Janine James of the New York design studio the Moderns tells a story about how a building flood in 2008 destroyed her studio and everything in it. Every piece of paper, keyboard and prototype was drenched in an unending waterfall stemming from burst piping.
Instead of being a setback the event provided James an opportunity for metamorphosis. She rebuilt her studio into a space for collaboration. She gave staff Fridays off. “Fridays are inspirational days,” she explained to the Compostmodern 2011 audience. On Fridays James brings a movement coach to teach her and her staff the Laban Technique - a way and language for interpreting, describing, visualizing and notating all ways of human movement. Her intention? To live an inspired life.
I think the Compostmodern organizers may have been struck by a similar quest. The second day of the 2011 design conference about sustainable design choices became an un-conference. It was the first time in seven years that this event became a space for collaboration.
Participants proposed topics about which they are passionate. People formed groups to discuss the topics at scheduled times. The goal was to engage in open discussions and build projects that help realize social change. And to get inspired.
Facilitator, Joe Khirallah, used Open Space technology to invite people to announce their topics. “It usually takes a while for people to formulate their ideas but immediately, after the invitation there was a whole line of people formed behind the microphone, it gave me chills,” I heard my conference buddy, Lisa Hemingway, say.
Person after person took their turn to state their passion into the microphone, “The intersection of Open Source Tools and Design!” “My thesis topic on Ecojustice!” “Defining a new narrative for the 21st Century!” There was a diverse group in the line up including keynote speaker Bruce Mau.
Three rounds of discussions followed to accommodate simultaneous sessions. Design luminairies that were scattered throughout the theatre audience on the first day of the conference came forward as Fellows to contribute to the pods of people. Fellows included Celery Design’s Brian Dougherty, Dawn Danby of AutoDesk and Compostmodern founder Phil Hamlett.
Lisa and I joined a session with Cindy Gilbert, Program Coordinator and faculty from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Sustainable Design’s (MCAD) Program who is interested in evolving the program's post-baccalaureate certificate into a Masters degree.
Seven of us tried the brainwriting excercise Gilbert organized. After providing background about the professional certificate program she asked us to think about what students need to know to become change agents in the field of sustainability and design. We recorded our ideas quietly onto giant sticky notes with felt-tipped pens then passed them to Gilbert.
She tiled the corner of the outdoor patio that we occupied with a labyrinth of our scrawled thoughts for us to walk through then discuss. Interdisciplinary approaches and applied research were key themes in this first session. We dwelled on one comment that to “innovate they have to know they will make mistakes.” I left that session feeling light, lively and listened-to.
The idea of a blurry line between innovation and mistakes started to resurface in my next round of sessions. The breakout rooms were loud and a little tricky to navigate. Circles of people swelled to over twenty participants making it difficult to hear people and to speak.
After hovering on the edges of three different groups I remembered an article the collaboration issue of PRINT magazine in which the editors, Project Projects, asks, “Why is collaboration considered by so many to be inherently good or interesting?” They answered with a quote from Eagles frontman Don Henley, “Mick Jagger can’t even make a successful solo album but the Stones are the biggest rock group that ever was.”
The collaborative cacophony that ensued during the Compostmodern un-conference proved that the organizers’ (the SF chapter of the AIGA) were taking a risk. By organizing several hundred people into break out groups - they set the stage for watershed moments by shifting focus from rock star designers to a collective design jam. A little chaotic? Check. Inspiring? Check.
The un-conference organizers were thinking differently in other areas too. There was a tasty free lunch supplied by local business Ike’s Place. There was also a noticeable lack of the disposable give-aways that seem to pervade every other conference I go to. “I was so happy to walk out with a head full of ideas and hands empty of schwag.” Said Participant and Sustainability Consultant Maura Dilley. The choice of the Hub SOMA, a shared workspace for socially focused enterprises, was an apropos space for the Saturday night pre-un-conference party. And yes, there was composting.