Balancing Tradeoffs: The Evolution of the Hippo Roller

Project H’s designers faced a tough decision when redesigning a water transportation device–sustainability or social impact?

Designers Accord


In 2008, 26-year-old industrial designer Emily Pilloton founded Project H Design, a non-profit that empowers designers around the world to support, create, and deliver life-improving product design solutions. Chapters now located in nine cities function as volunteer design firms, identifying and developing products that address issues of the four H’s: Humanity, Habitats, Health and Happiness. As Pilloton worked to establish the first chapter, located in San Francisco, yet another H quickly came into the fold, the Hippo Roller, a water-transporting device manufactured in South Africa. Project H’s very first initiative became a plan to raise enough money to deliver 75 Hippo Rollers to Kgautswane, South Africa.


The first Hippo Roller recipients in Project H’s delivery to Kgautswane.

The Hippo Roller was designed 15 years ago by two South African men, and has radically improved the life of rural residents by allowing a person to “roll” 22 gallons of water in a plastic capsule from water source back to home. By embarking on this fund-and-deliver mission, Pilloton wanted to watch the product in action, and learn how Project H could best support similar projects in developing nations. “We knew there would be a donation and site visit, but then we wanted to do something else,” she remembers. “We thought it might be helping them to rewrite their business plan.”


When she got to South Africa, however, Pilloton quickly realized that the Hippo Roller had several design flaws. The factory was inefficient, for example, 120 rollers had to be manufactured in order to produce 75 useable rollers that were up to quality standards. The rollers–which are transported empty, like water-cooler bottles, and take up lots of space in a shipping container–were extremely expensive to ship outside of the country. And in the field, she noticed many of the rubber o-rings that were supposed to keep the screwcap watertight had deteriorated, causing users to wrap plastic bags around the cap instead. Pilloton knew the “something else” of Project H’s role in this initiative would be to improve the Hippo Roller itself. She enlisted the assistance of Engineers Without Borders to propose a redesign.


An early two-piece concept at a brainstorming session.

When Pilloton approached the company with an offer of free design services, the founder was receptive to the idea of improving his business. “But he was a little hesitant,” says Pilloton. “The form was so recognizable to these communities.” Changing it too much would confuse or turnoff the people who knew and trusted the shape. “We wanted to maintain the brand integrity of the Hippo Roller because it was so iconic,” says Ryan Duke, an industrial designer and Project H’s San Francisco chapter head. But they knew they could improve on it by creating a two-piece, rubber-seamed drum that could be disassembled and nested, which was another chance to improve the functionality. “The seam where the two pieces come together is placed asymmetrically–it’s kept off the round so it doesn’t bear the brunt of the terrain,” he says. And because the pieces separated and stacked, the benefits for shipping were incredible: “You get about three Hippo Rollers in the place of one.”


Similarly, the manufacturing plant itself placed several more constraints on the design. Injection molding, which would have made more sense financially in the U.S., was out of the question here; the factory was only set up for the simpler rotational molding. “We could have easily said, let’s make this thing out of old oil drums and a plastic bladder,” says Pilloton. “But because we had a real client, and it had to be manufactured in the same facility, the possibilities were limted.”


A early rendering of a modified two-part shape.

As a designer exceptionally concerned with sustainability issues, when it came to materials Pilloton also hoped to improve upon the Hippo Roller’s design. Although they all hoped to make the new version out of recycled plastic, Pilloton learned immediately of the material’s shortcomings. “There were very real structural limitations,” says Pilloton. The supply of plastic to be recycled was one issue, and quality control was another–with recycled plastic it would be difficult to maintain a consistent texture, which was needed for designers to create a burly, all-terrain exterior of the roller.


The designers quickly faced a dilemma: They could produce a superior product but it would not be produced in a more environmentally-responsible way. “We asked ourselves, is it worth it at all?” says Pilloton. “But we realized that the social impact was much more important. It was better that this would last for six years and work, rather than fall apart after three months.” They decided on a UV-stabilized polyethylene, a “middle of the road” plastic according to Pilloton–certainly not the most sustainable, but sturdy enough to contain massive volume of water.


A 1/10-scale model built from the actual materials for testing.

With an approved design, Project H hit another snag: Funds had dried up from their original initiative and no money was left to create the new tooling and mold for the revamped roller. Project H has embarked upon yet another fundraising campaign, hoping to provide the manufacturer with $9,000. Although it was a much longer timeline than Pilloton’s team anticipated, the entire process, like all Project H endeavors, has been carefully documented, allowing other designers to learn from their experience.


And Pilloton still gets queries from designers, questioning Project H’s decisions to use the less sustainable material, and proposing additional improvements to the design. True to the spirit of Project H’s culture of and sharing, she’s open to all suggestions. “You could have a really amazing design that works and has potential to make incremental improvements for the greater good,” she says. “But great design is where you’re continually critical of the really important things, and in that situation, design is never done. Especially with design for impact: You have to keep improving it.”

Note: Emily Pilloton previously worked part-time for the Designers Accord but recently left her role at the organization to focus on Project H.

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato


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