01/31/2014 11:59 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

ReThink Review: If You Build It -- Helping Communities Through Design

For most of my life, I never gave much thought to design beyond that gut feeling of what I thought looked nice or ugly. But as I got more interested in technology, and Apple in particular, I started to think of design differently, largely spurred by Steve Jobs' famous quote that "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like -- design is how it works." That's a concept that applies not just to consumer electronics, but to almost every physical object, big or small, that you can think of, including the buildings where we spend most of our lives. The documentary If You Build It follows two designers who bring their talents to a struggling North Carolina town to give a class of high school kids the chance to look at objects in a new way and to think about how to use design to improve their town, in a film that is as much about the decline of small-town America and the challenges of nonprofit work as it is about the shapes of the things we use. Watch the trailer for If You Build It below.

Matthew Miller and Emily Pilloton, who's also an author and gave a TED talk about using design to effect social change, move to the town of Windsor in Bertie County, the poorest county in North Carolina. With the urging and support of a crusading school superintendent, Miller and Pilloton (who are also a couple) start Studio H, an experimental design class with the aim of teaching a new generation to look at design as a way to help those in need. But early in the film, the superintendent gets fired, forcing Miller and Pilloton to work without pay or abandon the project -- an example of how no good deed often goes unpunished in the nonprofit world.

The ambitious plan for the 10 Studio H students is for them to quickly learn the basics of design, then begin creating projects that can be used in their predominantly agricultural community, culminating in a class project to spend the summer constructing a student-designed pavilion to house a farmers market to address the lack of grocery stores, jobs, and healthy food in Windsor. Along the way, we see how the class changes and inspires the kids as Pilloton and Miller sacrifice more and more to keep the project alive, while also learning about the challenges Bertie County faces as businesses close and the educated class and the young people with the most potential leave.

If you're a relative novice to the concepts of design like I am, If You Build It provides a nice introduction to design as you watch the kids learn, aided by some nice animations and time-lapse. But if you do nonprofit work or are considering going into it, If You Build It illustrates a lot of important lessons about the frustrations one can face, even if the cause is just and your heart is in the right place. It's only natural to think that if you offer people in need something wonderful that you know will improve their lives that they'll accept it, thank you profusely, and use it as you intended. But collaboration, communication, and ultimately ownership with the people or community you're trying to serve is crucial, perhaps best illustrated in the heartbreaking, somewhat perplexing story of one of Miller's first attempts at bringing design into the real world to help people.

While uplifting, the fact that a lot of things don't seem to have worked out as hoped for -- as is often the case with both documentaries and nonprofits -- gives If You Build It a slightly bittersweet feeling by the end. But you also get a sense of lessons learned in a valiant and ultimately successful effort, and that the students had their eyes opened to possibilities in design and in their lives that will never leave them.

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