Emily Pilloton’s new book, Design Revolution, inspires us to rethink the value of design.
By Adam Zoltowski
Emily Pilloton is only 27 years old, but has already started a movement that cannot go un-noticed. She is the founder of Project H, a charitable and humanitarian design organization with chapters ranging from New York to Johannesburg, and she is a leader in the practice of design thinking. Project H stresses one thing throughout its work: that design can change the world. With Project H and her recent bookDesign Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People, Pilloton is emerging as a leader in the current design paradigm shift away from wasteful, functional design towards design that solves complex societal, humanitarian and environmental issues.
The design solutions Project H conceives seem simple, yet they solve big problems. Consider one of their best designs, The Hippo Roller, which is a basic plastic barrel with metal handles similar to a wheelbarrow. Its function is basic: to carry water, but while doing so it solves a myriad of problems. Members of South African communities spend half of their days carrying water in buckets, usually only transporting 5-8 gallons per trip. In contrast, the Hippo Roller carries up to 22 gallons of water, reducing the time needed by half. Through design thinking, Pilloton and Project H were able to address larger societal problems by freeing precious time for education, work and time with family.
What’s also important to note about Project H is the age of both its charter and its members. The organization is only 20 months old, started by Pilloton in January of 2008 with a modest annual budget of $46,000. The designers who work with Project H on a volunteer basis are mostly under the age of 30. It is likely that the youth of the organization has helped its success by allowing them to think in innovative ways outside the traditional practice of large agencies and design firms whose only mission is the bottom line. On Tuesday night, at a lecture at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in Manhattan, it was made clear by Pilloton that the way design is approached needs to shift towards creating social change by solving problems, rather than contributing to the cult of contemporary chic design firms who mostly design ‘stuff’.
Pilloton and her work are incredibly noble, and yes inspiring, but how do we get designers the world over to abandon their dreams of black turtlenecks, horn-rimmed glasses and corner offices? The most obvious answer is that it needs to start in schools, and that design education needs to stress the importance of big design thinking that solves large societal problems as opposed to simply the design of pretty things. Designers need to re-think how their ability to solve problems is being used by society and whether we are problem solvers or problem makers. Pilloton and her colleagues at Project H are at the forefront of this revolution. Hopefully others will follow.