What We Do
Design for America (DFA) is an award-winning nationwide network of interdisciplinary student teams and community members using design to create local and social impact. We teach human centered design to young adults and collaborating community partners through extra-curricular, university based, student led design studios tackling national challenges in Education, Health, Economy and Environment. Founded at Northwestern University in 2009 they now have studios all over the country within universities such as Stanford, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Yale and more with over 2,000 students in our network and 350 core team members. DFA is a pipeline of innovators, change makers, and social entrepreneurs. This year, two of their start-ups SwipeSense and Jerry the Bear have gone on to raise nearly $1.5 million in start-up capital, with more projects in the pipeline ready to make an impact. DFA, their students, and projects have been featured in publications such as the cover of Fast Company, Oprah Magazine, Inc Magazine, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, Harvard Business Review and more.
DFA student teams work on 2-3 self-selected design projects throughout the academic year applying the skills and expertise gained through their for-credit academic courses. They look to their local community to assess pressing challenges and work in teams with organizational partners to understand user’s needs, ideate, prototype and test potential solutions. Projects that receive validation from their partners, users and mentors are encouraged to continue into implementation. DFA students must be fearless in moving forward on a good idea and fearless enough to take a step back when they may need to go back to the drawing board. DFAers represent diverse academic fields such as engineering, design, psychology, and economics. DFA believes that all students have the capacity to use design to innovate the world around them and DFA is a platform to do so.
Patents and Start-ups
Since the finding of the Design for America, students have successfully applied for 3 patents and started 2 companies currently in tech incubators in Chicago, IL and Providence, RI.
Design for America has resulted in popular press including but not limited to Fast Company (cover), New York Times, MIT Technology Review, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Inc, and Oprah (forthcoming).
Dr. Liz Gerber and her students have presented 3 conference presentations and written 2 academic papers on design practices and design and innovation learning.
Dr. Liz Gerber and her students have been invitations to speak at conferences including but not limited to CUSP, Better World By Design, Net Impact, IDSA, TedX, and Chicago Ideas Week. Additionally, Dr. Liz Gerber regularly speaks about Design for America during research talks at peer-institutions including but not limited to Stanford, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Dartmouth.
Design for America has received several awards including but not limited to Open IDEO, Dell Social Innovation, Betaspring, Healthbox, Chicago Ideas Awards, Bluhm Helfand Fellowship, Core 77, Diabetes Mine, and Social Designer Challenge.
Employers actively seek Design for America graduates to join their companies when looking for students with initiative, creativity, perseverance, and comfort facing ambiguity. One employer reported, “I hired her not because she graduated from University X, but because she did Design for America.” We receive approximately one request a week from employers interested in hiring Design for America graduates.
Recruitment to Design Coursework
Design for America attracts students from all majors to design coursework including design, engineering, music, economics, English, business, theater, psychology, and more. Since the founding of Design for America at Northwestern, enrollment in design courses and the certificate program has increased. Additionally, DFA attracts women to a historically male field. 50% of Design for America participants are women.
Design for America recently won the prestigious Digital Media and Learning Competition sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation to build a online badge and knowledge management system. The project arose from the realization that in the information age, learning often happens outside the classroom and continues after formal education is finished, making traditional transcripts an incomplete picture of an individual’s capabilities. Design for America has also received the Northwestern Murphy Fellowship for three years in a row. Two grants at NSF to support DFA are currently under review.