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Design for America Teams Up with Innovation Leaders to Help Fight Against COVID-19

DFA joined with IBM Design and the World Design Organization on a design initiative to address the pandemic

Social media posts like this are one of the outcomes of the COVID-19 Design Challenge.Social media posts like this are one of the outcomes of the COVID-19 Design Challenge.
Participants in the challenge met via Zoom to discuss the initiative.Participants in the challenge met via Zoom to discuss the initiative.

As the pandemic became a global crisis, three leaders in innovation — Design for America (DFA), IBM Design, and the World Design Organization — came together to create the COVID-19 Design Challenge.
The collaboration mobilized 225 designers in 33 countries across 17 time zones to address
five urgent topic areas in the fight against the novel coronavirus. 

The resulting open-source projects range from social media posts that encourage healthy behaviors like wearing masks to an initiative that supports the social and emotional health of isolated elders through sending postcards.
Dozens of alumni from DFA, the national network that began at Northwestern that’s been honored with the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, participated.
“I was drawn to design because I felt like it was a source of positivity in a world facing many challenges. When I started seeing information about the challenge, I couldn’t just sit still and not do anything,” said Ruby McCafferty (WCAS ’19), a design researcher at IBM.
Five project outcome themes were chosen:

  • Awareness and Communications to inform and motivate people to socially distance and practice effective hygiene
  • Essential Workers to offer safety measures, foster wellbeing, and simplify key processes
  • Vulnerable Communities to protect people who have higher safety risks
  • Remote Learning to imagine environments that foster safety and curiosity for remote learning experiences
  • Healthy Habits to create ways to integrate fresh practices, promoting health and wellness through the transition to a new normal

One example is Actions Have Consequences, a campaign that drives people to consider the impact of their actions on others. This project includes downloadable and shareable images encouraging mask wearing and reminders of the consequences of being irresponsible.
Katie Smiley (WCAS ’11) jointly led the Patient Communication with VitalTalk team with McCafferty that was under the Essential Workers banner. She said she “was karmically obligated to step up for this design effort.”

“I relished the chance to stay productive and be of service,” said Smiley, who works in design research and strategy at Watson Health Imaging at IBM. “It helped focus the enormity of COVID-19 concerns onto one thing that I could actually do something about.”
Karel Vredenburg, IBM’s director of design leadership and academic programs, approached WDO president Srini Srinivasan and DFA executive director Rebecca Breuer to discuss the idea of a challenge. They worked with WDO representatives and DFA faculty founder Liz Gerber to build out the concept for the pilot program.
"The Design for America network was built for just this kind of moment when we need people to work together to tackle complex societal challenges,” said Gerber, Northwestern Engineering associate professor of mechanical engineering.
All projects are available for public use and can be accessed at
Launched in 2009, DFA has spread to universities across the country, including Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Yale. Students identify social challenges using a human-centered design process and work collaboratively to implement solutions.