From August 3-7, students from every corner of the country–studio leaders, new DFAers, and even prospective DFA studios–gathered for the 7th annual Design for America Leadership Studio. Over 200 students, industry partners,  government officials, faculty mentors, and community members transformed the former Northwestern business school from an atrium and classrooms into design studios, prototyping pods, and walls covered with idea-filled Post-its. The five days comprised of a 48-hour design sprint challenge, cross-campus conversations to share best practices, and panels on applying design both during school and after graduation. 

Opening night set the tone with students connecting with new and old friends while sharing excitement around social innovation. Michael Muilenberg, 3M Operational Technology Manager, Northwestern Engineering ‘90, joined by colleague James Magargee, Northwestern Engineering ‘14 spoke on the value of DFA’s interdisciplinary collaboration, sparking momentum in the teams as they headed into a two-day design sprint challenge on expanding accessibility in urban areas.

“People adopt the change they were a part of making” said George Aye of Greater Good Studio as he challenged students to recognize the role of power in social design.

“The way you frame adversity can completely flip how you perceive social challenges” shared Emma Hart, from DFA Vanderbilt, as the 25 DFA project teams geared up to address the design sprint challenge. Over 50 members and activists from Chicago’s accessibility community spoke with teams, offering personal narratives to root each team’s process in empathy. Students brainstormed hundreds of ideas to address common accessibility challenges, asking questions like “How can we provide comfort to those with disabilities as they travel?” Teams then built out their most compelling concepts and tested them to prepare for presentations at a final expo. Check out final results of the project here!

Antonio Sanders from Access Living gives feedback to a team on their concept.

After zooming through the design process, the students learned to utilize design for impact at their universities and beyond. 40 thought provoking speakers and workshop leads came to share their skills with DFA students. Professionals from community development, fundraising, design, and entrepreneurship keep helped students think about their studios and their future careers. DFA National Fellows then helped set up studios for success by connecting leads to the resources they will need throughout the year.

The day of studio planning kicked off with Design Impact‘s Dawna Leggett and her powerful words on designing with communities: “We spend our entire lives becoming experts…In order to deliver the best product, you often have to relinquish some of that expert mindset and be able to listen to what other people have to offer.”

Dawna shares advice with a student from DFA Portland State.

“I want to try getting members of the South Bend community more involved in the design process when we get back to campus.” – Isabel Botero, DFA Notre Dame

“I learned to intentionally aim for success of the community before yourself in order to create and ideate successfully.” – Lauren McMahon, Elon University

Byron Stewart of Dramatic Diversity lead an interactive session on pitching and inclusive recruiting.

Five engaging panels on post-DFA life wrapped up the weekend. DFAlumni from Rice, Stanford, NYU, and UIUC shared their experiences in balancing school with project implementation and DFAers got the chance to learn about postgraduate opportunities Venture for America, the James Dyson Foundation, and Northwestern’s Engineering Design Innovation program. Students also heard from social entrepreneurs and impact leaders from unique fields shared their passions for building the future of Chicago.

“As I look forward to my career after graduation, the Monday sessions helped me anticipate how I can use design for social impact. Being exposed to real-world professionals in this field gives me confidence in my future.” – Jesse Palma, DFA Purdue

“Wow! What a great event, the questions from the students were thoughtfully challenging. Another exceptional year ahead for DFA.” – Katherine Darnstadt, Latent Design

Anna Lehner of Medline Industries, Kevin Rettle of Sodexo, Curt Edgar of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and Jordan Fisher of Capital One give students some insight into how they incorporate design thinking and social innovation in their respective roles.

DFAlumni and friends from 11 different universities reconnected at LS17 for a “Designing Your Life” workshop with former Stanford d.Life Fellow Kyle Williams, learning to approach their lives as a design challenge.

DFAers relaxed after the expo with a well-deserved celebration, DFApalooza!

We would like to thank our community partners, sponsors, and many wonderful volunteers who provided valuable input and helped make this year’s Leadership Studio the best one yet. Cheers to kicking off another school year with Design for America!


DFALS17 made possible by: