Watershed Moments at Compostmodern Un-conference 2011 by Jennifer Nichols

About the MA Program


The second day of the 2011 Compostmodern 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.

I joined a jam 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 exercise 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 front man 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.

Article and picture courtesy of Jennifer Nichols. This article was first published by Design 21: Social Design Network.