Faculty Members Advise Design for America Group

Faculty Members Advise Design for America Group

Jeanne Marie Olson
The handful of students in the Alice Kaplan Gallery listened intently to a David Sedaris story amplified from a computer speaker while a video camera streamed the interaction live on the web. As the story ended, the students began to animatedly describe their own stories and experiences as part of a student group at Northwestern called Design for America (DFA). Faculty members and an artist-in-residence asked clarifying questions and documented the collaboration with a digital camera as the group began drawing their stories on the wall. 

Jeanne Marie Olson (MS96), a lecturer in the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change program, is a DFA faculty adviser and a lecturer in the Segal Design Institute; Elizabeth Gerber, an assistant professor in McCormick School of Engineering, the Segal Design Institute and SESP, founded DFA with a group of undergraduates. Along with colleagues Jeremy Gilbert, assistant professor at Medill and Alice Kaplan Gallery artist-in-residence Amanda Herman, Olson and Gerber were interested in exploring the stories of personal transformation that DFA students experienced as participants in this unusual multidisciplinary, extracurricular program. 

Elizabeth Gerber
Students, faculty and artistswrote, shot, edited and scored a film during a single day in a unique attempt to make the learning and transformational experiences of the members of the community visible to each other and to the larger Northwestern and design communities. They helped the students to identify and present artifacts related to their learning experiences — photographs, objects, prototypes and sketches — and engaged them in creating an exhibit to present their work to the general public by 6 p.m. that same evening.

Professionals from the design community across the United States were invited to call in and leave a message conveying additional stories of personal transformation through design, as well as virtually “drop by” the studio throughout the day and observe the activity. At 6 p.m., more than 50 people visited the studio to take part in the experience and were invited to create and add their own artifacts to the exhibit.

Design for America is a new and rapidly growing organization founded at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering that inspires students to use design to create local and social impact in extracurricular settings. Founded in 2008, it has harnessed the energy of more than 200 Northwestern students in 20 majors to tackle local design challenges in education, health, energy, transportation and the environment. As a faculty adviser since 2009, Olson has helped to shape the organizational goals, learning and development strategies, and operational principles of the organization along with Gerber, other advisers, staff and the students themselves.

“A decentralized community of practice like Design for America, which involves many stakeholders — students, faculty, community organizations, professionals — and which has been expanding to other universities, is like a fast-moving, rapidly evolving organism,” explains Olson. “Yet each generation of students working on these open-ended, complex projects has something to learn from the generation of students that preceded them, or from other students at other university chapters working on similar problems.”

“The principles that the students use for working with each other and their clients — for sharing information, decision-making, coaching each other — are dependent upon the stories that they tell one another on the fly. These shared beliefs affect their actions as a design community and are critical to the functioning of the group.”

“Design is concerned with interventions to influence outcomes,” explains Gerber. “We use stories to make sense, connect with others, and remember the powerful transformations that occur through and by design. Experiences are more memorable than products.“

The team is documenting its progress and sharing the outcomes digitally at http://www.dfapopupstudio.com.

At the upcoming Design Education conference at Harvey Mudd College, Olson, Gerber and Rebecca Komarek (MS10) will present a paper they authored about the learning model used to create Design for America. Their paper is entitled "Rethinking How Students Prepare for Careers in Innovation: A Case Study of Extracurricular Design-Based Learning." Komarek is a graduate of the Higher Education Administration and Policy program at SESP.

By Jeanne Marie Olson
Last Modified: 3/7/17