One team member from Project Ascend hands out stickers at Leadership Studio 2017, where many wheelchair users came to speak with students about accessibility. This was a perfect opportunity for the team to get feedback on their sticker prototype.

An energetic and committed group of 21 students from Duke, Michigan State University, and Northwestern spent this summer in Evanston participating in DFA Summer Studio, a six-week and full-time social impact design program. Working with community partners to tackle challenges from teen mental health support to airport navigation for autistic adults, DFAers shared the story of their projects with a group of professors, nonprofit leaders, and other interested community members at a final expo.

Led by Northwestern Studio Lead Alex Sher, students spent 3-5 days each week working with local Chicago organizations on social design projects. Teams met weekly with two professional mentors to receive guidance and feedback on their process. Workshops led by SwipeSense, Northwestern Delta Lab, DFA faculty founder Liz, IDEO, Luna Lights and many others allowed students to further develop their design innovation skillsets.

Summer Studio participants also gained insight into how design applies across industries from visits with many Chicago companies and firms. The Plant and Method Soapbox represented design for sustainability; Shure, Microsoft Chicago, and Medline Industries showcased their innovative practices, and IDEO and Greater Good Studio provided a glimpse into what it’s like working for a design consultancy.

See below for a quick update on each project, or check out the full write up on each summer studio project here!


How can we build community support to reduce isolation felt by people with dementia?

Team: Britt Lovett, Anna O’Donnell, Kelli Nguyen, John Muyres
Coaches: Kelly Costello and Nicholas Parades
Community Partner: Rush University and Dementia Friendly Illinois

5.5 million people suffer from dementia in the US. Due to loss in mental functionality, many no longer partake in the daily activities most people take for granted. These people have the potential to be active in their communities, but the understanding necessary for involvement is missing. As a result, those suffering from dementia withdraw from their communities, speeding up mental deterioration.

“People with dementia struggle with maintaining a good quality of life, finding meaningful activities, and coping with changes in relationships,” said Darby Morhardt, PhD and professor at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. To create supportive communities, the team utilized existing inclusion trainings. They created an empathy kit of activities to help high school students and local business employees, including policemen, understand what it’s like to live with dementia. The team finalized 3 kits to be piloted at a River Forest Dementia Friendly kickoff event this Fall.

The team tests their empathy kit at the final expo.

Navigation, in a Sense

How can we support autistic travellers to comfortably navigate the airport experience?

Team: Nathan Selinger, Arthur Mergner, Swetha Marisetty, Hindeke Tewodros, Samarth Soni
Coaches: Rachel Perrine and Alex Richard
Community Partner: Open Doors Organization

Airports are particularly overwhelming for autistic people that are sensitive to sensory experiences. Autistic people often have to plan their journey ahead of time to avoid noisy and crowded areas.

To ease the planning process, this team created Gator, a mobile application that paints a picture of the airport’s sensory environments using crowd-sourced information. The team is working to create a world where travelers with specific needs can have a stress-free airport experience.

The team is now crowdsourcing data on noise levels at O’Hare by communicating with online autistic communities, and contacting health-focused web developers to improve their app overall.

Notice, Talk, Refer

How can we help young adults in West Garfield Park identify the signs of a peer with a mental health issue and initiate supportive conversation?

Team: Michael Dawson, Parth Bhatti, Laura Carther, Naomi Wang
Coaches: John Leach and Audrey Clarke
Community Partner: Rush University and the Center for Community Health Equity

Getting feedback on prototypes from a group of young adults in West Garfield Park.

The Notice, Talk, Refer (NTR) team joined a group of physicians and community leaders working with Dr. Raj Shah of Rush University to improve mental health resources in Chicago’s West Side. As the team explored existing resources intended to support young adults, they found that these tools were often inaccessible to this audience due to time commitment and high cost. Time and time again, the team also heard stories from young adults who are unsure of how to support friends experiencing mental health issues.

Out of these insights, the team designed NTR, an easy-to-learn, 3-step peer support process.

Notice: When a friend might need help.
Talk: Start a conversation with that person.
Refer: Direct them to professional resources.

The team prototyped NTR’s goals through a poster campaign, a short skit, and a brief training workshop. NTR handed off a report of their learnings and Dr. Shah’s team will continue to develop mental health supports targeting young adults based on Team NTR’s work so far.

Planner 2.😀

How can we create a fun way for middle school students to gain emotional awareness and feel comfortable discussing emotions with their parents?

Team: Kelley Czajka, Millie Rosen, Yoonjie Park, Anna Scarbrough
Coaches: Jenny Rabodzeenko and Rich Beckman
Community Partner: Feinberg School of Medicine

Over 25% of Lake Forest teens reported experiencing a depressive episode in a 2014 Illinois Youth Survey. From interviews with school counselors and students, the team learned Lake Forest High School offers abundant mental health resources, but many students graduate middle school without the tools they need to communicate their emotions effectively.

The team sought to ensure every student enters high school comfortable discussing their feelings with loved ones. The team’s main goals were to keep their concept fun and positive while developing emotional vocabulary that is easy to understand for middle school students and parents. The final concept was an academic planner with mindfulness and emotional well being activities. The team is in contact with 3 Lake Forest middle school principals with hopes to test prototypes with individual classes this year. Their goal is to hand out the planner school-wide in at least 1 middle school within 2 years.

Trying out one of the teams’ many exercises in communication and expressing feelings.

Project Ascend

How can we prevent millions of dollars in damage to motorized wheelchairs when they’re stowed on airplanes?

Team: Alex Bloom, Max Leef, Sara Gnolek, Jintae Park
Coaches: Karen Smetana and Erika Gonzalez
Community Partner: Open Doors Organization

After a flight, 40% of powered wheelchairs return to their owners with damage. Instead of enjoying their travels, wheelchair owners are stuck figuring out how to cover repair costs and get around in a new location. They also may experience physical discomfort using a chair that is not their own as they travel.

The team behind the scenes at Midway, getting prepped to go out to the tarmac.

Project Ascend worked with wheelchair users and even observed baggage handlers on the tarmac at Midway International Airport. They built prototypes that physically protect wheelchairs and created stickers to communicate how to properly pick up a wheelchair. During testing, 80% of those surveyed said they would be interested in applying the team’s wordless stickers to their wheelchairs. This fall, the team is testing physical prototypes and selling stickers online. While handing out stickers at DFA Leadership Studio, many people not in wheelchairs took them to give to friends who would find them useful.

Check out final expo presentations from each team here.

Design for America hopes to expand Summer Studio to other schools in the upcoming years! If your studio is interested in bringing this program to your campus, contact