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Designer’s Almanac 2009

Designer’s Almanac 2009

by David Hedden

As the vernal equinox raised our spirits out of the cold dark winter, our instincts once again directed us to reach deep into San Francisco’s annual Compostmodern conference where we got down and dirty with inspiring designers and their innovative strategies. Compostmodern 09 provided the rich nutrients that designers could easily absorb into their current work, freshly charged with ideas ready to return to the office on Monday morning with bright and eager eyes. The crowd at Compostmodern has good excuse for their optimism in these times of instability; people must reevaluate their inefficient practices to embrace radical new ideas. The speakers at this year’s event are most surely part of the solution.

Compostmodern acts like a catalyst for those who are looking to take their altruistic ideas to the next level. This was clearly visible in Emily Pilloton, who in this past year has made a large impact by addressing important design challenges worldwide. Pilloton and her company, Project H, have developed projects that range from a third-world water treatment and transport system to a homeless operated craft-design co-op in Los Angeles. Incorporating the use of over 100+ designers, Pilloton challenges her colleagues to use product design to help the “other 90%.” She is a great example of a designer who has made a name for herself by starting small; she admits only about $400. Pilloton also shows how mixing an Obama-style grassroots campaign with ideas germinated at last year’s Compostmodern can result with a diverse landscape of global initiatives.

Speaking alongside Pilloton was Project M, another project of greater good for the real world. John Beilenberg, creator of Project M, described his organic approach to deciding upon ideas towards positive impact. Moreover, he enthusiastically encouraged young designers, film makers, artists, and writers to “Think WRONG” because discoveries are often found when making mistakes. He must not be thinking too wrong since the outcome has led to projects of conservation in Costa Rica, micro-financing in Ghana, help in New Orleans after Katrina, a community program in East Baltimore, and providing fresh water to homes in Hale County, Alabama. Beilenberg was also able to incorporate the help of Pam Dorr, who left a solid career with companies like Victoria’s Secret Catalog, Espirit, and BabyGap to change directions towards a more meaningful contribution. Dorr has specifically been involved with developing sustainable housing in addition to other volunteering and community programs. Dorr and Beilenberg interacted onstage like old acquaintances finishing each other’s sentences, while Pilloton, being the newest to the family, introduced her new generation of thought.

Interpreted slightly different to the challenge of creating global impact is Saul Griffith. An award-winning inventor and an advanced engineer, Griffith might be borderline obsessive-compulsive when it comes to breaking down the “numbers” in his quest for personalizing energy consumption. Griffith took it upon himself to accurately quantify his own consumption leaving no contributor left out; surveying everything from flights taken, cars driven, houses heated, food prepared, products produced, taxes spent (including the wars they funded), until every last detail, and then he stacked it up against the population of the world. You can have your consumptive fortune read and compare it at his site WattzOn.com. Somewhat shockingly, Griffith found out that he is a “planet hater” more than most and it is largely due to his jet setting around the globe attending events with clever names. Even Compostmodern put a tick in the climbing graph of his consumption. But by now there should be no surprise that just building the components of the climate revolution will also contribute to the climate change. The first step to recovering from a bad habit is to understand how bad that habit is, with no factors left out. That is exactly what Griffith wants you to realize, and then to alter your behaviors to reduce your consumptive ways.

Future climate models and personal consumption stats will have Griffith reverse engineering his way to a solution while the rest of us can look forward using the principles of the past, specifically the practice of “Heirloom” design. Products that are passed on from generation to generation have ecological value as well as sentimental value. Reused products reduce the cost and energy needed for reproducing, transporting, storing, and selling future replacements. Apple produces some of the most desired products on the market today, yet in terms of heirloom design, the short lifespan and constant arrival of slightly better versions make products like the IPod a constant toll on Earth’s resources. Businesses often rely upon the behaviors of disposable consumerism with models that don’t encourage heirloom designs. Rolex watches and Amish furniture have built their name upon heirloom design. Taking it one step further would be to dematerialize products entirely. “Products On-Demand” is one strategy only beginning to be utilized where products are “borrowed” when needed and returned for the next user.

If your existing clients feel unsettled by the suggestion to reduce repetitive consumption with longer lasting products, then Nathan Shedroff suggests telling them “not to do things today that make tomorrow worse… for your kids… or for your grandchildren.” That should be enough to convince even the toughest skeptic. Shedroff is a pioneer in experience design and has developed a comprehensive framework for approaching sustainable design with a system he calls the “Sustainability Helix.” Shedroff’s Omni-system combines all aspects from other well known, yet incomplete, frameworks such as “Cradle to Cradle,” “Biomimicry,” and Datschefski’s “Total Beauty of Sustainable Products.”

Tools like Shedroff’s sustainability helix and Griffith’s personal energy consumption calculator are helping to shape behavior towards greater awareness and conservation. Initiatives and collaborations like Projects M and H are giving life to new strategies and involving large numbers of capable people throughout. Each of the many presenters brought their stories, but they also brought greater potential for our future. These tools and the many strategies gathered from Compostmodern 09’s harvest are food for the mind and are clarifying the vision of our sustainable future.


David Hedden has made Long Beach headquarters for his career as an independent designer following his migration from San Francisco Bay to study Industrial Design & Psychology at California State University. David's work history includes a diverse set of industries ranging from children's toys & pet products to medical devices and military life support systems. Currently campaigning to raise awareness for sustainable design & the environment, he has held multiple collaborated events promoting sustainability. Keep up with him fly-fishing on a remote mountain stream in the Sierras or in a foreign country absorbing the food and culture.

Editorial United States Contributor

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