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'Compostmodern' fertilizes the creative mind

A San Francisco confab devoted to sustainable design attempts to get the good ideas growing.

editor's notebook SAN FRANCISCO--I had the good fortune this past weekend of attending Compostmodern, a two-day conference here devoted to exploring different ways in which designers can help create a sustainable future. And I'd like to mention a few of the tech- and Internet-related highlights--some of which are new, some of which you, like me, may have missed the first time around. There's a variety of supercool stuff here, so read on.

Organized by the San Francisco chapter of AIGA (one of the country's premier professional groups for designers) and sponsored by Adobe and other companies, the conference attracted designers and design thinkers of every stripe. Web designers, industrial designers, branding and communications specialists, architects, builders, educators--you name it, all were on hand to absorb and contribute.

The first day was devoted to a series of brief presentations by the likes of Scott Thomas, the guy who oversaw design for the Obama campaign; Julie Cordua, who helped Motorola launch the Razr phone and went on to work with the "(RED)" campaign, which piggybacks on global superbrands like Nike and The Gap to raise money for AIDS relief in Africa; and Yves Behar, designer of the One Laptop Per Child campaign's $100 laptop. The second day was billed as an "unconference," where presenters and attendees broke into groups and engaged in several rounds of brainstorming, on topics generated by the attendees themselves.

Samuel Cabot Cochran and Teresita Brigitte Cochran's "solar ivy," a project from the Pratt Design Incubator.

Samuel Cabot Cochran and Teresita Brigitte Cochran's "solar ivy," a project from the Pratt Design Incubator.

Samuel Cabot Cochran and Teresita Brigitte Cochran / Pratt Design Incubator

Following are some of the highlights from day one, along with links that allow for further exploration.

One tablet per child
Behar kicked off his talk by adapting something he'd heard bad-boy filmmaker John Waters say: The job of the young is to annoy the old. Behar's twist? The job of a designer is to annoy the rigid. The Switzerland-born, SF-based industrial designer then gave an overview of his work to date and talked about the importance of making sustainable design sexy and fun for mainstream consumers--and of creating innovative products that let people indulge their current lifestyle in sustainable ways. As an example, he offered up the all-electric Mission One motorcycle that his Fuseproject firm designed. Unveiled in 2009, it sacrifices nothing in the way of sex appeal or performance--it can reach speeds of 150 mph. Behar also talked about the One Laptop Per Child campaign's effort to develop a tablet computer.

GoodGuide on iPhone.

"GoodGuide" goes Android
GoodGuide founder Dara O'Rourke talked about how he came up with the idea for his Web site, which lets consumers search on products they buy to see how healthy, safe and environmentally friendly those products are (or aren't). He was putting sunscreen on his toddler's face, he said, when he thought to investigate its ingredients. After far too difficult a search, he discovered that the product contained a carcinogen that was activated by, of all things, light. After working through his anger, he made it his mission to make such information easily available to consumers. The GoodGuide is already available as an iPhone app, which lets shoppers hold their phones up to barcodes for instant info (how awesome is that?). O'Rourke said an Android version is due in about a month.

Crowdsourcing the creative brain
Nathan Waterhouse of renowned design firm IDEO discussed OpenIDEO, a Web site that taps the crowdsourcing model to create a global brainstorming tool for designers eager to tackle issues of sustainability. Here's a sample "challenge" posted on the site: "How might we increase the availability of affordable learning tools & services for students in the developing world?" Winning concepts run the gamut, from the high-tech (a repurposed mobile phone loaded with a free educational software bundle) to the decidedly low-tech (a mobile puppet theater that teaches crafts and storytelling while highlighting social issues). Anyone interested in how technology might be used to fight global problems, and anyone who's simply interested in great, inspiring ideas, should take a peek at OpenIDEO. Here's a video that gives an overview of how the site works:

Introduction to OpenIDEO / from IDEO on Vimeo.

Sharing the sustainable love
Lisa Gansky, who founded Flickr competitor Ofoto and later sold it to Kodak, talked about her recently released book "The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing" and gave a glimpse of the online Mesh Directory. The directory is a guide to companies and organizations that "create, share and use social media, wireless networks and data crunched from every available source to provide people with goods and services at the exact moment they need them, without the burden and expense of owning them outright." The idea is to help people buy less and use more. Companies/organizations included in the directory range from tool-lending libraries to car and bike sharing setups to home-swapping groups to online bartering services. There's also a section full of organizations devoted to developing socially conscious software applications. Does the site help promote Gansky's book? Sure. But, hey, it also points you toward online book swaps.

From homework to world-changing product
Debera Johnson, founder of the Design Incubator at Pratt Institute in New York, one of the country's top art and design schools, talked about the Incubator's genesis. Johnson got tired of seeing impressive student projects end up in the student's senior portfolio and then just simply disappear. The Incubator's mission is to help bring the best of those efforts into production in the real world. Johnson showed off some stunners, including Samuel Cabot Cochran and Teresita Brigitte Cochran's "solar ivy," small solar panels designed to be mounted vertically and that can, among other things, be shaped into letterforms to create lighted signage that generates enough electricity during the day to power itself at night.

The biggest round of applause went up for Dan Phillips and his Phoenix Commotion project, which provides housing for low-income families, using recycled materials as well as materials salvaged from the construction industry. Phillips truly enchanted the crowd with his down-home charisma and fascinating images. You can check out a TedTalk with him here, in which he reveals how to make architectural details out of chicken eggs and Bondo. Go, Dan!

If its goal was to inspire, Compostmodern did the job. I'm curious to see what sorts of sustainable gizmos and solutions all those pumped-up designer attendees produce in the coming years.