written by:
January 25, 2011

This weekend, I attended Compostmodern, a conference hosted by the AIGA SF that discussed the role of designers and the future of the profession with respect to sustainability. Around 20 forward-thinking design professionals spoke to a full audience who gathered in Herbst Theater's gilded and frescoed auditorium. The speakers ranged from "celebrities" of the profession, to community organizers, to business owners and professors, who all shared their successes, failures, and nuggets of wisdom for the future. Though it's difficult to select highlights from the wealth of ideas presented, below, I share a few that really resonated with me.

Yves Behar delivers the first lecture at the 2011 Compostmodern conference.
Yves Behar delivers the first lecture at the 2011 Compostmodern conference.
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Kate Daughdril, founder of <a href="http://www.detroitsoup.com/">Detroit Soup</a> speaks on the achievements of her community-based microlending organization. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
Kate Daughdril, founder of Detroit Soup speaks on the achievements of her community-based microlending organization. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
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Education was a key focus of designer Bruce Mau's talk. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
Education was a key focus of designer Bruce Mau's talk. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
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A packed house gathered at Herbst Theater on January 22 to hear speakers deliver talks on design and sustainability at the <a href="http://compostmodern.org/">2011 Compostmodern</a> conference.
A packed house gathered at Herbst Theater on January 22 to hear speakers deliver talks on design and sustainability at the 2011 Compostmodern conference.
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Julie Cordua of (Red) discusses the power of corporate partnerships to advance worthy causes. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
Julie Cordua of (Red) discusses the power of corporate partnerships to advance worthy causes. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
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Yves Behar delivers the first lecture at the 2011 Compostmodern conference.
Yves Behar delivers the first lecture at the 2011 Compostmodern conference.

The Role of Designers: Strategists and Entrepreneurs, or Craftsmen?

The big guns were brought out straightaway with Fuseproject founder Yves Behar giving a talk on the new business model for design. He argued that designers should enter into partnerships to move past the "seasonal" effect of a collaboration and adopt a long-term outlook. The importance of corporate partnerships was also touted by Julie Cordua, who is the communications director at (Red).

Julie Cordua of (Red) discusses the power of corporate partnerships to advance worthy causes. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
Julie Cordua of (Red) discusses the power of corporate partnerships to advance worthy causes. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.

Christopher Simmons of Mine, a San Francisco design office, built off of Behar's statements, commenting that while designers now have a seat at the business table, their ability to  to speak in the same language—a necessary part of the equation if partnerships and collaborations are to reach their full potential—could stand more development. "Designers haven't embraced the full understanding of business, and haven't earned that seat because they don't speak the same language," says Simmons. The strategist role isn't for everyone, he continues. "Those who are more focused on craft will always have a place to articulate a message beautifully."

The Future of Products: Green, Greener, Greenest?

In terms of product development, Behar mentioned that green products shouldn't have to apologize for being green, meaning that their design and experience need not be any less authentic that its original "non-green" counterpart. And about how "green" a product is: "We need to understand that there aren't standards and that there will never be a standard," says Behar, implying that there will always be room to improve.

With green products, there is a lot of market speak out there and it's tough to suss out what's real and what's just paying lip service. "There are 130 different eco certifications in the marketplace," says Dara O'Rourke, a UC Berkeley professor founder of The Good Guide, an online database that rates the safety of common household, personal care, and food products. "And there's a disconnect between design and consumption," he continued.

A packed house gathered at Herbst Theater on January 22 to hear speakers deliver talks on design and sustainability at the <a href="http://compostmodern.org/">2011 Compostmodern</a> conference.
A packed house gathered at Herbst Theater on January 22 to hear speakers deliver talks on design and sustainability at the 2011 Compostmodern conference.

Getting the Message Across

Communicating information is another important piece of the puzzle. Jonah Sachs (of Meatrix fame) argued that for an idea to take off, it has to gain cultural resonance and be able to survive in our age of information overload—not a small feat. To do that, Sachs argues, the traditional model of storytelling—charachter, conflict, plot—ought to be replaced with a new model based on "freaks, cheats, and familiars."

Storytelling was also a key element to Kierstin De West (of The Shift Report). Says DeWest, "There needs to be a better understanding of the cultural shift to sustainability." She outlined statistics on the consumption of green products, saying that the issue that resonates with most people is community connectivity. Having something "produced locally" is more important that something "produced organically" De West says. By understanding what the big issue truly is, designers and product developers can create more effective products and get them in the hands of more consumers, and create more "authentic consumer engagement."

For Kate Daughdril, an artist and community organizer based in Detroit, getting the word out there was as easy as soup. Once a month, people gather at Detroit Soup, a monthly dinner funding micro-grants for creative projects in Detroit. During the dinner, people pitch ideas for projects, and everyone in attendance votes on their favorite. The winner receives the proceeds from the dinner (people pay $5 for their meal). Even if a pitch doesn't "win" the program helps bring those ideas out in the open, and helps foster collaborations among those in attendance. Daughdril also mentioned that sometimes people have found investors for their projects through the connections made at Detroit Soup, even if they didn't get funding directly from the program. "We realized that we were the ones that had to invest in our neighborhoods," says Daughdril of her endeavor. One example of a creative project Detroit Soup funded is a sleeping bag for homeless people that folds into a wearable coat.

Kate Daughdril, founder of <a href="http://www.detroitsoup.com/">Detroit Soup</a> speaks on the achievements of her community-based microlending organization. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
Kate Daughdril, founder of Detroit Soup speaks on the achievements of her community-based microlending organization. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.

As Bruce Mau explained, getting the message across also has to do with education. Of all the facts, figures, graphs, and statistics, the most compelling to me was one he delivered: only 1% of the global population has graduated from university. Mau interpreted this statistic to show that there is so much latent potential in the world and pondered the possibilities of having more people engaged with finding solutions. Mau also gave one of the most compelling statements of the day: "I don't want consumers to be the definition of a person," he says, "I want them to be citizens."
Education was a key focus of designer Bruce Mau's talk. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.
Education was a key focus of designer Bruce Mau's talk. Photo courtesy Compostmodern.

Moving Forward

The breadth of topics covered at this year's Compostmodern conference was impressive. Every speaker shared anecdotes about how they approached sustainability and carved their own niche. Whether that niche involved assuming decisive roles, crafting better products, communicating ideas unconventionally, creating corporate partnerships, or rallying a community, there is no shortage of possibilities for design professionals to find their own way to contribute to the global sustainability movement. There is no "one" thing that everyone has to do, but there is a place for everyone. That's a very powerful idea, in my opinion.

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