FORBES MAGAZINE: Behind the Scenes at DFA Cornell

Four members of Design for America’s Cornell Studio were recently interviewed by Rahim Kanani of Forbes Magazine about their experiences starting a Design for America Studio.  It is a fascinating look behind the scenes at what these DFA’ers have uncovered through their DFA experience and an honest at the realities and real work of starting and running a DFA studio.  It’s a very good bet that all of our amazing DFA studios would have stories to tell about the challenge of organizing a studio and working to leverage design for social change.

Kanani: What was the moment, or trigger, that led you to realizing that your design skills, and this particular mode of thinking, are not simply restricted to their traditional uses, but can also be used to problem-solve social dilemmas?

Mariel Strauch:I participated in community service in high school, but did not find it to be entirely fulfilling, for I did not believe I was giving to my full potential. I did not discover that my creativity could produce something helpful for others until DFA. Thinking about how people can be and are affected by design is always going to intrigue me. However, true satisfaction lies within the designs that you know will make people’s lives easier…

Ada Ng: …Upon being introduced to DFA by Alix, my notion of design as social change was merged: we can design change. The amazing thing about DFA is that it is so feasible. To take a large social issue and reframe it such that it is implementable is so simple….

Tara Jasinski:…Sophomore year at Cornell was when it became clear to me that design can have a significant impact on the human experience…It was incredibly rewarding to see our designs implemented and to know that we were directly influencing other people…

Alix Gerber:…I had thought a lot about social dilemmas, I had been excited about other peoples’ social projects, and I had even worked topics like community-building and food process education into traditional interior design projects in my studios. But DFA gave me the chance to run into those social dilemmas head on…

On DFA and the role of design in tackling problems with social impact:

Ada Ng: Too many people/industries are saying that they know the solution to your problems. The answer is the goal and the answer is the solution. They are goal-oriented. Design for America is problem-oriented. Design for America says that asking about the right question on the issue is the goal – and that we don’t have the answer. The answer lies in research and communication between us, the designer, and the population effected by the issue at hand. This design-thinking strategy is unique even in the profession...With all the research and subsequent insight that we have, turning our ideas into reality is the right thing to do. DFA at Northwestern reminds us “Post-its don’t change lives.”

On organizing a Design for America Studio:

Alix Gerber: It wasn’t easy to start a DFA studio at Cornell. Students are busy, and non-designers don’t understand what design has to do with them. At the beginning of the semester last year, even though I was supported and motivated by some amazing advisors and friends, I was doing a lot of work on my own. We need to remember that social initiatives are complex and challenging. No one can do it alone. Gathering smart, diverse groups requires fascinating stories, so we need to become amazing storytellers. And we also have to lose any fear of failure. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by these problems, but nothing will happen until we try something, fail, and try again.

Read the entire article at



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