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.

The role of designers is in a period of transition. It’s less about objects, and more about systems and experiences. How would you describe what you do every day?

I’m laughing as I read this question because I just spent a 6-hour flight back from the East Coast studying to take the Praxis test, the standard exam you have to pass to teach in a public school. Studio H will be taught by myself and Project H’s project architect Matthew Miller, and both of us have to become certified as high school teachers in vocational trade skills AND an academic subject. So all of a sudden I’m a high school English teacher combining research and composition with a design and community service program. I mention this only because these are the moments when I ask myself, “Am I still a designer? What the heck happened?”

The truth is that my days are filled with surprises, and honestly, little of it is design in its purest sense. I do Project H’s accounting, media and communications, project management, and more. I’ll find myself editing legal contracts or having conversations about educational policy with superintendents. I’m still very much a designer, because designers are great at distilling lots of information and disparate subjects into something beautiful and palpable. And these days, when designers do have a lot to prove (that we are a valuable part of any discussion, and that we work with processes that no other field can offer), I actually think it’s this work outside of design that is going to be our real opportunity. A designer disguised as a high school teacher: that is where the magic will happen.

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