At the Design Revolution Roadshow’s launch Feb. 4, we had a chance to talk with Roadshow founder Emily Pilloton. In her comments, she touches on the presentations she and Matt Miller give to students, the Design Revolution Toolkit and its 13 values, and how her project connects design with the people who need it most.
Q: You’ve just started your tour. Do you have expectations about the different kinds of audiences you’re going to encounter? Do you tailor your presentation because of that?
Pilloton: Definitely. This week we started at the high school I went to in Marin County. That was hundreds of rowdy 17-year-olds. Then we went to Stanford, which was sort of “critical,” but in a good way; they were asking very smart questions. It was an interesting juxtaposition to the day before.
In the colleges, we’re presenting to every discipline of design. In some cases we’re also speaking to the business school, the engineering school. So in a way I tailor the presentations, but I have my own message that’s not going to change. There’s a universal side to it.
Pilloton: As with things like the Hippo Roller [an ultra-efficient tool for fetching water, developed in South Africa], the products that have worked are the ones where they’re not given away for free. I think the Western model of consumption, where everything is available and you can buy anything anywhere, really doesn’t apply in the developing world.
Rather than coming up with elaborate business models, what’s more important for us is to find ways for people to create their own solutions. One of the problems with us designing stuff and then wondering why it isn’t winding up in rural Africa is that we’re not in rural Africa. That’s one of the things I am getting at in my lecture: Instead of us trying to solve problems for rural Africa, we should be looking in our own backyard, looking at problems and markets that we understand. It’s very important for us to have design teams located with the people who will be using the products we create; that’s why one of our 13 values is “Listen, Learn and Understand.”
It’s amazing the ingenuity that you see coming out of people in Africa. I’d say many of the people I met there are better designers than trained designers. We could be drawing inspiration from them, instead of trying to force things on them.
For me, the Roadshow is less about getting products into people’s hands and more about inspiring young people to work in this space. That’s why we’re going to colleges and high schools. The products are all amazing, but it’s less about the products than it is a trailer full of evidence that design matters. Some people get into design because they want to make money, and that’s all right. But the Roadshow is a way to demonstrate that there’s another paradigm, another way to work as a designer. You may end up broke like we are, but there’s another kind of fulfillment there.
Q: Have you thought about the Roadshow having an international presence?
Pilloton: Yes and no. What we’ve gotten really good at is the domestic work, which is very different from what we thought when we first got started. Our first project was the Hippo Roller, so we started out thinking, “This is going to be about the developing world.” Because we had no business plan, we allowed ourselves to develop and go where the work was. And it turned out that the work — and the talent within the design teams — was in the States.
There are models we’ve developed that might work anywhere, but in terms of managing the process, we’re not going to do another project in Uganda unless there is a design team there. Until we can reasonably support communication among international teams, we’re going to focus in the States, specifically on public education.
Pilloton: I knew when we put together the schedule for the first week, which was all going to be in San Francisco, that we wanted the Academy to be part of it, for a couple of reasons. For one, I know a number of people in different departments here, and all of them are incredibly energetic and very willing to embrace new ideas and new curricula and to be working at the forefront of design. It’s also a huge school; within San Francisco it’s definitely one of the biggest creative sources. The size of the school, and the momentum that it has within the city’s culture is, of all the art schools, the biggest. And the students are just great. I love that there were so many different disciplines at my talk. We haven’t had that at some of the other schools we’ve visited so far.
Q: And finally, the question everyone wants to know the answer to: You were recently on The Colbert Report. What’s Stephen Colbert like?
Pilloton: Oh, I have such a crush on him. He was amazing. He told me before I went on, “You know, I’m going to be in character. And my character is an idiot.” Unlike John Stewart, who is who he is on the show, Stephen Colbert is in character. In real life he’s just as funny, but … nicer! He was fantastic.