Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Reflections on Y13: Seeds of Change

Reflections on Y13: Seeds of Change
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In art school I became friends with a colourful and interesting fellow named Ian. Although it has been years since we last spoke, I often think back upon his unique perspectives and the typically inebriated conversations we shared. Yesterday I was reminded of an idea he once discussed: that those who eat meat should at least once have to kill an animal.

Now, Ian was by no means a vegetarian and was about the last person I can imagine becoming one. So, he wasn’t making a reactionary statement intended to shock. Nor was he intending to be crass or boorish. Instead, he believed that there was a price associated with eating life, and that without understanding that first hand, one couldn’t appreciate this fact. Ground-beef wrapped in cellophane is distanced from its origins. This allows us to negate its true cost.

A visit to San Diego courtesy of the AIGA

As noted, this old story popped in mind again this past week, while I was in San Diego speaking about sustainability for the local chapter of the AIGA. As a brief aside, I must say that the conference was a wonderful experience, and I urge you to attend next year. The people in San Diego are incredibly friendly and the Y Conference is an intimate and fun gathering of fascinating individuals.

I was asked to speak about the Design Can Change effort that smashLAB created. (If you haven’t yet, please do take the pledge.) It was fun to share some of our experiences and the things we had learned during the process, and I was particularly happy that the audience was kind enough to indulge some of my clumsy attempts at humour. Incidentally, if you’re interested in learning about our experiences I will also be talking about this at the upcoming HOW Conference in May.

I was lucky enough to speak early in the event. This allowed my “speaker-nervousness” to subside, and I was able to sit back and take in a number of great presentations. The Y Conference was themed “Seeds of Change” (nicely visually represented by the people at Conover Design and Accent Creative). During the three day event, a number of people spoke about sustainability and design that can creates positive change.

A little gloom, a little hope

Needless to say, our three days contained some rather gloomy realities. Robin Chase presented some harrowing research findings, indicating that we are at a critical tipping point. The data she referenced focused on the time-lag related to our CO2 emissions, and how not acting quickly and dramatically could result in catastrophic outcomes. She then moved to some of the empowering notions that her companies (ZipCar, GoLoCo) have established as alternatives that radically reduce our negative impact. She also talked about Velib in France and their amazing initiative to make 20,000 bicycles readily available to Parisians.

Jason Tselentis and a number of other individuals noted how helpless one can feel following first being presented with the facts surrounding climate change. His “thank you for scaring me to death Al Gore, now what do I do?” theme was both whimsical and insightful. He was really an enjoyable speaker, and I suspect you’ll enjoy this sensibility that will undoubtedly be present in his upcoming book.

A lot of optimism

Joe from Sappi and I had a bit of a laugh about the “paper devil” icon I presented, even though I felt a little like I had made a faux-pas. (Take a look at Sappi’s “ideas that matter” initiative, if you have a moment.) It was great to see the support that the paper companies had lent the event, and how progressive and aware they are of the issue. Marc Alt talked to the group about just how hard many of these groups have been working to measure and improve their methods.

I was really pleased to meet Marc after only email correspondence over the past couple of years. Marc is one of the bright lights in this arena as is evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge and involvement with such events as grow, Compostmodern, and Greener Gadgets. I’m not even going to try to summarize Marc’s points; however, I was blown away by how much he packed into just forty minutes and how hopeful, yet sensible, his points were. If you have a chance to hear him speak, do so, and if you haven’t already, visit The Center for Sustainable Design (yet another initiative he’s involved in).

Nik Hafermaas (Dean of Communication Design at the Art Center and Principle at UeBERSEE) was a great surprise: blunt, funny and engaging. He showed us a great deal, and his examples of student work from the Art Center of College of Design were staggeringly impressive.

And the inspiring

Susan Szenasy (of Metropolis Magazine) opened with the keynote. Her subsequent moderation of speakers was playful and engaging. She highlighted the amazing things that are being done by progressive architects and students of architecture. I’d like to write more about her presentation, but there’s no way to fit it in. Instead, buy a copy of Metropolis and see for yourself.  :-)

Brian Dougherty from the Celery Design Collective presented some of his studio’s work and methods, which were simply fabulous. He talked about how their firm starts by considering the user needs and product lifecycle, and then works backwards through the process to inform their approach. I’m paraphrasing liberally here, but do encourage you to look for their upcoming book: Green Graphic Design, which includes a number of useful tools and explores these notions in greater depth.

Janet Kubler from the Biomimicry Guild presented biomimicry and discussed how design can be inspired by nature. She cited examples such as the iridescent qualities presented by peacocks and how this can (and has) informed the creation of new items. I’ll be frank, Janet’s talk was amazing, but something I had a bit of a difficult time absorbing it all. It’s clearly amazing stuff, but in many respects a little over my head.

Derek Fagerstrom and Julia Cosgrove from ReadyMade showed off some of the amazing things people are doing by reclaiming waste and creating new objects from them. They discussed the D.I.Y. phenomenon and the emergence of sites like Etsy. I doubt I’ll ever find the time to toy with the things their readers are experimenting with, but I certainly was impressed by the plethora of novel ideas created by the community. On that note, Mandana MacPherson‘s use of rubber as a source material for fashion was really testament to the opportunities right under our noses that we so often fail to see.

Free Range‘s Jonah Sachs and Louis Fox talked about how they connect with audiences by way of storytelling, and expanded upon this with examples of their campaigns such as “Friends with low wages“, The Story of Stuff, and The Meatrix. These compelling campaigns have been seen by millions and subsequently affected positive change.

Thinking about materials differently

Sue Redding discussed manufactured obsolescence and how it took us 80 years to learn to discard materials before their actual life expectancy had been reached. She then showed work by students from California College of the Arts who were exploring notions such as panel-based clothing that can easily be repaired and modified by the user. I can’t stress how cool this is: clothing built to allow the wearer to update his/her style, without sending last season’s garments to the waste bin. Lynda Grose discussed cotton, and the efforts that she’s taken with the Sustainable Cotton Project, in an effort to farm cotton with fewer pesticides and negative environmental impacts.

I joked a little about how my 19 month old son waves goodbye upon flushing the toilet. I had no idea that poo was to become a key part of the conference. This was done by Robert Nobel, a presenter who drew “ooohs and ahhhs” from the crowd. First of all, Robert noted his work with Envision Solar, which creates large-scale solar energy solutions; then, he discussed his new venture, an initiative that uses cow manure as the core element in a new building material. Ultimately it looks identical to masonite hardboard, and can be delivered as a sheet, or in a corrugated, spiral, or honeycomb-like form. Low-cost, biodegradable and renewable; amazing! He’s already been testing the material with groups such as IKEA.

Informed actions

In large part, I’ve spent this blog article just recounting, in short-form, a few of the points that I took away from the conference. These are amazing people. It was a privilege to share the stage with them, and hopefully you’ll follow some of the links above and learn more about their efforts.

To my point, however, the notion that I presented at the beginning of the post strikes me as particularly topical at this time. You see, when I talk about sustainability, I’m not proposing that we move to caves and live like monks. Instead, I want us to all think about the costs of what we do and assess which are worth the price.

As designers, it’s our responsibility to use materials well. Creating ineffective design that is poorly suited for the medium is simply wasteful. Let’s utilize our resources in the most effective fashion possible. We can do this both personally and professionally, and it’s easier than we are often led to believe.

I’ve carried on for too long… I know. The day is short, and you have limited time, so let me close with that. In future posts I’ll work to increasingly weave sustainability into the fold, and hopefully will be able to bring in a few of the above people to share some of their insights as well.

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

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  1. Pingback: Seeds of Change « The Errant Æsthete

  2. Pingback: Spreading the word on sustainability « smashLAB News

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