Emily Pilloton: Project H

by Kate Andrews | January 13, 2010

Emily_Pilloton project h
Emily Pilloton

Emily Pilloton

I’ve seen some designs come out of the poorest villages in Africa that trump anything coming out of any design firm in the US. — Emily Pilloton

Recent Colbert Report guest and Bay Area native and designer Emily Pilloton was underwhelmed with the home product decision-making that made up much of her working life when she started Project H, an organization of volunteer designers who work to connect design with communities most in need. Her work encouraging local Project H chapters to bring better products to schools, hospitals and shelters led to the book “Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower

In February she’ll kick off the Design Revolution Road Show, a traveling exhibition and lecture series that will visit 25 high schools and university design programs nationwide across the nation via an Airstream trailer that highlights 40 humanitarian design solutions highlighted in the book. You can follow the cross-country tour, which will take Pilloton and partner Matthew Miller to schools from Austin to Baltimore, on the site’s itinerary and @DesRevRoadShow. Emily Pilliton is interviewed here by Emily Goligoski.

Notes On Design: What your initial motivation for starting Project H?

Emily Pilloton: I started Project H mostly out of frustration, but the kind of frustration that is laced with optimism: where you wake up one day and realize that you don’t like the way things are, but you think you know how to fix it.

I’m trained as an architect and a product designer, and grew up always taking things apart and putting things together, and came to design believing that it would be a great skill set for solving problems in a physical, creative, and critical manner.

A few years out of graduate school, when I found myself working as the store architect for a retail clothing company, where design was synonymous with choosing doorknobs and other such minutiae, I had had enough. Design had, in my own career (mostly because I had huge student loan bills), become so far removed from why I originally became a designer: to solve problems. I quit the doorknob job the next day, started writing and making up my own rules, and eventually started Project H as an avenue to apply design to the things that mattered.

The Design Revolution Roadshow Airstream

The Design Revolution Roadshow Airstream

NoD: How did the idea for such a non-traditional book tour come about?

Emily Pilloton: As a natural contrarian, I tend to find the expected and the usual very boring. This was particularly true when I wrote “Design Revolution” and the time came to think about what kind of book tour I would embark on. The usual book signings and library talks seemed valuable, but not in keeping with the tone of the book, which is so much about a grassroots, bottom-up, “just do it” approach to design that really belongs at the doorsteps of designers who care, not in Barnes & Nobles. I wanted people to be able to see all these great products featured in the book, to pick them up, use them, and to be inspired by them. More importantly, I wanted the book tour to be an educational tool–a way to distribute a toolkit for designers and creatives to not just start designing for the greater good, but to do it in the best, most engaged way possible, with a critical eye and with real impact.

The Design Revolution Road Show was the result: 25 high schools and colleges in 75 days, 6300 miles across the country, in a vintage Airstream that my partner and I custom-built out (while living in) as an exhibition of all these great design solutions.

Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People

Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People

NoD: Beyond size, how did you select which 40 products made it into the Airstream?

Emily Pilloton: There are 115 products and projects in the book. I would have loved to have fit all of them, but some are too abstract or big or just unrealistic (like the BikeDispenser bicycle vending machines in the Netherlands). We selected the 40 based on a few factors—logistically, it depended a lot on what we could get our hands on, either by purchasing, having them donated, or from the designers themselves. Size was obviously an issue, as was the need to curate the 40 products in the same way we approached the curating of the book: there needed to be a range, from retail products like OneTouch blood glucose monitors down to feats of ingenuity from the developing world like the Paraguas Project- a bottle shredding device that turns plastic bottles into long strands suitable for craft weavers to make into baskets. There are also 8 categories in the book: Water, Well-Being, Energy, Education, Play, Food, Mobility, and Enterprise, and we wanted each one to
be well-represented.

NoD: Do you have a favorite category, or some favorite products?

Emily Pilloton: As for my favorite category, by far the Enterprise category that combines ingenuity with awesome business models. As for my favorite products of the ones in the exhibition, I love the SpiderBoot, the Adaptive Eyecare glasses, and the DIY Soccer Ball Tape!”

Spider Boot

Spider Boot, Adaptive Eyecare glasses, and DIY Soccer Ball Tape

NoD: What is an area/industry that a Project H chapter hasn’t yet explored but that you’d like to see smart volunteers take on?

Emily Pilloton: Project H is oddly structured–in a good way, I think. We run on volunteer passion, but we function like a design firm. We aren’t Habitat for Humanity where the entry level for volunteers is relatively easy. If you volunteer for Project H, you’re a designer, and you’re going to be around for a while, and you’re going to work your butt off.

What that means is that our volunteer design teams embark on projects that go on for months if not years, and really dig their heels in to build single case studies into models that could work on a wider scale. Public education (K-12, not college level design education) is becoming one of our key strengths, and something I’ve tried to lead by example by leading and working directly on some of our key educational projects like the Learning Landscape math playground. We’ve delved deeply into systems-level design for education projects through a partnership with the Bertie County School District in North Carolina–the state’s poorest county–where I’m actually in the process of getting certified as a high school shop teacher to teach Studio H starting Fall 2010, a design/vocation/community program.

So as far as issues we haven’t yet explored, I am actually much more interested in investing deeply in what we’ve just started- a hard look at how design can improve environments, systems, services, products, and experiences for youth and public education students and institutions in the US. We’re working in our own back yards a lot more, and every single project is local. You will never see a Project H Design team in Chicago working on a project in Africa.

NoD: How important do you think a formal design background is to making better products?

Emily Pilloton: I’d like to say yes, but I think in most cases, no. If you’re going for form, and for things that sell, then a formal design background matters immensely. If you’re going for things that are appropriate, things that work, and things that are the result of ingenuity, then no. I’ve seen some designs come out of the poorest villages in Africa that trump anything coming out of any design firm in the US.

NoD: Can you share one of these designs of ingenuity that you’ve come across?

Tire Shoes, Kisizi Hospital, Uganda

Tire Shoes, Kisizi Hospital, Uganda

Emily Pilloton: Definitely. One in particular. This child who was being treated at the children’s ward at the local “hospital” had very weak limbs and 2 broken ankles. His mother fashioned some shoes for him out of motorbike tires so that he could walk on the rigid casts. This photo was taken by my partner Matthew Miller at the Kisiizi Hospital in Kisiizi, southwestern Uganda.

That being said, what a formal design background does offer is a process, which to me is the most valuable component of design. As designers, we learn “how to see,” how to problem find, and how to go through a process that engages users and ultimately results in something that does both: that sells AND that works. The problem with so much design training these days is that it is not process-focused, it is form-focus. If all our design programs really focused on developing a process instead of teaching aesthetics, we would be much better off and have much more to offer.

NoD: How did you select the schools participating in the roadshow? What are your main goals for it?

Emily Pilloton: At first, we had chosen colleges off-the-beaten-path that usually don’t pull the high profile design speakers (not that we’re high profile by any means, but we wanted to bring something really cool to places that are sort of forgotten by the usual circuit). We targeted places like Auburn and NC State and colleges that have multiple design programs- product, graphic, architecture, etc., and that ideally also had IDSA chapters to support the promotion. About halfway through the planning, however, I was in North Carolina working with students at Bertie High School, where we’ve done a bunch of design work, and realized that this was our audience– not college students who had already been convinced of design’s value, but 16-year-olds in rural locations who have never thought of design as a career, but for whom creative capital would be the ultimate catalyst.

At that point we cut down our 25 potential colleges to about half that, and added about ten high schools, in locations that had a good link between the colleges and the high schools, or in places we knew would be interested, like my own high school in Larkspur, California, where the tour kicks off.

NoD: What project that you’ve been involved in in the past year have you been the most excited about?

Emily Pilloton: Definitely our partnership with the Bertie County School District in North Carolina. We’ve set up shop in Windsor with huge support from the superintendent to transform the district through smart design. We’ve completed the construction of four Learning Landscape math playgrounds for their elementary schools, just finished two new computer lab spaces at their high school, and did a countywide graphic campaign called Connect Bertie that will provide free broadband to the district’s families in order to promote networked learning outside of the school walls.

This partnership will continue with our high school design/build program Studio H, which starts Fall 2010, for which my partner and I are moving there and getting certified as shop teachers. The ability to work deep rather than wide, to invest in one community at a variety of levels, is hugely gratifying. I don’t ever want to skim the surface, and our projects in Bertie County are really allowing us to make the case and provide the proof that design makes a difference.


Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.


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