Earlier this year, Project H Design founder Emily Pilloton and project architect Matthew Miller bundled 40 humanitarian design solutions into a vintage Airstream trailer and went on an American road trip. An extraordinary traveling showcase, the Design Revolution Road Show made stops at 35 high schools and university design programs where students of all ages got the chance to see up-close how design can make a difference. We asked Emily to reflect on the journey.


The exhibition featured an array of products on view at every stop for visitors to experience, use and touch.
Photo by Project H Design

With the Design Revolution Road Show what did you set out to achieve and how do you think you did?

Quite simply, we set out to physically bring design that matters to the doorsteps of the next generation of creative thinkers. What began as an idea for a book tour became something much bigger: we felt strongly about not doing this virtually, but loading up the products, being there in person, face-to-face, and providing the inspiration, critique, and tools for anyone with a creative spark to use design as a way to improve life in their own communities. I would like to think we were successful in this. What I do know we succeeded in is fostering a conversation with a trailer of evidence that had not been explored in many parts of the country – on Main Street in small towns, in schools that haven't really touched the idea of design as a change agent yet.


Each product is a smart design solution to one of the following eight issues: Water, Well-Being, Energy, Education, Play, Food, Mobility, Enterprise.
Photo by Project H Design

There must have been so many highlights on that trip – what was a major one?

Without a doubt the biggest highlight of the roadshow (aside from a border collie puppy we adopted along the way in Texas) was getting to share design thinking with high school students. Originally, we had envisioned this as a tour of design schools (that is, college and university-level design programs only), but because of Project H's design for education work in rural Bertie County, North Carolina and the upcoming launch of Studio H (where my partner Matt Miller and I will be teaching design and building with a public high school in Bertie County), we added a handful of high schools to the itinerary.

The conversation at the high schools was refreshing and very different from the colleges, where in a way you are "preaching to the choir." Few high school students think about design as something beyond fashion and gadgets, if they have considered what design is at all, so to be able to expand their thinking around design as a unique, creative, hands-on – and fun! – way to solve problems was wonderful to watch. We could physically see their faces change when they experienced the products in the trailer, when something clicked and there was a glimmer of very raw, real inspiration there. It made us even more excited to teach design as a process at a high school level – I really believe design is an amazingly untapped resource for public education.


Students from Park School in Baltimore, MD, inspect the products.
Photo by Project H Design

You're on the road for such a long time and heading to places you've never been before – what did you find most challenging?

The biggest challenge was the day-to-day logistics of planning a cross country tour – basically we were one part circus one part concert tour – while on the road. We had done a lot of the planning ahead of time, obviously, but things like press requests and accounting (we were generously funded by the Adobe Foundation and Sappi's Ideas That Matter program), the logistics of parking our behemoth of a trailer at colleges with little parking space, finding RV parks to sleep in, not to mention keeping Project H as a nonprofit functioning between its 20+ other projects, was incredibly overwhelming. I had a broadband internet card and most days would work from the passenger seat of the truck as we drove to our next stop. And finding good food, we found, is incredibly difficult along our country's interstate system! The Subway "Veggie Delight" became our go-to.


Adaptive Eyecare by Oxford University physics professor Joshua Silver – liquid-filled, custom-fit affordable eyeglasses.
Photo by Project H Design

Which design or designs in the exhibition garnered the most interest and what were the reasons for that?

The two favorites tended to be the Adaptive Eyecare glasses and the Whirlwind Wheelchair. We have amazing video footage of my partner Matt doing wheelie demonstrations in the wheelchair, and people learning how to do wheelies and understanding why that is an important skill for new wheelchair riders. That sensory experience demonstrated the value of that design way beyond a press photo ever could. The Adaptive Eyecare glasses, which are affordable eyewear with liquid-filled lenses that allow you to self-adjust to your prescription, were popular I think because Stephen Colbert wore them when I went on his show, but also because they, like the wheelchair, can be experienced in a very visceral way. You put them on, you adjust the lenses, and poof, you can see. You can personally engage with a product and make it work for you easily and in a way you never have before.


Students at Brooklyn Community Arts & Media high school testing out the Rough Rider – long-wheelbase rugged wheelchair by Whirlwind Wheelchair.
Photo by Project H Design

Did you come across homegrown designs or projects during your travels that fit Project H's mission?

Yes and no. I think in general we were overwhelmed by the interest in this type of thinking, but underwhelmed by the amount of quality projects that had taken the thinking into action. However I hope we provided a fire to help propel those initiatives forward. We saw some student projects that had enormous potential, but need some coaching in how to implement, measure, and incentivize the ideas beyond just a conceptual sketch. The first of our six Project H "values" is "We design through action," and the initiatives that really struck us were the ones that had chutzpah, and that were spearheaded by fearless and humble folks who weren't in it for the portfolio images, but because the saw the design as a tool to empower people. And, at one of the high schools, one of the teachers and a class of student is now embarking on a "social design project" after seeing the road show, so I am excited to follow their progress.


Emily Pilloton outside the vintage Airstream that was her home and office for the 75 days that she and Matthew Miller took the show on the road.
Photo by Project H Design

What are you working on next for Project H and where is that taking you?

While the roadshow was a huge adventure, by the time it was over we were a little burned out on being spokespeople. We were dying to get back to doing the dirty work, and being practitioners again. So, we have moved to rural Bertie County, North Carolina (where we have been working for the past year in partnership with the school district), to launch Studio H, a design/build high school program that provides a hands-on public education experience to students in a fairly poor and racially polarized demographic. The goal is to build creative capital from within, and to unleash the potential of high schoolers to be vehicles for community development. Matt and I will be teaching (had to get certified and everything) the one year program over a Fall and Spring semester, culminating with a summer session during which our students will have paid summer jobs to physically build within the community. A greenhouse, a farmers market public space, bus shelters for the school bus system, home repairs for the elderly: these projects will be designed and built by them, and in doing so, we'll foster pride and a new creative economy with a community that really needs it.

To learn more and to see the range of objects featured in the exhibition visit Design Revolution Road Show

Project H

All photos by Project H Design

Posted June 27, 2010