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Reader Report: Seattle’s First Designers Accord Town Hall

by Linda Norlen

Editor's Note: We encourage "Reader Reports" -- submissions from members of Worldchanging's global audience who volunteer to write up their notes from conferences, workshops and other worldchanging happenings they participate in. If you'd like to contribute your own report, please email

The Designer's Accord Seattle Town Hall was billed as a shared discussion about ways to make designing sustainably a reality in Seattle. The evening was very full with four speakers followed by breakout sessions. Moderator Corbet Curfman, Sustainability Director of AIGA Seattle, kicked off the event, which was produced by AIGA Seattle, AIA Seattle, and IDSA Northwest on September 23, 2010 at the School of Visual Concepts.

No discussion of sustainability in Seattle can avoid the city's biggest goal: to make Seattle the first carbon neutral city in North America by 2030.

Working towards that goal are Joe Brewer (a consultant who helps organizations improve by using ideas from cognitive and behavioral science) and Cameron Hall (an architect and urbanist).

The movement toward carbon neutrality fomenting in Seattle, Hall said, is growing bigger and bigger, and now embraces energy, land use, neighborhoods, transportation, food systems, zero waste programs, green careers, and youth. Hall’s own RACE TO ZERO CITY is a communication tool for Carbon Neutral Seattle.

“Is this Seattle’s moment?” Brewer asked.

Both Brewer and Hall believe designers play a role in working toward carbon neutrality. Good designers view things from a system-wide perspective; they have tools for research, analysis, and innovation; and they have the know-how to create things.

Brewer gave a lively pitch for Seattle Innovators, a grassroots group aiming to help drive action toward the 2030 goal. Brewer sees Seattle’s civic-minded, well-educated populace as a kind of “civic software,” one of the advantages that makes the Puget Sound region one of the “cool places” to live in the U.S.

Since any early mover gains a competitive advantage, Brewer thinks Seattle should build an “innovation engine” (like the TED talks or the X Prize) to spark interest and momentum toward its becoming the first carbon neutral city. To that end, Brewer and collaborators organized what they called “Building Day” last March to build tools for cross-sector collaboration; they plan another installment in the future.

Hall talked about the need for collaboration and collective action, and cited Umair Haque’s "The Builders’ Manifesto." He also recognized the power of private action by pointing out that the 2030 Challenge was started by an individual, architect Edward Mazria. Another individual architect, Brian Geller, sustainability specialist at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca in Seattle, has enlisted both public and private stakeholders—major property owners/managers, city utilities, and other groups—to cooperate in large-scale energy use reduction within a new Seattle 2030 District.

Later, industrial designer Zac West spoke about the difference between “easy” clients and projects, which are predisposed to sustainability already, versus “hard” ones, who can only be convinced to take more environmentally sustainable actions if ideas are couched to them under different terms.
To win over such clients, West uses an approach he called “code switching.” Where he might normally talk about “corporate responsibility,” for a "hard" client he would refer to “brand legacy” instead. He listed several other switches in terminology for bridging gaps in values.

This tactic of substituting terminology is meant to be distinct from green-washing; it's not about creating fabrications, but rather about communicating in the client’s language

To illustrate the idea of "great design gone bad," the Creative Director of egg, Marty McDonald, told a story of the branding of British Petroleum, in which its brand designers (Landor) and ad agency (Ogilvy & Mather) created an image of the company as being far more environmentally responsible than it ever was. In 1998–99, BP added a new tagline, changing the “bp” to lower case type and recasting it to mean “beyond petroleum” (a rather astonishing assertion for a company that as late as 2008 would still be producing 93% oil and gas, and only 7% renewables). Ogilvy & Mather created a supporting ad campaign that was only too effective: BP went from 4% public awareness to 67% and within 5 years was seen by the public as “more green” than any of its competitors. The strategy worked for about 10 years, but after the Gulf spill this year, no amount of public relations could undo the thousands of parodies of the BP identity on the web. There was even a fake Twitter feed (@bpglobalpr) that got thousands more hits than the real one. After relating this story, McDonald asked “what went wrong?” and analyzed how designers can avoid making such mistakes in the future.

All of the above issues and more were discussed in the breakout sessions with the speakers and event organizers; the result of which you can view by visiting the breakout groups' wiki.

For more details about the event, see Core 77.

Linda Norlen is a design consultant, educator, editor, and writer. As Communications Director for AIGA Seattle, she recently developed the content for its new website. For two years she worked in Italy at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.

She is an Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington. She also taught design and worked in college management at both Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, California) and California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Before that Linda ran her own graphic design office in Los Angeles.

Image from the event via Core 77.

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