In mid-November of 2016, DFA students from Case Western, Michigan State, Purdue, UIUC, and WashU gathered with DFA National staff for the third year in a row for Midwest Meetup 2016 – this year at DFA U Cincinnati! DFA U Cincinnati was inspired to host this year’s meetup after a great experience attending last year at Michigan State, as they were eager to showcase their campus and keep the Midwest connections going. Emily Sabol, a third year Industrial Design student at U Cincinnati spearheaded the student-led initiative. Below she reflects on the planning and execution of a memorable weekend.

What is our DFA story? How do we tell this story? How can we share it with our local communities?

These were questions that we had burning in the back of our minds as we set out to plan DFA Midwest Meetup 2016. The U Cincinnati Studio Leads and myself were on a video call in the middle of July, trying to think of ways we could make the weekend exciting, unique, and a great learning experience for DFAers throughout the Midwest. We reflected on our strengths and struggles as a studio, wondering how that could help us develop an overarching theme of the weekend. Our studio makeup is heavily design students, so we often focus on communicating our work visually to the rest of our university and DFA National. As a result, we are great at visual storytelling! We asked ourselves, “what it would look like to center the meetup around storytelling? Who else do we know in our community who are storytelling experts? What does storytelling look like from a professional standpoint? How does storytelling impact the success of DFA?

As we created a list of organizations and individuals to contact about being involved in the event, the next step was to think how we could apply the skills we were learning in a meaningful way to help us grow as a network. For me, DFA has always been about community. In addition to working locally in our own city throughout the semester, we also have the opportunity to learn from other DFA studios across the nation. Taking a lot of pride in our school and community, we brainstormed ways that we could share everything we love about Cincinnati in just two days. The answer we came up with? Through experience.

In conjunction with the theme of storytelling, we tasked each group of students to create a visual way of showing their experience in Cincinnati that they would share on Sunday morning. Starting with a campus scavenger hunt on Friday night, each team explored famous landmarks on campus, beginning to document the weekend. On Saturday morning, groups set out on a journey to explore the city, learning about the community and each other along the way.

To gain better understanding of storytelling in the professional world, each team got the chance to visit and talk with a Cincinnati organization. DFAers visited Design Impact, a nonprofit social innovation firm, City Gospel Mission, a nonprofit that provides programs and services for the homeless population, and Crossroads Uptown, an entrepreneurial church known for bringing many parts Cincinnati’s community together. Each organization fulfilled a different niche and had a unique way of communicating its work, but all three shared a common purpose: to create positive social change. This activity allowed students to learn about the work the organizations do for Cincinnati and how they tell their stories, but it was even more important to connect the work we do in DFA to how it can translate beyond our college years. Observing successful companies passionately carrying out social change made the experience very memorable and meaningful.

A graduate of City Gospel Mission’s recovery program graciously shares his experience.

Returning from a morning of exploring around town, we gathered together on Saturday afternoon to hear from two storytelling experts – Brian Barkocy (former P&G Senior Sales Analyst) and Levi Bethune (formerly at Epipheo, co-founder of Cloverleaf and Chief Creative Officer at Cladwell). Brian spoke about the work he did at P&G, including how he would reformat data to reach different audiences and better collaborate with coworkers of different perspectives. His talk encouraged us to evaluate how we share our work in a variety of contexts, and often seek new ways to convey our message. Levi then shared his passion for storytelling, emboldening us to always be empathetic, remembering to “step back and look at people.” Following along in his six-step outline of creating a story, we learned to use stories to connect people, focusing on the audience rather than leading with bullet point-style presentations.This expert input helped us refocus our exploration and documentation from the morning, and set the pace for an afternoon of creativity and collaboration as everyone formulated their story of the weekend.

Levi Bethune shows DFAers how to properly engage and interact with your audience.

I had high hopes for the teams’ outcomes, envisioning presentations filled with quirky ideas and keen observations about the events that took place. The final stories shared on Sunday morning exceeded every one of my expectations. Watching goofy video clips of groups rambling around downtown, learning about individual students’ take-aways, and hearing them speak with admiration and appreciation for the friends they had met put the entire weekend into a new perspective.


It’s not every day (or weekend) that you have the chance to collaborate with so many positive, extraordinary people, which is why the DFA Midwest Meetup tradition is so special to me. DFA has connected me to the most incredible people. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for the passion that they bring to everything they do, and witnessing that throughout the weekend reminded me why I love being part of this organization. Stepping into big shoes left by the Michigan State studio, who hosted MWMU last year, there were a lot of worries running through my brain before the weekend started. Without the avid participation and support of the other UC studio leads, Cincinnati organizations, and speakers, those worries might have come true. As we concluded the events on Sunday and everyone began to part ways, I watched as people shared hugs and exchanged phone numbers, promising to keep in touch. I realized then that if all we learned that weekend was about creating new friendships, learning a thing or two about storytelling, and bonding as a DFAmily, then it was a huge success!

Thank you to Design Impact, City Gospel Mission, Crossroads Uptown, Steve Barkocy, Levi Bethune and DFA National for your amazing support of DFA MWMU 2016. We can’t wait until next year!

– DFA U Cincinnati