by Christy Lewis, NU ’13

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin

No matter how many times you explain the design process to someone, it is nearly impossible to understand without having gone through the process yourself. Nothing can better prepare our new studio leaders than going through the entire design process and personally experiencing the roller-coaster ride that it is. This past weekend, over 40 student leaders from 14 college campuses around the country assembled at Northwestern  to get launched right into a hands-on design project centered around a local and social challenge: improving the lives of the elderly. The 4 day event was wrought with reflection, mentorship, learning, and most importantly, inspiration. Following an inspirational talk about design and design thinking by Northwestern’s Dean Ottino, we were separated into teams and presented with our problems for the weekend: How can we ensure Mary takes her medication on time? How can we keep Jack from falling? How can we make sure Joe follows doctor’s recommendations while at home?

Now that we had the questions, we dove right into initial online research. Though this research was extremely useful, the most valuable part of the day was when we got to visit Northshore Retirement Community and talk to our users.

We got the chance to speak with several residents of Northshore Retirement Home in order to better understand their personal experience with the problems we were tackling. Each of the teams walked away from the interviews with a much greater understanding of the challenges and lessons learned within this community. Our interactions with these users was a perfect example of how important it is to do user research. We found that a lot of the statistics and information we found online did not quite match the population we were designing for. This very important lesson is one that the leaders will get to take back to their studios to implement.

After a fun Friday night exploring downtown Chicago, we returned to studio the next day to ideate and prototype.

In the afternoon, about a dozen design professionals came to evaluate and critique our prototypes. The feedback was extremely valuable, and helped teams see their projects through another lens. This experience emphasized the importance of critique and feedback in the design process. Without critique, we will continue to think our ideas are the best in the world, even if they make no sense at all.


With newly refined ideas and prototypes, we all prepared our final working prototypes to bring back to the retirement home and test with our users. Some ideas were loved, other ideas were not, but no matter what the reactions were, we all learned how necessary user testing is.During the final step, we refined our designs and came up with a 3 minute pitch. We practiced the pitches as if we were presenting to companies, investors, or users. The entire group of leaders and mentors provided feedback on our pitches.

Sunday afternoon and evening were devoted to studio work time. Until the wee hours of the morning, we practiced pitching DFA to our own schools. During the hour or two of presentation, it suddenly became very clear that the new studios were about to turn their respective universities upside down with DFA.

During last year’s inaugural Leadership Studio, I remember thinking, “How did they get it so quickly?” As new DFA leaders emerge throughout the country, it continuously amazes me how immediately in touch they are with the goals, mission, and spirit of Design for America. In school and in many organizations, we are taught that the people with the greatest amount of experience or knowledge hold all of the answers. Watching the new studios grow, and meeting their leaders, has taught me that this is not always true. Even the oldest studios have much to learn from the youngest, newest studios.

When you combine the enthusiasm, intelligence, and drive that characterizes most DFA leaders, as Leadership Studio does, it is remarkable what can come from it.

Check out DFA’s Leadership Studio’s Complete Photo Album Here!