Sunday, August 23, 2009

Q & A with Emily Pilloton

first met Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H Design, when she came through Baltimore last spring for a lecture at MICA. She talked about her reasons for founding a non-profit dedicated to creating life-enhancing product design versus following a traditional career path. I saw Emily again this summer at the offices of Metropolis magazine in New York where she was working on her new book Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People. It comes out in September through Metropolis Books and was designed by the talented Scott Stowell of Open.

I caught up with Emily again recently via email to ask her some questions about the direction of design for an article I'm writing for the October issue of Urbanite magazine (more on that when the time comes). In the meantime, Emily agreed to let me share our full exchange:

Your manifesto articulates so well why you took the trajectory that you did with your work. If you were talking with someone in the general public just learning about design today, how would you describe the work that you do? Would you qualify it as "social design?"

I think I am allergic to the keywords and sound bites that tend to describe this kind of work: "social design," "humanitarian design" or "sustainable design." To me, Project H is merely a way to use design for what it's really all about: problem solving. And Project H hopefully is applying design to the most urgent problems, in order to provide meaningful solutions in places that need them. We don't just design for the developing world, we look locally and produce solutions WITH rather than FOR clients and partners in education, community empowerment agencies, foster care, disabled and mental health care, childhood development, and more. "Social design" to me sounds like "social engineering," and I would hope the work we do is less about design as the be-all-end-all solution, and more about a process through which to empower people and help co-create the best and most scalable solutions for big problems.

Do you believe there is a general increase in designers (of all disciplines) practicing social design?

I think there is a huge increase in interest, but I think the expertise is still very much "in progress." Because designing for fourth graders, or the homeless, or the elderly, often requires designers to drastically change their traditional design approaches, we are all learning as we go. While there is a new generation of "citizen designers" coming out of school now, there is also a lot of model-building, feedback looping, and metric analysis we need to engage in to ensure that these design solutions for social impact are in fact solutions, rather than just design for design's sake. There is a fine line between real design solutions and a sort of self-indulgent "design as charity" practice, and we all have a duty to not just commit ourselves to social design, but to be critical of our own processes and ensure that we're doing it right. Ultimately, these big social issues we are designing for require the most scrutiny, more so than, say, luxury or accessory design, because often it is our clients' livelihood for which we're designing. The stakes are higher, so we can't just call "design for the greater good" good simply because it is an act of service—it has to WORK.

What's driving this?

I think it's a combination of the urgency of big global issues (global warming, population growth, disease, hunger, resource shortages), that we can no longer ignore, coupled with an influx of new communication networks—people can now talk to basically anyone in the world in a single Tweet. At the same time, the time has come not for worrying or analysis, but for action—these global issues are not just big nebulous problems, but things that are affecting our livelihood. Designers, as solution makers, are inherently receptive to that and want to take action.

You spent some time at MICA working with students. How was that experience? How did the students relate to design? What message did you hope to impart?

The MICA students were amazingly engaged in the type of work Project H does, and not in a superficial way. They were genuinely hungry for this kind of work, offering suggestions and critique, and, like Project H, trying their hardest to find the best models to do meaningful design for social impact work. With design students, it's not just a zeitgeist, but a responsibility to equip these young designers with the tools, values, and initiative to go out and be more than just aestheticians, but activists with a finely tuned skillset that creates change. Spending time with the students at MICA reminded me that design for empowerment and social impact is all about looking forward to the next generation of designers, and to solutions rather than hindrances.

Where does design go from here?

Some days I honestly think that design, as we know it, is fairly superfluous—that we've created an industry that will soon be obsolete if we don't take a revolutionary approach. We (Project H) have walked into homeless shelters offering services, to which they reply "design? We don't need that here." Design is viewed as a luxury, rather than a right and a first line of defense, it's viewed as an "added bonus" rather than a necessary problem solving process. And we have to undo a lot of the design world we have created, to prove to people that design has value beyond the aesthetic, and beyond the luxury. My hope is that the next phase of design is not about ego, but about function and beauty and sustainable solutions for real people—whether they are families in East LA or farmers in East Kenya.

As more and more people use words like "social design" and "social justice" to describe their work, do we run the risk of it becoming diluted? Does it become the next "green?" (people complaining today about so much "greenwashing").

Absolutely. "Social design" is a very slippery slope: one that requires the MOST critique and feedback of any kind of design. If a vase is designed in a less-than-great way, what is the worst that can happen? If a water filter is designed less-than-perfectly, it's people's lives at stake. What designers sometimes don't understand (I'm guilty of this too sometimes) is that to engage in these "social design" projects is not about us: it's not about us as designers having "charitable" projects in our portfolio- we are designing solutions that in some cases are life-or-death for their users, or at the very least, have the possibility for real life improvement if done well. Overusing the sound bites and keywords only dilutes the gravity of the concept and process. "Social design" is not the place for half-assed solutions. Fancy renderings of homeless shelters made from shopping carts and blobject water filtration devices for communities we don't even know are not going to cut it.

The Hippo Roller designed by Project H created a safe and easy way to transport potable water.

Where do aesthetics come in? How would you define what is "beautiful" design?

The problem with design is that all too often, we use aesthetics as our starting point, rather than allowing beauty to be drawn directly from our material choices, or the ease of use, for example. For humanitarian solutions, aesthetics can be a great tool to engage the user in a visceral, emotional way, and to ultimately enhance the function and durability and adaptability of a great design.

When does your book release?

Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, will be available Sept. 2009 (hopefully first week of Sept). Get all the info by clicking here.

*And here's a little more about the book, courtesy of the publisher:

"Industrial design is more than the latest shiny housewares and disposable objects. It’s time we began to design for people instead of consumers, as activists rather than aestheticians. Design Revolution is a showcase, a resource, and a call to action. The book provides a comprehensive collection of product designs, systems, and concepts that improve the lives of people around the world—solutions that address global and local issues in education, transportation, energy, play, and other realms, and catalyze individuals and communities."