Design for America Offers Opportunity for Meaningful Change, Social Impact

Before heading to Northwestern University in August 2018 to participate in the Design for America Leadership Summit, I was not sure what to expect. I’d been encouraged to attend by a family friend that had worked with the organization in the past, so everything I knew going in was pulled from her anecdotes.

Design for America is a nationwide organization that teaches students human-centered design, a creative problem-solving methodology, to help them tackle challenges in their local communities. The Leadership Summit was intended to give student representatives from DFA studios across the country the chance to meet each other, hone their design practice, and prepare for the upcoming semester. When I checked in that first evening of the Summit, I was not a member of the organization and had little experience working in the world of human-centered design.

While there are many existing associations with the word “design,” human centered design — also called design thinking — does not necessarily require a visual component. Instead it entails the designing of ideas. Projects vary widely based on the skill set and interests of the studio members. At the Leadership Summit I met students working on everything from designing better hospital gowns for patients with use of only one arm to finding ways of making food more accessible to people living in food deserts.

Over the course of the Leadership Summit, I was struck by the people I met. DFA is a network of students and alumni who care deeply about their communities, and upon reflection this isn’t surprising. Human-centered design is above all rooted in empathy and community.

After my experience at the Summit, I sent out a flurry of emails to students and faculty with the goal of bringing Design for America to Oberlin, where it would be one of DFA’s first independent studios at a liberal arts school. Most of the existing DFA studios are at large universities, and the ones at smaller schools tend to have a partnership with another university.

But, in a way, Oberlin is the perfect setting for such an organization. Oberlin students are interested in taking action, in finding meaningful and innovative ways to approach social issues. And while many lament the town-gown divide, the access to a tight-knit community beyond the college campus is a unique Oberlin resource. However, for some students it can be difficult to find ways to become involved in projects on campus that extend beyond the College community or have a direct focus on social impact. DFA can provide a space for students to engage with the greater Oberlin community.

In initial meetings, Oberlin residents as well as students were excited about the potential for collaboration. This spring, the Oberlin DFA studio will be working with members of the Oberlin Business Partnership to help find solutions to local economic issues.

My decision to start a Design for America studio at Oberlin is also occurring at an important time for the College. People are questioning the value of a liberal arts education. They want to see a return on their investment, a reassurance that their four years spent here will provide them with the skills needed to get a job after graduation. In response to this concern, Oberlin has launched a number of career-readiness initiatives, which Design for America could supplement.

With multidisciplinary focus and flexible methodology, projects carried out with DFA can prepare students for future careers. Being able to approach an issue holistically and intentionally is a skill applicable to every sector. Additionally, since projects are entirely student-driven, there are opportunities to practice leadership, pitch projects, and accumulate portfolio and résumé pieces.

This spring, Oberlin’s DFA studio will be taking on our first project, co-led by College senior Jessica Moskowitz. It will kick off with a Design Sprint Workshop on March 2, where students can take part in a fast-paced version of the entire design process. Anyone interested is encouraged to join the workshop and the studio. While the project for the spring semester has been selected, members of the studio will be able to choose projects based on their interests and skills in future semesters. Additionally, over the summer, students that take on leadership roles with the group will have the opportunity to attend the Leadership Summit and meet DFA members from studios nationwide.

Students and faculty who are interested in learning more about DFA can email [email protected] and should check the Design for America Oberlin Facebook page for updates on events