adele Peters

This past weekend in San Francisco was Compostmodern, the green design conference we've mentioned many times before (Alex Steffen keynoted last year's event). Despite being thrown by the AIGA, it feels much more like an industrial design conference. I personally think this is quite productive, but I'm biased by being a product designer. They had great presentations, from the widely-known Saul Griffith and Nathan Shedroff to newcomer Emily Pilloton and our own Dawn Danby and Joel Makower. Here are some notes and thoughts from the day.

Allen Chochinov had a ten-steps method for approaching green design, including things like acknowledging your own privilege and power as a designer. As he put it, you don't have to just do what the client asks, rather, "your job is to move the client over to where you are." Giving the client what he or she asks for is only the simplest zero-effort solution. Understanding what your clients think they want, and convincing them to want what you want to make for them, is the goal. Allen's approach to this is to sometimes just be punk and do what you want without getting permission first, but Danby later approached this with the caveat that you must first speak your client's language in order to get them where you are. This requires listening and social skills that we weren't trained for as designers, but which can, in fact, be more important than our design skills. The most successful designers in the world aren't the most successful because they're the best designers, they're the most successful because they're the best salesmen, the best at getting clients on board with their ideas. The same is true for success in sustainability. Another point Chochinov made, which was later reiterated by John Bielenberg of Project M, was being "intentionally dumb," questioning assumptions and doing things "wrong" in order to get a fresh take and cause innovation.

Eames Demetrios showed the classic Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of 10, and argued that the scale demonstrated as the film zooms in and out of the planet is something that's important to think about in sustainable design. "Scale," Demetrios said, "is the new geography. If you don't understand scale, it's a form of illiteracy." He said that a lot of us think about scale the way an old New Yorker cover showed the view from 9th Avenue -- 9th Ave, 10th Ave, then just after that, Kansas and Japan. We know our own local, human scale, but very little about the broader picture (or the more detailed scale of the molecular world). He argued that it's important for designers to give people tools to understand scale, for example, to give a concrete way to understand what a trillion dollar bailout really means, or to understand climate change. We need to truly understand context. Thinking in terms of scale, he said, is a way to remove ourselves from our usual way of seeing, and gain new insight to help create solutions.

Saul Griffith juiced things up with a bit of attitude (quoting "Design will not save the world--go volunteer at a soup kitchen, you pretentious fuck"), and was brilliant as usual, giving a variation on his Game Plan presentation, but with less math because the audience members were all designers. However, he used two real equations in his talk, to prove a central point that's often overlooked in green design circles: "Designers, you'd better start getting comfortable with numbers and analysis. Or get comfortable working with engineers." You can say I'm biased because I'm a scientist-turned-designer, but it's my objective opinion that green design requires some degree of quantitative analytical understanding of environmental impacts. You don't need to be Leonardo DaVinci, but you need to have some concept whether or not 1800 watts is a ridiculous amount of power to use for drying your hair. You don't need to be able to do the calculations yourself (though it helps), but you need to be able to talk to an engineer and know bad numbers from good numbers. Designers can't be content styling boxes which have been thrown over the wall by the engineers -- you can't get revolutionary design that way, you can't lead industries that way. Designers need to know what to ask for, what numbers aren't good enough, and know where engineers are just being stubborn vs. what would break the laws of physics. Good engineers are also designers, understanding that the performance specs are not just strength-to-weight ratios and material costs, but having a clue of the larger context, the user and society and the environment are also part of the performance spec. As Griffith said, "the planet is the client." Or at least one of the clients.

Emily Pilloton of Project H was great to see, simply because of the sheer momentum with which she's rocketed into the sustainable development world. In one year, she's gone from $400 and living in her parents' house to having over 100 designers around the world working on projects. Her main points were that it's okay to not know what you're doing, just start doing something. The more you do, and the more people you get involved, the more impact you'll make, and it can take off like a rocket.

Dawn Danby emphasized opening up the green design community -- as she said, "don't be an egotist, be a synthesist." We need to get rid of our specialness and open dialogue up, both because it gets more people involved and because it gives us more leverage with clients and industry. Getting down off our high horses is what lets us get more influence with clients to get them interested in green design. You may call it dilution, but look at Wal-Mart: it has caused more industry change than a score of nonprofits, because of its sheer size. Another great point Danby had was that we shouldn't worry so much about designing things from scratch -- we must retrofit and hack the world into sustainability. Consider that the IPCC has recommended we reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent in the next 40 years -- that means remaking almost all material culture. All products, all buildings, all power plants, 80 percent of the world we've built. We can't just throw away what we've got now. Most of it will have to be redone, retrofitted, remodeled -- hacked.

Nathan Shedroff's presentation was the perfect way to end the day, offering practical, real-world strategies for green design that people can implement today, such as dematerialization, product service systems, "informationalization" (switching from physical to digital), design for longevity, design for recyclability, systems thinking, etc. -- all points I personally support. One especially nice thing he did was compare the top eight sustainability frameworks (life cycle analysis, Natural Step, Cradle to Cradle, etc.) and where their strengths and gaps are.

At one point he argued for Adam Werbach's attempt to rebrand "green" design to be "blue" design, which I think is silly and pointless -- as others have pointed out, "blue" doesn't mean anything to anyone, while the color green is immediately evocative of healthy environments (ever notice we have words like "verdant" but not words like "azurant"?) and is historically evocative of socially-conscious politics (the Green party having been around almost 30 years now in Germany). The cultural/historical implications of "blue" are depression, jazz, and porn movies. If you think that "green" comes with Birkenstock-flavored baggage (which it doesn't anymore, the second-generation environmentalists are Bright Green Future flavored instead), then choose a label that means something relevant. Shedroff himself suggested "healthy and efficient," which is a great way of putting it, much better than "blue." It's clear and simple yet accurate, and it's value-neutral (or at least innocuous-sounding) but points immediately towards what your agenda should be.

I do like his idea of taking back the word "conservative" to its literal meaning of saving, not wasting, etc. But in the end, the semantics are just stumbling blocks -- as Danby pointed out, the key is to use whatever words your clients respond to, whatever lets you crawl into their paradigm and take the driver's seat.

Photo source: Compostmodern.

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That isn't a picture of the conference, BTW. Not sure where it is but it isn't the Hearbst Theater.

Posted by: me on 23 Feb 09

Looks great!

Posted by: christian on 25 Feb 09

'post' modern, very clever.

Posted by: christian on 25 Feb 09

Great summary of the day! It was a great chance to take time out of the business of graphic design and see how others are creating a better future through design. I jotted down a few thoughts on ways graphic designers can help turn things around here:

P.S. That is a picture of the Herbst Theater--I can see myself on the left edge! :-)

Posted by: Kirsti Scott on 5 Mar 09

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