I have never been one to sit still and focus on one thing. In fact, most designers are fairly ineffective when it comes to singular taskswe seem to be both blessed and cursed with a unique form of attention deficit disorder in which we thrive under diverse and constant stimuli. And yet, after two years of tackling design projects for measurable social impact, the one piece of advice I would give to other designers who seek to apply their creative skills toward activism and community engagement is to sit still and focus on one thing.
I mean this not in a cubicle context (“sit at your desk and return emails”), but rather as it pertains to approaching huge, high-stakes design for socialimpact projects and enterprises. To sit still and focus on one thing means to commit to a place, to live and work there, and to apply your skills (your “one thing”) to that community’s benefit.
In the past few years, we designers have acknowledged the imperatives of sustainability and design for the greater good, and responded by launching initiatives that are often rife with widespread cheerleading rather than deep, meaningful work. When we do take on social-impact projects, our involvement with a community or client often extends only as long as the project does. Even for those organizations whose entire mission is to provide design services to the overlooked, those services tend to be executed in a sort of scattershot acupuncture, where small projects happen in as many places as possible without a pervasive presence or commitment to one particular area or community.
I must admit that my own organization, the nonprofit design firm Project H Design, has sometimes been guilty of spreading too thin. As a collective community of designers who give a damn, our instinct is usually to go for breadthto go big or go homeand when it comes to enterprises for social good, it’s usually the global ones that get the glory. And yet, based on the past two years of my own experience, I am entirely convinced that our greatest successes have and will come from work that is local, deeply entrenched, long-term, and in our own backyards. I firmly believe that lasting impact requires all three of the following: proximity (simply being there, in the place you seek to design with and for), empathic investment (a personal and emotional stake in collective prosperity), and pervasiveness (the opposite of scattershotinvolvement that has impact at multiple scales).
One of the fundamental prerequisites for designing for social impact is a human-centered process. In short, you can’t design solutions for people who need them unless you fundamentally understand the problems, ask questions, and listen for answers beyond those of surveys or consumer-research reports. To take it one step further, you can’t design effective solutions for people unless you make your clients or end users part of the design processco-creating systems that will work for and be owned by them. To do either of these things, you simply have to be there, present in a place, and part of the community.
Somewhat paradoxically, however, the majority of socialimpact projects are focused on demographics in the developing world (and rightfully so, given that the most socio-economically disadvantaged citizens often reside in developing countries), oceans away from the designers’ offices. By its nature, designing for communities tens of thousands of miles away makes it nearly impossible to truly understand the intricacies of a problem well enough to even propose potential solutions. Lesson No. 1: Be there and care (work locally, or move to where the work is).
Project H Design, which I founded in January 2008, has grown organically, arriving at this epiphany through a series of projects, some of which have been more successful than others. At our outset, we activated close to 10 design teams around the world, each of which was in fact engaging locally but often around entirely different issues (homelessness, foster care, global health, the handicapped, education). As the executive director, I found myself bouncing between projects, constantly having to shift gears between cities, user groups, research sets, prototypes, and team dynamics.
Then in April 2009, we began working closely with a single school district: the Bertie County Schools in Eastern North Carolina. Bertie County is the poorest county in the state, with close to 80 percent of its school district’s students living in poverty. Since the partnership’s start, Matthew Miller, the project architect, and I have spent nearly half our time in Bertie, building educational playgrounds, designing new computer labs, rewriting entire curricula, and implementing countywide education campaigns.
What we quickly discovered was that being there, as citizens, rather than just designers, was 80 percent of the battle. By becoming immersed in the community, cheering at high school basketball games, and weighing in at board meetings, we have earned the trust and partnership of the school district’s teachers, parents, and students, making our work more personal, appropriate, responsive, and meaningful. Gathering feedback from the community happens more smoothly, the ability to prototype and experiment with new ideas is more fluid, and a public understanding of our process has become more common. All the capacities required by the design process have become more natural through face-to-face engagement and open communication with the community, which of course, requires us to be there.
This summer, we will be moving our operations to Bertie to fully invest in our design for education initiatives in the county. We will likely be there for a minimum of three to five years, if not a lifetime.
Just being there is key. But design interventions for social impact are most successful when we hold a personal stake in the community. Whether it is the town in which we grew up, or a city we have come to call home, it is in our nature to tend to and protect what we know and love. To be invested means to allocate time and talent toward a group or endeavor we wish to see succeed. For design within communities, we must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it in order to produce solutions that are informed and long lasting in their impact. Through such empathy, our actions become inherently collective, making more permanent impact. This power of collective action was beautifully described in a 1994 white paper published by the South African Government’s Rural Development Program committee: “...The people must together shape their own future. Development is not about the delivery of goods to a passive citizenry. It is about active involvement and growing empowerment.”
Last year, I participated in a social-innovation fellowship program. Two of my fellow fellows were Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert, whose enterprise illustrates the value of empathetic investment far better than my own anecdotes.
Mark and Taylor, childhood friends who grew up in Wilmington, Ohio, reunited over Thanksgiving weekend a few years back, to discover their hometown in near-economic ruin. Following the closing of DHL’s U.S. hub, nearly 10,000 jobs were lost in a city of 13,000. Mark and Taylor, who both had experience in community economic development, made the decision to dig in their heels and save their hometown.
Their organization, Energize Clinton County, is a story of personal and emotional investment, and of the power of local, long-term efforts by creative thinkers. Mark explains:
“The severe layoffs in Wilmington forced us to confront the significance of losing our hometown. By coming home to work, we have had the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution in repairing the place that anchors us to the world. The things that make Wilmington an important place to us are the same things that make our work powerful: its historical narrative, the communal social ties we share with the people with whom we work, and inspiration provided by our friends and families. Working as members of our own community gives our work a unique purpose that only arises when the people engaged in the work are fully anchored to the place in which they work. We hope that our work will help shift perspective back to the value of places, and provide others with a living model for the impact that can be made by investing in the places that make us who we are.”
Both Mark and Taylor have a deep investment to a local context that can be achieved only through an extended station in a single location. Where wide-scale endeavors fall flat is in their cursory understanding and lack of long-lasting commitment to the communities they serve. It is only by becoming a member of a community, in essence becoming a client yourself, that we can truly understand the issues and produce sustainable and effective solutions.
Since its establishment, Energize Clinton County has become a trusted economic advocate within the region, supporting innovation and local agriculture and placing people in new jobs.
A few friends of mine are former Peace Corps volunteers; one in particular completed a healthcare program in the South Pacific. Her account of her time there is mixed: She recognizes that her personal commitment was profound, yet feels that her two years were not enough, or that her work did not penetrate the deep systemic issues within the village. “I wanted to do so much more than just educate children about how to stay healthy. There seemed to be so many other issues that were affecting their daily lives that were connected to what I was doing, and yet my assignment was a very limited task,” she told me.
In my own work with Project H Design, similar sentiments are not uncommon. Working in Bertie County, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface by tackling the issue of secondary education, while poverty, a stagnant economy, racial polarization, domestic violence, and broken families seem intrinsically tied to each other and larger problems.
Because social issues are systemic, our community-based work must not only be local and long-term, but also widespread and pervasive, occurring at varying scales, for multiple programs, and for a variety of clients. (You may find this contradictory to my suggestion to sit still and do one thing, but in fact our “one thing,” design or economic-development or healthcare work, can and must be directed toward multiple venues and clients.) Instead of building only houses, we can apply design and building skills to construct homes, schools, public plazas, and healthcare centers. Instead of working only with single mothers, we can provide solutions for single mothers, their children, and their children’s school system. By extending the scope of design solutions to their secondary and tertiary beneficiaries, we are likely to have a larger, stronger, and even exponential impact.
One design initiative that has succeeded in a pervasive approach to community design is the well-known Rural Studio, founded by the late Samuel Mockbee in 1993 as a design/ build program for architecture students at Auburn University. Students spend an entire year in Hale County, one of Alabama’s poorest counties, designing and constructing one building for and with the community. Past projects have included houses, churches, schools, an animal shelter, a hospital renovation, a little league field, and public parks. To date, more than 80 projects have been completed.
Because of their diverse footprint and projects that bridge demographics, clients, and programs, Rural Studio has a significant presence as a creative force for progress within Hale County. Rather than focusing on the construction of houses, for example, Rural Studio has used its skill set through multiple touchpoints within the community and thus has established a more pervasive and seamlessly integrated framework of design activism.
Following in Rural Studio’s footsteps, groups such as HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization), and Project M, a group of young graphic designers led by John Bielenberg, have followed suit to further strengthen the growing culture of creative capital in Hale County.
The power of working locally, for the long haul, comes down to this: In doing so, we cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees. While doing many small projects in dozens of places may result in a more robust portfolio, such endeavors are the equivalent of planting a single tree in a field. It may be a sign of growth, but it lacks a support system or cohorts to ensure its survival. Instead, as a designer sits still and focuses on one place, multiple initiatives within one community become an ecosystem of projects (multiple trees, shrub, and moss) that feed off each other and support each other symbiotically.
As designers, we can do better than merely planting trees. We must be the curators of new community ecosystems.
Emily Pilloton is the founder and executive Director of Project H Design. Trained in architecture at UC Berkeley and product design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she started Project H to provide a conduit and catalyst for need-based product design that empowers individuals, communities, and economies. More than 22 current initiatives range from design-based enterprises in homeless shelters to foster care therapy and innovative experiences for public schools. Former managing editor of Inhabitat.com, writer, California girl, and unwavering optimist, she is also getting certified as a high school teacher to launch Studio H, a high school design/vocation/ community program in the poorest county in North Carolina in the fall of 2010. Pilloton’s book, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, is a compendium of and call-to-action for product design for social impact. When she isn’t traveling or emailing, Pilloton enjoys trivia games and baking (and eating) cupcakes.
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