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Abject Object

A Successful Social Design Experiment

Common Good / November, 2011

This report describes a project that started in the spring of 2008 with a group of volunteer designers in Los Angeles who wanted to use their skills to benefit their community. We hope that this report will serve as a case study and resource list for others who want to create positive impact with their local community and deploy their own socially relevant projects. Before we started this project, many social design projects consisted of designers working with craft communities in developing countries to produce luxury goods for Westerners. In many cases, the makers were compensated with a small fraction of the selling price. While we liked the altruistic intent of these projects, we questioned who the designs were ultimately serving--the makers, designers, or the the western buyers? Our hunch was that the designers efforts could more directly benefit people in need with a different, more localized approach.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

Finding Our Focus

We started by researching social issues in Los Angeles and initiating conversations with local non-profits. Almost immediately, it became clear to us that homelessness is a severe problem. With last years estimate of 48,000 people, Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the United States and spends $875 million annually fighting homelessness. Not only did homelessness present a clear and immediate need, the number of nonprofits and resources dedicated to eradicating the problem, made it more likely for us to find suitable nonprofits who would be willing to partner with us.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

Project Goals
The goal of this project was to experiment with alternative modes of social design and understand and what social design is and could be.

We wanted to nd the best way for designers to use their skills to help communities in need.
To start, we explored partnering with Los Angeles non-profits, equal profit-sharing with the makers, and designing products that were relevant to their makers. We wanted to work as closely and collaboratively as possible to make sure that our efforts would be useful to the people and the non-profit we were to serve. We also wanted to expand our thinking beyond products and profit, and incorporate creative skill-building as a possible benefit. Finally, we saw in our city many good, useful materials going to waste, and wanted to design products that might breathe new life into these industrial scraps and divert them from the waste stream.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

From a hand out approach...

Vision & Approach

We had defined our broad goals for the project and determined that we would focus our efforts on responding to the needs of the local homelessness population. As designers, we had an expertise in making products and felt that we could deliver the most value by utilizing these skills. The typical model for this was to design products that people could make and sell. These product production projects did usually not require much skill (e.g. production and assembly with hot glue, staples, and folding) and left makers without any assets beyond the project. We decided to take a hands-on approach by teaching production skills that could be marketable beyond the project.

Our vision was to design skill-building workshops to teach people marketable skills while producing salable products.
The products would be relevant to their makers and could be sold to generate income. We also wanted to make sure that whatever we designed would be a part of a program that could sustain itself over time, without the constant need for outside support. A video introduction to this project may be viewed at: http://vimeo.com/8092701 ...to a hands on one.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

Design Process

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

We started very simply with initial research of nonprofits in Los Angeles. From this list, we looked for non-profits that seemed open to progressive and experimental job development projects, social enterprise endeavors, and art/craft workshops. We were fortunate to find the Downtown Womens Center. They were in the process of organizing and starting a social enterprise and our goals overlapped. After a few rounds of emails, the Downtown Womens Center granted us an interview and we met with them to discuss how we could work with together. The Center was open to exploring new approaches with us because we had similar missions and interests. Their mission is to use art as therapy and they already had a creative workshop series in place in their programs. They had just received a grant to explore social enterprise and were interested in developing workshops and products that their women could use to build creative skills and generate income. Together, we worked out a plan to make this happen.

We started by interviewing the people who worked at the Downtown Womens Center, including residence and day center managers, and administrative staff. From these interviews, we began to understand the daily operations of the downtown Womens Center, the needs of the staff and the women they serve, as well as the other creative programs offered. Then we interviewed the day center users and permanent residents. We learned that the women who used the center had very difficult lives, with many hardships and few possessions. The women worried about keeping their possessions handy and safe from theft. When they lived on the streets, staying clean and warm at night was also difficult.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

Material Explorations
We organized our first workshops with these concerns in mind. In preparation, we were able to source a number of free or discounted scrap materials. (In general, we found that free materials were easy to obtain.) Among these were used bike tire inner tubes, upholstery fabric swatches, clothing, retired parachutes, and shoes. We explored ways to transform these scraps into compelling products.

Weaving This produced a textile with an interesting visual effect, but was very time consuming to produce.

Scrap Patches Fabric scraps could be sewn together to create colorful textiles.

Tire Fringe Cutting tire edges created a fringe that was beautiful and soft, but too time consuming for practical production.

Crocheting We cut plastic bags into strips and crocheted them into a textile. This also proved to be tedious for the women and too time consuming for practical production.

Shoes We were invited to design products using discarded TOMS shoes collected in a take-back program. While we were able to generate some interesting concepts, these sturdy shoes ultimately were difficult to disassemble and needed to be cleaned before use.

Lacing Lacing proved an easy way to join pieces and add detail to an object.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

Concept Products

In the spirit of creating objects that were relevant to the women, we knew that our products had to be simple and functional. In our explorations we gravitated towards creating very basic items that anyone, even someone without a home, could use, like clothing and storage. We worked directly with DWC residents who gave us immediate feedback in the feasibility of the skills and materials and what kind of products they would use. TRANSFORMATIVE TEXTILES / We increased the utility of each object by designing them to perform two functions. The objects ability to transform not only differentiated our designs from other single-function objects, they reflected the transformative goals of our project: to elevate industrial scraps into a marketable product and improve womens skill sets and financial situation in the process. POCKET SCARF The Pocket Scarf is a scarf that can be worn around the body and serve as an extra pocket for small belongings. It can also be used as a hanging unit for a more permanent storage.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood

Hood Bag
On cool days the this bag can be used as a warm hood, scarf, and hand warmers. On hot days, the Hood Bag can be used as a messenger bag.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Hammock Bag
The Hammock Bag is a large, expandable bag made from rope and discarded parachutes. It can carry belongings, and when one needs a clean resting space it can be expanded into a hammock.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Rag Rug
The Rag Rug is a versatile textile that can be used as a floor rug, wall tapestry, or throw. Made of layers of circular fabric discs, individual pieces can be added or removed as needed. The individual discs can be used as a cleaning rag, pot holder, coaster, or anything else one can think of. The Rag Rug was developed to absorb waste from our other products and is made from leftover scrap fabrics.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Production Workshops
Our first workshops focused on material explorations. We spent about six months developing different ways to work with the materials. After about 6 months of experimenting with materials, we had a rough idea of our concepts and started to focus on creating more efficient ways to produce the products. It was also time to start teaching the women how to produce the products. We met a number of challenges in these first production workshops. The women had very different styles of learning. Some needed more guidance and were hesitant to experiment, while others learned more quickly and were quick to add their own personal flourishes onto the basic designs. After conducting a series of initial workshops that focused on the production of the pocket scarf, it became apparent that the initial product line required a time investment that extended beyond the three hours provided by the workshops. This meant that, in order for the women to obtain the relevant skills and techniques to complete the production process, they would need to be able to commit to a series of consecutive weekly workshops. This proved difficult for many of the women due to the general uncertainty of their schedules.We determined that it was necessary to develop another, smaller scale product that was easily produced from start to finish within the three-hour block of the workshop.

The nal outcome was a fabric pouch that could be made by a novice sewer in about an hour.
This quick project taught the women how to cut a simple pattern, sew layers and zippers, and attach grommets, all skills that provided a foundation that could eventually be applied to the production of the other products.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood



Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


From Ideas to Action

Once we had established that the workshops could generate saleable products, we arranged for the women to be compensated for each pouch the made, and production of the pouches quickly increased. In the early stages, they received points that could be redeemed for gift cards, toiletries and clothes that were donated to the Center (as part of the DWCs Time Banking Program). As the brick-and-mortar store became a reality, the Center was able to offer monetary compensation with equal profit-sharing between the maker and the Center.

We worked with the Center to pay the women $3 for every pouch they made.
In April, 2011, the pouches were successfully launched at MADE, the Downtown Womens Centers brick-and-mortar social enterprise store. As of this writing, they are slated to be sold in Bloomingdales for the holiday shopping season.

New volunteers have taken over running the workshops and pouch production continues to this day.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood



Day Center Users and Residents

In the beginning of the project, the residents and Day Center users had mixed feelings about this project. Contrary to most of the other craft workshops at the center, which served as an open-ended creative outlet, this workshop had a relatively defined outcome that needed to be salable. Some women did not want to be held to such a rigid outcome and left the workshops frustrated. Over time, our workshops pretained focused women who understood what was expected. They liked learning how to sew and earning money and we saw them regularly.

Downtown Womens Center Sta

The Downtown Womens Center staff really liked our first round of objects. They saw their potential and enjoyed seeing them develop. When we introduced the pouch, they didnt understand why we had switched to a simpler product. They had plans for the women to refurbish furniture and make block prints and textiles. Our workshops helped them understand that the ladies would be more successful creating simpler products with a handmade feel that could hide imperfections. When they attended a workshop and held other kinds of workshops, the staff embraced the pouch. They still hope to someday to produce the more complex transformable objects.


This project was very long and we had a number of volunteers that contributed their efforts at various phases, some staying over many months. Some volunteers have used this project as a portfolio piece and a way to network, while others have simply enjoyed being creative with other like-minded people.

Meeting the women and being able to see their enthusiasm towards learning a skill and being credited for their work from the sewing program we helped start was priceless. Armie Pasa

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Challenges & Adaptations

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Finding sufficient resources was a challenge throughout the project. We were given an initial grant of $500 from Emily Piloton and made sure to spend it only when we absolutely had to. We tapped into our personal networks for donations of fabric, machines, and supplies. We also held two fundraisers where we exhibited our products, which raised money and awareness for our project. Our media partners , Good Magazine and Artechnica generously donated space and marketing for our fundraisers.

Volunteer Commitment

At the beginning of the project, we welcomed anyone as a volunteer because openness and inclusiveness was core to the mission of Project H. Many people would come for one or two day to try volunteering and we would never see them again. As the project progressed, to start volunteering at a workshop required more and more investment in training and materials and we couldnt accommodate short-term volunteers. We had to start interviewing and screening out people who couldnt make a commitment to come for several months. We were sad to do this, but it resulted in a stronger, more efficient team.


It was a challenge to communicate the time, location, and details of our early workshops to the ladies. For our first workshops, we relied on fliers and announcements made by the DWC staff to tell the ladies about the workshops. With this approach, there were times where we would arrive at the workshop and find that none of the women knew that the workshop was happening. When we began to communicate directly with the women and their main managers and workshop, attendance improved.


Our group was comprised of young designers who had never started and executed a project on this scale. Additionally, many of us did not know how to sew. This was a problem that became quickly apparent the first times we sewed with our finicky machines. We got better with practice and much better when we brought on fashion designers to give us sewing lessons and improve the products.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Lessons Learned
Get experts to help with your blind spots.
We wasted a fair amount materials, time, and funds doing things the wrong way because we just didnt know any better. We created patterns out of wood, butchered fabric, and bought fabric that didnt make sense for what we were trying to do. In hindsight, we should have taken more time to understand our goals and create a strategy to reach them. Stopping, re-evaluating, and asking for help every so often would have saved a lot of time over the long run.

Direct your experimentation.

We invested a ton of energy and resources into exploring materials because it was fun and we were good at it. We have thorough documentation of pretty material experiments that ended up being irrelevant to what we were trying to do. If we had directed our experiments with more parameters and a more clearly defined outcome, we would have worked more efficiently.

Know your partners. Take nothing for granted.

When we started working with the women and the Center, we had heard stories from the staff and and read descriptions of them on the website. Based on this, we assumed that the women would learn quickly and love and commit to our project. We soon learned that they had their own opinions of what would be fun and easy and we had to adjust our expectations. For example, in our first workshops, we set up orderly work-stations to perform each production task (cutting, sewing, picking fabrics, etc.) with instructional booklets to direct the women. They found the booklets confusing and waited (sometimes impatiently) for instruction from the volunteers. If we had taken more time to understand their perspective, we would have designed better experience and had more investment from the women. Looking back, if we had also gotten to understand the structure and functions of everyone working at the Center, we would have had less communication challenges as well. As volunteers starting our own project, we expected quick responses and immediate support from the Centers staff. We didnt fully appreciate that our project was one of many things that the staff had to deal with to support homeless women. We slowly learned to integrate our needs with theirs and modified our expectations to be more realistic and supportive of the Centers needs and structure.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Lessons Learned (continued)

Prepare for a lot of non-design work.
In order to move the projects forward, we had to do a lot of things that were new to us, like hunting down furniture manufacturers, picking things up, coordinating and motivating people, and organizing fundraisers. We found that these tasks became easier when more people were involved because it allowed us to delegate.

Be adaptable.

At the start of our project, we had a beautiful vision of a designer product line and a precise and inclusive production process. Eventually, we had to simplify the objects, screen our volunteers, and change how we communicated with our partners. These changes would have happened regardless of the depth of our initial research because, in work like this, and in dealing with people, few things are as predictable as one would like. We believe that in projects like these, it is important and necessary to change things around to meet the needs of the situation. Ultimately, even though the outcome is different from that first vision, its a better solution that we could have anticipated from the start.

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood


Contributors & Collaborators

Volunteers Jayne Cha, Kim Chow, Kim Karlsrud, Sujil Kodathoor, Sharon Levy, Jenny Liang, Gia Lim, Giselle Limtao, Ken Mori, Armie Pasa, Fu Paullada, Danny Phillips, Elise Preiss, Jenn Romero, Michael Trump Partners Downtown Womens Center, Chrysallis, Project H Media partners Good Magazine, Artecnica Supporters Sally Olsen, Tak Shida Material Suppliers TOMS Shoes, Wheel World

Abject Object / November 2011 / CommonGood