A Conversation With Emily Pilloton, Humanitarian Designer

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Emily_Headshotcropped_sized.jpg In January 2008, Emily Pilloton moved from San Francisco to the poorest county in North Carolina, Bertie County, and launched Project H Design, "a team of designers and builders engaging in our own backyards to improve the quality of life for all." There, she teaches high school through Project H's core educational program, Studio H, a yearlong design-based curriculum that provides students with college credit, a summer job, and an opportunity to create projects that support the local community.

Other Project H initiatives have cropped up from Johannesburg and Mexico City to Seattle and New York. Among past initiatives: the design of a low-cost, rugged wheelchair for use in the developing world; a playground built from reclaimed tires that can be used to teach math and other subjects to elementary school students; and the use of discarded tabletops to make kitchen tables for refugees.

Pilloton is also a PopTech social innovation fellow and has appeared at TEDGlobal and dozens of other forums and conferences. Here, she talks about the myth of design as a luxury good, the importance of thinking and acting locally, and Lady Gaga.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I'm a designer/builder on paper and a high school teacher in practice.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the design world?

The democratization of design is changing much of what we do. The notion that design thinking can be learned by any and all is amazingly powerful, but has caused us as designers to question our value and real role in society. It seems we're having a bit of an identity crisis right now as we balance the value of our expertise with the power design has to change the way people solve their own problems.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

That design, despite becoming a luxury, is everywhere, in everything we touch and every interaction. Design isn't just a fancy product, but a sort of "embodied energy" in every moment of our lives.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the design world?

I'm not sure if it's emerging yet, but I hope the idea of anti-scalability takes hold. The current conversation is all about scale, but some of the smallest, most local stories are the most powerful. I hope we'll see those small stories reversing our instinct to take everything to scale. I love the idea that maybe the most design impact comes from the micro-local, that if 1 million people have one solution each, that it's much more powerful than one solution for 1 million people.

What's a design trend that you wish would go away?

If design education were more about the fearless execution of design and less about the mediocre representation of design, we would be much better equipped as an industry. I think we're seeing that slowly shift, but I never did understand why my final project in architecture school was the production of three renderings, rather than brick and mortar.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

When I first started Project H, the allure of international work led us astray. There is work to be done everywhere, of course, but in our own experience, we ultimately came back to working within our own borders, and within our own communities. In places where we have a personal stake and shared investment, the design solutions are more sustainable, appropriate, and transformative. To be a designer who "gives a damn," don't fly across the globe. Fight the battles in your backyard. We learned that lesson the hard way.

Who are three people you'd put in the design-world Hall of Fame?

I'd bring some non-designers into the mix for their unconventional and beautiful approaches to problem-solving and human-centered solutions (isn't that what design is?). Matthew Crawford, who wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft, Margaret Mead, MacGyver (does that count?).

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

To this day, my Plan B is to go back and get a PhD in Educational Leadership.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I think I'm one of a few remaining people who doesn't use a single "app," or even fully understand the allure. I even have a mild allergy to email, I think. I do find mapmyrun.com helpful, but most of the "apps" we use are more analog, like a chop saw.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Dare I say Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"? Isn't that stuck in all our heads lately? Also, the intro jingle from Car Talk definitely brightens my day.


Image: Courtesy of Emily Pilloton

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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