A Design Revolution Hits the Road
The first time I met Emily Pilloton was a year-and-a-half ago, at a grungy bar in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood, when I was in town to cover the Compostmodern design and sustainability conference. A few of the local environmentally-minded had gathered for drinks and I needed no introduction to the woman to my left: Pilloton was an accomplished designer and editor for Inhabitat. But moments after I met her, Pilloton told me this would be one of her last posts for Inhabitat-she was moving on to something bigger. A year later, same Compostmodern conference, she was more true to her word than even she probably expected. Pilloton was there, not covering for Inhabitat, but onstage, presenting the nonprofit she had founded in those less-than-12 months. Project H Design had already activated over 300 designers in nine cities, who were each working on their own social design projects from a water transport device in South Africa to a collection of urban living products made with a women's shelter in downtown Los Angeles. I remember sitting in the audience, impressed by the what, but far more interested in the how: How had this one 26-year-old so catalyzed the design community?
Luckily, at one moment during that stratospheric trajectory, Pilloton was approached by Metropolis to write a book about socially-impactful design. Again, working at the accelerated pace at which Pilloton's brain seems to be exclusively programmed, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People was written in 90 days, and designed in a few more by Scott Stowell, the founding design director of GOOD, and his team at Open (so needless to say, we love the way it looks). This book functions as a guidebook to Pilloton's thought process over the last several years, and you can almost watch her wrestle in real-time with the complicated and intertwined issues of sustainability, cultural appropriateness, materials, functionality, and designer responsibility. You can also see how her approach inspires designers to rally around her: It's uplifting but honest; she even addresses criticism of some of the 115 products within.
For readers of GOOD, avid viewers of TED videos, or fans of exhibitions like the Cooper-Hewitt's Design for the Other 90%, many of the products and initiatives featured in the book will be extremely familiar to you. But Pilloton's focus isn't really on the slick, cutting-edge design that has always looked a little odd as it's held up by residents of developing nations. Sure, projects that have gotten plenty of that kind of attention like the One Laptop Per Child and the Lifestraw are here-and we learn the terminology behind them like leapfrogging (introducing technology to developing cultures) and appro-tech (using appropriate local methods for manufacturing). But for each foundation-sponsored project with millions of research dollars thrown at it, there's the $10 solution as well (and each entry does include its price). These basic ideas can often be as minimal as the coat of paint proposed by Publicolor (pictured above), a program that works with students in New York City schools to revitalize their educational environments. Or tape imprinted with soccer ball-graphics that can be rolled into a ball, a high-impact idea for youth who will never have access to a the leather version. Or the creative reuse of an everyday object, like Denver's Donation Meter Program that allows people to donate money to homeless programs right on the street.
Design Revolution shines at showing the beauty of these achingly simple solutions. My favorite products in the book are the scrappy concepts like a DIY clay water filter, or a recipe for biodiesel. There are resources for making your own rainwater catchment systems with developing world ideas that are so good, they could inspire an American homeowner to hack his own gutters. These entries list only the materials you need, with some background and a brief tutorial. For some entries, like the give-and-take network Freecycle, the concept is so simple you have to wonder if it even counts as product... or even design?But that's the point. What Pilloton is doing here is not creating another beautiful showcase of objects. She's doing exactly what she talks about in her introduction: Taking the product out of product design. It's about time someone did.
This being Pilloton, the story does not end there, and the book itself is functioning as one of those simple ideas optimized for maximum impact. She wanted a way to bring the book and its message to design schools-the very place Pilloton wished that she had known this kind of designing was possible. So she sourced a 1972 Airstream trailer and she began curating a mobile exhibit of products in the book, which she plans to take to cities nationwide. Pulling the trailer will be a 1996 F250 Ford diesel truck which we can only guess will be powered by the book's DIY biodiesel. (Although Pilloton is in the market for a backup, seeing as the truck already has 250,000 miles on it; if you've got a diesel truck sitting in your driveway, you might consider sending it her way.)
With generous funding from Adobe and a grant from paper company Sappi's Ideas That Matter, her team is building out the Airstream (currently scraping the 38-year-old paint off it), and booking slots with schools. The Design Revolution Road Show officially kicks off with a book release event in San Francisco on October 1. Last week, Pilloton was announced as a Social Innovation Fellow for the conference PopTech, so look for her there in October as well. Then the exhibition-on-wheels will begin rolling around the country in February, hitting 22 schools. The tour will also include a week in North Carolina where the team will pause to work with the Bertie Public Schools, where Pilloton's Project H built a series of educational playgrounds made of repurposed tires called Learning Landscapes. An ongoing collaboration with an extremely design-savvy superintendent will likely be a more permanent home for Project H's first design-build program, starting with a computer center they completed for the schools this month.
"I believe that design is problem solving with grace and foresight," Pilloton begins her introduction in Design Revolution. The design world has spent the last few years realigning to a version of this statement, but it needed a new voice that could reframe it for us without preaching, without precedence, but with a renewed sense of urgency. This book-this movement-works because Emily Pilloton is out in the field, solving problems with grace and foresight, and enthusiastically encouraging others to do the same. Towards the beginning of the book you'll find the Designer's Handshake, a hot pink, two-page, 13-point pledge for designers you're instructed to sign and mail back to her. You could do that, but the language is so smart, so inspiring, so appropriate-for any industry, mind you-it's a real shame to have to send it away. I recommend fashioning it into some kind of flag that flies over your desk. After all, this is nothing less than a revolution.