Bertie County at the TED Talks

How can introducing a design curriculum to a high school, in one of America’s poorest rural counties, create new opportunities? Emily Pilloton, author of Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, published in 2009 by Metropolis Books, shows us, in her TED Talk about her recent project Studio H.

The non-profit design initiative focuses on the intersection of design and education in Bertie County, North Carolina. The project’s aim: to design with, not for. By teaching design as a way of thinking and approaching problems and by redesigning education, Pilloton has sparked community involvement and development in North Carolina’s poorest county.

Here, Pilloton and her partner Matt Miller designed new spaces like computer labs and  learning landscapes- outdoor spaces which mix physical activity and learning- but were adamant about not simply coming into this broken school system and using conventional design build methods. Instead they worked to redesign the educational process. By implementing an interactive design studio for 11th graders, which meets for 3 hours each day, and culminates in a hands-on community based design project, students got involved in something real and meaningful. They were able to take part in change.

It takes a brave pair of designers to pick up and move to a rural ghetto and try to shake things up with their work.  But Pilloton and Miller are not simply brave. They are incredibly insightful in reminding us that impact is all about collaboration, and that collaboration is done best on a local scale. This hyper-localized design scheme – a collaboration with 13 high school students – is exciting, innovative and sustainable. Instead of swooping in and making changes, then leaving, Pilloton has embedded new skills and creative ideas into the minds of a young population that has never before been stimulated in such a way.  This is sustainable design, at its best.


Pilloton and Miller live among the people; they are  fostering relationships, explore design in a new way, and even reinvent themselves as designers and educators. One day this project may serve as a pilot for local design initiatives throughout the country or the world, but it is important to realize that the meaning, power and impact of this project are contingent on a certain time and place–now, in Bertie County. Pilloton believes that design is a tool that can be used to change the world while she seems to be conscious of its limits, and how to use them to advantage.

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