DFA’s director of operations, Sami Nerenberg is just finishing up a whirl wind tour across the United States visiting college campuses eager to start a DFA studio. With UC Berkeley being her last stop, let’s check out what she’s been up to.
You’ve been all over the country visiting college campuses. Why and what have you been doing?
This year, as part of our application process, we’ve wanted to give students the real experience of running a DFA studio. Students wanting to start a studio have had to galvanize interest from 30+ students throughout campus, get faculty and community members involved, and talk to strangers off campus to find out about needs from the community. Once they’ve sent these materials in, we work with them to organize a workshop to get them started on a DFA project. Each campuses generally chooses a community topic they are excited about and then they break this topic down into four smaller categories. For example, homelessness might be broken down into: hygiene, storage, loitering, and skill building.
Students put personas together to help build empathy for those in the workshop so that teams can jump in and start thinking about their user’s experience and where design can make a difference. I show up and do a two-hour workshop with them, introducing folks to DFA, and quickly running them through the design process using the personas as the foundation for the activities. We do role play to identify key moments where design might make a difference, followed by ideation and then my favorite, we bring out the play-doh for teams to build and present their ideas. The play doh is great for breaking down the barriers people might have or insecurities they might have in not having done design before. It’s an accessible material and as on participant said, “it smells like childhood.” It’s been great to see how much can get done in just 2 hours and often times an interesting insight will emerge. Like this one from Case Western that looks at unused school space by turning K-8 on it’s side to make K-Life. I’m not sure what it means, but was taken aback by the simplicity and elegance of this slight change in perspective.
This process has been a way for us to get to know them, but also a chance for them to get to know DFA. Running a DFA studio is a ton of work and so is making change, so we want students to know what they are signing up for. We’ve had students from over 60 schools sign up to apply, but only a fraction of these will continue with their application once they realize what goes into it. This is the best tactic for us so that we can work with those who are truly committed and students are best prepared for getting things started.
What happens after your visit?
After my visit, students use the fodder and momentum from the workshop to start a one-month project. Here they work through each phase of the design process in going back to the user, understanding their needs, ideating, making mock-ups, taking it back to the user and then presenting their idea and where things might go next. They share these stories with us through a 5 minute video like these ones here:
It’s really interesting to see the different approaches each campus takes to both their process and their way of communicating. For example, I love seeing how open Champlain College is with their initial research, but I also know that this approach makes it much more difficult to make a tangible impact in a way that is within our “sphere of influence.” They’ve chosen a really complex issue and I think will need more time to figure out where design can make an impact, but commend them for taking the dive as well as recognizing the assumptions they’ve made. This is a huge learning. Yale on the other hand was able to find something quite specific. From my workshop I did with them, one team brought to light the wasted energy of the heating units in the dorms. As this team presented, you could hear everyone in the room nodding in agreement that these heaters that are left on is something that all of them experience. This is a good indicator a good problem to tackle. I would say that finding the right problem to solve is probably the hardest part of DFA and it’s exciting to learn from everyone’s approach. That’s part of the big value of DFA is learning from each other.
Where all have you gone?
This month I’ve been to: Urbana Champaign, IL, UL Lafayette, LA, Champlain College in Burlington, VA, Yale in CT, Duke in North Carolina, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, Princeton, Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN, Case Western in Cleveland, OH, and this weekend I go to UC Berkeley.
Wow, that’s a lot of places. What are some things you’ve learned along the way or highlights?
I would say highlights for me have been getting to visit with so many amazing and passionate students. I don’t just show up for two hours and then leave. I come early for lunch, help set up and then usually hang out with students afterwards for dinner. Some of them even host me in their dorms or apartment, so I get to know them pretty well. If I’m there on a Friday or Saturday, I might also go out with them and get to know the area, which has been incredible. I had never seen so much country music until I went to Nashville and I got some early Mardi Gras beads while in Lafayette, LA and had an amazing time. It’s been great to see our country from so many different perspectives.
What’s next for DFA?
As far as the application process goes, campuses are already starting to submit their one month projects and this will continue for the next month or so. From here, we’ll be doing interviews and hope to accept 6-8 new campuses. We’ve been really aggressive with our growth under the assumption, the more the merrier. However, we might end up keeping things smaller so that we can really understand the right structures we need to have in place in order for each one of our studios to succeed. The last thing we’d want to see are 100 DFA studios but with students fizzling out left and right and poor quality projects to show for it. Because are goals are to be both a pipeline of leaders of innovation as well as create impact through the implementation of DFA projects, we need to figure out how to best alot our limited resources to do both well.