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Student Design Leaders Meet to Tackle Social Issues

Seventy Design for America students from around the country gathered for a leadership studio at Northwestern

Design for America Leadership Studio at Northwestern University, 2014

Seventy undergraduate students from 21 universities met at Northwestern from August 8-11 for this year’s Design for America (DFA) Leadership Studio. The largest DFA workshop to date, the event taught participants how to solve social issues with design thinking.

The weekend kicked off on Friday with a visit from McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino and Gordon and Carole Segal, who founded Crate and Barrel and endowed the Segal Design Institute.

“How many of you are eager to do stuff that is really amazing?” Ottino asked a room full of excited participants in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. “We are delighted that you are here.”

“You are thinking of the world in a different way,” Carole Segal said. “And you will make it better just for being here. That is one of the most humanitarian things I can think of.”

DFA is a grassroots, student-led network that began at Northwestern five years ago and spread across the nation to several universities, including Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell, and Yale. More than 400 students are now involved with DFA, where they are encouraged to assess social challenges using a human-centered design process and work collaboratively to implement solutions.

At this year’s studio, students were challenged to embark on a 24-hour design project to gain hands-on experience in human-centered design by working with people affected by breast cancer. According to, one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer within their lifetime. For each woman with breast cancer, there are dozens of family members, friends, caregivers, and physicians who are also affected. 

Teams presented their solutions on Saturday at a pitch expo attended by business professionals and DFA staff and alumni. The panel included Matthew Levatich (MMM ’94), president of Harley Davidson.

One team presented “Supported,” a clothing line that promotes empowerment and beauty in asymmetry. The line includes lingerie for breast cancer survivors and apparel for their friends and family members.

“We want breast cancer survivors to feel more confident of their image,” said project participant Kelly Liu, a rising junior at MIT. “Asymmetry is beautiful and normal.”

Another team pitched “Mammovan,” a mobile breast cancer screening service that provides accessible mammograms and health education to underserved neighborhoods.

“The design process really does create effective solutions,” said Mammovan member Ayzit Doyum, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. “I feel like I can actually make change and improve social inequality.”

“This is one of the best leadership studio outputs we’ve had,” said Sami Nerenberg, program administrator of DFA, after the pitch expo. “I have to give all the students a huge round of applause.”

Moneythink’s Ted Gonder delivered the event’s keynote address on Sunday. Cofounder and CEO of the Chicago-based, financial education nonprofit, Gonder discussed “Designing Your Organization and Life.”

On Monday, DFA participants trained local nonprofit groups in design thinking. Teams took what they learned throughout the weekend and delivered two-hour design-thinking workshops to 12 local nonprofit organizations, including the McGaw YMCA, Best Buddies, and the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

“There are so many different minds here bringing different things to the table,” said Alka Nath, a rising junior from Stanford. “We’re building skills and immediately putting them to the test. By interacting with people who are affected by our work, we can feel the tangible effects of our solutions.”