Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds

Not all American designers are leaving the country to do good.



While sitting in the parking lot of a BoJangles restaurant at 11 o’clock at night, I opened the link to Bruce Nussbaum’s recently published “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” article on this very forum. You may wonder why I was squatting outside a fried chicken franchise, and the answer is simple: It is the only place, aside from the public school buildings, that has wireless Internet access in my home of Bertie County, North Carolina.

Bertie County, North Carolina. 27 people per square mile, 1 in 3 children living below the poverty line

Daily problems found in such rural communities, including the lack of connectedness and access to technology, have become very real and very personal to me in recent months. Earlier this year, I relocated the headquarters of Project H Design, which I founded in 2008, to Bertie County, the poorest county in North Carolina, where one in three children are living below the poverty line, to more deeply explore the role of design in public education in rural America. Having worked with the Bertie County School District for 18 months now on a variety of design initiatives from educational playgrounds to more convivial computer lab spaces, my partner Matthew Miller and I now call it home. In fact, we are about to embark on a long-term design/build program within the public school system for which our business cards will now read “High School Shop Teacher.”


As I began reading Mr. Nussbaum’s article, which begins by describing Project H Design as an example of a humanitarian design entity with good intentions (with a few key factual errors), I began to see where this was going. I know Mr. Nussbaum personally and greatly respect his voice and role in the design world, and while he is overt and sincere in his personal support of our work, the article takes a critical turn. Quite diplomatically (albeit passive aggressively), Mr. Nussbaum calls out Project H, among others including the Acumen Fund and the designers behind One Laptop Per Child, as design imperialists, “good souls” who are “presuming too much in their attempt to do good.” He points to a disconnectedness from the places we serve, both geographically and culturally, as the culprit.

Rural Bertie County’s main crops are peanuts, cotton, and tobacco

At this point, I cringed, but nodded along, agreeing with his assessment that too often humanitarian design is a scattershot “fly-by-night” occurrence in which Designers (with a capital D) swoop in with their capes and “design thinking” to save the poor folks. Designers who give a damn are easily drawn to the “poverty porn” of the slums of Mumbai or small acreage farms of Africa, before walking around the block and into a homeless shelter in San Francisco.

I can articulate such disdain for the approach, because Project H has been there. We have made the mistake of being disconnected from the people and places for which we design. The Hippo Roller re-design project was in many ways the biggest error we have made as an organization. Our first project, we undertook the re-design of the water transport device produced and distributed in South Africa, quite simply, because we were a newly-formed organization excited to get started. We had yet to see the value of local work, and were drawn to the simplicity of a device that so clearly has the potential to improve life. In hindsight, the process of redesigning the Hippo Roller was misguided and disconnected because of its lack of direct collaboration with end users, and a minimal shared investment in its success. While the resulting redesigned Hippo Roller is effective, we realized that the process was not. At the conclusion of the project, we put a stake in the ground to only take on projects that are local (that is, where the designer and partner/client are in the same location and call that place home). That Mr. Nussbaum defined our organization’s work by its anomaly is a gross misrepresentation.


Computer lab built for the Bertie County School District

Since the Hippo Roller project, we have stuck to the principle of working in our own backyards (in fact, Mr. Nussbaum even quotes this principle in our mission statement: “We start locally…”). Of 20 current projects, 18 are based in the U.S., run by local designers invested in their own communities, in places they understand, with people who are fellow citizens (the remaining two projects are in Mexico City, but designed and executed by a team of talented Mexican designers). We are still learning, but we know this local process to be more honest and productive than our Hippo Roller days.

It isn’t about design anymore, it’s about an educational process that produces creative capital where it did not exist before.

It is only through this local engagement and shared investment that the humanitarian design process shines. It is through this personal connection to place and people that the human qualities of design rise to the top of the priority list, through which our clients are no longer beneficiaries, but experts and co-designers right there with us. In his infamous address titled “To Hell With Good Intentions,” Ivan Illich puts this beautifully: “If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home… You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.” We all have to learn how to be citizens again: citizens first, and designers second. Citizenship is inherently local, defined by our connection and commitment to the places we best know and most love. I believe this is a point Mr. Nussbaum would agree with.

At the end of the piece, Mr. Nussbaum calls for a redirection of humanitarian design, asking, “…why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa and not Native American reservations or rural areas, where standards of education, water and health match the very worst overseas?”


Two of our Studio H students, high school juniors Anthony and Erick

My jaw dropped. Am I not living in rural America, trying my damnedest to tackle a broken education system, in a very real way? Was I not mooching Wi-Fi off of a chicken joint in the middle of the night? Had my partner and I not just gone through the arduous process of getting our teaching certifications to run Studio H, the country’s first high school design/build program? Do we not have support from amazing partners like the Kellogg Foundation to explore the scalability of design education in rural America? Please do your homework, Mr. Nussbaum.

I thought of my 13 high school students, whose stories both break my heart and inspire me every day, and the prospect of a design studio and wood/metal shop class that might give them a different approach to learning: one focused on solving local problems through creativity and building. This is the power of humanitarian design: When it’s not about design anymore, it’s about an educational process that produces creative capital where it did not exist before, in beautiful ways, by underestimated individuals. In our case, you can expect to see amazing things from our Studio H students, starting with a farmers’ market downtown built by their own hands next summer.


Developing games with teachers for the Learning Landscape educational playground

There are in fact, plenty of design groups doing just this, working in rural America and on reservations and in our American metropolises. Mr. Nussbaum’s incomplete cataloging of the current roster of humanitarian designers ignores them as players and paints an incomplete picture. Catapult Design, led by Heather Fleming and Tyler Valiquette, has done amazing work with solar lighting on the Navajo reservations. Project M bakes pie and brings unexpected people together in their community space in Greensboro, Alabama. And then there are those who don’t call themselves designers, doing wonderfully creative community development work in Smalltown, USA, like Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert, who founded Energize Clinton County to save their hometown of Wilmington, Ohio after an economic catastrophe.

For all of us who consider ourselves part of the “design world,” the issue is not of geography (“Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?” as Mr. Nussbaum asks), but one of commitment. I may not be born and bred in Bertie County, North Carolina, but I call it home. I go to the post office and ask Tisha about how her weekend pig-picking went. I go to Bunn’s Barbecue for lunch and ask Randy, the owner, if he wants to come over for a beer on the porch this weekend. I get defensive when people make fun of the fact that Bertie County doesn’t even have a Walmart. And every day, I’m feeling more attached to my students, their families, and the networks of people that make up their collective education system.

Mr. Nussbaum’s article greatly oversimplifies the serendipitous chaos that is humanitarian design. It draws a line, mostly defined by the developed and developing worlds, and says “if you’re here, and you work there, you’re an imperialist.” Nothing is so cut and dried, particularly in a corner of the design world that is so new, so misunderstood, and so much still a work in progress, that some days the best we can do is just to keep trucking–eloquently put by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, “To do good, you first have to do something.”


Our work-in-progress Studio H shop and classroom space at Bertie High School

And so, Mr. Nussbaum, I leave you with a request and with an invitation. I would ask that you strive to better understand the messiness, the difficulty, and the honest commitment that most of us humanitarian designers work with every day. I would ask that you do not oversimplify the humanitarian design process into a sound byte. And lastly, I invite you, in earnest, to come visit us in Bertie County. As we embark on the first year of Studio H with our thirteen students, come to our studio, do some welding in our shop, lead a design brainstorm, give a lecture, on Project H’s dime. I think you will see that we are not imperialists, but young designers trying to do our best, shooting from the hip some days, but ultimately trying to build something beautiful from within this rural place we now call home.

About the author

Emily Pilloton is the founder of Project H Design, a nonprofit that uses design and building as catalysts for community improvement. Passionate about the intersection of design and public education in rural America, Emily lives in Bertie County, North Carolina, where she teaches Studio H, a one-year design/build high school program, with her partner Matthew Miller