The make-good brand was launched in Johannesburg in 2021 by Carlo Gibson and Toni Rothbart to channel the duos skills, capabilities and experience. By connecting communities, creative industries, and funding Carlo – a fashion designer and social innovator – and Toni – a live-events producer, and project manager – are creating sustainable ways to help people and make-good.
make-good’s inaugural project – which led to them winning a 2021 Twyg Sustainable Fashion Award in the Innovative Design and Materials category – is The Homeless Home Project. Working with both independent designers and users, they have created wearable bedding – a lightweight jacket that transforms into a sleeping bag. Being wind and waterproof with durable fabric as well as pockets for storage space, the design maximises functionality.
We caught up with Carlo and Toni to learn more about The Homeless Home Project, what drives them to create positive change, and their collaborative design thinking process.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do at make-good?
make-good is a non-profit company built around identifying societal needs and creating social solutions through creative collaborations. Using the skills, support, and know-how of artisans and makers, we use design thinking to develop and create innovative solutions. We hope to make people’s lives better whilst simultaneously supporting small South African businesses in the creative sector.
The Homeless Home is an item of clothing designed to transform into a sleeping bag and used as a lightweight jacket. The item has been designed to be easy to use, easy to carry, durable, lightweight, waterproof, and windproof. The wearer can keep it as a jacket for the day and zip themselves into it as a sleeping bag at night.
The design has horizontal pockets or pouches which can be stuffed with throw-away items found on the streets – like newspaper – which helps insulate the jacket for extra warmth and adds padding to the garment for some comfort when sleeping. It also has some pockets allowing the wearer to carry their most important possessions with them.
What was the genesis of the Homeless Home Project?
The innovation was inspired by Carlo Gibson (co-founder and design collaborator) many years ago whilst riding a bike on a cold winter morning where he started to formulate an idea of making an item of clothing that could be augmented when needed (padded for extra insulation) and the stuffing could be discarded (with minimal impact) when no longer needed.
But the glaring implications of COVID-19’s impact on our communities throughout 2020 and 2021 highlighted the increase in displaced people on our streets and even globally, and prompted the need to get the Homeless Home to “market” and out on the streets as a matter of urgency.
Can you briefly explain what design thinking is?
Design thinking involves the design of an item through the perspective and input of the end-user. Solving their problems and answering their needs, by designing with them based on their experiences, is the main intention that guides the creation of the end product.
It means we need to step into the shoes of the person using the product we design. We do this by challenging our assumptions, not just by observing, but by incorporating them in an iterative process of design – by understanding their experiences, their needs, and their environments and including them in the creative process.
We have no idea what it is like to suffer from homelessness, what the true challenges are, what the intricacies of the person’s experience are, the difficulties they experience on a day-to-day basis, and how our skills can help answer that. It helps to reframe the design by understanding the actual problems that need to be solved. Through curiosity, questioning, engaging, prototyping, and incorporation we can reveal innovations that we on our own are not able to see without the input and perspective of the end-user.
One of the principles of design thinking is: designing with, instead of designing for. How did you ensure that this was a part of your process?
We made the first prototype based on our own assumptions and understanding of the need and the “design FOR” principle, just so we had a tangible product to start with. We then took a few samples to some people who live on the streets in Fordsburg to try them out and asked them to help us out and give us feedback and let us know where we had got it right, where we needed to change, and most importantly, what we hadn’t considered.
We kept doing this through the next few iterations, adding to or taking off of the article as was required (all within the affordability of what we could feasibly crowdfund). We are still mindful that a finalised item is not yet in existence, it may never be, as every person living on the streets experiences different environments – be it an urban street setting, life in a park, by the water, in the rainy season, in the heat. Each community and each person within that community experiences a degree of difference in their discomforts and has different requirements.
How do you centre sustainability in the way that you create?
We centre sustainability in a few ways. Incorporating the end-user/community in the design increases the likelihood of it being used for its purpose and decreases waste. Collaborating with makers who are experts in their fields, and across different fields, helps us problem-solve to find the best solutions. We are constantly looking for better ways to make our products durable and long-lasting. In the future, depending on affordability, we’d like to use as much recycled or repurposed material as we can.
What materials is the wearable bedding made from?
The shell of the Homeless Home is made from 600D Canvas – it helps to keep the jacket/sleeping bag waterproof and windproof. It is lined inside (with large horizontal pockets (made with taffeta) that can be stuffed with newspaper or cloth, or anything that can be found on the streets and easily discarded, to add padding and extra insulation to the jacket/sleeping bag when needed.
How was the project received by people experiencing homelessness?
It’s often difficult to get consistent feedback from many of the people we distributed to with this project because of the nomadic nature of their lives. From the feedback we received, those we distributed to found the item useful throughout winter, even noting that the summer rainfalls were often more difficult times to keep warm and dry.
We found that our return to where we distributed the jackets often meant a lot more to the communities than the item itself. For the people who we were distributing to, to feel considered, to be seen, to feel valued, and listened to was for us the most unexpectedly sobering response.
How has the Homeless Home Project laid the foundations for future work?
As make-good’s inaugural project, we learned many things, but the primary learning was that we must just jump in and get things done. We started The Homeless Home Project over a cup of coffee and an idea. Within six months we had set up a company, started crowdfunding, and manufactured and distributed over 500 units.
There were many flaws in our initial processes, but we refined these as we went along and we didn’t waste time in the early days trying to get it right the first time around. The point was to get the jackets out onto the streets before winter hit and the rest we refined and grew from there.
We want to collaborate on more projects with more makers in many disciplines. We know now that our baseline process works and that we can make things happen if the intention is set.
What is something you are looking forward to, in the year ahead?
We are in the process of trying to move the Homeless Home Project into the next part of its lifecycle by finding a way to shift the manufacturing away from an urban CMT. This has been a long process, but we are looking into securing funding and to establish this programme in collaboration with our partners (they are a non-profit organisation structured around supporting victims of GBV). The program intends to bring about education, training, financial literacy, and ultimately independence for the women in the program through their involvement in manufacturing the Homeless Homes. We are hoping this will come to fruition this year.
We are also always open to new collaborations with artists and makers who have ideas and passion to use their skills and capabilities to bring social innovations into the world. We have started preliminary work on our next project collaborating with an amazingly talented and passionate industrial designer. So, watch this space!
- Images supplied by Carlo Gibson and Toni Rothbart
- If you’d like to sponsor a Homeless Home, click here. Each Homeless Home costs R512, but any contribution is appreciated.
- To learn more about Carlo Gibson and Toni Rothbart’s work, take a look at the make-good website.
- The Homeless Home Project was the winner of the Innovative Design and Materials Award at the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards 202, presented by adidas.