Certified Permaculture Designer

Phipps Permaculture Design Course

I did it – I’ve been certified through Phipps Permaculture Design Course. What is a Permaculture Design Course? In a nutshell permaculture design is a set of principals that apply ecological methodology to solve problems in a less energy intensive ways through finding and replicating natural patterns, creating feedback loops, reducing or eliminating waste, and by building self-sustaining or even abundance generating systems.

To receive my certificate I was placed into a group with 3 other truly amazing people and tasked with designing a system for Phipps that was both aesthetically pleasing and functional while at the same time was as low maintenance and low cost as possible. Our design was completed in only a few weeks so while it is fully functional and could be implemented as is there are probably points that could be improved if we were given more time.

Here is a PDF printout of our Power Point.

Permaculture Beyond Ecology

While the project that we designed was a rain garden that would have a positive ecological impact permaculture itself is not confined to ecological design. One of my classmates is applying permaculture to his work with computer system design and I’ve applied the principals to the design of the house my wife and I are planning to build. I’ve also used the principals of permaculture to help me design websites and in my work in Childhood Digital Media.

Permaculture and Digital Media & Learning

On May 23rd I will be giving a presentation on how the principals of permaculture can be applied to Digital Media and Learning. DML, or the study of DML began when the MacArthur Foundation set out to determine how digital media is shaping the way kids learn.  In Pittsburgh, through the leadership of The Sprout Fund and their partners they’ve developed an affiliation of formal and informal teachers, technologists, artist, media and content producers, and lots of other specialists that make up the Kids and Creativity Network. Sprout provides funding and support to the network via SPARK. As part of this support they host occasional Lunch and Learn sessions.

At the last Lunch and Learn which focused on the national DML conference I began to see a need for the principals of permaculture as a means of minimizing waste, encouraging relationships, and strengthening the efforts of those involved in DML. I opened my big mouth and shared this observation with folks from The Sprout Fund and they asked me to lead a lunch and learn.

In permaculture we’re told to value the margins as this is where the action is. The shoreline of a pond is vastly more bio-diverse than the middle of the pond or the interior of the forest that touches it. At the DML Conference talk I heard the word edges multiple times because those of us there already see value in these margins. It’s naturally understood that when myself and my business partner team up with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh the results are far greater than anything we could do on our own.

There were several more ah-ha moments and by the end of the lunch it was beaten into my skull that the principals of permaculture should be applied to DML. Those of us involved with DML should build this system into a self-sustaining platform where our efforts will feed back into themselves and our results will be amplified even as the inputs that we expend, (whether they be financial, labor, or otherwise), are not diminished but are actually replenished through the design of the system. In agriculture that may seem more attainable but it’s in no way out of reach in DML.

If you would like to attend please RSVP to The Sprout Fund so they have enough food and space set aside.




Cob Building Missed-Adventures

First let me explain the title of the post. If you’re a regular reader you know that my wife Teresa and I are interested in building a cob house but don’t have any experience (yet). So over the weekend Teresa found a local group on MeetUp.com that was holding a cob building workshop today. We both tried to register but we needed to be admitted to the group first – something that has still not happened.

No worries – I’ve never been one to shy away from crashing an event that could benefit from my attendance so after checking yesterday to make sure it was still on – off I went in the 94 degree heat on my bicycle to learn how to make cob in the unforgiving summer sun.

Or not.

See when I got there 2 minutes late (is that fashionably late or still on time? I have a hard time knowing) I was alone. I was not even joined by crickets. Just me, the blistering summer sun, and an urban garden with some dudes in the alley behind said garden tossing horseshoes. I did think about asking the horseshoe fellas if they were there to learn about building things out of cob but they didn’t seem the type so I rode right past them heading for home.

On my way home I stopped in Espresso a Mano which is great little coffee shop in Lawrenceville about half-way between where I live and where I found disappointment in the face of Cob I checked the meetup group again and saw the event had been marked cancelled. Bummer. I wish they’d have cancelled earlier – like a few days ago maybe but I can’t get too upset since they didn’t know I was coming.

While I was really looking forward to the workshop the fact that it was cancelled has given rise to the idea that the Schmutz Company could maybe host a cob building workshop. I plan on running this past Dave to see what he thinks of the idea but seeing as how he was talking about building an oven for baking bread and pizzas and things I don’t know that I’ll need to twist his arm too much. If you’d be interested in attending leave a comment below or email me from the contact page and I’ll be sure to let you know what the plan is. Oh, and if we schedule and then cancel it we’ll let you know several days in advance.

For some great photos of what cob and other natural building materials look like check out the Natural Building Flickr group or just do a Google image search for cob – there are a ton of pictures of amazing things that are and can be built out of the stuff!


Spec Work is bad for design

Why I am again writing about the evils of crowd-sourcing and spec work

So I’ve been asked to be interviewed by an EDMC employee based on what I’ve written before about crowdsourcing and spec-work. She says she will attempt to explain both sides. Clearly EDMC is a poor source for any unbiased information because they will always fall into line with the idea that the buyer must beware (even when being lied to) and that companies should have the right to make money unfettered by regulations, morals, and/or regardless of any serious damage it causes to others. One must understand that this company, (EDMC), makes the Barbary pirates look like amateurs through their ability to profit and plunder. I don’t know the author or know how she could bring herself to write copy that not only defends the actions of thieves and profiteers but also seeks to promote their evils but I suspect that she’ll downplay the serious impact that crowdsourcing has on design and will take the tainted money of these profiteers while excusing herself from any moral obligation to warn people away from such disgusting inhuman filth that she, through her writing, helps to rape students and taxpayers alike.

Why you should never do spec work

If anyone out there has any question about how bad spec work is below, as clearly as I can put it, is an explanation of why you should NEVER DO SPEC WORK.

While there are a myriad of ways to become successful in a creative field doing spec work or as it’s now called crowdsourcing is a particularly problematic way of seeking success. Don’t be fooled by the name change crowdsourcing is spec-work. It might be wrapped up in a fun buzz word but it is still a terrible method that is now employed not just by design clients but also by 3rd parties to squeeze money from a field that already has very tight profit margins.

Lets look at CrowdSpring.com – as of Feb 09, 2011 they list 1,629,529 entries. If each of those entries took 1 hour to do that  equals over 186 YEARS worth of round-the-clock work. Only a little more than 2 years worth of that design work has been paid for – that’s nearly 184 years worth of work completed that has not been paid for. Being paid for your work is vital to survival.

When you factor in the fact that many of these designs are likely to have taken more than an hour. If we place the average closer to 2 or 3 hours per entry that means we can double or even triple those numbers. As much as 500 years worth of round-the-clock work not being paid for. Not only is this not right but that is the figure from only 1 spec-work recruiting site. How many designers are being robbed of a means of making a living by all of these companies?

One can argue that that lack of payment is spread out among a huge number of designers but it is still unbelievable when you add in the fact that many designers who do get selected are paid far less than a designer working for a client in a more traditional setting. So even when you win, you loose.

Spec work is a gamble – literally

Companies like CrowdSpring are full of smart people. These people know a little something about human nature. Nearly all mammals can be trained to do something over and over for reward even if that reward doesn’t come each time. When rewards appear to be random people and other animals will work hard for that reward even at times when they won’t receive it. This is how reward based animals training works it’s also how gambling works.

CrowdSpring and other design-extortionist companies use this to keep designers coming back. They work like a slot machine, eventually a designer might win. When they do they get a pay-off. Those that don’t eventually win stop playing but there a lots of others waiting to take their place. Those designers who have an entry selected are very likely to keep coming back just as flocks of people visit casinos or bingo-halls over and over.

These companies employ the same tactics that drive people to play slots or buy scratch-off tickets.

Spec-work is a game of chance and should probably be regulated as such especially when you account for the fact that cost to play is disguised. These companies advertise the prize upfront that the winning gambler will receive no matter how hard they work, how good their work is, or how little research into the project, the client, the industry, and the end-audience they’ve done.

Lack of research and knowledge of the project is another problem of spec-work. When a designer works with a client to create a logo, visual-branding, or so on they get to ask questions of the client, they get to see marketing research or work with an internal or external marketing team to make their design match the goals of the brand, the project, and the target audience. By removing this essential piece from the design process the designer is now working without direction, their end design might look good to the client but it’s highly unlikely that the design will meet the actual marketing goals and/or message therefore it will likely not meet the needs of the client.

The companies that seek spec-work typically have little future use for design. Even if they do purchase a good deal of creative work they likely don’t see much true value in it otherwise they’d pay a fair price for it and would ensure that it fits in with their other branding and marketing. No matter what these companies are unlikely to come back to the same designer. This only helps to discourage research, knowledge of the target audience, and understanding of the clients needs. If the client doesn’t care about their needs why should the designer.

It’s no secret that it’s easier to maintain client relationships than it is to find new clients. When one does spec-work not only are they providing work for free they are also forcing themselves to work harder to keep finding new clients because those they have already found have no loyalty and see no value in their work.

A study done by the logofactory.com showed that even the top five designers at 5 of the most popular crowdsourcing sites win on average less than 10% of the “contests” that they enter. So even if you are a top performer your still only being paid for less than 1 in 10 of your designs. If we go back to our average of 2-3 hours of design per 20-30 hours. If we assume 2 hours per design (to make the math easy) that means in a 40 hour work week you’d be paid for 4 of those hours. If you’re a designer reading this picture yourself sitting in a cubical for 40 hours a week and each payday, every two week you get a check for 1 days worth of that work. So every month you work 20 days or 160 hours but get paid for only 16 hours or 4 days. Add to that the fact that the pay you are earning is less than what your potential is, less than what the average pay is for the same work in your area and clearly spec-work makes no sense.

Now lets think about this – not only are you being paid less than what you’re worth, not only are you working 20 days per month and being paid for only 4 of them but you are also having to pay your boss for the privilege of providing you with work. Keep in mind while picturing yourself in this position that you’re on the top, your one of the 5 most successful people in your company.

Spec-work in and of itself was bad enough when companies were seeking spec-work on their own but if there is one difference between spec-work and crowdsourcing it’s that the later is far worse in that it allows a 3rd party to set a low-price for your work and then take a significant piece of the money that you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Clearly spec-work and it’s evil sibling crowdsourcing is never a good way to break into a creative field. Being paid poorly for less than 1/10th of your work, having to pay for the privilege of having your work selected, having the same tactics employed against you that are used by casinos to keep people gambling, being forced to continually look for new clients, and disrupting the process of design are all the downside of spec-work and these problems far out-weigh the supposed benefits of “democratizing design” which is hardly what crowdsourcing companies are doing. They are really simply making money by providing what is purely a disservice. They’ve not democratized design they’ve turned it into a contest which is more about competition and the free-market than design has ever been. Whereas design, like all business, is partially about networking and getting to know clients crowdsourcing is purely about the whims of the client.

Speaking of clients … Time is money and spec-work wastes not just client money (by providing them with sub-par designs) but also wastes their time because they often must wade through so many designs. Worse yet contracted designers can revise and refine their work while spec-workers are often hired with the understanding that their work is finished or is sold as-is.

Not only is it hard on designers when they have to continually find new clients but it is also hard on companies when they are loosing out on the potential to hire a designer long-term which is exactly what happens when they turn to spec-workers.


Student Loan Injustice

Sallie Mae: Predatory Lender

It’s taken me nearly a decade of fighting to get a payment that I can afford. During this decade my student loan debt has gone up excessively. I’ve had “legal fees” and “late fees” and “just because we can fees” tacked onto my loans that have been rolled in with them so that I’m not only paying the fees but also paying interest on those fees. So while I’ve finally got a payment that I can make on a bill that is as much as four times the amount that I actually borrowed, this fight is not over for me. It’s not over because my story is all to familiar. I’ve come home from this war wounded but alive. Others have not been so lucky. Besides the war continues to rage on even now.

I received the attached appeal from StudentLoanJustice.org urging me to get the word out and that is what this post is for. I encourage you to read the information below from Student Loan Justice and I encourage you to act on it – demand that this be changed. It’s not about my future, it’s not about some retired parent or uncle who’s credit has been obliterated so that the executives at Sallie Mae can buy a new private jet – it’s about all of us because like the housing bubble higher education is heading for a bust and when that happens the United States will be in a world of hurt. We’ll loose the tech-race, we’ll fall behind other developed countries, and we’ll loose our status as a world leader and innovator.

It’s time we put aside politics and focus on what is best for our country. They’ve made gross fortunes off of the defaults of people who were and are just trying to get an education. We’re not asking for reparations, we’re just asking that the injustice that is being done be stopped. I’m writing my representatives and I urge you to do the same.

Thank you. Here is the appeal:

Protection for College Students Needed Now

December 20,2010

In 2005, language was slipped into the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act which effectively removed bankruptcy protections from private student loans. The brazenness of this action shocked even the most jaded experts on the Hill (when it was discovered). After all, this amounts to the same thing as stripping bankruptcy protections from credit cards, or any other type of unsecured, free-market debt. Make no mistake: there are large injustices with the student lending system generally, but this move set a new low.

The banking industry and their lobbyists promised increased loan availability to disadvantaged students in return for the wholesale removal of this critical, free-market mechanism, but never delivered, the record now clearly shows. What they did deliver were tens of billions of dollars in outrageous loans that would make a subprime mortgage broker blush, with APRs as high as 28%, dropped onto the backs of unsuspecting students through deceptive and corrupt marketing techniques for which there simply is no comparison (consider that often, students would call their school’s financial aid offices, and unbeknownst to them, at the other end of the line was a student loan marketer pretending to be a university employee, and this point is proven, but we could go on at length here).

It was assumed by all that at the first possibility (i.e. when the democrats recaptured one or both houses of Congress), this grave injustice would be quickly righted. So in 2007, when Democrats swept both Houses, this painful period for the citizens was clearly at an end. Or was it? The democrats, to their credit, did introduce legislation to reverse this robbery, but didn’t put their back into it, evidently. The first attempt the legislation was quietly killed. A second attempt was narrowly defeated in a House vote thanks to the Blue Dogs cooperation with republicans like Howard “Buck” McKeon, and others. The third attempt, introduced last Spring, was on a slow road to passage, and would have been fine, but for an inconvenient election in November.

Surely the banking lobbyists charged with keeping this beach head were richly rewarded for their efforts. After all, a leaked Sallie Mae strategy memo that surfaced around the time the Democrats took power in Congress put preserving the current bankruptcy laws as the 2nd highest priority. And over four years, the record is clear that this mission was accomplished.

Consider, however, what is lost to this dangerous and predatory lending system. While we won’t be seeing them marching on Washington anytime soon, former students by the hundreds of thousands are currently reeling, devastated by this toxic debt. Their cosigning parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who wanted only for their loved one to get a college education now face financial ruin, and that is absolutely not in any way an exaggeration. And for what? So Sallie Mae can reap excessive profits from predatory loans made on a hyper-inflated commodity, which is higher education?

Ironically, the entities who so cleverly led the students into these monstrous debt situation are the same people now chastising the students about not reading the fine print. They now dispense belated words of wisdom on borrower responsibility from on high, effectively insulating themselves from all blame. But the ironies do not end there…the democrats who were so quick to rush to the financial aid of the financial industry (including Sallie Mae, and the other student lenders), have gone quiet on this final attempt at returning the bankruptcy protections that should have never been taken away, it seems. And where are the beltway advocates? It seems, that the only ones left in this fight are the citizens, and the Congress elected to represent them. Oh..and of course the banks with their money, expert advice, and threats designed to protect their profits no matter the public cost.

Democrats: Do what is critically needed right now, and return at least this obvious critical protection to the consumers before this term expires.


A Word From Our Sponsor (disguised as a blog post)

I just have to share this with you all. I have a google alert set up with “need, photography, Pittsburgh” and I don’t normally get a lot of good results for that but sometimes it does provide leads so I keep it active. The other thing that happens occasionally is that it brings back interesting results like this one:


Which will almost certainly need to be removed from that website. If it is before you get a chance to read it let me tell you what it is. It’s an advertisement for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (AIP) disguised as a blog post on a hobby blog. The reason that I know if will be removed soon is because it’s illegal. Laws were past last year that made it illegal for bloggers and twitterers to endorse things without reveling their relationship or any compensation they are getting for doing so. This wasn’t even that well disguised – it looked like copy taken right from their website or from print material.

AIP is where I graduated from in 2001 and I really do value what I learned there but most of the people I graduated with are not doing what they went to school there for and we were told a ton of mis-truths and on occasion outright lies by the representatives of  the school. Things have only gotten worse as these days they are owned by Goldman Sachs who have pushed even harder for ever higher profits.

Upon reading this blog post advertisement I couldn’t pass up the chance to share with potential readers the lies and misrepresentations that abound with these folks. Being that my comment needed to be moderated and the fact that the post should be taken down I’ve decided to share my comments here with you dear reader so enjoy:

WDOphoto Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
February 2nd, 2010 at 3:17 pm

This poster is almost certainly a sales person – a paid sales person and their post may be in violation of recent laws that require a blogger to identify anyone who might be paying them to blog about a particular subject or any relationship that they might have with the subject that they are blogging about.

What the author also fails to tell you is that many graduates also are crushed by the huge expense of the tuition that the Art Institute charges.

I graduated from AIP in 2001, out of the folks that graduated with me and before and after me by a few quarters I am one of maybe 10 people that are working as a photographer.

Forget getting a job as a photojournalist right out of AIP – the newspaper industry has been shedding jobs, not adding them, and the vast majority of the students they pass through are not focused or driven enough to work in such a competitive field.

Nor are they set to work in commercial photography which is just as competitive. The majority of the students who are herded through their programs like cattle are meek and mild and set-up to fail.

This poster fails to tell you dear reader that you can learn just as much at a state school, more even, than what you will at AIP for far less money.

They’ve also failed to tell you that since Goldman Sachs bought EDMC (the company which owns AIP that the poster almost certainly works for in a sprawling cubical filled warehouse in Pittsburgh’s Strip District) the focus has become far more financially driven and profit motivated and far less about education.

Don’t get me wrong – the school was always profit driven. It’s just that now they are even more ruthless in their pursuit of financial gains at the expense of the general public.

EDMC employs hundreds, if not thousands, of sales people. They are not “councilors” they are sales people, their backgrounds are in sales, they don’t care if you are mentally deficient – if you have the money they’ll tell you how wonderful your future is going to be. After all the schools they are pushing have a 100% acceptance rate.

I strongly encourage everyone to read about the high costs of these schools and how these schools have a higher percentage of students who default on their loans as was my case because the cost of AIP was so high that I was forced into taking out private loans. They at one time set up (and still might have) a private loan just for them through Sallie Mae that I was told was the only private loan I was allowed to apply to my bill there. When I took out this loan the interest rate was 23% (compound that).

Something else to keep in mind – these schools target lower income high-school students and working adults that more than likely come from a family or background where they in no way can understand the complex financial problems that are being thrust upon them.

I was a wide-eyed teenager herded into a tight hallway full of 6×6 rooms with a waiting line an hour to two long. My mother and I had little to no time to read anything that was shoveled at us. We were told to sign here and sign there – it was as if the devil himself, with all of his slickness, was on the other side of that desk. We got taken. And so did nearly everyone I waited in line with that day. As I said only a few of us made it out doing what we went in there for.

They told my mother that for me to get additional aid she’d need to apply and be turned down for parent plus loans. The problem was that she wasn’t turned down and there was no way, according to them, that she could NOT take the loan out. She was forced into taking on debt that she could in no way afford.

A popular misconception is that this is an “art school”. It’s not – it’s a trade school. They crank out students every 3 months with the same degree, many with no chance of doing what they have been, for-the-most-part, poorly trained to do.

I don’t mean to come down hard on the instructors because for the most part they are quality folks and I really do respect the vast majority of them but at the same time they are trapped in a hard spot.

It has become obvious to me from what I saw when I was there, when I’ve gone back to speak with portfolio students, and when I interact with graduates, (usually when they are serving me at a coffee shop), that the teachers are encouraged to do as much as they can to NOT fail students. How can one teach people when they are not allowed to weed out the poorly performing students?

Don’t waste your money on these people or believe anything their sales people tell you. If you don’t believe me I encourage you to look at the statistics or even read what is happening in the news right now where these for-profit school owners are fighting the dept of education to keep from being held accountable.

The Obama admin wants to tie their ability to get fin. aid (which is where most of their money comes from) to the ability of their students to pay that money back. Meaning that their higher level of defaults could put them at risk of loosing their source of income. They are fighting this as hard as they can because they don’t want to be held accountable for their failure to actually educate and train students.

Shame on you cstein for posting misleading advertisements in such a manipulative manner.

That’s the end of the post but for more info on how they are fighting the dept. of education see the following articles:




The Eyes Of The World

DDNewsflash: Human beings are a visual species.

We, as a species, rely on vision as our primary sense. The fact that you are reading this right now is evidence of just how visual we are. Further evidence is the fact that audio browsers and technologies that make the Internet easier to use for blind persons are often ignored and occasionally despised by designers.

Need more proof?

Try this test – think about the following brands:  McDonalds | NBC | Chevrolet

Now what did your mind do?

If you are like most people your brain flashed visual cues about those brands. You thought of the Golden Arches, The Rainbow Peacock, and what is refereed to as the “Bowtie” but looks more like a squished little cross of some sort. Either way you probably didn’t think of a smell (well maybe when it comes to McDonalds) and hopefully you didn’t have a very strong emotional reaction that trumped the visual thoughts that flood most peoples brains.

When these giants of commerce work on their brand they want you to be able to picture things about them and from there for your thoughts to cascade down to good emotional feels – happiness, contentment, etc.

So how do you as a small business owner make sure that your taking advantage of and maximize your visual marketing? Continue reading