Compostmodern: One Speaker’s Perspective

My Experience
At this time last week I was backstage at the Herbst Theatre, getting wired for my morning presentation at Compostmodern. I was working on just a few hours sleep, having stayed late(ish) at the speakers’ reception the night before and risen early to rework my presentation.

The sustainability conference’s AIGA SF organizers constructed an interesting format for the 2-day conference. Day one consisted of main stage presentations from “current and emerging innovators.” The presentations oscillated between brief 18-minute lectures and even briefer 5-minute “fresh idea” presenters. Day two was structured as an unstructured unconference. More on that later.

As a “fresh idea” presenter I was asked to speak to a specific theme, rather than talk about myself or my projects (in comparison to most design conferences, that in itself is a fresh idea!). Rahul Raj, the lead organizer, suggested that I focus on “How Designers Can Earn a Seat at the Table” picking up on an idea I introduced in an article called What Design Can’t Do (which originally appeared on this blog and was later picked up by AIGA’s business Journal, GAIN). As the first of the fresh idea speakers I realized I had a unique opportunity to offer a provocation that might help frame the presentations to follow. In essence, my idea was this: most designers are trained in—and work within—a specific area of craft. Most thought leadership in the profession centers around how designers should strive to transcend the so-called limitations of a craft-defined practice to become equal and embedded parters with their clients. My contention was (is) that while that is a noble and necessary path for some, it doesn’t necessarily represent the ambitions or ability of most designers; my concern was (is) that we risk marginalizing those who are attracted more to the idea of making great things than they are building great companies.

Yves Behar makes a few last minute edits backstage.

Not much I could do, but I appreciated the levity.

I took the stage right after Yves Behar, a designer who has achieved huge success working at both the strategic and tactical level. As I took the podium, I became conscious that my remarks might seem to contradict Yves’ (my quip about his accent probably didn’t help either). Antagonism wasn’t my intent, and as far as I can tell my remarks were well received. In what I will remember as a personal career highlight, Martin Venezky came up to me afterward to say how much he appreciated my presentation. I found this significant not because I have long admired Martin’s intelligence, work and courage, but because our work is so different than one another’s. That we could could find common ground in our interest in professional diversity spoke to the very heart of my presentation. [As a side note, I had the opportunity to return the compliment when Martin spoke saliently and with unique insight at the Wattis a few days later].

My five minutes were up pretty quick, then it was off to the press room. The organizers asked us to commit an hour post-presentation for interviews. I had several nice chats, including one with my friend and former editor Tom Biederbeck. We chatted both formally and informally and Tom then wove both conversations together in a thoughtful writeup for The Living Principles blog. Like any good journalist, he made me sound smarter than I am. Tom also has a knack for asking all the right questions and always leaves me with plenty to think about.

Because of the interviews I missed the next few presentations, including Janine James (The Moderns), Dara O’Rourke (GoodGuide) and Nathan Waterhouse (Open IDEO). I’m very interested to see each of these presentations when they’re available online. Janine’s story seems a particularly interesting one — about how a flood in their office space of 20+ years forced her to re-examine their habits, policies and ultimately, their future. I’m also curious to see how IDEO’s crowdsourcing approach fits with my current thoughts on that controversial subject.

Being “backstage” may sound glamorous, but it is almost literally a small dar hole in the wall.

The Lineup
When I did make into to the audience it was in time to hear Kate Daughdrill share her remarkable micro-funding project SOUP. SOUP convenes mini-philanthropists (i.e. everyday people) for a $5 a plate potluck. Over the course of the evening diners listen to pitches for creative projects that benefit the local community (in this case Detroit). At the end of the evening, everyone votes for their favorite idea, and all the proceeds go to fund that project. Simple. Genius.

A slightly nervous Scott Thomas was up next, talking about his work on the Obama campaign, and plugging is self-published book on the same subject. The book was one of the first projects to be funded through kickstarter. Like SOUP, it’s a fascinating study in grassroots funding.

Before we broke for lunch, Allan Chochinov shared the high and (low) lights of Core77‘s recent eco poster contest, with a promise to reveal the winner on day 2.

Julie Cordua’s big (RED) slide, seen from backstage

After lunch we heard form Julie Cordua of (RED). The (RED) campaign, which helps deliver HIV and AIDS treatments to Africa, has been met with scrutiny from many, despite (or perhaps because of) it’s runaway success. Julie’s presentation put the effort in perspective: The Gap, for example, has 10 miles of storefronts across the US. For (RED) the effort is about access. Access and scale.

Kierstin DeWest followed up with brief but intriguing presentation about the social science behind sustainable movements and choices. Her company, Connscientious Innovation provides strategic research to companies and organizations interested in branding themselves within the “sustainability” framework.

Jonah Sachs gave what was probably the most charismatic presentation of the day, detailing what he referred to as “the myth gap” — the need for modern storytelling and the designer’s unique ability to fill it. Jonah was a comfortable speaker and, taking a page from the similarly-titled Brand Gap, summed up each of his principal thoughts as succinct, memorable memes. Jonah heads Free Range Studios, the firm that recently redesigned the CCA website.

Heather Fleming of Catapult Design shared a brief presentation work, but her standout idea was the idea that we should bring transparency to our creative processes by openly sharing our mistakes. Why allow others to waste time and resources by repeating what we already know has failed? Profound.

Lisa Gansky followed, sharing some of the central thoughts from her book, The Mesh, in which she foresees a future when goods are more durable, sustainable and shared, not owned.

In another 5-minute presentation, Dan Phillips of The Phoenix Commotion drew the loudest and longest applause for his inspiring, no-frills talk about building homes for low-income families, using recycled materials many of which he salvages from mainstream construction projects. Until AIGA posts the video of his presentation you can catch his TED talk here.

Nitzan Waisberg of Stanford’s d.School spoke about human-centered design, a presentation that I missed, but hope to catch online.

Pratt Design Incubator’s Debera Johnson walked us through how that program’s unique collaborations bring innovative, sustainable student projects to market. There is real innovation going on here. I think between programs like this at Pratt, SVA and MICA a new model for theoretical and practice-driven design is beginning to emerge.

Marc Mathieu of Coca Cola and now BeDo, urged designers to stop thinking about making stuff, and to instead design experiences. He opened is brief remarks with anecdotes about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and John Pemberton. Edison’s inventions advanced our lives, Ford’s mass production of the automobile enabled individual freedom, Pemberton’s invention of Coca Cola was about creating an enjoyable experience or, more simply, making people happy. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness — immaterial values materialized in the guise of great American brands.

Last up was Bruce Mau. He showed some of his work and work-in-progress, including his 20-year plan for the Muslim holy city of Mecca (to which he only alluded). He also came with  challenge: can the idea of Massive Change also be applied to education? To find out, he invited participants to return for Sunday’s unconference and work it out toegther.

The whole affair was moderated by my good friend Alissa Walker, whose knowledge, credentials, pithy (and slightly goofy) humor and all around professionalism helped move the day forward with seamless continuity.

Bruce Mau waits in line along with all the other participants before issuing his “Massive Change for Education” challenge.

Day 2 at Compostmodern: Gathering for the UnConference.

The UnConference
Day 2 was billed and formatted as an “unconference” — a more or less unstructured day during which any participant may propose a topic and lead a session. Expertly facilitated by Joe Khirallah, participants were first invited to write a brief summary of their topic of interest. They then had a few moments each at the mic to describe their topic, after which they pinned it up on a large schedule board. When all 45 slots were filled, the conference began. Some sessions were lead by speakers, most were lead by attendees. A handful of industry leaders were also designated as “UnConference Fellows” — in part to attract participants back for the second day and in part to help facilitate conversations if needs be.

The sessions I sat in on were run by extraordinarily capable individuals and required nothing but equal involvement from the participating Fellows. In particular, David Bill facilitated a spirited and productive conversation around 21st century education. As a direct result of that conversation I’ve already connected him with one of our clients and I hope to continue collaborating together on future projects.

The experimental unconference format proved to be a huge success and I hope it is a model AIGA commits to for future conferences as well.

Volunteers Dave Gottwald (right) and CCA student Brice McGowen run the board backstage.

While it is impolite to criticize one’s host, I hope my special relationship with AIGA and the fact that my feedback is overwhelmingly positive helps forgive the faux pas.

Overall Compostmodern was a great success. In the lead up to the conference there was excellent communication from the event organizers, including a written backgrounder complete with audience demographics to help speakers make their talks relevant and compelling. We were treated to a thoughtful speaker’s reception the night before the event, giving all the speakers an opportunity to mingle and get to know one another in a relaxed, social environment. The catering was excellent and bountiful.

The stage crew, many of them AIGA volunteers, were extremely professional and pulled of the whole event without any discernible hitch (until Rahul’s closing remarks when his Keynote suddenly went haywire!).

The venue was convenient and had all the amenities needed to support a high-level conference such as this.

The speakers were all very well prepared and spoke eloquently on their subjects.

Volunteers were everywhere and yet seemingly invisible, appearing seconds before any potential issues could arise and resolving them swiftly and discretely.

The programming was diverse and ambitious. Certainly Yves and Bruce were the big draws, but everyone contributed something positive and thought provoking for the day. The schedule was a little strategy and education heavy. This probably makes sense, but I’d love to see a few more traditional “graphic designers” in the mix. Dawn Hancock comes to mind, but I also have a list.

It should be noted (and applauded) that the speakers represented an appropriately even gender mix. For those of you who don’t regularly attend design conferences, they are typically very male-dominated. This was a refreshing change.

Alissa Walker is an excellent moderator, but her talents were underutilized. Scheduling one or two fewer speakers would free up 30–45 minutes over the course of the day to allow the moderator (which I hope is Alissa again) to engage the speakers and perhaps the audience in a little Q&A.

I love the unconference format and wonder if it could be successfully incorporated over two days: speaker presentations in the mornings (with moderated Q&A throughout, or perhaps a couple of panel discussions among multiple speakers), followed by unconference style working sessions in the afternoons.

By the way, I loved that every attendee’s name badge identified them as a “participant.” Subtle, but at the same time profound.

I also love the idea of the short 5-minute “fresh idea” talks. I think these could be made much more engaging by strongly encouraging presenters to resist making them shorter versions of a standard presentation in favor of something more radical. For example:

  • 5 minute stand up sets between speakers
  • A juggler
  • The Mayor
  • A taped presentation from Stephen Colbert
  • Give Paula Scher or Michael Vanderbyl or some other well-known designer a short 5 minute slot and see what they can do with it
  • Allow some students to present

First rate after party at The Hub on Saturday night. Thank you.

The (free) Compostmodern app was a very cool and useful surprise! Well done! (It’s not yet available in the iTunes store, but you can access a web-based version of it here).

And Finally
I can’t say enough how much credit the AIGA SF board, volunteers and the Herbst staff deserve for putting on a first class event. Additionally, Phil Hamlett deserves special acknowledgement for conceiving and orchestrating Compostmodern back in 2003, well ahead of the curve, and to Gaby Brink whose tenure at the helm grew the conference in scope and ambition.

Last but not by any means least, all of AIGA’s activities are indebted to the generous underwriting of visionary and generous partners. Their contributions support AIGA and the profession. Please repay their investment in design by considering how you may work with them in your own practice.

Oh, and…
If these 2,000 words aren’t enough for you here are a few other post conference thoughts, interviews and reviews you may be interested in:

Nicole Chen’s comprehensive roundup

Treehugger’s impressions

The Living Principles’ chat with Debera Johnson

Tom Biederbeck’s interview with Bruce Mau

Civic Action’s stream-of-consciousness live-blogging

Other Compostmodern reviews (from my students) on this site

Alissa Walker’s summary in rhyme