Get Local

Emily Pilloton and Project H Design move to small-town America, start teaching a high-school shop class, and find the power and impact of hyperlocal design.

Eleventh-grader Kerron looked up from his drafting table in the high-school shop class I teach in North Carolina.

“I think I did it,” he said.

I came around the desk and looked down at his first attempt at drafting four elevations of a stack of blocks that we had arranged. The drawings were beautiful. They exhibited the kind of controlled hand that a graduate student of architecture can only dream of having developed over years of practice. The line weights were lovely, the forms perfectly constructed.

“Is it good?” he asked.

“These are gorgeous,” I told him.

He seemed surprised at my statement because he’s shy and sixteen with eyes as big as quarters.

“I want to be an engineer,” he said.

Small moments like these—where design plus education equals impact— have become daily occurrences for me. Each time they happen I pause. I’m reminded why I believe in the immense value of a hyperlocal design-thinking approach and why I’ve committed my professional and personal life to proving it. A month ago, my partner Matthew Miller and I, the founders of the nonprofit Project H Design, took on new titles as high-school teachers. We launched a design-build curriculum called Studio H that we developed and implemented in Bertie County, the poorest and most rural county in the state. Our lives have recently become consumed with the dynamics and politics of small rural communities, coupled with the clash of our design backgrounds with the rigidity and red tape of broken public education systems. But the work means something, and every day we feel that something positive is happening, whether or not we can put our finger on it. And selfishly, we’re having more fun as designers than we’ve ever had.

We’ve also found ourselves intimately involved in the growing debate within the design community surrounding local design efforts and whether they can or should be scaled, and what exactly the word “scalability” means these days for the profession. Designers are becoming more socially conscious. Many are recognizing that their creative capital can and should be put towards solving the world’s most pressing problems. But how, how big, and how best to do that remains a point of contention. While Matthew and I would love to see the Studio H model—which encourages kids to not only build but also design things—in every school in America, we’re content to spend the time to get it right. Yes, someday we would love to “scale up,” but isn’t there also something to be said for doing one thing right in one place? As a good friend and respected colleague of mine once asserted, “You can’t do humanitarian work on a global scale, because you lose the ability to view people as humans.”

After 18 months of working in Bertie County, I’m ready to put a stake in the ground: Local design may not be the best approach if your goal is scalability, but it should always be the place to start. Local design is most sustainable when it’s an educational process, nurturing new sensibilities from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. Allow me to explain this with the story of how we got here— and why we’re here to stay.


In February 2009, I received an email at my office in San Francisco from a superintendent from eastern North Carolina named Dr. Chip Zullinger. He had seen an article about the Learning Landscape, an educational playground system designed by our Project H team, and he wanted us to come build several of these in the Bertie County Schools, which was one of the worst-performing districts in the state, with just 27 percent of their third- through eighth-grade students passing the state standard in math and English.

A month later, Matthew and I found ourselves building four Learning Landscapes with Charles and “Woot” from the district’s maintenance department—one at each of the elementary schools in the county. Matthew, who has built affordable housing and schools in Detroit and Uganda, said that working in Bertie was equally hard-core. It was as if we had found ourselves in a corner of America that had been forgotten by the media, the federal government, and the public-at-large. We had long conversations with Dr. Zullinger, a renegade and visionary within public education who is known for coming into broken school districts and using unconventional measures to shake things up, raise test scores, and get people excited again. These tactics also often resulted in his dismissal. “Too much change too fast” tends to be met with skepticism and resistance in such districts, he says.

But the community of Bertie County needed a change. It’s located two hours east of Raleigh, on the forgotten side of Interstate 95. The area is swampy and humid, and the land is used mostly for farming. With just 27 people per square mile, no Walmart, no movie theater, and only a handful of restaurants, it is sparse, rural, and very poor. One in three children lives in poverty. On top of all of this, racial discrimination is still common (we heard through the grapevine that the public baseball fields were “for whites only” until 1993).

Beyond the socioeconomics, we also discovered that the community was severely disconnected from the outside world. Not one student we met during our initial visits had heard of Twitter. Even now, only 10 percent of homes in the county are able to get broadband Internet access, and less than that actually do. The only place to get Wi-Fi is at the Bojangles fried chicken joint.

Over the course of a year, we bounced back and forth from San Francisco to Bertie County working on the Learning Landscapes and a few other projects, including three new computer labs, a county-wide campaign for free Internet access, and a new weight room for the football team (all of which Matthew and I designed and built close to pro bono). During that time, we found ourselves falling in love with the place and its people. The work that is possible for a designer to do in a rural community is completely different than what’s possible in any city or design firm. Design as a means to overcome challenges is nonexistent, so the possibilities to inspire change abound. But design is also misunderstood and scoffed at as “fancy stuff for rich people.” That’s why we decided to move to Bertie County permanently and create a design-build high-school curriculum with Dr. Zullinger. We didn’t want to just be “creative consultants.” We wanted to build something from within and teach the young people of eastern North Carolina that design is first and foremost a sensibility that allows individuals to solve problems in different ways.

So, at the start of the 2010 school year, after close to six months of head-butting with the state Department of Public Instruction and eleventh-hour scares from the school board, we launched Studio H, the country’s first comprehensive design, build, and community program within a public high school. We teach design thinking and hands-on vocational shop skills that we apply to improving the local community. The one-year program is offered to juniors, who receive elective high-school credits, 17 college credits, and a paid summer job. The job involves building the project we spend the academic year designing; our 2010-11 goal is to create an open-air farmer’s market plaza in downtown Windsor. We have 13 students of diverse backgrounds. One has a father who just left for the war in Afghanistan. One is a teenage mother. Another has thirty dogs, two of which are the regional hunting dog champions. Another spends his weekend castrating cows and tending to 250,000 chickens on his family farm. Over the next year, each student will learn everything from ethnographic research to iterative prototyping and hand drafting to welding. Matthew and I have changed our business cards to read “High School Design/Build Instructor, Studio H.”

After just a couple of months on the job, I can see that the power of local design comes from the idiosyncrasies and constraints of a specific community, rather than a “demographic.” Our students’ stories are the framework within which we must make Studio H meaningful. We are bound by these 13 students, in this community, at this time and place.

That’s because designing for a demographic must make assumptions that do not take into account the fact that one individual’s father just left for Afghanistan or another’s parents just split up. Local design has an identity beyond a program’s branding because it has an ownership by real people and it requires person-to-person communication. Local design is wood and metal and eye contact and handshakes.

What we’re doing in Bertie County (and what others are doing locally elsewhere) is a starting point. If we can scale these solutions, great. If not, however, our local projects won’t be merely pilots. They were not begun in order to work out the kinks before offering the design to the rest of the world. Local design is self-contained. If we never scale at all, it will still have meaning where it exists.

For the sake, too, of our own industry, local design requires that designers are citizens, rather than consultants. It requires that we all stay put and look down the block, in our own backyards, and to engage. It does not allow for Skype calls to India to discuss the best water filtration system in the slums of Mumbai. It makes us members of our own communities and invested in our collected futures.


Back in the studio, Jamesha, a heavyset African-American girl with a mostly endearing attitude, was off-task, having given up on the block drawings for the time being.

“I don’t like these blocks,” she told me.

“Okay, well what are you working on instead?” I asked her.

She opened her sketchbook to a doodle of a concept for a chicken coop (our next mini-project), with big captions in her own distinctive bubbly handwriting.

“I really like drawing letters,” she told me.

“Well you know, there are tons of kinds of fonts, and people who actually design different typography—types of letters,” I said.

I went to the corner, where our modest “library” houses our personal collections of design, architecture, and art books. I grabbed 1,000 Fonts and brought it back to her desk, where she flipped through the pages and said, “Dang! There are so many ways to write the letter A. You mean people do this for a living? That’s cool.”

I have no intention of recruiting Jamesha to a career in font design, but the look on her face when she made the connection between her hobby and a career was a watershed moment. She got back to her block drawings, but of course added stylized captions, mimicking the new fonts she had discovered.

I would love for students everywhere to have experiences like Jamesha’s. I would love to see design-build programs in rural communities all over the country. But national scalability is not the reason I get up to teach every morning. It is not the reason I moved to Bertie County, the middle of nowhere, the land of no Internet or cell phone reception. I’m here because I believe in this place and the people who live here. I’m here because there is a lack of creative capital in Bertie County, and because there is a huge opportunity for change. And I am here because I want to design, to do what I know how to do, and to light a fire for the next generation in a rural community that I have come to call home.

Emily Pilloton is the founder and executive director of Project H Design. She spoke at TEDGlobal.

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