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

By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
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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.

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.

Emily Pilloton with Studio H students CJ Robertson and Stevie Mizelle. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

"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."

Studio H students Erick Bowen, Kerron Hayes, & Colin White burn cow patties for their first project, water filters. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

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.

Studio H students Kerron Hayes and Cameron Perry. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

"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."

Studio H student Jamesha Thompson with a bike she built herself, with help from Studio H instructor Matthew Miller. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

Visit Project H and check out their design education toolbox.

Studio H students Colin White, Jamesha Thompson, and Alexia Williams experiment with structural integrity. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

Studio H volunteer Eric Wandmacher and Studio H students Kerron Hayes and Alexia Williams construct a portion of the base for the Windsor Farmers Market pavilion. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

Studio H students Jamesha Thompson and Rodecoe Dunlow at work in the studio. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

Studio H student Erick Bowen and instructor Matthew Miller work on constructing the Windsor Farmers Market pavilion. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013.

Vendors sell produce at the grand opening of the Windsor Farmers Market. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013. Courtesy of Brad Feinknopf.

Director Patrick Creadon. From IF YOU BUILD IT, a Long Shot Factory Release 2013. Courtesy of O’Malley Creadon Productions.

Patrick Sisson

@patricksisson

During the course of his career writing about music and design, Patrick Sisson has made Stefan Sagmeister late for a date and was scolded by Gil Scott-Heron for asking too many questions. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Nothing Major, Wax Poetics, Stop Smiling and Chicago Magazine.

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