Emily Pilloton is the founder of Project H Design, a charitable organization that supports, inspires, and delivers humanitarian and life-improving product design solutions. Emily is also a design educator, Managing Editor of Inhabitat, and global design nomad “based” in San Francisco. She was trained in architecture and product design with degrees from UC Berkeley and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and has written for Inhabitat, GOOD Magazine, I.D., ReadyMade and others.

Prior to her forthcoming trips to South Africa and Uganda for Project H initiatives, Kate Andrews caught up with Pilloton for DESIGN 21 to talk about Project H Design and Pilloton's ambition to bring a bigger social conscience to product design.

What does the ‘H’ stand for?

It stands for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness. Project H Design (http://projecthdesign.com/) champions the idea that industrial design, at all stages of the design process, can and should be a tool to address social issues, a vehicle for global life improvement, and a catalyst for individual and community empowerment. At all stages of the design process, our values at Project H are simple: good design for the greater good.

How does Happiness fit in? Is there such a thing as “happy” design?

When I first founded Project H, the "tagline" was initially "product design initiative for humanity, habitats, and health." My mother was the one who ultimately convinced me that happiness is not just a feeling but a value, a priority and ultimately something that can be designed. Designing for happiness is something we, unfortunately, do not see enough of in the design process.

Why did you start Project H?

I founded Project H last year, as a way to provide more social discourse within the design industry, and to build something that had a real social and global impact. With groups like Architecture For Humanity gaining huge momentum and support from the architectural world, I felt there was a counterpart that needed to play catch-up within the industrial design world.

At the same time, having worked as a designer, critic and design writer, I was noticing that there is a human element of green design that’s severely lacking. Much discussion of “sustainable design” comes down to materiality. Is a $1500 bamboo coffee table really greener than a $2 water filtration device for a developing community? Design should not just be “green,” but address basic human needs, improve lives, enable people and economies, and re-invest that human capital back into more productive and socially-sustainable worlds.


In March 2008, Project H delivered 70 Hippo Rollers to Kgautswane, a rural community of upwards of 130,000, five hours drive from Johannesburg, South Africa. Project H raised the funds for all 70 – their initial target was 50 Rollers.
Image courtesy Project H

What is Project H currently doing?

Right now, the two big projects are H is for Hippo project and the upcoming Project H: Design for Education Summer Studio, which will start June 2nd at the California College of Arts in San Francisco. It is an interesting alignment of programming, as the Hippo project is about the delivery of an amazing existing product, while the Design for Education studio works at the beginning of the design process, through design academics.


Kgautswane women with their new acquisitions.
Image courtesy Project H

What is the H is for Hippo project?

The Hippo Roller is a rolling barrel water transport device that allows the millions whose livelihoods depend on the daily fetching of water to do so more safely and efficiently. You fill up the barrel, screw on the cap, attach the handle bar, and roll it home. There is less stress on the human body than traditional methods of water-fetching, and the roller holds up to five times more water than traditional methods, freeing up hours for women and children (whom traditionally fetch the water) to run businesses and go to school.

We ran a campaign to fund and personally deliver 50 rollers to Kgautswane in South Africa, a community of 17 villages. In two weeks, we had funded 75, which I’ll be picking up and handing over to families in Kgautswane the last week of March. The project was primarily a fundraiser, but really a catalyst for change and larger water design projects. It also shows the immense potential to bridge the design and philanthropic communities. The ability for designers to invest in products they admire and a tangible result for donors to understand is really a unique opportunity and untapped resource for both worlds.


Thousands of Hippo Rollers are currently being used throughout Kgautswane, South Africa.
Image courtesy Project H


The Hippo Roller allows for more water to be transported more easily.
Image courtesy Project H

What is the Design for Education project about?

The eight-week summer studio will be held at the California College of Arts, and will look at ways in which the industrial design process can produce tools for elementary education. Using a Ugandan school for AIDS orphans and a local, socioeconomically-privileged school district as contrasting case studies, we’ll work firsthand with "clients" (children, parents, educators, orphans, corporations, manufacturers), research the social context, and propose product solutions. The results could be a book, toy or an interactive system, but the idea is to turn real world issues into a tangible, object-based solution.

The power of this program is that it exists at the beginning of the design process and has the potential to ripple throughout the students’ careers. I hope we can integrate this curriculum at other schools around the world, too. The subject matter might change (Design for Health or Homelessness, for example), but teaching optimism and potential through design academics remains central.

What are the bigger intentions for Project H Design?

There are a million things I'd like Project H to do, but if in five years Project H has helped shift the design industry towards a more human-centered, generous and still profitable entity, I'll be happy. If Project H helps design academics to develop curricula which value design for the greater good, I'll be inspired. Through partnerships with manufacturers, the distribution of life-improving products, or curricular development with design schools. We hope to be an organization that inspires goodness in designers, both as professionals and individuals. One particular challenge we’d like to address is the business case for amazing humanitarian products. For example, the Hippo Roller helps a lot of people, but because the end user cannot afford to be the purchaser, most rollers have to be subsidized, whether through donations, grants, or corporate sponsorships. It's not a sustainable business model and there's no assurance of consistent distribution. This poses new business and design questions – how do you design for lower production costs so that the product IS affordable or how do you find other funding structures? Do you go the BOGO [buy one give one] route where first-world consumers buy one and one is donated? Or do you sell a similar product at [camping/outdoor store] REI to fund the developing market distribution?

How would you assess the state of design right now? What are the opportunities?

There is a certain ubiquity to the "global warming is inevitable and catastrophic" school of thought that many see as a scary doomsday type problem. Which, from one perspective it definitely is. However, I think there’s another way to look at it. Our global state is an opportunity to look beyond boundaries and to develop a one-world approach for design and business. We have an exciting opportunity to redesign our entire world! Designers are now realizing they need business sense whilst businesses are recognizing they need good design. As we realize that good design is only as good as its collaborators, we will find new avenues to make bigger changes more quickly.

And what role do designers play in all this?

I think designers have a responsibility to use our skills as a tool for good. Design, at its core, is about problem solving, so let's use it to solve some of the world's biggest problems. Let’s make that the priority. Project H is small [many days a one-woman operation], but it's the small things that enable greater impacts. Just as the Hippo Roller is a catalyst for community economies and education, Project H hopes to be a catalyst for the design industry, to step up and make a difference.

Posted April 01, 2008