Design, distribution, and education

I was prowling TED recently and came across Emily Pilloton’s talk about applying design to improve education in rural North Carolina. I liked her view of radically improving a public service like education through fresh application of design and distribution.

Pilloton runs Project H Design, a non-profit agency that “uses the power of creativity, design, and hands-on building to amplify the raw brilliance of youth, transform communities, and improve K-12 public education from within.”

Project H was invited to help re-design education in Bertie County, North Carolina in large part because of the six design directives that guide their work:

  1. Design through action
  2. Design with, not for
  3. Design systems, not stuff
  4. Document, share, and measure
  5. Start locally and scale globally
  6. Build

She and her partner, a licensed architect and jack-of-all-trades builder, have tackled renovation of basic education facilities like computer labs and playgrounds. Beyond the classic design work of facilities, though, Project H has taken on projects to help foster change throughout the larger community. They created a public campaign called Connect Bertie targeted at placing a computer and internet connection in every Bertie County home that housed a public school student. (At the start of the campaign, only ten percent of homes had an internet connection.)

They’ve also created a year-long, project-based learning curriculum for high school juniors to engage in the complete design and build of community improvements. Projects include an open-air farmer’s market, bus shelters for school bus routes, and improvements for senior citizen housing. Along the way, Pilloton and her partner earned their public teaching credentials so that they could teach the course.

Pilloton is a designer by training, but her talk touches on a couple aspects of distribution. One statistical point she makes is that only 6.8 percent of philanthropic giving in America reaches rural communities, even though 21 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas.

She also makes a personal point in distribution. During the first year of this project, she and her partner were living in San Francisco and commuting across country to Bertie County, in eastern North Carolina. Having becoming engrossed in the project and enchanted by Bertie County, she and her partner relocated from San Francisco and now reside full-time in Bertie County. Moving closer to your a major customer is certainly a distribution decision.

I currently work in education and know that it can be a hidebound culture. I’m heartened seeing what Project H has been able to envision and accomplish working within the system.

Got any other good examples of design skills transforming education?

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