This summer, youth throughout Chicago received lunches from GCFD buses with the help of a Northwestern Design for America team. Before DFA NU engaged, the buses were decorated with smiling vegetables and emphasized the fact that they handed out free meals, which made many students, especially teenagers, hesitant to approach the buses. It was this hesitancy that the DFA NU Summer Studio team sought to address. The revised bus decal hopes to encourage youth participation in the meal program.

Ashley Secreto (‘18 Applied Math), Emma Lane (‘18 Manufacturing and Design Engineering), Isabel Ngan (‘17 Art Theory/Practice), and Matthew Zhang (‘18 Computer Science) started in Summer 2015 through Northwestern DFA’s Summer Studio. The six week intensive design program provides resources and guidance for students to work on a social impact project for forty hours a week. They partnered with Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), an organization that feeds one in six residents of Cook County, IL, every single year.

The initial goal was to increase usage of GCFD’s summer meals program. During the school year, over 70% of Chicago Public School students receive free or reduced meals from their schools. GCFD organizes summer meal trucks to ensure these children can still get nutritious food when school is not in session. Currently, only 17% of eligible students utilize the program.

By conducting primary research, such as observing the lunch buses and interviewing various stakeholders, the team realized that many teens were discouraged by the stigma of receiving a free meal. “There was one time when we were at a site and there was a teenager who brought his younger sibling,” said team member, Ashley Secreto. “He told his sibling to go up to the table and get their meals, but he stayed back, even though he’s also eligible.”

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The original bus design

“We realize that there was still a big turnout of younger kids, but there weren’t any people above ten years old, even though the sites serve teens through age 18,”  said team member Emma Lane.

This insight led the team to focus on changing the experience to cater to older children. “We wanted to reduce the stigma of getting free meals to increase the number of teens participating,” said Lane.

Initially, the team came up with a variety of solutions to reduce the stigma of receiving free meals, including an activity truck so that the focus was on being creative and not receiving a free meal.

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The team maps out their observations and insights from their initial research

When the team presented their ideas, GCFD was unsure of its ability to implement them because of limited resources. However, GCFD was interested in some of the smaller changes the team had mentioned, including changes they would make to the promotional materials and the appearance of the summer meals bus.

From there, the team came up with options for the redesign of the bus branding and posters. The team worked with a graphic designer they already knew, creating mood boards and speaking with him about what the design should convey. The designer would make a few different versions of the design, and get back with them to discussed options.

Through continued collaboration with GCFD, the team was able to get feedback on a number of different designs from a group of teens. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) also helped out by distributing surveys to teens and the team was able to share these survey results with GCFD. “It wasn’t just feedback from us, that they in fact saw what the teens were saying,” said Lane. “That was what got us to move forward, because we actually got positive feedback.”

Feedback from students supported their design choices to show GCFD, although GCFD was initially hesitant about something so different than most of their branded materials. This time, they were impressed by the feedback. “They did a really good job of understanding their audience, the DFA team was incredibly professional,” said GCFD Director of Communications Jim Conwell. “They went about this project with enthusiastic and positive attitudes, but really showed a lot of thought in regards to who our target audience was.”

After they had validation that teens were responding well to the new graphics, the team just had to make a few small branding changes with GCFD before they were ready to be put on the buses. “They kept giving us suggestions and new ideas and it kind of flowed into ‘this is actually happening,’” said Secreto. 

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The Team with GCFD’s new bus at Leadership Studio 2016

While numbers have not been released on difference in usage, the team and GCFD is excited about the redesign. “All of the feedback we’ve received has been really positive from our partners, from our volunteers who drive them. We think it just looks fantastic,” said Conwell. 

Interested in the partner perspective towards implementing designs?
The GCFD team recommended documenting every step of the design process to explain the process in detail. They stressed the importance of keeping track of insights and reasoning behind decisions. “People will, five weeks later, ask you: “what about this?” said Lane. “Make sure for any decision you make, you have good reasons for it and you can back it up.”

Congratulations to the Summer Studio team and GCFD on a job well done and a wonderful summer!