Design for America Recognized with Prestigious National Design Award

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum honors national program founded at Northwestern University

Design for America (DFA), a national network of students, mentors, and community leaders using design thinking to tackle social challenges, has been recognized with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s National Design Award for corporate and institutional achievement.

“This is an incredible honor recognizing the value of DFA’s innovative approach to creating societal impact,” said Liz Gerber, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and communication who founded DFA at Northwestern University along with three of her undergraduate students in 2009. “To increase social welfare, industry, and government depend on higher education to prepare the next generation of civic innovators. Students learn best through experimentation, and that is what DFA provides.”

The National Design Awards honor public impact and lasting achievement in American design and are bestowed in recognition of excellence, innovation, and enhancement of the quality of life. Past recipients of the award in the corporate and institutional achievement category include Apple (2000), Etsy (2014), and TED (2013). 

"The jury was looking for organizations that could have impact at scale,” said Douglas Powell, an IBM Distinguished Designer who served on the National Design Awards jury selection committee. “The chapter network of Design for America enables them to trigger a reach and range of impact far beyond their size." 

DFA’s award will be conferred at the National Design Awards Gala at Cooper Hewitt in New York City on Oct. 18. The museum will host a suite of educational programs based on the work of honorees in conjunction with the awards during National Design Week, from October 13 to 21. 

DFA is now a national program comprising 36 universities and more than 1,200 members. Students take on more than 150 projects each year addressing topics ranging from the opioid crisis to homelessness to accessibility.

“You don’t have to be an art student or an engineer,” said Hannah Chung, a founding member of the organization who turned her DFA project into a career. “Participants in DFA can come from any background, and we learn human-centered design together. We learn design by doing, and we encourage students to fail and iterate because that’s how you grow.” 

Sproutel co-founders and DFA alumni Hannah Chung and Aaron Horowitz presented Jerry the Bear to President Barack Obama during the first-ever White House Demo Day in 2015.

Sproutel co-founders and DFA alumni Hannah Chung and Aaron Horowitz presented Jerry the Bear to President Barack Obama during the first-ever White House Demo Day in 2015.Chung and co-founder Aaron Horowitz started their company, Sproutel, as undergraduate students in DFA’s Northwestern chapter, where they developed the concept for their first product, Jerry the Bear, a toy that teaches children with type one diabetes how to manage and cope with their condition.

DFA provides a framework for innovation and positive impact, and for some students, such impact leads to entrepreneurship. DFA alumni have launched businesses including RISE Products (New York University), a startup that upcycles spent grain from Brooklyn breweries; Wellinks (Yale University), a company that is now beginning clinical trials for smart wearable health devices; Pair Eyewear (Stanford University), a startup that provides affordable, customizable eyewear that kids are excited to wear, and more.

“We chose the name ‘Design for America’ for two reasons,” said Gerber, who also leads the design research cluster at Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute. “One: we wanted to design solutions to tackle social challenges across America; and two: we wanted to do so by having teams across America working in their local communities.”

Read about all the 2018 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award recipients on Cooper Hewitt’s website.