Backyard design

Emily Pilloton is enlisting a new generation of design activists through her work as a high school teacher in North Carolina.

First Published in

A scalable, grid-based playground system, built using recycled tyres, used for teaching elementary maths. A public school initiative educating children about personal health, growing food and waste cycles, and reducing their carbon footprint. School computer labs physically designed to encourage engagement, functionality and interactivity. An “engagement board” that empowers students through active classroom participation. A graphic campaign to promote efforts focused on providing free broadband internet connections to all the households in a given school district.

These are just some of the projects undertaken by Project H Design to illustrate design’s application as a catalyst to improve communities and public education. Focussing on humanity, habitats, health and happiness, Project H translates design thinking into a critical action that builds local systems with the potential for global scalability and grows creative capital.

Emily Pilloton is the founder and director of Project H Design. Trained as an architect and industrial designer, she believes that the design process should go beyond the product. As such, she launched Project H Design in 2008 to apply design thinking outside the conventional realm of design, giving it an application in social development. In February 2010 Pilloton and her business partner Matthew Miller set off on a road show to promote her newly published book, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, and to inspire change through design, by starting at grassroots.

After the hotly publicised road show, Pilloton relocated herself and Project H’s headquarters to the heart of rural, impoverished America, Bertie County in North Carolina. Through the road show, Pilloton had become more aware of the disconnection between solutions designed for people and solutions designed with people. It was this realisation that made her put a stake in the ground and focus on design solutions in her own backyard. She now works as a “High School Shop Teacher” in Bertie County, exploring how design can be used to empower learners in public school education. Her vision includes developing a long-term design/build programme that teaches design thinking to high school learners and awakens a keen sense of citizenship in them.

What role does design and design thinking have to play in public education and what is the value of incorporating design into public education?

Design thinking, that is, the process of design, could offer public education a better lens to look at all the problems we’ve been struggling with: Teacher engagement, student motivation, testing and assessment. Design thinking would mean taking a human-centred approach to education again, which I think we only say we do. Instead it’s often not about the teachers or students at all, but government funding, metrics and bureaucracy. You can’t do design thinking without considering the people involved at every step.

Integrating design, pure, real, action-based design, into public education and curricula is the purest approach. Why aren’t we teaching design to students? Not only as a skillset, but as a way of thinking? I’m not talking about design-based learning alone – not just project-based learning that requires creativity, like building a rocket for physics class. I mean running classes as design studios, asking students to produce, to build and to physically understand what it means to look at the world, and make it better through creativity and industry-relevant skills.

What are the aims and objectives of the design that you are teaching at school level?

Design, as a platform for learning, is the perfect antidote to so much of the rigid, verbal, top-down instruction that most schools are paralysed by. There’s no cheating design: We are currently designing and building public chicken coops with our students. At the end of our eight-week term, if our students have not built chicken coops that represent ethnographic research, form-making and craft, and vernacular socioeconomic solutions, we’ll know. Design demands a rigour and a commitment that most students haven’t actually been asked for. Real learning beyond memorisation builds a toolbox rather than filling their brains temporarily with fact-based information.

Secondly, bringing back “shop class” like wood and metalshop with real tools, real industry and real production, is an absolutely crucial part of teaching design. How can we make design “worthwhile” if we aren’t building the solutions? To merely think up ideas and put them on the wall is not design, and certainly for students does not capture their ambition. Shop classes have been traditionally about birdhouses for your mom or cutting boards for the kitchen, not about social solutions. If we can bring back shop class as a way of engaging students through their hands, but wrap our projects around social issues that actually do produce relevant and visible solutions, we can accomplish two things at once: Build the skills students need to succeed (like creativity and critical thinking) and build the solutions that communities need to survive (like capital and construction skills).

Why is it important to be connected to the problem when designing various solutions for education and community building?

The framing of the problem is the first step for any solution. In some cases, designing the problem is one of the most difficult parts. It can be a social problem (like obesity rates), or a physical problem (like the buildings downtown are all falling down). But to frame the design problem means to set it up in a way where your actions as a designer will have meaning. For education and community, this is particularly important, because specificity goes a long way. To say: “Obesity rates are high around here,” is a HUGE problem that can alienate people from trying to help find a solution. But to say: “Kids don’t eat their vegetables, how might we make growing, cooking or eating vegetables more fun?” is something that people can relate to personally and start thinking of solutions for.

In your experience, how do you most effectively make end-users part of the collaborative process?

Bringing people into the process for us is not a conscious effort, but an absolute necessity. In so many cases, we find ourselves as designers not in the “creative director” role, but actually as mediators and curators; in a way helping “end- users” to find their own solutions and develop them into something that works through iteration.

One of our six core tenets, which we wrote into our charter three years ago, was to design “with, not for”. We do this for a few key reasons. Because we don’t know everything, especially when it comes to big social issues. If we’re talking about public education in Bertie County, North Carolina, our design team should include fourth graders, teachers and parents. We also do this so that there is a shared ownership in the solution, so that we’re not dragging and dropping “the answer” but helping people solve things themselves, and then take it and run. Lastly, we do this because it aids feedback loops. To come back a year later and ask how it’s going, is much easier if you’ve built relationships from the start.

The best way to actively engage people in the re-design of their own lives is a similar answer: By giving them a stake and making it personal. If parents are asked to come out and join a design session to improve their kids’ access to healthy food in the cafeteria, they will likely be there. If they’re asked to come out to talk about “obesity in general”, they probably won’t. And of course, we try to make everything we do as visible and public as possible. When our end-users (or co-designers) see the fruits of their labour built, executed and out there in the world, there’s a pride there that is the ultimate motivation for continuous engagement.

How can designers practically go about encouraging community engagement and problem solving on a micro level?

There are always sceptics. For us though, I never want to be in the business of having to verbally convince someone. I hope that the work does the convincing for us. That if we do the work, and find a few great partners and early believers, that because what we co-create is visible and built, that it’s hard to argue with. With Studio H, our design/build high school programme, we did (and possibly still do) have some resistance from school district administrators who just think we’re a little out there, because it’s never been done here before. But, when they come out to our studio and shop, and look around at 13 of the most focused, engaged students (some of whom have otherwise been real problem-students for other teachers) and the beautiful built projects they have created, it is very hard to argue against. We do the work with those who believe in the potential of the work, and we hope that others will follow. Most of the time they do.

Your design thinking is about an educational process that produces creative capital. How is creative capital cultivated practically?

At around age five, I think, we all start becoming less creative, mostly because social structures start to suck it out of us. It isn’t “cool” to be artsy, it isn’t “normal” to do things differently. So in a way, building creative capital is just about nurturing a part of our brains that has been ignored for a long time.
Creativity to me is just the ability to break our instincts and reflexes, and think in ways that feel wrong but often lead us to the best things. It’s all about discomfort. Creative capital is merely putting that type of creativity to use as a resource for building community, economy and the like.

You look at some of the most successful businesses, governments, even countries, and often they are the ones that reward creativity and the incubation of “crazy” ideas that 99% of people would initially write off. This is particularly rampant in education, where everything must fit into neat little boxes. Within public education, building creative capital is about the students and reinforcing ways of thinking that haven’t been practiced in years, but also building that type of thinking within administrators and trying to break down the rigid walls of those neat little boxes.

On a practical level, what are you teaching your students about design and design thinking?

We’re teaching them that design thinking doesn’t require genius. It requires iteration, thought, care and creativity. In other words, if you’re a D student in English, we don’t care. You can absolutely succeed in our design/build studio. Design thinking is a learned process that students can use outside of class too.

Specifically, we’re teaching everything from research methods to graphic design, communication tools, mind-mapping, how to brainstorm and do rapid iteration, printing and production, 3D modelling, architectural drafting, architectural model-making, writing skills, verbal and visual presentation. This is just in the studio component. Nothing is done in the studio without it being executed in the shop. In the shop, we teach safety, procedure, measurement and layout, woodshop tools (tablesaw, bandsaw, drill press, router, planer, joiner, chop saw and miter saw), and metalshop tools (MIG and TIG welding, stick welding and arc welding, and a little bit of machining).

It’s important to note though that I have no interest in recruiting students to the design profession. If they want to study design, great! But that is not the goal. Many, in fact, come from farming families and want to study agriscience or biotechnology. What the skills build though, is a sense of visual understanding, and a whole new language for representing ideas. For students who may not go to college at all, the shop tools mean they have industry-relevant skills that will help them get a job.

More than anything, these skills are taught within a social framework. All our projects are built and are responses to local issues. So the application of these skills is relevant, not just for birdhouses and cutting boards.

Lastly, we hope that what we teach will create a micro-economy around it. Over the summer, after a full year of learning all this, we are hiring each of our 13 students as our summer construction crew, to build the project (a farmer’s market pavilion), which they have spent the year designing. They will be paid and will get to see their work through from alpha to omega.

The ideal of being a citizen first and a designer second is very interesting but how is this ideal taught and nurtured?

This is the toughest thing. Trying to get someone to care, if they have been raised in a culture of apathy, is a tough cycle to break. But ultimately, everyone has their own cause, their own passion, their own “thing” that inspires them to work hard. That is different for every person and every student. But first and foremost, we can all become better citizens just by opening our eyes and talking to our neighbours. Because once you start “seeing” things in your own communities and hearing your neighbours’ stories, it’s hard to ignore that we all have a lot of work to do, and a lot of opportunities to make the world better.

More on Design Thinking