Interview with Emily Pilloton of Project H Design

I have recently had the incredibly good fortune of being able to connect with Emily Pilloton of Project H Design. I can’t say enough good things about how accessible and helpful she was throughout our interaction, and I look forward to keeping her involved as my project and research develops. Below is the full transcription of my interview with her, but first a brief introduction.

While many individuals, firms, organizations, and NGO’s are beginning to appreciate the potential of design to foster social innovation, few are as informed and culturally attuned as Emily Pilloton and her organization Project H Design. With a background in design and architecture, Emily was frustrated with the design world’s scarcity of meaningful work. Knowing that when design combined with other disciplines it had the power to genuinely change the world she founded Project H and wrote the book “Design Revolution”. Project H is a nonprofit organization that seeks to develop effective design solutions for communities that need it most by focusing on integrating design into education. Her book “Design Revolution” showcases 100 products that are examples of humanitarian product-design with an emphasis on empowering people.

More recently, in 2010 Emily ran a Design Revolution roadshow, where she brought 40 humanitarian design solutions on an America-wide traveling exhibition and lecture series to 35 high schools, universities, and cities. The goal of the roadshow was to demonstrate the tools of design for social impact in an attempt to enable and empower the next generation to apply their skills to the world’s most challenging issues. Her work with Project H now has her teaching design to high school students in one of the poorest and most rural communities of North Carolina, Bertie County. She has spoken at TED in 2010, and has even been a guest on The Colbert Report.

MG: In your words, how would you define social innovation, and why do you feel design is well-suited to incite it?

EP: For me it just boils down to using whatever tools or skills you are trained to use, with the intention of creating social impact. I think the key is intention, and that you’re going into your own work with the specific goal, or one of your metrics being social impact. Whether that’s economic or human rights or any other type of social element, you’re using whatever you have in your toolbox specifically for social purpose.

I think design is well suited to be a tool for social innovation, but with a caveat. In order for design to truly make long lasting social impact it has to be a catalyst with something else. I don’t think that design single-handedly is necessarily the be-all end-all answer but I do believe it is most powerful when combined with unexpected other disciplines like public policy, education or global health. I’m particularly interested in how design butts up against these other non-design fields and the power that the fields have in combination to address social issues.

MG: Since the publication of your book “Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People” how do you feel the field of Design for Social Innovation changing? What indications are you seeing that we might be turning a corner as a society towards finally beginning to address the pressing social issues that we are faced with?

EP: I see the biggest change in design for social innovation being the sheer number of people who are coming to it and seeing that there is value in it. There is more attention, effort, and interest in this field of design. I don’t know whether we’re getting better at it, or not. I hate to say it, but a lot of the work is not great and if we’re designing with and for groups that have a lot on the line when looking at public health, or water supply and safety, these are life and death situations. Because of that we have to have a higher standard for what our designs can do and not just sketch something mediocre and say “It’s good enough for them”. I think it’s very dangerous. While some groups are really starting to hone in on the metrics and the requirements for doing this type of work, as a group we need to get better about being far more critical of ourselves. Not just saying “Oh we’re doing this for the greater good”. Yes we are, but we actually have to be much more critical of it than any other type of design.

I also see a change in the number of design students and young designers coming out and wanting to do this type of work. When I was in Graduate School, no one was doing it. We were just starting to talk about sustainability and now we see it take on a broader meaning that by sustainability we also mean social sustainability. The conversion has really changed to include more social components, and not just the environmental side of sustainability.

MG: When it comes to design for social innovation there is obviously a significant gap that exists between the ambition of many designers to get involved, and the responsibility and knowledge that is necessary to undertake this critical work. How might you suggest ambitious designers get informed to ensure their energy is used in the right places?

EP: It’s all about just being humble and being a good listener and citizen first. We are often a little bit too eager to go into situations with our “designer hats” on before we even think about the design process or what product is going to come out of a situation. I think we really just have to be fully immersed in it, and fully committed to it. I really hope that people stop doing design for social innovation projects from afar. I really think that the best projects are the ones that come from the place you are in, and from the place you understand. From the place you consider yourself to be a citizen of. There are a lot of projects I see that operate totally on the charity model and there’s a little bit of imperialism to that because you can tell the interest and concerns of the designer are so different from the needs and desires of the beneficiary. That gap is very tough to bridge unless you’re really in it, and you yourself are a beneficiary.

MG: You have previously mentioned the critical importance of co-designing with a community versus disingenuous trips to “the field” and poorly guided research initiatives. For firms or individuals that lack the resources to physically immerse themselves in communities for an extended period of time, are there techniques that you might suggest they can employ in order to try and reduce these gaps in empathy and understanding?

EP: From my personal experience, I just don’t think there’s a good way to do it. The biggest question is how far are we willing to go as designers? How much are we willing to commit ourselves? If you’re not willing to immerse yourself in a community for an extended period of time, you probably shouldn’t be doing the project. I’m not saying you need to move to some far-off place for three years, but I do think that whatever that amount of time is for you to identify part of yourself in that community, I think that’s absolutely necessary. If you’re just getting into this work, you have to start by taking that risk and being fully immersed. As you come to terms with what your own process is, maybe you’ll get better about doing it from afar, but I think that especially from the beginning you really have to push yourself to be uncomfortable, live in places you wouldn’t normally live and not be a designer 24 hours a day but just be a good citizen.

MG: Finally, a talented designer was often seen as one who was an expert giver of form, an excellent sketcher or model-maker who was attuned and sensitive to user needs. As the role of design evolves in the 21st century and becomes less product-centric, what do you feel are the skills that will make up the toolkit of leading designers in the field of social innovation?

EP:You have to be a jack of all trades and a master of one. I said one, not none. Tim Brown (IDEO) talks about “T” people, people that are very wide and have a lot of broad knowledge. They know a little bit about a lot, but then they also have a lot of expertise in one or two particular areas, and I think that’s absolutely spot-on. As we take on more projects that have social implications far more complex than just giving something form we have to understand global politics, the economics of poverty and many other factors. Of course we can always do research to find out more, but I think even just going into a project we have to cultivate a lot of different skill sets in order to literally drop into a project and have a good sense of the greater social implications of it. I always encourage design students (especially these days) to be double majors. I think seeing design as an enhancement of so many other social sciences is probably the best skill that we can bring. While we have to be jacks of all trades we also need to just check our egos at the door a little bit more. So much of design is usually all about us as designers. It’s all about, “I want to be able to put my name on that thing” and that’s not necessarily the case. If we really want to say we designed this thing with the community instead of for a community we have to be able to take ourselves out of it.

I talk about designing with, not for but I think a more accurate phrase is that we’re designing by the community. That it’s coming from them, and we are the mediators that help bring their ideas to reality. We can help them visualize and then execute the things that they maybe never would have come up with before.