Social Change Through Industrial Design

With her international nonprofit, Emily Pilloton gets product design off the shelf and onto the streets.

The biggest lesson that Emily Pilloton learned from six years of design school was that there was something fundamentally wrong with her chosen profession—designers today just weren’t getting it. As managing editor of Inhabitat.com, a blog covering sustainable design, she made a name for herself as a tough critic of flimsy sustainability claims. “I would see all this ridiculous ‘green design’ stuff come across my desk, and no one was asking the right questions about the products’ actual sustainability,” says the 27-year-old Pilloton, whose need to critique quickly evolved into a call to action.

So in January 2008, after two-and-a-half years at Inhabitat, Pilloton decided to start her own company. Project H Design is a nonprofit organization that advances social change through industrial design. It also perfectly marries Pilloton’s degrees in architecture and product design with what her father lovingly calls her “contrarian nature.”

Project H Design created “Learning Landscapes” math playgrounds to help underserved school children learn addition, subtraction multiplication and division. The first installation was in Uganda, followed by sites in North Carolina and the Dominican Republic.

“Part of me just wanted to prove that it could be done,” says Pilloton of finding success as a designer while rallying against the consumer model. “My goal is to design the least amount of product with the biggest impact.”

One of Pilloton’s projects, a partnership with homeless women in downtown Los Angeles called Abject Object, created purses that unfold into hammocks. In another undertaking, Learning Landscapes, she installed an interactive play structure of truck tires in a sandbox at an Ugandan school to help children learn math through games utilizing the grid-like structure. And while this may seem like a lot for one person to handle, Pilloton has picked up some help along the way: Project H currently has nine chapters worldwide and a mushrooming number of enthusiastic employees and volunteers. “Our duty as designers is to see where there’s a problem and address it through design,” says Pilloton. “And often it’s not about the product at all, but about what that product enables others to do.”

Watch Emily Pilloton on the Colbert Report

 

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