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The Center for Public Interest Design
The Center for Public Interest Design

Public Interest Design (PID) has been in the lexicon of Architecture since the 1990s. It is a social movement as it is a business practice. It is as conscious of the world as it is of our need to shape the world to our own designs. It Democratizes design while at the same time setting design apart from everything that’s come before.

According to, PID “emphasizes the creation or redesign of products, environments, and systems, with a clear human-centered approach, while often likened to the well-established fields of public interest law and public health.” According to Sergio Palleroni, Director of the newly established Center for Public Interest Design (CPID) in the School of Architecture at Portland State University, PID is good design made available to everyone—design that promotes health, equity, and sustainability.

The mission of the Center for Public Interest Design is to serve communities in need worldwide by researching and  promoting design and building practices that are socially conscious, environmentally sustainable and economically accessible to all and by doing so elevate the civic role of these professions as agents of change.

The CPID was launched in the spring of 2013 to study and promote the kind of design practices making the world better for everyone—everyone being the 90% of the world’s population unable to afford well-designed products and environments. The Center has also made public engagement a part of its agenda: taking on social issues at home and abroad, educating the community and future generations of architects and designers engaged in PID, and building, along the way, networks of citizens, civic leaders, non-profit and for-profit organizations capable of generating a PID infrastructure outside the walls of the University.

“Isolation from design thinking affects us in every way conceivable,” Palleroni said. “We think everyone deserves designs for a better world, especially the poor and the underrepresented. So we’re trying to expand the reach of good design in order to build an improved society filled with more open, healthier, high-performing environments.”

As Palleroni points out, bringing good design, PID, to the public en mass will require nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way architects and designers work with their clients, as well as private and civic partners. The CPID hopes to help propel that shift by leveraging resources available to the Center through PSU and by bringing together a diverse and experienced team of faculty from the School of Architecture as well as other disciplines on campus and partners from universities across the country. The Center will also investigate those places where subtle paradigmatic shifts have already occurred, Palleroni noted—places like Haiti and Argentina, Columbia, Brazil, and Croatia.

And here in our own back yard where developers like Kevin Cavenaugh, whose “Burnside Rocket” and “The Ocean” buildings are excellent examples of PID, and where Palleroni and his wife, Margarette Leite—also a faculty member in the School of Architecture—recently made national news with a modular classroom designed to promote health, learning, and sustainability. 

The Green Modular Classroom is an example of PID in action. Troubled by the archaic modular classrooms their child attended school in, Palleroni and Leite mobilized, convening a charrette of parents, community members, educators, and experts who worked together to develop a design-based solution to the problems posed by standard modular classrooms. The result was an award-winning design that met the needs of the district, satisfied the parents’ desire for a better educational environment for children, and received nationwide recognition as an innovation in both design and design practices.

As a part of its community outreach and education efforts, the CPID hopes to engage the community in similar design exercises and workshops as those that led to the development of the Green Modular Classroom.

“Out of these processes stronger civic institutions emerge,” Palleroni said, referring to the processes that led to the Green Modular Classroom. “And when we create stronger civic institutions, people have a better idea of the opportunities available to them and they can act more effectively on their needs. And when designers and architects are involved, we can build to best accommodate those needs.”

In order to reach the community, the CPID has partnered with Mercy Corps to hold PID workshops. They held their first workshop last spring. At the end of the workshop, 90 design professionals and students were certified in PID, having learned how to begin PID projects, how to get projects off the ground, financed, and best practices related to community partnerships. The Center plans to host similar workshops two or three times a year. Future workshops might address broad social issues like homelessness and hunger from a design perspective and involve the community in designing solutions.

It's about bringing great design to the people who need it.

—Sergio Palleroni

The Center for Public Interest Design is just now getting off the ground. But as the Center is unique, currently the only one of its kind in the country, Palleroni believes that through public interaction and engagement both here in the metro region and abroad, the Center will grow, just as the practice of PID is expanding in the States and around the world.

CPID’s Local & Global Community Projects

“The idea is that 10 years from now,” Palleroni said, “the Center will be the hub to connect those in need of PID with practitioners. The Center will be writing case studies and there will be hundreds of designers here in the city. We want to address the big issues that designers can’t address on their own: homelessness and public housing, and similar issues. And we want to be an archive of best practices, a repository of resources where people can come and learn about architecture, design, and public interest, and then take what they’ve learned to the people who most need it”

PID is a practice in its infancy. However, with the growing needs of the populace and increased stress upon the environment and its limited resources, PID is poised to come into its own. The challenges facing growing populations, particularly those in urban centers can be met in such a way as to irrecoverably damage the environment and sow the seeds of social inequity and discontent for generations to come. The same challenges can also be met with approaches such as those developed through public interest design. Which methods we choose will depend on how far we cast our views into the future, the partnerships we forge when faced with obstacles, and our ability to integrate social health and wellbeing with the health and wellbeing of the environment and good design. The Center for Public Interest Design is a resource for those with their eyes on a future where social justice reigns and people possess the tools and resources to live sustainably.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted September 26, 2013 

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