“How can we foster a sense of community? Could design thinking help us create something for students in that intersection point feel welcome and able to develop their communities?” Aaron Wagner asked questions like these as he moved from Seattle to Chicago this past August to take on the task of directing the Northwestern Dining operations for Sodexo. He observed incoming freshman moving to campus and shared their awareness of feeling strange when moving to a new place and creating a new circle of friends.

As part of Chicago Design Week 2017, Design for America hosted over 50 DFAlumni, current students, and Chicago professionals at Harry’s Cafe in Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law for a panel discussion considering intersections and what it means to feel welcome in times of transition.

“This event showcased how critical the issue is for all people. It was inspiring to see the incredible diversity in the group of people in the room. And the engagement! Such a wide range of ideas, questions, and insights” said Wagner.

Speakers Melis Sönmez, Allison Chen, Jeff Meekcoms, and Samarth Soni each offered their personal anecdotes and perspectives on empathy- and experience-driven design.

Sönmez, design researcher at the DuPuis Group, shared insights from her work with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Sonmez is the founder of The Bright Side, a community that focuses on sharing immigration stories to create a strong community in Chicago.

“It’s often easier to exclude than include,” says Allison Chen, UX Designer at Shure and former DFA Fellow. Growing up in an immigrant household in Boston, Chen shared how she sometimes felt unwelcome in both the US and in her parents’ home country of China. Living in a space between these two cultures has given her new perspective that she brings to make the audio world more accessible for those who aren’t familiar with technical terms used by engineers.

Jeff Meekcoms recently moved to the United States from England, and discussed how different cultures can have contrasting expectations for given experiences. He and his team at RTC work to understand customer needs so their clients can develop exceptional retail experiences globally. Meekcoms encouraged everyone to welcome others not on our own terms, but on their terms – creating not only welcoming experiences, but enduring ones.

Samarth Soni discussed how his experiences living in Dubai, Delhi, and now Evanston have inspired him to design with inclusivity in mind. He’s currently a junior at Northwestern and shared, “When I was an International student mentor, I always tried to stay warm, open-minded, and excited to welcome new students – and I learned the most from situations that are uncomfortable.”

“As designers, we need to be able to embrace the ‘frustration’ phase of a understanding a challenge before jumping into discussing solutions,” contributed Rebeca Khorzad, Performance Improvement Leader at Northwestern Medicine.

Working in small groups after the discussion to brainstorm through intriguing questions, each participant was able to leave with something to think about: whether it was to challenge our own ideas of welcoming, to take time to understand the perspectives of others, or to learn from tough experiences. We are excited to see how everyone will incorporate these insights into their workplaces and projects in the future!

Thanks to Don Ginocchio, University Alliances Director at SAP for sharing his experience and takeaways from the event. Read more here, and stay tuned for more DFAlumni & Friends gatherings and discussions to come.