Design for America (DfA) is a network of student-led studios creating local and social impact through interdisciplinary design. DfA equips our generation with the mind-set and skill-set to create social impact. We are a network of student-led design studios that Look Locally, Create Fervently, and Act Fearlessly. Recently, DfA stopped by the Dartmouth campus for an introduction to the program.
Design for America's (DfA) Sami Nerenberg has been on the road for weeks visiting leading universities like Stanford, Cornell and Dartmouth. Sponsored by Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering, DfA has come full-circle with this last stop, as the program's founder Liz Gerber first found inspiration for unconventional design education during Dartmouth's outdoors freshmen orientation. "I realized the potential of peer-to-peer learning and transformation outside of the traditional classroom," said Gerber. "I danced the Salty Dog rag with the first years...then sent them off on their trips with a sense of excitement of what they would learn from each [other] and about themselves..."
More than seventy participants from all College academic departments filled the room—anthropologists, geographers, English majors and the engineers, of course. The Innovation Workshop started off with very little introduction before diving right into the problem: helping out elderly people living in rural New Hampshire/Vermont. Four personas, composed of a mixture of both reality and fiction, were proposed to the group. These included a woman with dementia who needed help keeping track of her finances and a couple who had been taking care of their mentally retarded daughter. The next steps were to dig deeper into a chosen persona and to start "bodystorming"—one group member "became" the elderly individual while other members interviewed them.
Engineering Design Professor Peter Robbie welcomes this new approach to design education. "Students want to make a real impact and Design for America provides a great venue for learning how to turn their ideas into action," said Robbie. "We need a new breed of designers who can work across disciplines." The workshop groups are interdisciplinary teams of interdisciplinary individuals, a result of Dartmouth's mission to produce graduates who have been exposed to many areas of thought. The design element is not just another major—it's universal. Perhaps best put by Robbie's words, this design thinking "provides a common language and method to support the kind of radical collaboration we need to develop innovative solutions to the complex problems facing society."
Back in the groups, potential points of intervention and innovation were identified before a few were selected as the focus. Next, the whirlwind of ideas, Sharpies and Post-it notes began, covering the whiteboards in a collage of pinks, greens, purples and yellows. Each of the phases lasted no more than ten minutes, forcing the participants to think on their feet.
Fifteen separate concepts were prototyped out of colored paper, markers and lots of Play-Doh. From grandchild-proof pill dispensers to health-monitoring watches, and from checkbook-balancing refrigerator magnets to Craigslist hotlines for the elderly, each idea had that spark of creativity that only comes from a room full of excited 20-somethings with extraordinarily different backgrounds. For many, this prototype will be the first in a long career, whether that career is in the design profession or not.
The most passionate of the students met again a week after the Innovation Workshop to discuss forming a permanent Design for America chapter at Dartmouth. They talked about what Dartmouth had to offer DfA as well as how DfA could help them achieve their dreams. The dream that resonated most with the group was: "I want to figure out what I'm capable of."
Q&A with Sami Nerenberg
In your own words, what exactly is Design for America?
Design for America is a network of students who want to innovate the world around them. We provide a platform for students from all different majors to apply their knowledge and enthusiasm to tackling some of the most challenging issues of our time by looking within their own communities and working collaboratively to bring the best ideas to surface.
There are a whole variety of design for social justice programs—how is DfA different?
Design for America's goals are to create social impact through design and to develop a pipeline of future innovators. To my knowledge, we are the only program using design as a means for leadership development at the college level. We also work with very interdisciplinary teams, both with the students that participate and the mentors we bring on. I'm not even talking about different types of designers—I'm talking about bringing anthropologists, psychologists, biologists, you name it, to the table to think holistically through the challenges in front of us. To me, this is one of the most exciting aspects of DfA and one of the main things that set us apart.
How did you first get involved?
Back in 2008, I was at my alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design, teaching an advanced studio I called, "Design for Social Entrepreneurship." During this time, I saw a growing interest from students to use their skills towards the social good and knew that design was on the cusp of some serious changes as a field in terms of how we define our role as designers and the types of projects we take on.
Inspired by my students, I bought the URLs designforamerica.com/.org the night of Obama's election with the intentions of one day starting a national non-profit. One year later I came to find out that Northwestern/Segal Design Institute professor Liz Gerber and her students had started an initiative also called Design for America in October 2008 and had 100 students doing social impact design work in the Chicago community. A year and a half later—poof, here I am working with this awesome team of students and faculty.
I know you've been busy recently—where have you been traveling the past few weeks?
The last few weeks have been a fantastic whirlwind. The first week of April, our student co-founders travelled to the Clinton Global Initiative where they had a table to inform students about DfA, followed by a workshop at Stanford where we now have a large team working on their DfA applications.
Next, I visited our teams at Cornell, which have been working on projects looking at bringing fresh food to the Ithaca community and Cornell students. Last but not least, I hopped over to Dartmouth for our 70+ workshop which was fantastic and had the chance to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with many students wanting to see DfA happen on campus.
For me, the whole trip was validation that we are providing for an unmet need. I told one student that if the students weren't interested when I visited these schools, I wouldn't be doing this. But seeing the enthusiasm and excitement from students is what really fuels me everyday.
What projects were the topics of the various workshops?
Wherever we go, we aim to host a workshop that is either relevant to the hosting communities or that builds on our experiences and knowledge from previous projects. We work with student leaders and faculty for weeks before the actual workshops to figure out what might be interesting to the student body there. At Dartmouth for example, I worked with Professor Robbie to choose the topic of issues facing the rural elderly.
What kinds of projects has DfA Northwestern been involved in so far?
Student teams start with daunting statistics such as: "Each year, 100,000 people die from infections they acquire inside of a hospital, largely due to a lack of hand-sanitation." They study these challenges through local lenses, in this case through observing a hospital just blocks from campus to develop innovative solutions such as:
A novel hand sanitation device, developed in conjunction with a local hospital to improve hand washing practices (patent pending, preparing for manufacture)
Jerry the Bear, a stuffed mechatronic bear created to teach good insulin practices to children recently diagnosed with diabetes (Diabetes Mine Challenge winner and Dell Social Innovation Semi-Finalist)
A coloring book for children dealing with post-traumatic stress (to be distributed worldwide by Felissimo)
Right now at Northwestern, we have over 8 teams working on projects ranging from childhood obesity to mental agility of the aging, from bike safety to book sharing, and from autism to diabetes.
How can students get involved with DfA? What if their campus doesn't have a studio in progress?
The first thing for students to do is to sign-up to receive our application materials. From here, they'll need to submit their materials by May 16th for a chance to attend this summer's DfA Leadership Studio and kick-off a studio in the fall.
The application will be really fun with everything ranging from video and a run-through of local and social design projects to "I heart DfA" posters and wedding vows. Yes, wedding vows. I can't wait to see the responses to those. We've got six slots open and we've already had requests from schools far beyond this number, so it will be interesting to see who ends up starting a studio in the fall! We are truly looking for teams and leaders who have the hunger and passion for this stuff and we encourage everyone to apply regardless of their experience.
Where would you like to see DfA in a few years?
Over the next few years, we will be growing DfA to more schools throughout the country. This year, we can support 6 studios, but within the next five years our goal will be to support 50. We anticipate having one of the best pipelines for future innovators this country has to offer, a network to support it and a culmination of projects moving towards implementation to show for it.