Can good design change the world?
Well, the process of creative problem-solving that goes into good design can certainly energize a classroom full of bored, otherwise unengaged high school students, and that might at least be a start. Such was the theory behind the classroom experiments conducted by architectural and product designer Emily Pilloton and her professional and romantic partner, Matthew Miller. For two years, they lived and taught a high school design workshop in one of the most financially challenged and opportunity-starved places in the United States, isolated rural Bertie County, North Carolina, where the schools infamously rank among the nation’s worst. Filmmaker Patrick Creadon documented the couple and their class during the experiment, capturing minor triumphs and major heartbreaks along the way. The result, a feature-length film titled If You Build It Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, opens Friday, February 14, at the for a one-week run.
“The farmers market is still going strong,” says Creadon of the community pavilion that the kids in the class helped design and build. Creadon is the award-winning documentary filmmaker behind Wordplay (2006), about New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, and I.O.U.S.A. (2008) which examines the national debt. “I think a big reason for the pavilion’s success is that the town had always wanted something like that.” Pilloton and Miller taught the class creative problem-solving and the process of design, guiding them through the various stages of brainstorming, ideating, and building. “The town was very involved in making it happen. They felt a sense of ownership of that farmer’s market,” says Creadon. “I think that what often happens in the design world and the architecture world is that design solutions are created by people who don’t really understand the local story, and they don’t take the time to do the research to figure out what these folks really want and really need.”
Pilloton is the author of the 2009 book Design Revolution, which examines the design of 100 “products that empower people.” She also postulates that the type of creative problem-solving process designers and architects learn in graduate school could be taught to anybody, and thereby offers up a wide range of solutions for a number of problems.
The film documents changes in the lives of the students as Pilloton and Miller tested their theories. “It’s profound,” he says. “I wouldn’t presume to say, ‘Everything’s going to turn out better because of this one classroom.’ But I can say this: Every single one of the kids that was in the class told me it was the best class they ever had. Some even went on to say that all the other nonsensical educational experiences they were given at school didn’t really amount to a whole lot. One kid in the film was just about ready to drop out of school. But because of Matt and Emily, he became the first member of his family to go on to college. Because of them, he’s opened himself up to new experiences, furthering his education. He really has a different perspective on life.”
But the film is not entirely a feel-good story about the transformational aspects of a positive educational experience. Pilloton and Miller encountered more than their share of problems and resistance: bored and uninterested students, unpredictable snags, and, most of all, school administrators. Midway through their process, the forward-thinking new school superintendent who had brought on Pilloton and Miller and other experimental programs into the Bertie County school district was fired. Most of his programs were defunded, including Pilloton and Miller’s, but they chose to continue their teaching, without salaries.
“They really wanted to see it through, and they did,” says Creadon. In the film, Pilloton and Miller do complete the big farmer’s market project, but they also end up taking their innovative and successful program to Berkeley, California, something of a mixed outcome considering the program was meant to help underserved students. “One of the things you see in the film is this idea that old-fashioned charity oftentimes does not work out that well,” says Creadon. “You see that very clearly. After two years of not getting paid, working their hearts out, I think Matt and Emily felt it was becoming a charitable effort. They know that doesn’t work. They wanted to find an educational partner that would invest in them. They found that in Berkeley. They have much more support and get paid.”
Still, Creadon says that the experiment and the film are both testaments to the power of design thinking to transform lives. “There’s no question that human beings are born problem-solvers,” he says. “There’s something in our DNA that drives us towards fixing things. The disconnect is that a lot of the times we don’t have the tools or the know-how or the courage to try to fix things in our lives that are broken. There are all sorts of complicated and pressing problems we deal with. What the world needs today more than anything is more creative problem solvers. I think that’s really what our movie is all about.”
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.