Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending a conference featuring some of the top minds of design (who are thinking about sustainability, of course): Compostmodern 2011. Put together by the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), the event featured folks from varied backgrounds sharing their experiences in “systems design, collaboration, and the future of sustainable design.” The second day of the event featured an “Unconference,” during which any participant could stand and pose a topic to be discussed by whomever might show interest. I popped up and suggested “Beautiful, delightful, sustainable design for elders,” and the resulting discussion group was quite lovely, and fruitful to boot. First, I’ll briefly touch on some of the highlights of the speakers, and then share my meeting notes from our breakout group.

To my mind, the strongest themes in the conference in regards to shaping a more sustainable future were authenticity, transparency, and relationships.


According to Kierstin De West, principle of CI and creator of the Shift Report, community connections are first among our values. The Shift Report is a body of market research revealing what our values are as a culture when it comes to sustainability. To boot, as consumers, we are still foremost concerned with what is built to last, rather than what is necessarily “green” or “local,”  although purchasing a local product appears to be more important to us as a nation than purchasing an organic product. De West encouraged business owners to be very transparent and honest about their products. We want to know that what we are buying is the real thing, and “greenwashing,” particularly using the color green in marketing, is becoming irrelevant.

Dan Phillips, founder of the Phoenix Commotion, has found a sweet spot in the universe by combining the housing needs of very low income people, our need to recycle building materials, and the value of teaching those that are willing skills (which are normally seen as rarefied), to create beautiful homes. In his short but moving talk, he related how he had to regularly stand strong in opposition to nay saying contractors and builders. Relating Sartre, he encouraged us all to be more aware of our “divided selves,” or the phenomena of behaving differently when others are around— and in doing so, we may dig into the primal sources of who we really are.


Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing effectively communicated the idea that we all advance as a culture when we make our systems and lessons learned transparent to those with similar goals in mind. She gave examples of pioneering bike-sharing and car-sharing systems whose failure could have prevented future failures, had that knowledge been shared.

Among the most exciting of the speakers at Compostmodern was Nathan Waterhouse from OpenIDEO. The notion of exposing a beta version of one’s project to the world with trust that others’ ideas will HELP rather than hurt or steal it is radical. Waterhouse spoke about the process of addressing social and environmental problems with human-centered solutions by getting folks involved in the online community. This is a tremendously inspirational tool for designing “with, not for people.” Once At Home with Growing Old has a project which we are all collaborating on, it would be interesting to put it on this forum, so that we can share our process and bring in new (and international) minds to help us with a solution.


Finally, relationships are a part of any collaborative process. Each of the speakers had some manner of emphasis on this, whether it was Kierstin De West talking about what we hold most important (connection), or Lisa Gansky suggesting that we forge new relationships in our neighborhoods by sharing our cars in a P2P car sharing system.

Kate Daughdrill of Detroit SOUP told us about regular dinners which she throws, where $5 gets you soup, salad and dessert, while artist or initiators of small projects which are less able to get regular funding sources pitch their ideas to the room. At the end, a vote is held, and the winner of the most compelling democratically chosen project wins the entirety of the entry fees. Additionally, those who do not win the till are likely to make connections that they may not have otherwise made, including connections with potential benefactors. No person can be surprised by the amount of work a group can achieve while in the same physical space. The beauty of the model is exemplified by the diversity of the constituents of this dinner.

The Breakout Group:

What struck me most about this discussion is the passion that many of us had about the stories older people had to tell. We all felt that the knowledge and wisdom of older people that had once been more integrated within society was no longer integrated, as our culture has become more and more age-segregated. Storytelling became a major theme in our conversation. Many people wondered how to document the personal histories of older people. Some ideas included partnerships with schools, and doing collaborative multi-media projects with youth. One person suggested we choose an age, like 15, around which to build a storytelling structure, ie: “I’m 15 now, and this is how I live…when Betty was 15, she lived in Minneapolis…”

The group was concerned that many aging people do not have options. One of the participants spoke of her grandmother who lives in the mid-west, and how in her town there was really only one place where she could move when it came time for her to leave her home, and that this place left much to be desired, but because of her grandmothers’ connection to the community, she had chosen to stay in that town rather than move away.

We spoke about innovations in design as a way to help seniors live more comfortably. One group participant spoke about how seniors already do adapt their environments, especially in cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s, for example by using copious amounts of post-it notes as reminders, or by leaving cabinet doors open to remember taking certain medication, etc. Another person shared her story of actually going into a senior living residence in Copenhagen and helping to design a skype system. She asked this resident what she wanted, and the resident replied that she would like to talk to someone in Africa. When the system was set up, the design team realized that this woman actually did not want anything of the sort. The skype system alienated her. Instead, the team blew up pictures of her family and posted them on the wall. Because of her failing vision, this resident had not seen photos of her family in 20 years.

Sometimes the design process is much different than what we presume. Even as we strive to design with people rather than for them, the ways in which we collaborate must shift and move to find the best information possible. We ought to look at the ways that seniors already adapt their homes, so that we can better understand how innovations that people make on a very personal level might help others. There is no sense in talking about broad solutions for everyone, as each person’s needs are different. At the end of the discussion, I felt that the people that I talked to had the awareness and dedication it would take to continue to bring the topic of good design for elders to the forefront of the conversation around sustainability.

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