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Q&A with Emily Pilloton: Design That Matters

GOOD January 2010

Founded by 28-year-old Emily Pilloton in 2008, Project H Design connects the power of design to the people who need it most and the places where it can make a real and lasting difference. For the past year, Project H has focused on designing for public education in the U.S., specifically through a partnership with the Bertie County School District in eastern North Carolina (Bertie is the poorest county in the state). Pilloton and her team began by building four Learning Landscape math playgrounds for each of the county’s elementary schools, then redesigned their computer labs, and followed that with a countywide campaign for free broadband internet for the district’s families. This fall, Project H will launch Studio H, a 1-year required design/vocation/community program for Bertie County’s high school.

In 2009, Pilloton published “Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People,” a manifesto of sorts on the power of design to change the world. I caught up with Pilloton over email as she prepared to hit the road in her vintage Airstream for the Design Revolution Roadshow, a 25-day/75-school/6300-mile road trip that aims to show students and their communities nationwide how design can help change the world.

A book, a non-profit, an American tour–I’m not sure where to begin. What inspired you to start Project H?

Specifically, doorknobs, or rather the irrelevance of doorknob selection within a design process. I was trained as an architect and a product designer, and after a few years of post-graduate school “selling out,” I found myself working as a store designer for one of the country’s biggest retail clothing companies. In a 3-hour meeting, we argued about which doorknobs to select for the new store renovations as if it were a decision about national healthcare. I quit the next day after realizing just how misguided design had become, or more to the point, how the job title “designer” had become a misnomer that tolerated such irrelevance.

I got into design to solve problems in creative ways, and found myself unable to address the problems that were, to my mind, “worth solving.” Things like education and homelessness and the fact that my grandmother struggles with daily mobility. In other words, things that mattered. I started Project H (selfishly) to figure out how to do that kind of work, and (unselfishly) to hopefully find ways for other designers who felt the same way to do the same.

A Breath of Fresh Air for Health Care

“Optimistic” may be about the last word you’d choose to describe the health care industry. Or maybe “innovative.” But the work now being undertaken by Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plan, would make you gravitate toward those descriptors. Kaiser’s collaborative, institution-wide effort known as KP Innovation could revolutionize health care for the whole industry.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that there was something very different about the way Kaiser communicated its brand. Their “Thrive” campaign, created by Campbell-Ewald, posits Kaiser less as a medical/institutional service than a lifestyle. Both in print and on TV, the ads are visually compelling (clever puns, blueberries elevated to high art) and emotionally engaging (online medical records not only streamline procedures, they save trees and the planet), with voiceovers by the appealing Allison Janney, formerly of “The West Wing.” The intended message is not how well Kaiser will care for you when you’re sick, but rather how Kaiser helps deliver wellness and can enhance the quality of your life.

Pavement to Parks

European Pressphoto Agency/Justin Lane

Last Friday, cities and towns throughout the world celebrated Park(ing) Day, an event created to bring awareness to the importance of using and enjoying public space. Witnessing all those swaths of pavement transformed into plant-filled community gathering spaces (Streetfilms.org has a short film of San Francisco’s Park(ing) Day) got me thinking about — given the tangential way my brain works — the process of land-banking.

Top: (Park)ing Day installation by S.M.P. Architects, Philadelphia; bottom, Park(ing) Day, San Francisco.

Land banking — the strategic acquisition of land in advance of expanding urban development, and the holding on to it as long as possible to maximize profits — is especially pronounced in once-booming, now-busted city centers like Las Vegas, Baltimore and Phoenix, which by the way now has more vacant land than any other major city in the United States. With the economic downturn things have changed somewhat, but there remain huge numbers of empty lots being “banked” in downtowns nationwide, all waiting for a real estate recovery.

Not New, But Improved

Meet Stella.

Stella by Pfeiffer Lab

At first glance, this little yellow giraffe looks like a lot of other kids’ bath toys. But Stella is made from Renuva, a little-known material that could change for the better the way hundreds of things, from upholstery to airplane wings, are made.

The story of how Stella came to be made from this material, a soy-based alternative to polyurethane (which is typically petroleum-based), provides a model for how stuff can be better designed in the future.

Earlier this year, designer Eric Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Lab was asked to participate in Humanscale’s Faces in the Wild auction benefiting the World Wildlife Fund. Pfeiffer, who’s had plenty of experience designing kid-friendly products for companies like Paul Frank and Modernseed, had learned about Renuva while researching greener alternatives to fiberglass mannequins. He approached Renuva’s producer, Dow, about a possible collaboration. Working with their chemists, Pfeiffer was able to explore the material intimately, and it has informed other things he’s working on, including furniture and kitchen sponges.

Competing for a Cause

The school year has begun, and earlier this week President Obama talked to students across the nation about the importance of persisting and succeeding in school. He challenged them to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning. “We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems,” the president said to a group of students at Virginia’s Wakefield High School. “If you don’t do that — if you quit on school — you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.”

Increasingly, that’s no easy task. Things many of us took for granted, like clean, safe classrooms, up-to-date textbooks and programs in art, music and physical education, are in peril, both domestically and internationally. Though the building industry is at a near standstill, the World Bank estimates that 10 million new classrooms will be required to reach its target on education as outlined in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. In addition, tens of millions of crumbling school facilities — including many in the United States — are in urgent need of upgrading. Meeting this need for classroom space will constitute the largest building project the world has ever undertaken.

Section Eight Design/Open Architecture Network Design by Section Eight.

Designs on Policy

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, the designer Michael Bierut addressed the state of something on all of our minds these days. Money. Specifically, its design, which Bierut is none too happy about. On the back side of the U.S. dollar, we are faced, says Bierut, with the general effect of “a cake that has been decorated to within an inch of its life.” As for those enormous purple numbers added to deter counterfeiters a few years ago? “A denim patch on a satin dress,” says Bierut.

Winning currency design by Kyle Thompson.

Charmed by the graphic perfection of Switzerland’s currency and the elephants and rhinos bursting forth from South Africa’s, Bierut thinks it’s time for a currency overhaul in this country. He points to the grassroots efforts of creative consultant Richard Smith, whose recent Dollar ReDe$ign project invited anyone to submit an idea. (Winning entries announced on July 4th can be viewed at this site.) “The only realistic way for a swift economic recovery,” Smith proposes, “is through a thorough, in-depth rebranding scheme — starting with the redesign of the iconic U.S. dollar.”

Most “ironic” entry by Derek O’Connor: “If Nascar can do it why couldn’t we make money on money?”

A good place to start? The mortgage industry. A national survey (appropriately pegged “The Perplexity Poll”) done by brand strategists Siegal & Gale in 2004 revealed that Americans continue to find many of the most common and important documents we interact with in our daily lives extremely, well, perplexing.

Photo by woodleywonderworks

I’m right there with Bierut and Smith . . . and why stop there? Our entire economic system could do with a serious redesign. At the top of the list? Mortgage loan applications (followed closely by explanations of health benefits). Sixty percent of respondents rated mortgage documents as being “difficult to understand.”

Rethinking the Mall

Photo by Peter Leonard. The Forum Shops at Caesars thegogglesdonothing.com).

One doesn’t pop in to make a quick purchase at the Forum Shops at Caesars. Once inside this pseudo-palatial labyrinth, your path is blocked, er, directed by faux-marble benches, enormous planters and ill-placed concierge desks. You may see the store you need to get to in your line of sight, but access to it is, fittingly for Las Vegas, a mirage. There are no short cuts allowed, no direct paths. Your leisurely stroll is in fact carefully choreographed, and ensures that you will come into contact, however briefly, with every single store in the mall.

Ah, if only the designers and developers of shopping malls paid as much attention to the foot traffic outside the mall as they do to the orchestrated promenade within it.

At the 2009 International Council on Shopping Centers convention held in Las Vegas last month, pedestrian-oriented development was not top of mind (though in a 3.2 million-square-foot convention center, walking was a defining part of the experience). Despite a nearly 50 percent drop in attendance from prior years, most talk at ICSC was of how business as usual could resume once “things came back.”

Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas

This is a relentless age we’re living in, a time when innovative solutions — or any solutions, for that matter — to our seemingly infinite problems seem in short supply.

So how do we come up with new ideas? How do we learn to think outside of normal parameters? Are the processes in place for doing so flawed? Do we rely too much on computer models? On consultants? On big-idea gurus lauding the merits of tribes and crowds or of starfish and spiders? On Twitter?

At the risk of sounding like a big-idea guru myself, I can’t help thinking that we’re all so mired in it that we’ve forgotten how to get out of it — how to daydream, invent, engage with the absurd.

That’s why I am so enamored with the work of inventor/author/cartoonist/former urban planner Steven M. Johnson, a sort of R. Crumb meets R. Buckminster Fuller. Johnson is a former urban planner, and his work tends toward the nodes where social issues intersect with design and urban planning issues.

In discussing his often fantastical, sometimes silly, sometimes visionary concepts, he has said, “If I could use two words to describe what it is that I enjoy it is that I love to be sneakily outrageous . . . [It may be that] I have decided an idea has no practical worth and would never be likely to be adopted seriously (like most of my ideas), but I like it anyway.”

Steven M. Johnson. Variations on the theme of recreational vehicles.

A latent inventor, Johnson discovered his “ability” only at age 36 in 1974, when he was the editorial cartoonist for The Sierra Club Bulletin and the editor, Roger Olmsted, asked him to invent whimsical recreational vehicles. Olmsted asked for 16; Johnson gave him 109. “I had never invented anything before,” he told me in an e-mail recently, “because no one had ever asked me to invent anything!”

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the powers that be should do nothing but give in to their wild imaginations. But there’s something to Johnson’s explorations that warrants our attention. It may be, as the title of his 1984 book suggests, exactly “What the World Needs Now: A Resource Book for Daydreamers, Frustrated Inventors, Cranks, Efficiency Experts, Utopians, Gadgeteers, Tinkerers, and Just About Everybody Else.”

Designing Through a Depression

Limited edition print by Matt Jones to benefit Creative Commons (20×200.com).

Addressing other nations at the G-20 last Wednesday, President Obama suggested that the United States was unlikely to return to its role as a “voracious consumer market.” If Obama’s right — and the experience of Japan, post-recession, suggests he may well be — what might that mean for design?

The impact of the economy on design has generated a lively round of journalistic debate. In “Design Loves a Depression,” a piece in The Times in January, design writer Michael Cannell argued that designers need to be taken down a notch and shift gears from creating luxury high rises and limited-edition Nymphenburg porcelain cows and “actually find a new sense of relevance in the process”; Murray Moss, owner of the eponymous Soho temple to design and purveyor of limited edition Nymphenburg porcelain cows, rightly responded at Design Observer that designers (and everyone else in their right mind) hate a depression — and also that there’s no shame in creating beauty (including that which takes the form of expensive objects).

Design editor Pilar Viladas echoed Moss, focusing her essay in T magazine on her love for (and support for the ongoing production of) a $900 Royal Copenhagen plate — and “for those of you who can actually afford it,” she concluded, “mazel tov.” And, never one to shy away from an opportunity, provocateur/designer Philippe Starck jumped in and attempted yet again to end his own career with the suggestion that any talk of the beauty of the designed object ” . . . seems a bit obscene.”

I do agree with Moss that design doesn’t love a depression, and indeed, it’s obvious that designers don’t “deserve” a depression any more than autoworkers, chefs or airline pilots. Nor are they responsible for having created one. Designers may make fantastical one-off objects destined for collectors’ vitrines, but it’s more likely they work for clients and companies whose demands and desires dictate. As one designer put it to me in an e-mail recently, “There is no crime in the creation of the occasional design equivalent of a cream puff. I’m just hoping the pursuit will not return with such perverse attention.”

Shelf Life

Photo by Leslie Williamson, Bill Stout.

Photo by Leslie Williamson, Bill Stout.

I felt so fortunate to attend a special presentation the other night: William Stout, owner of the eponymous architecture and design bookstore in San Francisco, had been invited to talk about his favorite books at Linden Tree, a casual salon of sorts that aims to foster the design community in the city.

Stores like Stout’s (not to mention people like Stout!) are a rare breed these days: there are two floors bursting with over 20,000 books on everything from the sustainable houses of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt to Czech graphic designer Vitezslav Nezval’s “Alphabet” from 1926 to the last sketchbook of Jackson Pollock to William Wegman’s whimsical “Dogs on Rocks.” Some books are shelved in an orderly fashion, others are piled high, begging for the serendipity of accidental discovery.

Stout began with his favorite quote from Balzac: “I seldom go out but when I feel myself flagging I go and cheer myself up in Pere Lachaise … while seeking out the dead I see nothing but the living.”