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Design for Social Impact

Designer Emily Pilloton is the most practical of prophets: her life’s work is to engage people with the transformative power of design.  First she founded Project H Design: “design initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness.”  Then she worked in the developing world making products to improve the quality of life.  Now, having traversed the US evangelizing about design, given a TED talk, and written a book, Pilloton’s latest effort is no less than redesigning public education and thereby reviving a struggling southern community.

Pilloton speaks this Thursday as part of the IMA’s Planet Indy series.  Here, she muses on a few questions in advance of her visit:

Q: What have you learned about the relationship between thoughtful design and the solving of large social problems?

We have learned that thoughtful design can address large social problems, but works best on a small scale. Instead of saying “how can design solve homelessness?” we’ve found that the best design initiatives are actually micro-local, that they address things on a very small scale for a defined group of people in our own backyards, and these solutions can serve as models for others to do the same in their own backyards. One million people with one design solution each will always be better than one person’s solution for one million people.

Q: In 2010, you toured the country in an Airstream trailer engaging with people about design.  What did you learn from that experience?

We learned a lot about how misunderstood design is among the general public, and how disconnected that is from the desire of the next generation to do good. People viewed examples of brilliant humanitarian design as “inventions,” or “the next million dollar idea,” rather than the result of a human-centered process that really does have impact. Students, on the other hand, took to the road show naturally, seeing the power that creativity can have on everyday lives. On a more practical note, we learned that two people and a dog, for 75 days in a confined space with no water or kitchen, is not a fun way to live. But we definitely have some good stories.

Q: As a designer and educator, what are you up to right now in Bertie County, North Carolina?  And why did you choose to take your energy to a rural community?

My partner Matthew Miller and I both have resumes that say we’re designers/builders, and the day-to-day schedules of high school shop teachers. We teach our Studio H curriculum within the public high school, offering students one year (two semesters + summer build) intensive design and construction education, put towards big built community architecture projects. We love working in a rural place like Bertie County because the impact we can have is exponential. There is such a need to do things differently, and to break the instinct to do the same things done in the same ways since the 1800’s. Design is an opportunity to shift the ways in which we view the future of Bertie County, or any place labeled economically challenged or resource-poor.

Pilloton’s talk at the IMA is also part of the fascinating IndyTalks series.  The post-talk Q&A period will be focused on Indianapolis specifically: how can design thinking make this city a better place to work, learn and live?

Filed under: Design, Local, Public Programs

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