Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Intersection of Design, Public Education, and Community" with Project H's Emily Pilloton

Emily Pilloton is the founder and executive director of Project H Design, a  non-profit team of designers, builders, and teachers with a current focus on using design to re-envision public education.  She’s also the author of Design Revolution:  100 Products That Empower People.
Emily says her twin goal for the book was to make sure people know that humanitarian design isn’t just about products, and that it’s not just about the developing world.  To illustrate her point, she uses examples like the Brita water filter and (a great website for promoting "walkable" neighborhoods) alongside more traditional humanitarian design products like Kickstart's water pumps in Africa.

In the book, she also points to some of her group’s own creations, like Learning Landscape, a grid-based playground system using reclaimed tires for elementary math education, as examples of designs that empower people.

                                       (The Learning Landscape in action)

Emily has been spreading the word about humanitarian design through public appearances at conferences like PopTech (she was one of their 2009 Social Innovation Fellows), and (not kidding) the Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Emily Pilloton
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

I recently spoke with Emily about her work with Project H, and how its scope has expanded recently.  She’s highly ambitious in her attempt to use design thinking and problem-solving to tackle some huge issues, like rural poverty, education, and community development through Project H's work in Bertie County, North Carolina.

But first things first...
ThinkingDesign:  How’d you get the invite to Stephen Colbert?  That must have been something.
Emily Pilloton:  They just asked me.  It was totally surreal.  He’s such a ham.  I totally have a non-romantic crush on him.

ThinkingDesign:  You handled him really well.
EP:  Thank you.  I totally blacked out.  I brought a posse with me, and afterward, I had no idea what I said and I asked them and they said, “I don’t know, but it was totally great!”
I was terrified.  I made the mistake of watching a bunch of different ones, and he just slays some people. I think it helps to have props, though, like the landmine shoes I brought.

ThinkingDesign:  How’d you get the idea to put your book together, and what was the process like?
EP:  In hindsight, when I was putting it together, Project H was not even a year old.  For us, the book was an exploration of what was out there, and we used it to sort of benchmark what had been done within humanitarian design. 

As a product designer, I sort of hate products.  And obviously there are products in there, but I wanted to show that humanitarian design is not just about products.  There are a lot of things in there that are websites or systems or just ideas or initiatives, and that they all came from a very specific design process.

I also wanted to make the case that humanitarian design is not just about the developing world.  There are a lot of things in the book that you can go out and buy at Target.  It’s not about the poor as much as it’s about smart, creative initiatives that came from the design process for a variety of markets.

ThinkingDesign:  Why do you hate products?
EP:  It’s not that I hate products; I love the idea of a product.  A thing that you can hold in your hand can have so much personality and impact on your life.  What I don’t like about products is how designers think of them.  A lot of times that’s the goal of a designer – it’s all about these artifacts that you can make a million of that you can sell and make money.

I’m much more interested in design as a process, and whether you come out of that process with a product or a house or a website or a business plan, that doesn’t really matter.  It’s the process that got me into design in the first place.

"Product design" just feels very outdated to me.  I’m interested in different models. Like, if someone commissions me to design a chair, why would I design a whole new chair when I can design something like craigslist, where people can go out and buy chairs in their neighborhoods, or get used ones for free?  Why do we always assume that the solution is a new product?

ThinkingDesign:  Okay.  Fair enough.  So you’re now working in education.  What’s meaningful to you about your current work?
EP:  More than a year and a half ago, we were approached by the superintendent of the Bertie County School District in North Carolina.  He asked us to come down here and build the learning landscape playground.  It’s made out of reclaimed tires, and you use it in combination with this whole series of games that we wrote that are in line with public school curricula. 

He wanted us to come down and build one for each of his elementary schools.  His district is falling apart at the seams. It’s the poorest county in the state, with 17 people per square mile.  In the whole county, there are three restaurants.  Up until a week ago, you couldn’t get Internet.  In many ways, it feels like the developing world.  It’s very rural.

So that’s how the relationship started.  We built the playgrounds and discovered that the superintendent was this amazing visionary and was brought in to fix the district.  As part of his strategic plan, he wanted to bring in young, innovative thinkers, and I guess we fell into that category.

So, learning landscape was the first project.  And we found out that he was this kindred spirit who really believed in design in a place where not many people even know what that word means.  He basically said, here’s my credit card.  Here’s your budget.  Go build three computer labs that will help get kids excited about technology.

                                (Coolest computer room in the county)

That led into a bunch of other projects.  We built a new weight room for the football team, then a big campaign for the whole county with this big green dot to try to get free broadband, which now we have.  Well, it’s not exactly free, but we now have cables that come out here now, which is the first step.

ThinkingDesign:  Do you live there now?
EP:  Yes, I do live here now. We moved here, because we were doing all of these projects, working with the superintendent.  But we got to the point where we still felt like consultants.  We were still doing projects and leaving.  We felt like we needed to be more a part of the community to get to the next level. These things were having impact, but they were still sort of viewed as like things from the beyond that were being dropped here.

And during the course of the year, we’d gotten to know a lot of the students and a lot of teachers, just by bringing them into design brainstorms or whatever.  We figured what better way to take the design to the next level than become teachers ourselves.  We believed that design could become more than something you hire consultants for, but something that could be bred from within in the public school system.

ThinkingDesign:  How have the students reacted?
EP:  It’s going to sound terrible, but the teachers here are not good, and the students haven’t ever been challenged.  I don’t think that anyone ever believed in them.  There’s just not a lot of pride in education.

What design has offered to these students is not only something hands-on – like our first project was to build corn hole boards.

   (I never thought I'd use Corn Hole and Design Thinking in the same sentence.)

Now we’re doing graphic design on them to auction them off to raise money for our next project, which is public chicken coops.  It’s not a text book to memorize for a test.  It’s something that these kids can pick up and understand, and it’s really challenging.  It applies all of their core subject learning.  

ThinkingDesign:  Do you teach this stuff as individual skills, or as a design thinking toolkit?
EP:  Both.  In the wood shop, they need to know how to use a router, a table saw and a chopsaw.  But we went into it and started at high-level design thinking.  We started with discussing the strategy they should take when they enter this space.  
We made a list of all the ways we could build the corn hole boards and ended up with four different ways.  The process helped them problem solve their way through it.  It’s important for them to take that problem-solving approach, and then learn tools like Illustrator so that they can go produce it.

ThinkingDesign:  To what extent are you trying to incubate ideas, processes, and solutions that other places can implement or learn from?
EP:  It’s really tough.  We get asked all the time -- like with this curriculum -- about how we’re going to scale it.  Of course I want to do that.  But one thing I’ve learned over the past two years is that it’s really dangerous if you celebrate too early.  I wanna make sure these things work first. Even with the computer labs- they’ve only been built and in use for a year now.  It’s an architectural solution, and we know it’s going to stand up, but it takes a long time to measure its effect on the students’ test scores and overall engagement.

With this one-year curriculum, I’d love to see it in other communities, but it takes time, and I’ve learned to take things sort of slow.
The other thing, with the Studio H program, we wrote it as a one-year program that you could conceivably drop into any rural school district.  But instead of scaling it that way, we’ve started looking at it from another way.  Could you take this program and turn it into an entire charter school?  Because right now, it’s only available to the junior class, so they spend the other three years doing the same old thing.  So that might be a different approach.  

ThinkingDesign:  Now you’ve gone from small-scale projects into huge, daunting community development and education projects.  What's your end game?
EP:  With Studio H, this not about us teaching design.  I don’t care at all if any of these kids go to design school.  That’s not why we’re in it at all.  But by the end of the year, they will have the creative and critical skills to call themselves designers. They’ll have the construction skills to call themselves industry-relevant contractors.  And so over next summer, we are going to hire them as our construction crew to build a farmer's market downtown.  So there is a community development angle here.  We’ll spend the summer practicing pouring foundations and actually building.
I’m really interested in that intersection between design, public education, and community. 

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