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I love Emily Pilloton

May 4, 2010

And here is why:

I spent most of my  five years in design school high on my beliefs in the power of design, its seemingly endless possibilities of creating substantial change, of doing right; a pain in the arse I’m sure in my tireless tirades on design responsibility: a reader of Papanek, Whiteley, Thackara…There was a sense, I remember, that we would first have to be missionaries of sorts, for design, educating the larger society about the need for and potential of design; try to persuade ‘them’ of what we could do, if we only got the chance – we talked about designing services, systems, creating a niche for ourselves and our reasonably young profession which went beyond just making nice homewares. I was sure that I was in an important field and I was going to make a difference. Graduated, keen to start.

Enter the Real World:

Got a job with a design consultancy carefully chosen on their merits as stated in their Eco-commitment – they prided themselves on being at the very forefront in their country in terms of sustainability . After less than six months I left, shocked and disgusted by the enormous discrepancy between their promises and what actually went on in their production facilities. I knew there were designers and consultancies doing amazing work, important work – IDEO, comes to mind; user-focused consultancies with people of many disciplines working together solving problems rather than merely making more products – but I wasn’t in a position to take up a job with any of them.

Instead I started teaching. I spent two years lecturing in sustainability to ID-students who unfortunately didn’t give a toss – they were all incredibly young and most of them utterly uninterested in anything other than becoming the next Karim Rashid, because he was cool and that is the most important thing for a designer.

Positive role-models of a different caliber seemed to be few and far between; I found very little discussion, and minuscule amounts of writing on design responsibility (maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough or maybe not in the right places, or maybe there simply wasn’t very much – this was in 2006) and I kind of lost hope. I left design entirely, thinking there was more power in art. Art stirs; it fuels passionate responses; it can be a massive force for change – qualities I didn’t see in design.

Now, enter Emily Pilloton.

She’s restored my hope. Not only is she an industrial designer with a social conscience who is also young, female and straight talking: what’s particularly refreshing/important in terms of role modeling is that she’s a doer, as opposed to just theorizing. Pilloton has written a kick-ass book, Design Revolution,a call-to-action for industrial designers and a compendium of 100 Products that Empower People” published in September last year, and founded Project H, a non-profit with a mission that makes my heart sing: “WE BELIEVE DESIGN CAN CHANGE THE WORLD”.

In an interview in online design magazine Notes on Design, Pilloton says that she 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.” (Don’t you love her already??!!)

Project H Design is a volunteer based team of designers, architects, and builders engaging locally through partnerships with social service organizations, communities, and schools to improve the quality of life for the socially overlooked. They have vowed to only work on local projects in the US, rather than worlds away; “While the need for great design in the developing world is dire, we need not look further than homeless shelters in San Francisco and rampant obesity nationwide to recognize that we have social issues in the US that could benefit from some creative thinking” says Pilloton.

Their design process is informed by five tenets:

1 There is no design without (critical) action; 2 We design WITH, not FOR; 3 We document, share and measure; 4 We start locally and scale globally, 5 We design systems, not stuff (of which they write “We create solutions and systems that are not driven by material or consumption. We “take the product out of product design” to question the traditional models, and design solutions that enable something greater than the object itself: enterprises and impact”.

Read Emily’s brilliant (anti)manifesto here, as published on Core77.

What she is doing just proves to me – again – that you can do it. If you don’t like the ways things are, do something to try and fix it.


(All photos courtesy of Project H)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rakel permalink
    May 5, 2010 8:03 pm

    wow, I take it they’re like wheel-barrels for water-pitchers, those blue things in the picture? That is really a great idea, as long as the roads/paths permit rolling things on. They must be able to bring home three times as much water with those. Simple to use, probably not too expensive to produce, all mechanical, few spareparts required – seems perfect for African conditions. Well done!

  2. May 6, 2010 9:40 am

    Yes! I meant to explain what they are, but somehow I managed not to: they are called Hippo Water Rollers and were designed in 1991 by a couple of South Africans. It holds 90 litres of water compared to the 10 or 20 litres women can carry on their heads, so one trip with the roller transports enough water for a family of seven for a week!
    Emily writes that beyond the rollers immediate function and efficiency, its implementation has resulted in quantifiable, tangible social impact in the communities where it’s been introduced – men have begun to view fetching water as a more masculine, worthwhile chore!! Which has resulted in education and literacy for women have improved and female-run businesses have become much more commonplace. Stroke of genius, isn’t it?
    You can check it out further on

  3. Pernilla permalink
    May 13, 2010 6:25 am

    Anna – thanks for this article! I’ll read the manifesto right away. This is great.

    I am currently working on a little presentation / collection of good examples of how design can encourage charity or peoples will to help. This time design as in service design or experience design and not as in product. (I’m btw getting totally into the space of service/experience design – SO much more interesting and with so much more potential!)
    Kiva is one great exampel, or, or actionaid, of services that actually makes people want to do soemthing. I still do believe in design as a world saver – if you only stop thinking of it as product design only!

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