All images courtesy of Design for America
My cell phone rang insistently one late Monday afternoon in August 2009 as I was in my kitchen preparing dinner with my colleague, Katy Mess. On the phone, two undergraduate students eagerly explained that they were too excited about their new idea to wait for our next meeting; they needed to share it now. Thirty minutes later, I was holding the watermelon they had balanced on their handlebars during their bike ride from campus. They joined us at the table, and we offered feedback while they animatedly outlined initial observations and ideas for ridding hospital ICU's of infectious bacteria.
Why don't more students feel that they can track down a design mentor or professor at home because they need to share their exciting ideas? Our society needs innovative and passionate teams of people to solve its complex problems. Innovation makes our economy tick and improves our quality of life. We will not be able to downsize or cost cut our way out of the world's current problems. How does design education tap into the passion that students and professionals have around making a difference in the world?
Mountains of articles, programs and books are produced every day about fostering innovation. Most of them directing, telling, pushing, instructing. But you don't need to tell the average student that innovation is important and exciting. Some already have a deep yearning to work for social good. You can trace their attempts to influence the world if you follow their desire lines.
We've all seen desire lines, weaving dusty paths across any university campus. People make these lines everywhere, not just across the physical landscape. Their desires and movement toward their interests can be traced across social media interactions and late night conversations. Students have the time and passion to tackle social problems, but rarely the right experience or mentorship to develop ideas grounded in design research or pursue projects through implementation. Socially-minded professional designers have more experience and resources, but little time. What if design education put design methodologies into the hands of everyone who wanted to make a difference, not just designers? What if we put engineers next to biology majors and music majors and business majors and had them focus on social problems together? What if design education itself was redesigned to harness this intersection of energy in the gap between what professionals and faculty have and what students want?
It's refreshing to coach smart, energetic students. Some designers find designing shampoo bottles to be less than inspiring. DFA lets you focus on making the world a bit better. -Shannon Ford, Motif, DFA Design Coach
In the fall of 2008, Liz Gerber of Northwestern University had a wild idea. Inspired by organizations like Teach for America and challenged by Julio Ottino, the progressive Dean of the McCormick School of Engineering, to pitch a new program for Segal Design Institute, she grabbed a book off the shelf and designed a new cover with the words "Design for America" (DFA) mocked-up across the front. She drew upon what she'd noticed about her own design students, that they were often more attracted to conservative behavior than risks and potential failure in classes in order to preserve their grades. Other students were comfortable with risk, but disappointed in the limited opportunities available for getting hands-on experience through choosing their own design projects.
After hearing the pitch, three Northwestern undergraduates were enthusiastic about helping to design and build a new studio. Hannah Chung, Yuri Malina, and Mert Iseri were from different academic majors, each intrigued by the idea of DFA as a vehicle for students to create change. From the first project, the mission was set. DFA was going to look for problems in its own backyard, not overseas, to keep costs low and put students into the local field sites ideal for developing the empathy and deep understanding required by human-centered design. Requiring students to observe, speak with, and walk alongside users and clients in the field would introduce a critical feedback loop that distinguished the experience from traditional classroom-centered work.
Today, Design for America is a network of student-led studios creating local and social impact. Nearing its third anniversary, DFA has linked over 300 students representing twenty academic majors, and has spread beyond Northwestern to Barnard/Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, RISD/Brown, Stanford, UCLA and the University of Oregon at Eugene. Patents are pending and many awards have been won by these talented students—most recently a Dell-Social Innovation Award for a toy that helps diabetic children to manage their disease. Projects have ranged from conserving thousands of gallons of fresh water in institutional cafeteria settings to the design of gaming technologies that reinvent financial revenue streams for public schools. But awards are not the end goal. DFA members are in this for the learning and the impact—on themselves and on the world.
Extracurricular + Authentic, Pro-Social, Local Problems + Community of Practice
When asked to become a faculty adviser in 2009, I had just completed the exhilarating experience of coaching the DFA hand hygiene design team. Katy Mess (now a DFA alumnus) invited me into that first Summer Studio, and I glimpsed the promise of what is now a robust community of practice, one that stretches the boundaries of the classroom to include local clients, professional design consultancies, subject matter experts, alumni, and faculty from across departments. All with a passion for the work of social impact and design. That passion for creating change through design is what currently inspires DFA students to commit 100-400 hours per year to an organization without grades or class credit for participating.
To capitalize on that energy, DFA's broader approach to design education has its roots in three things: co-creating the organization and moving in a direction that follows student interest; aligning the scope of projects to the learning needed to provide successful experiences for students and their clients; and the intentional development of a community of practice that pulls students across academic silos and into interdisciplinary teams within the broader university and design community.
...[in] DFA, I think we learn more from each other. We had great people coming in to talk to us and we definitely borrowed information from them and used their skills sets but I learned from [another student's] experiences and someone would write on the board about what they did and we all learned from each other. -Summer Studio 2010, sophomore, Biomedical Engineering
DFA advisers and staff co-create DFA's curriculum with students based upon what students want to learn in order to solve design problems they care about. Students may ask advisers to propose strategies, offer content and advise them about the implications of their decisions, but students ultimately choose their own projects, what they want for the community, make the day-to-day decisions, and lead the School Year Studios. Students are being taught to identify and ask for what they need to learn, a set of skills rarely taught explicitly. Advisers and staff set out to capture what is already working and build the educational infrastructure underneath where students want to go—much like building sidewalks under those campus desire lines—in the formats and technology students feel most comfortable with.
Like many communities of practice, we have things that keep us connected and learning together:
- A shared identity as studio members that transcends our other roles;
- A shared passion for using design to uncover innovative solutions to pressing community needs;
- A shared repertoire of tools, events and principles that prompt us to learn and work together.
As faculty advisers, Liz Gerber and I have rarely departed from the strategy of allowing students to guide the experience, however, we have pushed two things very hard over time to enable all students to feel confident about their design experiences: careful project selection and scoping, as well as maintaining a mix of design skills and proficiencies on project teams.
With the idea that a "well-chosen, well-scoped project will drive the learning and motivation of the teams," we advise community discipline around identifying projects that allow DFA students the best chance to succeed at projects and with client. Teaching students how to establish consulting relationships, scope projects, and use change management methods to engage clients is slowly becoming a critical part of DFA's design curriculum. Experienced students are encouraged to work alongside of and coach newer students engaged in design work, allowing new students to learn by watching as well as doing, much like the guild model of developing expertise—apprentice, journeyman, craftsman. The goal is the sustainability of the community over time and distance while fostering the social reciprocity that makes communities of practice work.
DFA continues to push the boundaries and experiment with how to support a quickly growing network. This past August, the first inter-university Leadership Studio was held and co-led by recent grad and DFA post-baccalaureate fellow, Yuri Malina, and Sami Nerenberg, DFA's new Director of Operations. During this next academic year, Leadership Studio alumni will be creating university studios with educational resources and support from more experienced ones.
...We are going to try this activity, we're going to try to brainstorm, we're going to try to learn as much as we can, we're going to keep on trying and we're going to fail, over and over. But one of the things that really touched me was the fact that I realized that I was really scared. Scared of being able to start my own studio, in the sense that if we never put the tools to use, it would be the biggest fail of all...that we didn't get to push the limits as far as possible. -Leadership Studio 2011, Science, Tech & Society freshman, Stanford
Becoming a skillful designer doesn't happen overnight, or within six weeks. It is the gradual layering on of experience through years of projects, learning from failure, and reverse engineering success. DFA gives students the tools to begin making a difference in the world while creating a pipeline of future innovators who will enter the world with personal academic achievements grounded in real world interdisciplinary human-centered design experience. Meanwhile, my kitchen door is still always open to that next excited DFA student.
About Jeanne Marie Olson
Jeanne Marie Olson is a a lecturer in the MSLOC program for School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University, teaching graduate students how to apply design methodologies to organizational design, business strategy and change. She also teaches human-centered product design for McCormick School of Engineering's Segal Design Institute. She has 20+ years of experience in the fields of human factors, learning and cognition, user experience/participatory design, instructional methodologies, organizational strategy, and knowledge management. She works at the intersection of design thinking, learning theory and strategies, and organizational systems change, and blogs about design, education, and change at Things I Like + Things I Write.