OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Design for America

Design for America is an organization that reaches out from college campuses around the US to define and tackle local problems through design.

Photo of Alix Gerber
5 18

Written by

Design for America is an organization that reaches out from college campuses around the US to define and tackle local problems through design. By going through colleges, DFA can take advantage of the motivation, creativity, and positive outlook of college students. Projects so far have confronted juvenile diabetes, hospital acquired infections, and water preservation, among many other overwhelming issues.

DFA studios attract a group of multidisciplinary students, who come together through the design process. The defined process make it easier to start doing, rather than thinking about how to do, and the multidisciplinary teams bring together many resources to develop smart results.

Here's the process, as I learned it. This is intended to be a very flexible process where students can go between steps, risking and refining:
Define  Look for a big, overwhelming challenge that your community is facing. An easy way to do this is by connecting with a community partner* and 
Discover  "Enter notionless." Talk, experience, observe, understand the context around the problem and hear the stories of the people involved.
Reframe  Create an actionable challenge based on this discovery. For example, this takes "Hospital Inquired Infections" to "How might we make handwashing easier for healthcare professionals?"
Ideate  Lots of ideas!
Generate  Prototype ideas quickly and test them with community partners. Refine and prototype again!
Implement  Make it happen! Many projects from DFA Northwestern have been or are being patented for mass production. Like Jerry the Bear, a teddy bear that helps kids deal with juvenile diabetes.

And throughout all of this, students are supported by faculty advisors at their school, professional design mentors from around the area, community partners, the students who have gone before, and staff at DFA in Northwestern who coach students through the process.

By taking on one small problem at a time, DFA studios will begin to enliven the communities that surround their campuses.

* From my experience with DFA, it seems like one very successful way for a college group to engage with their community is by partnering with another organization, similar to the way that OpenIDEO is working with Amnesty and Steelcase. The other organization could be a hospital, school, homeless shelter, library, or any local place that works for the community. Going in to ask about and observe someone else's challenges helps students step out of their university bubbles. With no partnership, students often end up focusing in on themselves. 


Join the conversation:

Photo of Vincent Cheng

Very inspiring work done by Design For America chapters. Great work in founding the Cornell one Alix!

Photo of Alix Gerber


Photo of Sami Packard

Nice one Alix! Look forward to seeing you next month for UOregon's DFA review! As the Director of Operations of DFA, we'd love to work with schools to help communities thrive! Applications are OPEN for students interested!! :-)

View all comments