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“If You Build It” Documentary Shows Power of Design Education

Designer/activist duo Matthew Miller and Emily Pilloton are no strangers to hitting the road for the greater good. In 2010, they left San Francisco in an Airstream trailer to embark on the Design Revolution Road Show, hitting 35 cities in 75 days. Miller and Pilloton’s next project, Studio H -- documented in director Patrick Creadon’s film “If You Build It,” now screening across the country -- saw the pair take roots in Bertie County, North Carolina, part of an ambitious plan to not just promote design thinking but to inspire designers and doers through an innovative class.
Emily Pilloton with Studio H students CJ Robertson and Stevie Mizelle. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

The film follows the year they spent, beginning in August 2010, teaching ten student design thinking, work that may evoke a “Field of Dreams”-style emotional response. As previously reported in Dwell, the engaged educators (who at one point had their funding totally cut and became volunteers) started the students on Buckminster Fuller-inspired chicken coops before building up to the final project, a pavilion for the Windsor Farmers Market. According to Creadon, while none of the students are currently engaged in capital-D design, they’ve all said it was one of the most worthwhile educational experiences they’ve ever had. Stevie -- “I hated school, my dad hated school and my grandfather hated school. I’m carrying on a tradition” -- is now studying agriculture at N.C. State.

“This film shows that design thinking is a usable skill set,” says Creadon. “Project-based education in classrooms that speaks to the community, that bridges the gap between what you’re learning and living, can be fun.”

Creadon hopes the movie inspires more dialogue about expanding STEM education and teaching kids to build things, right at a time when budget cuts force administrators to reconsider what a great school looks like. Both members of Project H are still teaching design thinking, PIlloton in Berkely and Miller in Colorado. And Creadon has started a project of his own at his home in L.A. His three daughters have their own Lego-filled design studio (Studio G) in the basement.

“Real great education can happen everywhere,” says Creadon. “It’s not about funding, it’s about great ideas. This happened in the poorest county in North Carolina with unpaid teachers.”

Visit Project H and check out their design education toolbox.

Find upcoming screenings.

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