Emily Pilloton gave an excellent talk for TED (“Teaching design for change”) to share her innovative work in design to improve education and rural communities. Teaching children to change their world is perhaps the best gift we can young minds in this dire time.

“Youth is the biggest untapped resource for imagining a new future.”

The US today is experiencing a “hallowing out of small towns” to something Emily calls “brain drain – where the most qualified and educated leave and never come back.” This phenomenon leaves behind communities rooted in poverty without a “shared investment in the future of the community.”

Emily was once a part of this movement. She left her small town of Bertie, NC. Now she’s returned, and she’s set on changing not just the state of the community but how it operates. She is implementing new designs that will not only provide more quality education but also make the community a more valuable asset to its members.

Design -> Education -> Community

Her nonprofit Project H Design believes in “design through action.” That means “designing with, not for” and “designing systems, not stuff.”

They operate through 2 pathways:

1. Making education a vehicle for commercial development
2. Redesigning education by “how” – systems, not stuff. Creating conditions in which change is possible.

For example, in most high schools, shop class is a relic of the past. She’s brought it back to give students the power to reconstruct their communities. This project is called Studio H. During the school year students find spaces that need improvement and move into the shop where they test, prototype, and refine their visions. For summer jobs, students build their designs. Even if students do not go to college, they have developed extremely valuable workforce skills that ensure their engagement in improving their communities.

This project alone educates, creates jobs, improves the community for all members, and ensures that the students are invested in their hometown. This is a local program that can be scaled globally. That is phenomenal design.

In her TED talk, Emily presents a call to action for designers like herself to reeducate themselves around things that matter. Check it out:


Since her talk last year, Studio H has been approved in the Bertie County Board of Education for a second year. To learn more about Project H Design and all of its initiatives, visit the website.

STC Schools, please email me to share your Effective Practices for engaging students in their communities.