8 DEC 13 | design can change the world

OK, so maybe that statement isn’t entirely true; sure, it takes a lot more than just design to make big changes in our world today, but what if that was our approach and attitude towards architecture? That our design work could actually change the world, small pieces at a time, for the better. I first read Emily Pilloton’s Design Revolution: The Toolkit in college after visiting her mobile museum in an airstream set up to publicize her then recent book Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. The Toolkit talked about designing for the greater good; designing for change instead of consumption; using design as a tool to empower communities; taking a stand and a commitment as a designer to only participate in design that would improve lives. . .

And I thought: YES! This is totally what design is all about. It’s about people—and I don’t mean the 1%—it’s about the 99%! It’s about the masses, the under-represented, the silent voices, the everyone, everywhere. It’s not just about addressing environmental issues; it’s about social, economic and environmental issues; it’s a triple-bottom line.


While in college, I was inspired and impacted by Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, a global “do-good” architecture program, who spoke at the Chicago Greenbuild conference and by Bryan Bell, Director of Design Corps, who spoke about his work on migrant farm-worker housing at NC State University. I immediately was driven to work with the shakers and movers of this field and worked for both Design Corps and bcWORKSHOP upon graduating. My eyes were forever opened to this new world of incredible high-impact design that is now called “Public Interest Design”.


Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul. – Samuel Mockbee

Butterfly House, Greensboro, AL, Rural Studio

This approach to design moves beyond the boundaries of market-driven design to find high-impact solutions to the world’s most pressing issues: poverty, equality, homelessness and disaster recovery. In Public Interest Design the designer is pro-active to an issue, not re-active. They provide the platform for a catalyst to change and let the community speak. It is truly a bottom-up, grassroots effort; not a top-down “we know what’s best for you” approach.

This kind of thinking is shifting the paradigm of architecture everyday. I think especially in the upcoming generation of architects, we are realizing that we can be public-service providers and make a living. Of those designers in Public Interest Design, some of my favorite projects and people forging the path include the following:

MASS Design’s Butaro District Hospital in Burera District, Rwanda

bcWORKSHOP’s Congo Street Initiative in Dallas, TX

Project H’s (Studio H) Windsor Super Market in Windsor, NC

Elemental’s Quinta Monroy Housing in Iquique, Chile

Anna Heringer’s METI School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh

These are my “heroes” in the design world. Their projects focus on process and community engagement and the product is a beautiful representation of both collaboration and compassion.


Butaro Hospital, Rwanda, MASS Design
Hale County Animal Shelter, Greensboro, Alabama, Rural Studio
Congo Street Initiative, Texas, bcWORKSHOP
St. Joseph Rebuild Center, New Orleans, Louisiana, DCDC + WTA

In my fellowships, I have had the opportunity to work with migrant-farm workers in North Carolina, AIDS-affected families in Uganda and low-income communities in Dallas, Austin and Brownsville, TX, providing my design skill set to advocate for those communities, build affordable housing and create relationships that I will cherish for life.

Many architects I’ve spoken with DO want to do good work and they say: I want to do good work, but I don’t know how.

Today there is a plethora of resources of how to get involved and gain the know-how:

The Public Interest Design Institute, hosted by Design Corps, is a 2-day seminar which addresses the integration of Public Interest Design into traditional architectural practices through case studies. To date, Public Interest Design Institutes have been held in 14 states with 3 new states scheduled for 2014.

The Social Economic Environmental Design metric (SEED) provides the framework to document and implement a community-based project.

Structures for Inclusion and ACD (Association for Community Design) are annual conferences which showcase best-practices in Public Interest Design.

The 1% Program by Public Architecture pairs architecture firms with non-profits in need of design-services.

Fellowships and job-opportunities include Enterprise’s Rose Fellowship, IDEO’s non-profit initiative, bcWORKSHOP’s fellowship program, Gulf Coast Community Design Center and many others.



So get out there! Find out what a community is in desperate need of and find a way to help them; ask yourself what your “ethical-footprint” is as a designer and think about how your design work can be of service to those who need it most. It can be as simple as starting a conversation.

READ about it. LISTEN to it.