Image: Metropolis Books (design: OPEN)
Allan Chochinov: Welcome Emily! We're very excited about the new book of course, and wanted to start at the start. How did this project begin?
Emily Pilloton: As has been the case with so much of Project H's growth, it was a story of serendipity. When I launched Project H in January of 2008 at the age of 26, I had big plans, and wanted to push product design to a more humanitarian-driven industry. The idea of writing a book crossed my mind, though I had placed it on my "things to do in the next ten years" list. About four months into Project H's existence, I had just returned from South Africa and Uganda, where we had been working on projects with Hippo Roller and the Kutamba AIDS Orphans School, and was giving a lecture during New York design week, at Metropolis' "Make Good and Prosper" conference at the ICFF. I was completely jet-lagged from a 14-hour flight from Johannesburg, and was having trouble putting eloquent sentences together. But despite that, after my talk giving an overview of Project H's initiatives and mission, Diana Murphy, the editor of Metropolis Books, approached me and expressed interest in the content as potential book material. Over the next few months, I put together a proposal, pitched it to Metropolis, and signed a book deal in August 2008. Coincidentally, I had met graphic designer extraordinaire Scott Stowell at Compostmodern in January 2008, who at the time I had accosted, saying "If I ever write a book, I want you to design it." After signing the contract, he was the next phone call I made. (And as a sidebar for readers: Allan wasn't just at the top of the list to write the foreword, he WAS the list).
ICFF 2008 Metropolis lecture, the day I met Diana Murphy and the book adventure began
Image: Jill Fehrenbacher/Inhabitat
AC: Thanks for the kind thoughts. Scott is great. The work he did for Good Magazine is one of the reasons it's such a joy to read. But was the book going to be a chronicle of Project H work thus far? What exactly was Metropolis Books looking for?
EP: Design Revolution isn't a monograph of Project H's work (because frankly at the time I signed the book contract, we had less than 10 projects in the works and certainly not enough to fill an entire book!). Instead, it is a call-to-action for, and a compendium of product design that empowers. In hindsight, having only started Project H about 7 months prior to signing the book contract, embarking on such a huge project was probably a little bit premature, but it gave me the avenue to more deeply explore some of Project H's values and ambitions, and to do so in a way that would hopefully inspire and motivate other product designers to stop talking about doing good, and to take action with some helpful tools. And having only 90 days to write it really forced me to hone in on what was important, what I had learned from launching Project H, what was helpful to share, and what would inspire. In a sense, it's an extended mission statement for Project H.
Now that it's out (which is still a little unreal), I hope people reference it as a collection of "evidence"—making the case for great humanitarian design that improves life and goes beyond charitable gestures. I also hope they use it as a roadmap and toolbox for how to engage in product design for social impact in the right way. The book says "product designers—stop making stuff and start building solutions." It also says "design for the greater good isn't automatically good design, we have to be critical and create great systems that work."
The "Design Revolution" flag
Image: Gus Powell
AC: Evidence is the key word there, isn't it. It seems that the ante for designers of all stripes has been upped lately—whether it's "design thinking" or "social change" or any other myriad descriptions or expectations for the discipline. But asking a designer to "Make Social Change!" is a daunting thing—something of a different order than "Make Something Beautiful!" or "Make Something Work Better!" Or is it though?
EP: It can definitely feel daunting, given the weight of some of the issues we're tackling, but being a designer should always be (and should have been all along) about "making something work better" and "making social change." If design doesn't feel like a daunting task with enormous responsibility and potential for impact, then we aren't doing it right. I think designers are more than anything, problem solvers, and to reorient an industry that has in some ways strayed from solving the important problems is the biggest task at hand.
The challenge in my mind is twofold: tipping the scales away from designing artifacts to designing impact, and making sure that design for social impact is not just a means to stroke our own egos and add "greater good" projects to our portfolios. When you're designing for health and education and survival, the stakes are higher, and the design has to be that much more effective.
AC: I think that's a good lens through which to examine the book. I'm flipping through the 100 projects now, and it is absolutely true that the stakes just seem to be so high on each of them. Can you talk a little about the criteria for choosing the items that made it into the book?
EP: Sure! Obviously there's a lot of work out there, including an increasing amount of design "for the greater good"—some of it better than others. When I first started compiling the list, there were about 250 items in the 8 categories, which I set forth from the beginning as a way to organize the collection. Ultimately, the collection was whittled down to 115, which as a whole represent a wide spectrum of projects from consumer goods to DIY developing world systems and enterprise-based concepts. The goal wasn't to say "each of these 100 things is a fantastic and perfect example of empowering design!" but to show a range that collectively would provide both precedent and inspiration. The truth is that some of the products in the book are extremely effective, while others are more provocative, some beautiful, and some purely functional. But as I curated the collection, there needed to be those ebbs and flows, because it is in these spots where designers have opportunity to raise the bar.
AC: Let's talk about some specific projects: What entries are you particularly proud to give attention to? I mean, there are some well-known items in the book—Nike+, ZipCar, OXO Good Grips, OLPC etc.—and these are terrific in demonstrating the potential scale that successful products and services can attain—but it's nice to give some ink to others that haven't yet enjoyed the spotlight. What are some of your favorites?
SODIS Water Purificaiton
Image: SODIS Eawag
DIY Soccer Ball Tape
Image: Marti Guixe/Magis
Enabling Devices "Talkables with Built-In Icon Holder" communicator
Image: Enabling Devices
EP: I love some of the small stories—the sort of "matchbook under the table-leg" solutions that are not the most aesthetically resolved design, but make SO much sense (they are the "duh!" solutions that you just kick yourself for not having thought of before). I love the SODIS solar water purification system, which is simply a set of instructions and plastic water bottles that you place on a roof to solar-pasteurize water. Or the DIY soccer ball tape that looks like a soccer ball print and turns any wad of paper into a soccer ball. These small things are great because they say to people "design is only a toolbox, now make it work for you." They're "half objects" in a way that make everyone a designer. My other favorites are the educational solutions, things like Montessori toys or Enabling Devices for children with special needs, which probably have not been shown in design books, but make learning experiences richer and more creative for children. Lastly, the entire Enterprise section shows how we can design systems instead of stuff. Each of these Enterprise projects is not about the materiality, or the product, but what that product's by-product is. For example, Artecnica's Design With Conscience products are gorgeous, but the point of the initiative is to enable and support craft communities through better production and design. I'm curious what some of your favorites are, too.
Image: Adaptive Eyecare/Dr. Joshua Silver
AC: Oh boy, there are just so many. I'm hugely drawn to the projects that have stealth—and curiously there are a lot of them in the book: The Stop Thief Anti-Theft Furniture that accommodates a woman's handbag; the Max Chair with its subversive rear leg geometry that prevents "unruly students" from leaning back in their seats during class. And staying in the classroom, I'm fond of the Voting Ruler, but mostly because I love the notion that other students can't see your vote. And then there's Tejo Remy and Rene Veenhuizen's Playground Fence (some quintessential Droog, that), turning barriars into seating. Of course, IDEO's Keep the Change and Aquaduct are fan favorites, and the Adaptive Eyecare water-based eyeglass lenses is a project that stuns in its ingenuity. Did I leave anything out?! Oh...GadShaananDesign's Spider Boot land demining footwear (I had a thesis student who did a project on demining equipment—a field in dire need of design innovation.) I could go on.
So while we're on the topic of the actual projects in the book...I have to ask you, What DIDN'T make it into the book? I know every writer has additions they fight for after the deadline, but what were the projects that didn't make it in? And were there others that didn't make it for, um, other reasons?
EP: To comment on your love of the "stealthy ones," I like to refer to that quality as "secret cuteness," a term which Scott Stowell got seriously sick of hearing during our graphic design process. ("Give it some secret cuteness" or "make it Project H pink," I said almost weekly.) Anyway, it's these sort of sly design gestures that are like the object winking at its user. It's that clever function that's masked in humor or surprise.
As for what didn't make it, there were a few factors. I started with a very long list, including everything I could think of, things I had researched, things colleagues had mentioned, etc. As I went through the paring down process, some items just logistically didn't work out—I could not get a hold of the company or designer, for example, or there wasn't sufficient documentation or imagery available. Others, as I dug deeper, I discovered just didn't make the cut—they were, for example, great concepts but totally unfeasible, or were a kind of design masturbation—essentially design for design's sake without any regard for the actual people who might use or benefit from the design. Concepts that were dreamed up by a designer in a bubble were excluded; I felt strongly that everything had to either be researched or implemented through qualitative engagement with users. Scott asked me at the beginning of the design process, "give me an example of something that WOULD NOT be in the book." I told him an iPod. An iPod—or iPhone, for that matter—we can all agree is well-designed. The iPod + Nike SportKit, however, IS in the book, because it isn't simple gadgetry; it's the application of great design for a life-improving purpose—in this case, to enhance the experience of running and encouraging better personal health.
AC: And here's your opportunity to add a few that didn't make the deadline.
EP: There are so many! The "ones that got away" that I keep thinking about, though, are the Rape-aXe condom, which is slightly dark in concept but an amazingly empowering device for women. It's a latex female condom with small spikes in it that prevents the act of rape. PeePoople is a simple bag that facilitates the sanitary disposal of human waste for the 2.6 billion without access to a toilet. I love the Freeplay line of humanitarian devices, too, including the self-sufficient Lifeline Radio for emergency aid and development use. And finally, I would have included TOM's Shoes in the Enterprise section, not just because I am obsessed with them, but for their simplicity and downright genius "sales + charity" model. I could go on!
Designer's Handshake (FRONT)
Designer's Handshake (Back)
AC: Let's talk a little about The Designer's Handshake, a tearout sheet found between your (inspiring) book introduction and the start of the 100 projects. This is a pledge that readers fill in and send to you. Can you tell us how this started, what your goals were, and how the publisher felt about it? Also, have you gotten any back yet?
EP: The Designer's Handshake was a idea (which at the time was suggested in jest) that came out of a conversation with my partner and Project H's jack-of-all-trades Matt Miller. I was about halfway into writing the book, and we were discussing the plague of the coffee table book—the beautifully designed tomes that are more eye candy than reference books or toolkits. I really wanted Design Revolution to NOT be something that just sits there, but that designers could use every day, write in, and use as a sort of field guide. The Designers Handshake emerged as a way to create an interaction and a personal investment in the book's principles. It's, in a way, a version of the medical profession's "Hippocratic Oath" which will push designers to not just flip through the book's pages, but to tear one out, subscribe to a set of values, and then stick to them. It's a way to embed action into a traditionally static form of media. The term "Handshake" seemed appropriate, as it's not as heavy or intimidating as Oath or Vow or Manifesto, but something that was a simple agreement entered into on a sort of "designer's honor system." It's in the vein of the Designers Accord, a gesture of commitment to guide the decisions we make as designers. I should ask you, as an author of your own (awesome) 1000-word manifesto about sustainability, which items in the Designers Handshake resonate with you most strongly? In other words, if you had to pick one or two things from the Designers Handshake to ingrain in the minds of professions and students, which would they be?
AC: Thanks for the kind words! Well, I love all the handshake principles, but the 3 that resonate with me most are:
To listen, learn, and understand: I recognize that every client, partner, or stranger is someone to learn from. I will listen before assuming. I will seek to understand the historical, geographical, social, cultural, and economic context and precedents before beginning the design process.
To be optimistic but critical: I will employ perpetual optimism as a design and business strategy but will apply the same critical evaluation toward social and humanitarian design work that I would any other product. Just because it’s "for the greater good" doesn’t make it good design.
To do good business with good people: I will be honorable in business and partnerships. I will build distribution into my design, and employ businesses that maximize social impact. I will align myself and work with individuals and groups who have the same values as I do.
I also like the enforced humility in "To not do what I don't know." That one should be made into a sticker.
EP: Yes! That's one of my favorites too. To be effective designers for social impact, we have to be humble listeners and fearless leaders, all at the same time, which is no easy feat. But I think this next generation of designers has the potential to do both, and my sincere hope is that design education rises to meet their expectations and teach the tools they will need to face the challenges. Next Spring, Project H is hitting the road in an attempt to do just that: to inspire design students, and to share tools with design educators to help better prepare young designers to design GREAT solutions for the greater good (enter...the Design Revolution Road Show). Inspired by the book, we'll load about 40 of the products into an Airstream trailer (which doubles as my home right now...actually triples as my home and office), hitch it up to a biodiesel-powered Ford F250, and visit 23 design schools across the US with the pop-up exhibition, a lecture, and workshop for both students AND educators. I think it's so important to see this stuff in person, rather than just the press photos. And it's important for our "book tour" to be very accessible, and person-to-person. But most of all, it's crucial for this all to happen within academics, rather than just from "the industry" (the Road Show programming will be open to the greater design community, but hosted within the schools). To embed new design thinking and social practices in design education is what will produce a new generation of visionaries with no tolerance for the usual bullsh*t. I'm curious though, as an educator, do you see a shift? And if so, do you think it is a sincere one, backed by real action? Or is it all talk? Do you feel optimistic about what young designers can (and have to) do? Sorry, that was a lot of questions all in a row.
The Airstream, Project H's home, office, and mobile exhibition for the Road Show
Image: Project H Design
Airstream on the road
Image: Project H Design
Interior of Airstream (work in progress, will be exhibition space)
Image: Project H Design
AC: No, no...those are all good questions. There is a Designers Accord Education Summit coming up at the end of this month where a lot of those issues will be discussed, but my own feeling is that the challenges are with the teachers, not the students. Students are willing and eager for anything, frankly, and they come in with a keen interest in sustainability and design for social good. The challenge is that "teachers teach what they teach" and are often scared (or unwilling) to augment their skill and knowledge sets to engage the students on these contemporary issues. This is particularly problematic with teachers who operate from an "I know/you don't" perspective; for those who don't actually know (and that's all of us at various times), there's always the very effective, "That's an interesting question. Let's all research that for next week and report back during the next class." Many of the issues around design, sustainability, social entrepreneurship...they're complex and scary. So it's okay for everyone to be learning together as these disciplines mature. But a lot of teachers won't go for that, so the students end up not getting the nourishment (or nurturing) they need. Do you think the roadshow can make a dent in that?
EP: I totally agree. In my experience, it's the students who are chomping at the bit to design at the forefront (of the environmentally and socially responsible), and the educators who are either of the "Old Guard" and unwilling to learn new tricks, or just ill-equipped to teach concepts and tools that, honestly, we have yet to figure out. There are, of course, the design educators who "get it" and are honest in saying, "okay, so we don't know how to teach this, but dammit, let's figure it out." Events like the Education Summit will help with this process. But I also love what you said about "learning together"—that's what needs to happen. Anyone working within design to think they know the definitive ways to solve huge issues like global health, water accessibility, or homelessness, are fooling themselves. We've all got to struggle through it together. That's what I hope the Design Revolution Road Show initiates: the struggle. Not in a bad way, but I hope it lights a fire within design education, and stirs up the traditional teaching models, so that after we roll through town with our lecture, workshop, and Airstream full of inspiration, the school is left thinking "there's something there, and we have a responsibility to figure out how to teach it, build it, and design the solutions." I like to think of the stops on the Road Show as "productive hit-and-runs," where we're bringing the inspiration, energy, and toolbox, spending 2 days rocking the boat, and then leaving with the hope that those things stick, for both teachers and students to figure out collectively and keep raising the bar.
So yes, many small design revolutions, one might say!