Now over a month into our Project HDesign Revolution Road Show adventure, I'm looking back thinking how quickly it has gone by, and how chock-full-of lessons, inspiration, frustrations, and surprises it has been. On February 1st, my Project H partner-in-crime Matthew Miller and I set out in a renovated Airstream trailer on a cross-country "design for social impact tour." What began as a book tour for my book, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, grew into a 75-day, 8000-mile traveling exhibition of humanitarian product design, lecture and workshop series at 35 design schools and high schools all over the US.
Our goal, aside from an awesome road trip, was to inspire the next generation of creative problem solvers, and to provide them with the tools necessary to embark on meaningful, community-driven design projects in their own back yards. We've had run-ins with undiscovered geniuses, total nutjobs, 4-year olds and 84-year olds, and pretty much everything in between.
We started in San Francisco, headed down to Los Angeles, then across the South (we're now in North Carolina). With about 15 schools under our belts and 20 left to go, here are our top 10 moments (in no particular order) of the first leg of our journey:
10) Launch party at the Academy of Art, San Francisco
Aside from the cupcake truck, taco truck, and mobile pizza oven that filled the Academy of Art's parking lot, over 400 friends joined us, in the rain, for the official launch of the road show on February 2nd. In attendance were hundreds of students, the guys from Public Architecture, Rob Forbes (formerly of Design Within Reach, now launching Public Bikes- he gave us a sweet Dahon for our trip!), Stephen Jenkins, lead singer of Third Eye Blind, and folks from my publisher and distributor, Metropolis Books and DAP. And of course, my parents and sisters were there, hovering over the free food carts. Read Jeannie Choe's recap here.
9) Hippo Roller vs. bucket races at Redwood High
The journey began at my alma mater, Redwood High School, north of San Francisco, where it took students less than 30 minutes to concoct a racetrack for the Hippo Roller water transport barrel (we set out to prove that the Hippo Roller was a far more efficient way to carry water than two 5-gallon buckets, and it won every time). Watch the full race video here.
8 ) A new solar rig
Before leaving California, we met a guy named Matt from RayTracker, a company that installs large-scale commercial solar arrays. He also had a ton of leftover smaller modules, one of which he gave to us to power our battery that then powers our lights in the trailer. After figuring out the right configuration between inverter and converter and DC and AC, we are now totally solar and able to run our entire operation off the grid.
7) Living the RV park life
As our Airstream lacks a bathroom and kitchen, but does have a bed "pod," we have been spending most nights at RV parks around the country. Our dinners often consist of chinese food and drinking wine straight from the bottle, using milk crates as both seating and counter space. In Alabama, we met some characters at the Bar W RV Park outside of Auburn, and mastered the art of the game cornhole, then drank beer huddled around an oil-drum campfire that night. It's like summer camp every day!
6) University of Louisiana
At the risk of sounding like I'm picking favorites, our day at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette may have taken the cake. As we didn't know much about the area or the program, we did not know what to expect from the somewhat "underdog" school. We were greeted by almost the entire department and professor Owen Foster, and spent the entire day getting to know the students in the small industrial design department, discussing their work, nixing a formal lecture for an outdoor picnic with pizza. We also showed up 2 days after Mardi Gras, and it was fascinating to hear about the local culture and how design might play a part in both the preservation and improvement of the surrounding community.
5) Our canine "impulse buy" in Texas
My partner Matthew and I have been looking for a Project H mascot for a while now, and it just so happened that the serene backroads of Texas' hill country turned out to be the moment of commitment. While driving towards Austin along Route 290, we were inspired by a roadside sign that read "Border Collie Pups." Our conversation went something like this. Matt: "Hey, you want a border collie?" Emily: "Sure!" Forty-five minutes later, we continued our journey with a third passenger, six-month-old Junebug, who has made the trip that much more interesting!
4) Project H meets Project M at PieLab
Our friends at PieLab, the brainchild of Project M-ers John Bielenberg, Brian Jones, and others, invited us to set up our Airstream exhibition in downtown Greensboro, AL in front of their shop. One of our first "Main Street" stops, Greensboro proved to be a fascinating place where our conversations ranged from design for rural development to the best way to prepare catfish. And I ate four pieces of pie in about nine hours. Read more about PieLab's unique approach to community gathering and design for the greater good here.
3) Debate in Alabama
We have been posting a daily "snapshot" on our blog, and this particular image enraged an elderly white woman in Alabama, who showed up at our Auburn University stop to yell at me for "irresponsible representation of her home state." She viewed the photo as unrepresentative of housing in Alabama, which of course, is a valid statement, as it is just one home. But is in fact, a house that a family lives in, and in my mind is worth documenting as a demonstration of poverty in our own back yards. What do you think?
2) An evening at Art Center with GOOD
On February 8th, we spent the day at Art Center in Pasadena, which culminated with a lovely evening event in one of their sound stage areas, hosted by GOOD and Art Center's Alumni Association. Our friends Casey Caplowe and Max Schorr of GOOD, and design writer extraordinary Alissa Walker were in attendance, along with our Project H Los Angeles team leader Kim Karlsrud.
1) Design High School
At the incredible Design High School charter school in downtown Los Angeles, we had one of our toughest audiences: about 75 low-income, at-risk youth, most of whom are struggling to stay in school. The Design High School prioritizes hands-on learning and problem solving, and our day spent with the students was incredibly rewarding as we made the case that "cool design" and "solutions for people" are not mutually exclusive. Crowd favorites included Adaptive Eyecare glasses and the Whilrwind Wheelchair. The students particularly loved the clip of my recent appearance on the Colbert Report. Our other high school stops have been just as inspiring. To use design as a lens through which youth can see a brighter future is a phenomenal experience.
Emily Pilloton is the founder of the nonprofit Project H Design. Since 2008, she has run Project H and worked with young people ages 9-18 to bring the power of design and building to schools and communities. Emily is trained as an architect with degrees from UC Berkeley and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but found that she is physically incapable of working in an office or for a boss and much prefers the creative chaos of a public school classroom filled with tools and welding equipment. Project H Design was born out of the hope that authentic, on-the-ground, face-to-face work with young people could transform what it means to be a design professional, what it means to learn in the 21st century, and what it means to get dirty and physically build solutions for your community.
Specifically, Emily launched 2 Project H programs: Studio H, an in-school design/build curriculum, and Camp H, an after-school and summer building camp for young girls ages 9-13. Exploring the intersection of science, art, math, and community development, Emily has led Project H youth in the design and construction of an award-winning 2,000-square-foot farmers market structure, chicken coops, playgrounds, their own school library, microhomes for the homeless, laser-etched skateboards, and welded steel public sculpture.
Emily believes that by giving youth, particularly girls and students of color, the skills to design and build their wildest ideas, we can support the next generation of creative, confident changemakers. Her ideas and work have made their way to the TED Stage, The Colbert Report, the New York Times, and more. Her work is the subject of the full-length documentary If You Build It. She is the author of two books, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, and Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education. Emily is also a Visiting Professor in the Department of Design at UC Davis.