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Compostmodern09 Reviews, 3 of 3

The third and last batch of reviews from Compostmodern. Thank you gals and guys for attending and reviewing.


Eric Arvizu

Compostmodern 09: Can You See That? from young mr. arvizu on Vimeo.

Hey thanks man. I noticed a couple of typos in the copy I sent you. Next time you get a chance, can you replace it with this:

I believe it is our obligation to live our lives in a way that takes into account all the consequences of our actions, including the consequences to others, and the consequences to the environment. I believe it’s important to act in ways that are sympathetic to the environment, and I’m willing to bet this will always be a need, carrying into the next 5,000 days and beyond. The world has genuine problems and I think it can and should be improved. But I also think that deciding what constitutes responsible action is immensely difficult, and the consequences of our actions are often difficult to know in advance.

In 1974 the mainstream media reported environmentalist’s concerns about greenhouse gases. Carbon emissions were screwing up the weather and an ice age was approaching as a result. Today, those same carbon emissions are causing global warming. The media and environmentalists predicted that 60 million Americans will die of starvation in the 1980’s. Forty thousands species become extinct every year. Half of all species on the planet were said to be extinct by 2000. These doomsday visions vanished as the future rolled in. But the atrocious effects of our cultural reaction to environmentalist’s warnings are still felt. The DDT ban has caused the deaths of tens of millions of poor people, mostly children, whose deaths are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the third world.

I would expect designers to be a breed of critical thinkers. Savvy to the power of visual communication they would be the last to be taken in by it’s manipulation. However, after taking in a full day of watching designers kneel at the alter of sustainability, I’m sorry to report that most of us seem to dismiss the need for facts when we have so much to believe in. Sustainability is the new salvation and ours is an unquestionable faith.

I was hoping Compostmodern would invite fresh dialogue, but rather it offered the totally rigid soundbites one would expect and remains completely uninterested in opposing points of view. Perhaps next year compostmodern will host a series of debates, invite and promote an open marketplace of ideas — possibly even encourage designers to be ruthless about acquiring verifiable facts. I can’t see that.

Eric Arvizu is an art director and graphic designer for California State University. He is a guy who can’t seem to keep interested in only one subject at a time. Enamored by life and the complexities that make up the human condition (including the miracle that is breakfast cereal) he tries to keep his finger on as many cultural pulses as he can, one often at the expense of three others.


Keith Harper

Compostmodern09 was an inspirational glimpse into the true potential for design to do good in this world. What made this brief event great was the absolute quality of the speakers, and the stories behind their work. This was truly a quality over quantity affair, and I would like to briefly share what each speaker brought to the table.

Eames Demetrios implores us to consider the scale of our actions (or inaction). He also discusses the need to “reclaim serendipity,” which he claims is a casualty of the digital age. Eames believes that “design is a willingness to surrender to the journey.” In other words, it’s kosher to break the rules sometimes.

Allan Chochinov discusses his work with DARPA and the Open Prosthetic Project. He managed to connect the students of his MFA as Author program at SVA with the founders of the project, and the results are truly remarkable. He encourages us to question authority, play unfairly, and be intentionally dumb (or follow the KISS principle, Keep It Simple Stupid). The area of medical prosthetics has been aesthetically neglected due to a lack of demand, and this project really shows the potential of design to change peoples’ daily lives.

Michel Gelobter is a Climate Strategist who is comparing today’s world with the 19th century, when we were not addicted to oil. He stipulates that we cannot burn 70% of the known oil reserves without doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Despite the problems we face, Michel is hopeful that we will design our way out of the future. The biggest takeaway from his presentation is the idea that even though we may not have created the problem, designers own the solution.

Saul Griffith is a man who is very comfortable with numbers. Not only does he say that we, as designers, need to cozy up to math, but that it is essential to our survival. Saul points out that the only time we (collectively) use less energy is during a recession. What a striking comment on our society of consumption —┬áthe numbers do not lie.

John Bielenberg and Pam Dorr show us the true power of design for social good. The two are building houses for the poor and homeless in Alabama. What is incredible about their story is that neither of them, nor any of the project participants, had ever built a home before this endeavor. John encourages us to “think wrong” — who would have thought that you could build a twenty thousand dollar house?

Emily Pilloton has managed to create a nonprofit design organization at the shocking age of twenty-seven. Her team of volunteers has helped iterate on the design of Africa’s iconic Hippo Roller (a simple device that makes carrying drinking water easier). The redesigned product has put the roller in the hands of more people throughout Africa, improving their daily lives. Emily’s project continues to expand throughout the country.

Dawn Daney wants to invite everyone to the “sustainable party.” One of her biggest challenges for designers is to figure out how to communicate with business folks. She reminds us that “all sustainable design is contextual.” And even though we have to run things by the boss, who is the client? The planet.

Nathan Chedroff wants us to come up with a better identity for this sustainable stuff. He suggests dumping green for blue, and speaking in terms of natural capital with the suits. What this boils down to is crafting different stories for different folks. Consider the negative perceptions and context of your audience when trying to push through an eco-friendly initiative. Nathan is also adamant about designers understanding the production of their products.

Keith Harper is a graphic designer from Seattle. He is obsessed with the details of his work, which include both print and interactive design.


Spencer Cross

I’ve been struggling quite a bit with what to write about my experience at Compostmodern09, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t quite know what to expect going in, and, while I walked out with a bit more clarity about the conference’s purpose, I also left thinking that I likely would’ve found it more immediately rewarding if I were doing product design. Instead, as somebody who specializes in print and interactive, I left with a lot of thinking to do about how and where I’d actually be able to put some of these ideas to use on a professional level.

Compostmodern09’s biggest win was easily the stellar list of speakers. In fact, I was originally inspired to go not so much because of my interest in sustainability but more because of the opportunity to see such a robust lineup of presenters all in one place. My personal favorites were Allan Chochinov, Editor-in-Chief of Core77 and Saul Griffith, inventor, MacArthur genius and general renaissance man, both of whom delivered deeply informative presentations full of insight and inspiration. Chochinov’s “Denting an Impossible Design Problem in 10 Sustainable Steps” and Griffith’s intensely factual, if terribly frightening, talk about energy use seemed to me to be two of the more immediately applicable, practical presentations of the day. (I should, in the spirit of full disclosure, mention that I missed the very end of Nathan Shedroff’s talk, which I understand was the real homerun as far as offering pragmatic direction for how to incorporate sustainability into what you’re doing now.) They also both touched on something I hadn’t heard before in the context of sustainability, but which dovetailed nicely with something I’ve been discussing with friends elsewhere: the idea that we should be creating an “heirloom culture.” In other words, we have enough stuff in the world. Figuring out a way to reuse or redistribute the the stuff we already have is better than creating new stuff. And if we absolutely have to create new stuff, we’re better off creating things that have long life cycles than we are creating disposable things. Keynote speaker Eames Demetrios also spoke about a unique approach to understanding sustainability. His mantra, heavily inspired by the legacy of his grandparents Charles and Ray Eames, was that “scale is the new geography.” One of the problems with talking about issues like how much waste we produce or how much energy we use is that it’s very difficult to really grasp the true scope of our impact. As designers, we need to be providing tools to consumers to help them understand and relate to the scale of the issues at hand. This seemed more applicable as the day wore on.

The biggest critique I had about the content was the cavalier attitude toward espousing left-leaning politics displayed by so many people. I’m a very progressive leftist, bordering on socialist, and I’m all for talking politics when it’s germane to the conversation. Obviously, politics are unavoidably connected to the topic of sustainability, but occasionally the talk at the conference veered a little close to needless digs just for the fun of it. I couldn’t help but wonder if there were people in the audience that were put off. I also think the convention schedule was a real drag. Maybe I’m a good-for-nothing layabout, but the idea of starting a conference at 9:00am on a Saturday (meaning registration opens at 8:00am) makes my stomach hurt. I would’ve been much happier to attend something that started and ended an hour or two later.

In the end, I suppose the real question is what exactly did I take away from Compostmodern09? Primarily, I think I learned that sustainability is complicated. It’s a huge, hairy issue that’s not going away just because you bought a Prius and sort your garbage into the right bins, so it’s time for each and every one of us to step up to the plate and start putting in the real work. It’s also fiercely urgent. We all shared a laugh when Nathan Shedroff joked about adding the phrase “for your kids” to the end of the working definition of sustainability, but the truth is that we will all be dealing with the ramifications of energy and climate change issues in just a matter of years if we don’t make a serious commitment to fundamentally change the way we approach our personal and professional lives.

Spencer Cross is a Los Angeles-based graphic designer and the founder of Tokyo Farm. Spencer is also the creator and organizer of KERNSPIRACY, a unique effort to foster community and camaraderie among Los Angeles creative professionals through a combination of ongoing events and discussion forums.

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