Carmen and I went to Providence, RI this weekend for the Better World by Design conference, put on entirely by Brown and RISD students. We were excited and inspired by what other students and professionals are working on in the topics of urban renewal, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.
We met a lot of new friends and ran into some old ones, too. We had a great lunch with Robert Fabricant, VP of Creative at frog design and one of our SVA faculty members. He was excited to hear about the progress we’ve made with Project: Interaction over the past six months and we were happy to get the update on his work, too. I was especially excited to see my former colleague Kendra Shimmell from Adaptive Path speaking on the health care panel. She’s a lively and enthusiastic voice in this niche design community, and an asset to any conversation on the topic.
Our thoughts on some of the great sessions we attended:
On the first day we went to a rapid protoyping workshop led by Project M and Brute Labs, where we were challenged to quickly come up with a lot of ideas about how to more effectively provide resources to Providence’s homeless population. The fun really got started when they handed out 10 pairs of socks to each group and challenged us to reimagine what they might be used for. The groups came up with some amazing product ideas for the homeless population, including a woven sock blanket, a loofah for cleansing, a water filter made of socks, and even a sling for carrying loads of plastic bags. In only a 20 minute session we were able to collaborate and come up with more ideas than any one person could have alone.
Nathan Shedroff: Consumerism
Nathan was scheduled to report back to the community about sustainability as a followup from his talk last year. He dropped a bombshell by opening his talk with a slide, “I’m sick of talking about sustainability. Aren’t you?” Instead he suggests we focus on Consumerism as the real problem, and find ways to make products more meaningful to have lasting value for the people who use them.
Damon Rich: Design & Deliberation
Damon Rich wants to make the invisible visible by creating compelling opportunities for citizens to get involved with the policy issues that matter to their communities. He presented ways that we can use conflict as an opportunity for education. In all of the examples he showed he talked about the importance not only of doing these investigations but also sharing them with more than the immediate audience it affects. It’s important to give back to the greater community to achieve a better understanding of the issues that we all face.
Ethics in Design
The discussion on this panel was inspiring and motivational, with every person walking away feeling empowered to be a better designer and a better person. The theme of the conversation was that it’s time for designers to take responsibility along with the great power we have to change the world. The best line from the day came from Maria Giudice of Hot Studio: This is the best time to be a designer because everything is f*ed up!
A great takeaway from the conversation is that design is about people. It’s an inherently social activity, and we can’t forget that everything we create is used by people, whether it’s a product or a brief for a project being written and read by people. Maria’s analogy was thinking of designers as midwives; designers see the world differently and are able to connect the dots.
Activism in the Arts
In a moment of triumph, Ian Russell combatted the idea that one person can’t make a difference by sharing his point of view: a collective group of people who work together to distill values into change can make a bigger impact. On the topic of compromise being an “icky” word, it was refreshing to hear Noah Scalin remind us that you don’t have to compromise your ideals as you mature, but you do have to accept that you have different values, and those may not include a mansion and a four-car garage. Noah confirmed a thought that often circles around my head as I scan my Google reader and twitter feeds: Too much consumption makes you feel bad about yourself. Go create instead.
Design and Business
Carmen attended this panel discussion, and took a few important lessons away:
To differentiate yourself from competitors you need a vision, a voice and something unique. We’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as we try to communicate the value of our program to potential partners, teachers and, most importantly, the students in our class who may not stick around if they’re not convinced of our greatness.
Learn to speak the language of the people you’re interacting with. For us, we’re learning to speak the language of not just the designers we work with, but also the educators and students who might be interested in working with us.
Have empathy. When working with people it’s extremely important to build a relationship with them, which includes understanding their point of view and needs. They are often more complex and deep than what you may initially expect.
For the first time the conference invited participants to come together and share their ideas with the conference community. We snuck in at the last minute and were able to share a table in the education corner. (Phew!) We met a ton of people interested in what we’re doing, with our audience ranging from architects, design students, engineers, and even a couple of middle school students who eagerly wanted us to come to their high school next year.
The last session we caught was an invigorating talk by Kate Orff of Columbia University. Her team developed an innovative solution to cleaning up the Gowanus Canal by creating oyster reefs that will act to reduce coastal contamination and the effects of rising sea levels. The reefs will create new community space in the Red Hook and Bay Ridge neighborhoods, and in time will change the relationship New Yorkers have with the shoreline. If you’re curious about eating the oysters, they’ll be safe and edible by 2050!
Tags: conference, expo, learning, panel, speakers