Monday, October 30, 2006

An Interview With the Eric, Founder of Re-Nourish, part the first

One of my happier recent discoveries was Re-Nourish, a repository for just about every sustainable thing you could ever want to think about, especially as it relates to graphic design . Sites like these are hard to find—so many of them deal exclusively with industrial design, a field that's been looking towards sustainability for years. Eco-friendly print design, while not new, has not started looking really sexy until recently, when the world (or, at least, the US) finally started turning an ear to the green movement. Re-Nourish has listings of green design firms (in which the zen kitchen is, in fact, listed), information on how and why to design green (including safe PANTONE swatch pallettes and paper listings), and notes on other miscellaneous greenery, including a running commentary on environmental news in the articles section. Not long ago, I asked Eric, the founder of Re-Nourish and a design professor at the University of Illinois, a few questions about his reasons for developing this incredible information repository and vision for the future of the site.

note: This is the first part of the interview, as it's a bit long for the blogosphere. Tune in next week for part two!

1. Why did you decide to create Re-Nourish? How did it get started?
Renourish really started back in the autumn of 2003, when I attended the AIGA Power of Design Conference in Vancouver, BC Canada. I heard people like Bruce Mau, Susan Szenasy, Jeff Mendelsohn and Michael Braungart speak. The all spoke about the things that were running through my mind at the time as I questioned my purpose as a designer. I was curious to know how detrimental the paper industry really was and if I could do better. I had recently read "Culture Jam" by Kalle Lasn and "Cradle to Cradle" by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and found myself wondering should designers be less consumer related and more citizen focused?
These ruminations led me to the University of Texas at Austin where I decided to purse and MFA in design and social responsibility. I struggled for two years to find a positive relationship between graphic designer and the environment. At times I felt my efforts were in vain and that our society was doomed to fail, consuming everything as it fell. I read voraciously. I spent hours in a nearby coffee shop writing, asking myself questions, and experimenting with projects with limited success. The turning point came when I asked myself these questions: "How can the graphic designer practice more sustainably in a very practical way?" and "What is the medium where the designer can be reached 24/7 at home and at the job?" At first my answer was a sustainably designed paper sketchbook, but found the web more accessible and less wasteful in its construction. Renourish was born. It was two years of research and a hurried 3 weeks of design and implementation to meet my thesis deadlines. Looking back I feel the answer was sitting in front of me a year earlier, but I needed to test my other ideas before accepting I was right all along.
2. What first intrigued you about green design? When did you start applying an eco-friendly focus to your design projects?
I think in reality I got interested in the topic when I was a teenager arguing with my dad about why (as a household) we should recycle. I would constantly pull newspapers, milk jugs and cardboard out of the kitchen trash bin and haul it out to the curb every week. It was a losing battle, but in the end I think that sparked my interest. Later, as a designer I found the direct mail, packaging, and print collateral I spent days/weeks slaving over piled in city trash bins. I wanted to do better. I didn't want my work to end up the way it was. But, it really wasn't until graduate school when I began to apply eco-friendly, sustainable principles to my work. Up until that point I really didn't have the information and techniques to do so.
3. How much research did you put into the Re-Nourish resources? How do you find information to put into the site?
I spent 2003-2006 reading about the environment, design impacts and sustainability. I wrote a number of papers and my thesis on the topics. Along the way the information came from books by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Daniel Imhoff, William McDonough,, the Sierra Club and literally hundreds of other sources. I also had the pleasure of meeting a number of people who also focused their life on sustainability. They were from different cultures (India, Mexico, England) and brought to my life a different perspective on the topic outside of that here in the USA. I collaborated with a few of them on some eco-friendly projects and used those experiences on renourish.

To learn more about Re-Nourish, visit Tune in next week for part two of the interview, where Eric talks about his vision for the future of the site, and how he works sustainability into the courses he teaches.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Solar-Powered Trash Compactors in Somerville and Boston

Not too long ago in the Somerville Journal, I came across an article about the BigBelly Trash Compactors that are making an appearance in various spots around Boston and the surrounding areas, including a few that just premiered in Davis Square, about a 20-minute walk from the zen kitchen. The compactors, created by Needham, MA-based Seahorse Power, use the sun to compact up to 150 gallons of trash, compared to the 40-50 gallons that the old bins would hold. This means that DPW staff only has to empty the bins once a day, which stands to save the city a ton of money in transportation and labor costs (the old bins had to be emptied up to eight times per day), not to mention the fact it should result in a bit less traffic annoyance on Elm Street, which anyone who's been driving through there can attest is a VERY good thing. Plus, it saves fuel and doesn't require energy from the grid to power it, which means significant environmental benefits as well. How can you go wrong?

When I was looking for more info on the subject, however, I came across this Treehugger post that makes a good point: while the environmental savings provided by these compactors is surely a great step forward, why aren't there recycling bins next to them? A good portion of the trash going into these BigBellies can be recycled; why don't we use some of these savings to start a recycling program as well? I've seen recycling bins in Porter and Harvard Square; it might be different towns (Cambridge vs. Somerville), but it shouldn't be that hard to get a decent recycling program organized.

Of course, it's too early to see what's going to come of this new environmental effort on the part of my fair city; perhaps it's already in the works and they're just waiting for the new budget year to get a recycling program started. We'll see. But at least we're making some strides forward, even if the folks at Treehugger don't think it's enough.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Female Role Models?

I took a quick break after yoga this afternoon to check out the iVillage Feedroom, which has a bunch of quick video interviews from famous women on things like business, role models, money, etc.. Hearing Martha Stewart talk about business and her various role models was definitely inspiring, but it caused me to realize something:

I don't think I have any female role models—at least, in a business sense.

How did this happen? Part of it, I think, is that I'm in a profoundly male-dominated career—with the exception of Molly E. Holzschlag, there just aren't that many web design rock stars out there, and on the owning-a-design-studio front, there's only a few that I know of that have really made it "big," so to speak. So all of my business and design role models have been primarily male—Neil Tortorella, Peleg Top, and of course, Jeffrey Zeldman (if that man only knew how much code I've stolen from him!).

But this also begs the question: does one NEED a role model? And does that role model have to be of your gender?

My thought is yes. Part of my challenge is I'm a woman in this business, and there are regrettably few women who make it to the big leagues and stay there; at least, without losing whatever femininity they once posessed. That tends to make things more difficult—your life is full of women who are struggling to do it for themselves, and you don't get to see the wild, genre-shaping success stories that you see with male designers (think Paul Rand, Stefan Sagmeister, and the like). Seeing all this glory on the "other side of the fence" makes it harder to see yourself as a successful design entrepreneur.

Perhaps this is my destiny—to become a female role model, and to find other women who are acting as role models for designers and entrepreneurs.

Of course, I could just be rambling.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Designers Unite! Another Designer Goes Green

One of the things that's been making me smile of late is the new wave of designers who have decided to make green considerations part of their practice - environmental concerns have been a consideration in product design for quite some time, but in the world of printed goodness, eco-concerns weren't really talked about as much - with the exception of a select few places where you could find the goods on green design.

But lately, I've been seeing a host of terrific writing from other designers about their committment to going green, including this post I discovered on the HOW Design Forum from Holly Castles, an illustrator from Canada (who has REALLY CUTE work, by the way - it reminds me of fairy tales), where she discusses 60+ ways to make your studio and your design work more eco-friendly. I was pleased to find that I was already doing a couple of the things she suggests (such as using shopping bags for trash instead of buying trash bags and using natural light whenever possible instead of turning on the lights in my office), and I learned a few great tips as well.

This newfound excitement for sustainability makes me happy - when I first decided to make eco-friendly graphic design one of the focuses of my studio, I worried that I would be limiting myself by having to be extra choosy about the stuff I took on; and so far, I've been getting great clients, and doing the work that I want to do, the way I want to do it. And seeing other designers moving towards greener practices gives me hope that maybe we can make a difference. After all, we are the ones who create all this paper in the service of our clients. If we don't do something, who will?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lisa Sugrue - Viaggio at MassArt, Boston

There are some clients and projects you just, well... click with. Sometimes they're startups in need of a new brand and website, sometimes they're people who just need to spread the word about a special event.

Tonight, I went to the artist's reception for Viaggio, the senior thesis exhibition for Lisa Sugrue, an artist and teacher who was finishing up her Masters at MassArt.

When Lisa first contacted me to create the promotional postcard and other graphics for the exhibit, I was struck by the way she talked about the art in the show - her walks on the beach, her fear of death, and how she used her art to express her feelings about death and the death of her father, which inspired the works in the show. Based on our discussions and the colors in her artwork - deep blues and reds interspersed with bright yellows and oranges - I was able to create something that worked perfectly for the project almost immediately, and the reception was a huge success - when I got there, the room was packed.

Lisa's collection of stunning watercolors was inspired by the period following her father's death, which she spent walking the beach in contemplation of life, death, and her relationship with her father. She uses watercolors and ocean water to create her pieces, which lends a tactile, crystalline quality to the work. If you're in the area and get the chance, I highly recommend checking it out. The show is located in the Arnheim Gallery in MassArt's South Hall, and it runs from October 10-26. Gallery hours are 10-6 Monday through Saturday. For directions, go to MassArt's Website.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Clearing the Air: When Client "Favors" go Awry

Designers, for the most part, are a giving lot. While you do get the occasional antisocial jerk (and really, what profession DON'T you get that in - have you been to the Post Office lately?), most of us got into this because we want to make the world prettier. As such, most designers, especially in the beginning of their careers, find themselves doing a bit of design work here and there as a favor - to a family member, friend of a friend, etc. Often, this isn't a big deal - you whip something together really quick, the person loved it, and buys you a six-pack (or, in one recent personal case, a fancy dinner) to thank you. No biggie.

But sometimes, and some would argue more often than not, what starts off as a quick favor turns into a nightmare of revisions, tweaks, and "could you just make this bigger? Could you make the font green?" The resulting stress is enough to make even the most generous designer swear themselves off doing favors ever again, and think of the favor-askers as someone who is just looking for something for nothing. But often, all that's needed to rectify the situation and get things on track again is a bit of open communication about what's expected from each party at the beginning of the project. And if things do start getting out of hand, a gentle reminder of those expectations is in order.

Not long ago, I ended up chatting with Kevin Scarborough, a young designer and budding illustrator who's going for his master's at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta. As a "favor" to a friend of a friend (which really is a favor to the friend, but let's not get into that discussion), he agreed to do the shell of a website for someone his friend knew at a greatly reduced rate. The deal they struck verbally was for 1 home page and 1 interior page, with 2 rounds of revisions on the design. The client would then take the pages and do the rest of the build, and all the updates, on his own machine.

Well, as many things do, things didn't go that way.

"I laid out the site for him, sent along the files. He asked for tweaks, I tweaked. Back and forth for close to two months. 2 rounds [of revisions were mentioned]. We've long since passed 2 rounds."

At the point he was at, he was ready to give up - getting down on himself for being enough such an idiot to take on this job, and thinking that he was stuck in a situation he couldn't get out of. What I suggested, however, was a simple conversation to clear the air.

Okay. So what I think you need to do is sit down and have a conversation with the guy on the phone. Say that there seems to be some confusion as to what was actually agreed to when we spoke, and before you move forward with this job, it's important that the two of you reconnect to clarify what is being done for how much money. When you talk to him, impress upon him that what you verbally agreed to was 2 pages with 2 rounds of revisions. It's now been [x amount], and this job has reached the point where it is no longer feasible to continue working on it without additional compensation. This also puts you in a situation where you can get a signed contract from him that will protect both of you. Draw up a formal agreement that both of you can sign. Send him a PDF and have him fax it to you before you do any more work for him.

So, did this reasoned discussion with the client result in a magical client turnaround? Not exactly. But, it accomplished the primary goal - getting the matter resolved - professionally and without causing undue stress for the client or for the designer. When I asked Kevin how the situation turned out, this is what he had to say:

It ended amicably; we decided the situation wasn't set up properly from the beginning. Deliverables made, payments made, both parties parted in peace.

Now, one might think that this resolution is a negative thing; after all, nobody wants to lose a client. However, amicably parting ways with a client after a reasoned discussion on the phone is far better than what can often happen when issues are hashed out via e-mail. E-mail arguments are enormous time-wasters, and the impersonal nature of e-mail makes it near impossible to judge a person's tone or mood, which can lead to misinterpretation and hostility on the part of either party. By talking with the client in person or on the phone, you can avoid a whole host of potential drama.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Corporate Greasiness Report: Walmart Adding Wage Caps and Part-Timers

This evening, through a friend's blog, I happened upon this article:

Wal-Mart to Add Wage Caps and Part-Timers

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, is pushing to create a cheaper, more flexible work force by capping wages, using more part-time workers and scheduling more workers on nights and weekends.

The full text of the article can be found here.

Now this is what bothers me about this. Wal-mart has been trying to put a smiley face on their evil-corporation image (pun intended) for at least the last year, adding organic foods to their roster of products-for-cheap and pushing for more eco-friendly practices from their vendors. This I appreciate.

But this is not a company which is short on cash - and the people running the show are worth billions. So WHY are they undermining the value of the very workforce that keeps them in business? These are people with lives to lead - rent to pay, and all too often, extra mouths to feed. And what are they giving their loyalty to? A corporation that tries to push them out of whatever little advancement and seniority advantage they end up seeing in favor of the next person who agrees to 20 hours a week because they have no other choice.

I understand the push for low prices - heck, I'm on a budget too. But I'm appalled that the lower prices Wal-mart stands for are forced to come out of the pockets of the people who work there.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Greening the Office: Paperless Time Management

Every day, I thank whatever gods there be for the whiteboard that sits next to me in the office. I have two of them: one larger metal one that doubles as a magnet board and another clear square one that's held to the top of it by magnets. Since I've started getting busier (almost TOO busy in fact; I guess this marketing stuff is working for me!), I have ended up using it every day to keep track of what I need to do.

Here's the thing: when you're busy, the to-do list is your friend. Your Very Good Friend. Lists of any kind, really, are your friend, because you are always getting information that you can't deal with right away. But one of the things that always kind of irritates me is the paper generated by my various lists—between my personal journal, to-do lists, quick notes to myself, business journals, etc. I must have been going through about a few dozen extra pieces of paper a month. Not that much when you think of it in terms of all the paper ever, but still—such things add up. And, adding to the craziness, having a bunch of little pieces of paper floating around is really not that fun for someone who isn't naturally hyper-organized.

So, in the interest of saving a bit of paper, and keeping things in one place, I developed my new system. Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) goes into my iCal, along with categories for each thing I've got to do that day. The smaller whiteboard is for the current day's tasks, and the area underneath it is for a bit of advance planning—I'll put the activities for the next two days there. The current day's appointments with times go at the top of the smaller white board, with all the activities that need to be done that day but don't have a specific time frame are listed underneath. As tasks are completed, they get erased off the board. As the day finishes, the smaller board is erased and the next day's appointments and tasks are listed on the smaller board.

Doing things this way, I've managed to keep my head above water during an insanely busy time, and I get to remind myself that I am, in fact, actually productive—I literally erase parts of the pile as I go.