Interview with Beth Ferguson

Posted by Carli Leimbach
SolarPump Coachella 12 Sep 2013

Beth Ferguson (Sol Design Lab) : Art and Renewable Energy

Ecological Designer and Public Artist, Beth Ferguson talks to SITUATE about the creative process, art, renewable energy and founding Sol Design Lab.

Beth Ferguson is an ecological designer, public artist and founding director of Sol Design Lab based in San Francisco. She has an MFA in Design from the University of Texas, Austin.  She has engaged thousands of participants in her work that ranges from solar charging stations, bus stop interventions, solar payphones, ecological map making and public furniture made from up-cycled materials. Ferguson has taught ecological design and public art courses at Stanford University, Hampshire College Center for Design and the University of Texas at Austin. She has received commissions from SXSW, Zer01 San Jose Biennial in 2010, 2012, TEDxPersidio, Austin Cultural Contracts, Mass Audubon, Coachella, Maker Faire, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin Energy, Sacramento Utility and The Art Institute of Chicago. Beth’s work has been features in the New York Times, Make Magazine, Pop Tech, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Austin Business Journal, and 7×7 SF and beyond.

1) Where did you derive your inspiration to found Sol Design Lab?

I launched Sol Design Lab after identifying a need for urban centres and festivals to have solar charging stations to charge mobile electronics and electric scooters and bikes. I bought an electric scooter while pursuing my MFA in ecological design at the University of Texas at Austin and soon discovered that my university campus did not have outdoor outlets to charge my scooter when the battery was low. I did more research and discovered that one solar panel could not only charge my electric scooter but also additional mobile electronics at the same time. This sparked the design challenge I addressed in my graduate thesis research that resulted in a full-scale solar charging station prototype and business plan that launched Solar Design Lab. My prototype was discovered by South by Southwest, the well-known festival based in Austin, TX who commissioned the fabrication of three solar charging stations to use at their festival. These introduced audiences at some of the largest US music festivals to solar energy- subsequently; these SolarPumps (the batteries are stored in 1950’s gas pumps) have popped up at urban centers and on college campuses nation wide.

2) How did working with festivals help develop your creative design process and what unique perspective did it offer your work?

Working inside the parameters of the largest music and arts festival in the States over the last five years has given me the opportunity to design mobile public art in the form of solar charging stations ready to engage massive audiences. Partnering with festivals and sponsors has given me budgets that never would have been possible as a graduate design student or new start-up company. The festival public art commissions that I have received gave me the opportunity to assemble a team of fabricators, solar electricians, structural engineers, LED artists and graphic designers to help me execute robust and successful projects. Often as an artist you work with just one medium, rather than having to project manage and problem solve between several different disciplines. Partnering with a variety of festivals across the US and Denmark has taught me how to work with deadlines, project portability solutions, the ware and tear of the public and weather, managing client/sponsor expectations and staying under budget.

Testing and prototyping off the grid solar charging stations at festivals with 100,000 plus audiences has given me access to thousands of people willing to wait for their phone to charge and rest at our station. At the Bonnaroo Music Festival we charged 4,000 phones over 4 days. I could never reach those kinds of user numbers positioned in a park or on an urban street. The range of feedback from festival users has been really helpful for Sol Design Lab’s new solar charging station designs.


3) Art and renewable energy? – Many would think these pairs of words are mutually exclusive but you have managed to mesh and channel them into solutions. What is your interpretation on this?

My background in public art and renewable energy has allowed me to bring functional and curiosity-generating solar charging stations projects to the street level and foster creative partnerships. Sol Design Lab’s solar charging stations have proven to be conversation springboards, moreover the design build projects my design partner, Dallas Swindle and I have undertaken at Stanford University, Hampshire College, and the University of Texas at Austin have led to the development of our campus solar charging station program. Many students we have worked with have pursued successful careers in solar energy field after graduation. Giving free solar energy to tens of thousands of people over the past five years has helped me see that people are passionate about supporting creative solutions to global climate change and ready for its implementation.

4) How do you feel sustainable solutions like the SolarPump Charging stations can transform the way we behave, treat and interact within our cities and communities? How do festivals help change behaviour?

Creating functional public art so that the public can try solar energy for the first time allows people to feel more comfortable with renewable energy and ask great questions. I think modern arts festivals have the potential to feature creative innovation and sustainable technologies like the historical worlds fairs did. For example, designer Buckminster Fuller exhibited a geodesic dome during Expo 67 as part of Montreal’s world fair that is now a museum dedicated to the environment.

Urban Oasis

Urban Oasis

5) Can you describe the SXSW Urban Oasis project and the sponsors you have worked with?

After launching three SolarPump charging stations at the SXSW 2010 festival, Sol Design Lab has collaborated with SXSW to produce the Urban Oasis project over the last 3 years. Together we transform a parking lot into a space with free solar charging and water bottle re-filling stations, a recycling and composting program, furniture made from up-cycled materials like wooden pallets, coffee bags and street signs, native plants and beautiful shade tents. The space is free for the public to enjoy and does a good job of making renewable energy and recycling a hip part of the festival. We have worked with different sponsors Nokia, Whole Foods, and Britta to help us cover the expenses associated with this project.

During the SXSW Urban Oasis 2013, Brita water filter provided water refilling stations and free reusable water bottles to the public and the materials needed to create a public art piece from 3,000 recycled water bottles. Over 30 volunteer artists and university students transform the recycled water bottles into public art for the space inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and a design course I had taught at Hampshire College. 50 pre-made ¼” rode steel hexagons, pentagons and triangles were used to hold about 30 recycled and cleaned water bottles each. We used an existing steel fence and additional wood to create a structure to hold up the hexagonal shapes that were zip tied together to create one large snaking form. A frosting spray paint was used on the bottom of the hexagon groups to defuse the suns light during the day and full-colour LED’s at night. The installation became a backdrop for musicians and created a mesmerizing and snowflake like form out of plastic waste.

SXSW Urban Oasis, 2013

SXSW Urban Oasis, 2013

6) What has been your experience working with different sponsor and what has it taught you professionally?

Working with different marketing teams on the Urban Oasis project has gone pretty smoothly thanks to the hard work that the SXSW staff put into managing the project. Brita’s team loved the recycled water bottle installation because their goal was to encourage people to recycle and refill their own water bottles. The project was fun and interactive and showed how a large group of volunteers could transform plastic waste into something beautiful in a short amount of time. Brita paid for all of the materials associated with the project and SXSW gave the volunteers free tickets to their music festival. Brita donated the piece to be used by future Austin festivals and two festivals in October plan to exhibit it without branding.

Bottle Volunteers, SXSW

Bottle Volunteers, SXSW

7) How do you manage the Sponsorship relationship? What can you offer as guidance?

Working with a sponsor usually means partnering with the marketing agency that represents them and the festival’s sponsorship staff. In the beginning of the project planning a lot of meetings and negotiations need to happen to make sure that the final project will work for the artist, the festival and the sponsor. Project details need to be prearranged and spelled out in a signed contract. In many cases, the agency representing the brand will send different team members to the festival then the team that managed the initial project deal. Clear documentation of the project budget, design, scope and contract are essential to have on site during set up day so that everything runs smoothly and there are not problems or surprizes. It is important to talk about the brand’s messaging and banner sizes and placement in regards to the art piece ahead of time so that the art piece is not compromised.

Sol Design Lab has worked with dozens of sponsor who have rented our solar charging stations to charge cell phones for free at large festivals. We have learned how to deal with expectation management over the years and how to clearly communicate how our stations work and where the sponsor’s banners can be placed. Avoiding onsite miscommunication is key because festivals are exhausting and you want to make sure that the festival, the marketing team, and your artist team have a good experience with your project.

It is important to discuss with the agency how they will be deploying their ‘brand ambassadors’ and what other activations they are planning around your piece. Usually brands will bring their own tent and give out free things or demo a new product or service. Depending on your project it can be helpful to use a clear site map to plan out where the art piece and the brand’s tent will be located and discuss traffic flow. This site map should also be shared with the festival coordinators so that everyone is on the same page during site up day. Our solar charging stations need to be south facing in the US in order for the solar panels to work. Many festivals have tried to have us set up between shade trees and tents despite our emails and contract stating that the site needs to be full sun and shade free. Site visits before the event and good communication with everyone you are working with can usually help you problem solve during on site surprizes. Unfortunate events I have seen happen to artists at festivals include busted underground water pipes struck by tent stakes, wind and rain damage, going over budget, and the public climbing on the piece and covering it with stickers and breaking it. Ambitious marketing teams can be tempted to cover your piece with extra banners if you have not set up a clear branding agreement in your contract. Maintaining a beautiful piece for the public to enjoy is important and support from the festivals sponsorship team can help you manage this issue.

8) What are the most common challenges that you experience as an artist working in your field and how do you manage to overcome them?

One of the largest challenges I have faced as an artist and entrepreneur is finding a balance between all of the roles necessary to successfully run a start-up hybrid organization. Program development, branding, fundraising, marking, relationship building, legal, product prototyping, and product testing all take different skill sets. I have overcome this challenge by going for it with the support of my team at Sol Design Lab and our network of amazing mentors across the country that believe in our vision. Confidence in your work is essential to opening the door to new clients, creative staff and getting your name recognised.

Solar Shell

Solar Shell

9) What are some tips for other early career artists and creative practitioners embarking on making artworks for festivals?

  • Consider owning the piece after the event and maintain the right to exhibit it again without branded messaging. Touring with the piece to other events or leasing it to other venues can help offset the unforeseen material costs that can make or break the success of the project.
  •  New public art projects always take more resources and time to build then planned. Consider asking for help ahead of time from the festivals volunteer coordinators. Request extra festival tickets, food and camping for your artist team that will have to put in long hours to help you finish the project on time.
  • Make sure you maintain the right to photograph the piece and consider your own press release and social media to let the world know about your project. Document your project with time-lapse photography and day and night photos.
  • Make sure that either you or the festival covers the projects liability insurance.
  • When preparing your budget consider materials, transportation, labour, planning, set up, take down, storage, studio rental, donated materials, recycled materials and add the a 10% contingency to final budget to cover unforeseen expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask companies to donate materials to your project in exchange for mentioning them in your press release.
  •  When proposing a project to a festival with 30,000 to 100,000 people, consider something that will have an interesting presence and attract the public to visit the piece. Shade features, LED lighting, plants and furniture for the public to rest on are always popular. Consider elements of surprise, fun, humour and a metaphor of your choice that attract curious people to explore your piece. Festival design is a little like urban planning and using elements of public place making can work well.
  • It is crucial to come up with other venues to tour your piece after the festival. Consider your city hall, public park, other events, universities and galleries that could help your project be seen by a larger audience and not go directly into storage or landfill. Our solar charging stations have been rented to numerous universities, small business and other festivals for one week to two-year arrangements.
  • Finally, working with festivals is really long hours, tight deadlines, last minute challenges and can be stressful for your team… make it fun! The payoff will include great exposure for your work and invaluable experience in the field of public art.


Public artists, design studios and festivals that inspire me:


Jen Lewin –

Heather Shaw –

Anna Garforth –

Mary Miss –

Tomas Saraceno –

Swimming Cities –

Project H Design –

Catapult Design –