My friend recently attended the graduation of her sister’s BFF at the University of California, Berkeley. I asked who delivered the commencement address for their department and she replied, “It wasn’t anyone that really caught my attention.” Nodding my head, I empathized, because after all these years, I don’t remember who spoke at mine either (no, I am not a Cal alumni). As if by chance, I stumbled upon an online article the next morning about the gal who gave the commencement address at UC Berkeley– Emily Pilloton. The former Cal Bear inspired the 2012 College of Environmental Design graduating class with her story. Confessing that she is by no means qualified to be their graduation speaker, she nevertheless said something that struck a chord with me: “Ideas are worth little without action. The best way to start is simply to start.”
Emily’s design story took her from Northern California to her new home base in Bertie County, North Carolina—one of the poorest and most rural counties in the state. But before elaborating on that, here’s a little background on Emily. About five years ago, Emily quit her corporate design job because she was frustrated with the meaningless work she was doing. She wanted to do something that mattered, so at age 26, she cofounded the non-profit organization, Project H Design, with her partner, Matthew Miller. Their intent was to help develop effective design solutions for those who needed them most. She also authored the book Design Revolution, which features 100 contemporary design products that solve some of the world's biggest social problems. Some of the featured products include the Hippo Water Roller, a rolling barrel with handles to ease water transport in third world countries; AdSpecs, adjustable liquid-filled eyeglasses; and Learning Landscapes, low-cost playgrounds that combine math skills and physical activity.
In August 2010, Project H was invited by Dr. Chip Zullinger, superintendent of Bertie County Schools, to develop a design-build curriculum for high school students called Studio H. Far from your typical wood shop class, Project H engages students not only to build for their community, but also to use every aspect of design to help build critical thinking. In a small town where the best and the brightest move away to study and never come back, the ones who stay behind are left in a void of second-guessing their self worth. Studio H fills this void with empowered young adults who take ownership of the projects they design. For example, these kids helped create an open-air farmer’s market plaza and a community chicken coop, hand-drafting most of the drawings and providing the construction labor for school credit. All the while they learned that “design is first and foremost a sensibility that allows individuals to solve problems in different ways.”
The ultimate reward of this social experiment is revealed through the students themselves. In one instance, one of Emily’s students gave up drafting blocks as one of her daily tasks. “Okay, well what are you working on instead?” Emily asked. “I really like drawing letters,” the girl replied while showing Emily a sketchbook filled with her distinct bubbly handwriting. Emily then provided the girl with a book of fonts to show her that people actually design different typography. “Dang! There are so many ways to write the letter A. You mean people do this for a living? That’s cool.” The look on that girl’s face when she made the connection of her hobby and a potential career was priceless.
It was coincidence that I discovered Emily Pilloton as a commencement speaker at UC Berkeley. I wasn’t expecting to learn a lesson from that discovery, but I’m really glad I did. What I took away from her story is that as designers, we cannot be just “creative consultants” who craft solutions from our own ivory towers. We have to understand that “local design is most sustainable when it’s an educational process, nurturing new sensibilities from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.” Our creative capital is most effective when used to solve the world’s most pressing problems, but it is more gratifying when we experience it from the ground up. There are many ways that we all can do this, with too many paths to name. But talking about it isn’t really worth much without action. So I encourage all of us to find our own way. And the best way to start is simply to start.
Also be sure to check out Emily’s Ted Talk, “Teach Design for Change.”