Interview: Emily Pilloton of Project H

As an architect, industrial designer and writer, Emily Pilloton realized it wasn't enough to talk about design that made a difference—she had to do it herself. The Dwell on Design speaker talks about the launch of her social design community Project H, the challenges of working both abroad and in the U.S., and she gives us the very first look at her new book, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People.

em pilloton

Did you have a sort of epiphany when you were in a 9-5 job working as a product designer and just realized you had to start doing things that made a difference?

I think it was more that it had been a part of who I am for a long time, but I had gotten steered away from it. I grew up in the Bay Area and ever since I can remember, it was how it was raised: My parents said, if you go to school, you also need to volunteer every week. In a way it's always been a part of my value system to give back, and that's not an abnormal thing for a lot of kids. But then in high school that's where that value of giving collided with this travel bug. I did summer programs in Mexico and Belize, and eventually in Cuba, and then at the same time I became very engaged with design. Mostly because I was a total math nerd, but also because I loved making things and design and architecture was at the intersection of that. I had started a Habitat for Humanity chapter in my high school and through that really saw a tangible collision of architecture and design and service.

But then both in architecture school and in grad school for product design—and this is no one's fault really—the design academic model was not focused on service. Very few of the projects, in my six years of school, ever had a social aspect to them, or even an environmental aspect. It was always about the product, the client, the budget. And I came out of those six years feeling like I had lost that. I felt a little jaded. But like everyone else I needed a job. I had debt to start paying off! So I got a job at an architecture firm, and worked at a product design firm, and then I started to be really critical, about my own work and about the design industry in general. I wanted to start my own company because I wanted to own my work, first and foremost. So I started a furniture company.

Was your furniture company more focused on social and sustainable values?

The furniture itself was 100% made from trash. You'd never know it if you saw it, because it was luxury furniture; one-of-a-kind, custom-made. It wasn't made from soda pull-tabs, but it was literally stuff that I had climbed into a dumpster and pulled out, like the curtains from some theater company which I used for upholstery. And right about the same time I started writing for Inhabitat, which gave me a voice for all my criticism. And when I became managing editor of Inhabitat, that was the moment. That was the point when I was like, okay, not only do I have a voice in this, I can be the editor, and I can curate the conversation about where I think the holes are in the design world and what I think our real opportunities are to make a difference. At that time, everyone was talking about "green" and "eco" but to me, even that conversation felt—for lack of a better word—half-assed! Where was the talk of service? Where was the talk of making everything for a luxury market? And yes, we're making them out of better materials, and that's great, but where's our real avenue for influencing design and making lives better in a sustainable way?

After two years at Inhabitat my criticism got to the point where I said, I can't just be a critic anymore. If I'm going to talk about design for social impact I'd better be doing the work myself. Project H grew out of that, as a way to be critical in a productive way, and to put some action around the criticism. And most importantly to give opportunities to other designers who felt similarly: Here's a project you can do next weekend, with tangible impact. It was in 2008 that Project H started. I was living with my parents (very sad), sitting at their dining room table, setting up the website, filing the papers, and it went from there.

You founded this organization with very few resources a year ago. Is there any advice you have for people who want to do the same thing? Besides living with your parents?

I would love to say, make sure you have a business plan, and make sure you have a support network, and in hindsight, yes, that matters, but I didn't have any of that. My dad's a businessman and kept asking me what my business plan was and I said I didn't have one, and he looked at me like I was crazy. I think for people who want to start something and have that type of energy in them to build a movement, it's really about the energy and the inertia. It's about being able to talk about the same thing every day and not feel bad about that. I guess my best advice is just to do it and not be caught up in all the things that people say you need to have. I had to learn to be my own accountant and my own publicist, and that's part of the adventure. It's really the message and the movement and being able to talk about it in an engaging way that helps build that momentum.

And you've had incredible momentum, what are your numbers at now?

We incorporated in January 2008, and we have nine chapters, six in the U.S. and three international. We have 24 current projects, some chapters have multiple projects, and there are a couple projects that are organizational projects. We're working in eight countries and the total number of volunteers involved is in the 300+ range.

Of course none of this would be possible without modern technology—websites and emails—but how do you make everyone feel like they're a part of this thing happening, together?

That's a good question. Obviously being in constant communication—I'm a huge nag, any of my chapter heads will attest to that—but we're really big on documentation and telling stories. I think that's the key to keeping people working towards a collective goal, but being able to do it in their own way. We give them the tools to document and tell stories, but then measure their impact. Obviously all the Web 2.0 functionality makes it more immediate. But that's something I really stress. We could all be doing our own work, all the chapters can be doing their own work, but without sharing the models there is really no impact. The whole point is to do it locally, and prove you can do it somewhere else, then use those documentation tools to scale it beyond just a one-off.

project h design classroom

And you also have good parties, which I think is important.

We do love our parties. I like the fundraising model that involves going bowling and then going to a dive bar and asking everyone for $5.

Does that work?

That's kind of who we are. Someone said we should have a fundraiser with like a $500-per-plate dinner. On one hand I think we could raise a lot of money, and we may soon host such an event, but at our core, we’ll always be that dive bar-going group of 300 people, and as a whole we make a lot happen. It's not about those 50 rich people.

And it's a lot about that one-on-one contact then, if you're telling someone in a dive bar about what happened, and they're so excited they just hand you $5.

Exactly. Excited enough to hand over $5 and then excited enough to come to a chapter meeting and do something themselves.

So one of your biggest recent projects is the Learning Landscape, a math playground, which you completed at a school in Uganda, and now you've just done a second round in North Carolina. I heard you talk about the Uganda experience at Compostmodern, but what was different about doing this project in the United States?

From the beginning of this project, one of the ultimate goals was that we wanted this to be totally universal. Math is universal, numbers are numbers wherever you go, and we really used that as an inspiration for the design process. 2+2 will equal 4 if you're in Uganda, North Carolina or anywhere. So by starting in Uganda we wanted to make the case that you could design a system—not a product, a system—that could work anywhere, yet at the same time, be really context-specific. So in bringing something like this to the U.S., we obviously still want to serve the developing world and design for the other 90%, but at the same time, this is a very rural school district, incredibly underperforming, over three-quarters African American, extremely poor. And we forget that the developing world is, in a way, in our own backyard. The demographics were slightly different, but in a lot of ways the same. So we wanted to use the Learning Landscape in Africa and also in our own backyard to draw those parallels. It was interesting because in North Carolina they had county-wide, state-wide and ultimately national standards that their curriculum has to fall within. So we started looking at those standards and how we could align the Learning Landscape within those metrics, not just a fun way to use math, but how we could use it as a testing system. You could teach three games and if the student performed well in those games, you'd know he met the standards for third grade math. It was a big lesson for us—in Uganda anything goes, they were happy to have it, but bringing it to the U.S. brought it into a new light of how we could use it as a quantifiable standard that teachers could use to see how their students are doing.

project h design uganda

And standardized testing is how schools get awarded money, so you could help a school improve their scores and get better funding.

That was one thing we had never thought of until we brought it to this school and the superintendent brought it up. When we were approached by the North Carolina school district, in Bertie County, the superintendent really saw the value of this kind of innovative educational thinking. He told me he saw the Learning Landscape on Inhabitat. And I was like, what superintendent reads Inhabitat? That's awesome. He was quoting Tim Brown and talking about the IDEO approach! We spend a lot of time talking about the value of design and often you have to prove it, you have to make your case that design is something you have to invest in. But they were a great partner from the start because they really understood the value of it.

I've seen the work of the LA chapter, Abject Object, which are products created with women from the Downtown Women's Shelter. What are some of the other Project H chapters doing?

The Austin chapter is partnered with a foster care home, and by the end of the summer we will have built out two of the rooms they call their "quiet rooms." These are the spaces where they place the kids when they're misbehaving. The children range from four to 15 and many of them have ADD and much worse behavioral problems. So these are the places they put the kids to calm them down and they're these terribly inhumane white melamine closets. They're like straitjackets. And they asked the chapter if there were ways to outfit the room in more engaging, colorful, comforting ways that aren't just about taking a time out, but that really inspire the kids through tactility and art, and really engage their senses on a more visceral level. So it's very much a design-for-therapy solution.

The Mexico City chapter just solidified a partnership with a children's hospital downtown, focusing on unit T where they do transplants for cancer patients. So one of the things the chapter is doing down there is redesigning their storage units, turning these milk crates—where these kids store their teddy bears and art supplies and clothes—into more playful and comforting fixtures. The kids don't spend all their time in the transplant unit, they eventually go back to their own room, but you want that temporary space to be as comforting as possible while they're there. So the storage units will become more than just "throw your doll here"; there will be blackboards and games, and places specifically for soft goods. It will be more of creating a landscape of comfort and permanence.

project h design bench

And the last I'll tell you about is in New York, which is just getting started. Their project is called Empowerment Through Food and their partner is a public school in Brooklyn, and they are working with some of the teachers to use urban farming, food production and harvesting as a way to teach almost every subject. From a way to teach basic ecology and science to enterprise and business. One of the elements will be selling these little plant pods to raise money for the school but also as a way to encourage urban farming in the community.

In the midst of all this, you were approached to write a book, when do we get to see that?

It's coming out in September. It's called Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People. It's one part rabble-rousing rant about why industrial design has become a severely misguided industry, and some tactics for bringing it back to something that's about social impact and making people's lives better. So one part rant, one part compendium of 115 total products in 8 different categories—water, well-being, energy, mobility, food, play, education, enterprise. There are examples of concepts, products on the market, they could be consumer products or enterprises for the developing world. It's really across the board. And that was the point I was trying to make with this book. We talk about "design for the other 90%," we talk about the bottom of the pyramid and designing for poverty, but that's only one chunk of designing for social impact. It's also about designing better consumer products, and designing better systems and services that can be used across the U.S. or in Europe. It's 304 pages, I wrote it in 90 days and hopefully it makes sense. Scott Stowell from Open, who is also the graphic designer for GOOD, designed it. It told him the other day, it doesn't even matter what I wrote—he made it so stunning. The two words we used when we were working on it were "optimistic" and "urgent," and I think it's both of those.

And you are going to be embarking on something pretty exciting to get the word out about the book, anything you care to reveal about what you have planned?

The book tour idea I pitched to the publishing house—for which we're looking for sponsors right now—is to literally take the show on the road. We're looking to pool a lot of these products and curate an exhibition that will be loaded into an Airstream trailer and taken on the road. We'll go to 15 different design schools, do a pop-up exhibition, and most importantly a workshop to give students something they can work on and be proud of. The ultimate goal would be to have meetings with the administrators in these schools to help set up studios where work can be done around the theme of design for social change. Scott designed this huge pink flag based on the book cover, so look for us waving it. Look for the 1972 Airstream rolling into town!

Hear more from Emily Pilloton and other designers at Dwell on Design, June 26-28 in Los Angeles. Register at dwellondesign.com or follow us on Twitter for more updates.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...