Change Agents & Innovators

As I continue to process all the amazing ideas and projects I learned about at Structures For Inclusion this past weekend I’ll keep downloading from my notes of the “panel discussions” – sets of presentations followed by group Q&A sessions.

Trung Le, Cannon Design


Le talked about his “ideas based practice” specializing in educational systems.  He recently co-authored a book about the design process with Bruce Mau of Massive change and VS America, a manufacturer of educational furnishings. He had a bunch of pithy advice for designers based on the research for the book.  (Check out his website for 79 ideas about how design and education can improve each other.)

He advocates for a hyper local context for design. “We should be able to ride a bicycle to the places that need our help.” And believes that everyone can be a designer.  When his firm works with schools they insist that students be brought to the table along side teachers, parents and administrators.

One of the most interesting of the ideas he mentioned was that the most collaborative and innovative phase of education in our current system is kindergarten!  The next 12 to 20 years are spent memorizing and sitting still while kindergarten is about design and play and free association and cooperation.  In a world where every employer is looking for graduates who can multitask, cross-train and self educate, maybe we should rethink the rest of it!

Emily Pilloton, Project H Design


Emily Pilloton is a young designer I first learned about when she visited my studio in Biloxi, Mississippi in 2007 (in a later post I’ll write about her involvement with and her previous Project H work).  Since then she has gotten involved in educational activism in Bertie County, NC.  The area is educationally impoverished – only 28% of students K-8 meet or exceed state standards.  The school district brought in both Project H and Teach ofr American to try to turn this around.

Instead of proposing a design solution for the school, Project H decided to try teaching design to students.  Their pilot program, Studio H,  teaches design skills in a hands on way.  It runs three hours a day through two semesters and will culminate in a summer design build internship.

Teaching design skills had to start at the beginning.  Students needed coaching on how the color wheel worked and how to read a ruler!  But they began gamely with a plan, section and elevation of a bell pepper.  Then they jumped into design and  construction together when they built their on Corn Hole boards.  After getting a handle on basic construction and graphic design skills they moved on to creating some exceptionally beautiful chicken coops.  The student work is impressive and designerly reflecting a lot of work and a learning curve like the Matterhorn.

The final project will be a farmers market structure for the county.  Far from being a hip idea introduced by the city folk to bring locals up to speed this project was first requested at a local Rotory Club meeting.  Pilloton and her partner live right downtown and are looking forward to having a farmers market to shop at next fall themselves.

The most important thing, she says, is Architecture, not for architecture’s sake and not even for education’s sake but for the future.  The students in this class will be prepared to meet complex challenges and to appreciate the benefit of design in their lives.  They will be the next town council members, teachers, public workers and civic leaders.  Its important that they have the design skills to prepare them for those roles.

Quilian Riano, DSGN AGNCY


I didn’t connect as well with this designer who works in a lot of theory and describes his firm’s location as “in the cloud” by which he means the internet, or possibly the location of his airplane seat at any given moment.  He seems to spend a lot of time jet setting for someone who claims to care about “context.”

However, he did have some interesting take away quotes.  Architects, he says, like to match each problem with a solution.  But we need to be a little more open minded in this complex world.  In the 60’s students took to the streets to protest “the government.”  Today when we marching protest of a group like the IMF its unclear even to the protesters who we are even against.  Organizations are so complicated an interconnected that we can’t get a handle on it.  This is a world that requires more interlinked and nebulous responses.  His advice, which I do like, is:

  1. Get Messy: go find a context.
  2. Team Up: work with people from many fields.
  3. Engage Critically: try to see the bigger picture.
  4. Be Flexible: no final solutions.

I’ll leave the final words to Emily Pilloton:

“I used to think that I was part of a strong community because I had great connections on Facebook and a lot of twitter followers.  Since moving to Bertie county that has really shifted.  Now it feels more real to be at a Rotary Club meeting.”

One response to “Change Agents & Innovators

  1. This is great food for thought. I found the 79 school design ideas interesting. Of course elementary school is where any meaningful changes are going to start.
    As the twig is bent….

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