Design for America began life in 2009 as a small-scale Northwestern University student group devoted to design and engineering with compassion. Elizabeth Gerber, a McCormick School of Engineering assistant professor, launched the group to create a space for students to dream up solutions to big problems. Since then, more than 100 NU students have designed processes and products involving community health, post-traumatic stress and other areas.
Just over two years later, DfA has spawned like-minded groups at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore.
Gerber believes strongly in combining disciplines and challenging DfA participants to design around human needs. Sitting in her office, Gerber’s view overlooks several campus sidewalks—and also a few unpaved paths that show where people really want to go. She explains why these paths, as well as behavioral studies, are just as important as engineering and design for projects ranging from hand sanitation and hospital-born infection prevention to diabetes management.
Tell me a little about your background. How did it lead to your involvement with Design for America?
Prior to Northwestern [University], I was taught and then researched innovation processes at Stanford University’s design school. Prior to [teaching], I worked in the toy industry with toy inventors and kids imagining the future of play. This is when I first become interested in the necessity of motivation and risk-taking in innovation work.
What are some examples when you think about innovation?
A studio-mate of mine at Stanford, Sam Palmer, decided to build an airplane (similar to a glider). One day, he asked us to help him launch him and his plane over a ledge. The project was risky and yet he persevered. And as we’re launching him over the edge, I’m thinking, “Wow! What is propelling this guy to literally fly?”
I’ve always been interested in what motivates people to create and act beyond the call of duty. What really propels people to go beyond? I saw other instances of this by a colleague of mine, Tina Seelig, at Stanford who asked her students to create value from a rubber band. While some students followed predictable courses, using rubber bands for [their] intended purpose, such as making a rubber band ball, others created an online commitment service by which people wear a rubber band until they’ve fulfilled a promise, log their work online, and then pass it on. What really intrigued me about that extracurricular competition was that people end up spending more time on that process than they were spending on courses they were getting graded for and getting credit for. And they actually started businesses because of that intense work period. (One example can be seen at doband.org.)
How do you promote what students dream of doing?
So you have the campus, and there’s the sidewalk. But then there’s the well-worn trails across the grass where everyone’s going anyway, and they’re called desire lines. My colleague Jeanne Olson (NU’s School of Education and Social Policy) and I believe that as educators we’re called to look at those desire lines, because they indicate what people want to do. They indicate where people want to go, and what we should be doing is building infrastructure around that.
How does that reflect motivations and needs?
Motivation is critical for innovation work, but one also needs domain expertise, which is what we tend to emphasize in coursework, and creative and analytical thinking skills. In the case of my Stanford studio-mate, he was building expertise in flight. He was also collaborating with peers to support his creative and analytical thinking skills. But if he had only had expertise and the skills, he may not have persisted in his effort to fly.
Could you talk a little about how that relates to user-centered design?
In user-centered design, you’re taking people and asking them what their challenges are, and then essentially committing to solving [these] for them. So there’s a human connection that’s motivating.
People often think of empathy driving insight into problem solving. Empathy is also a major motivator. You’re not in a laboratory coming up with a new technology and trying to find applications for technology. You’re talking to a person, and they’re saying, “This is what I struggle with every day.” They’re saying, “I’m not going to try and fix that.” So there’s a human connection that happens with user-centered design, and a commitment to improving the lives of others that motivates.
Do you see yourself in your day-to-day role as more of a curator?
It's changed over time. It's a startup. I was involved in the day to day when it was a seed of an idea, when I pitched the idea [at Northwestern] in October 2008. We had a conversation about big ideas, and I said, "I have a big idea." And I said, "Design for America—that’s the big idea." It was a synthesis of the things I'd been researching. I'd been looking at the desire lines. We know behavioral change is very hard. So what you do is you look at what people are doing, and you try to align your efforts in that way.
Two and a half years later, we have a director of operations, Sami Nerenberg, and a passionate student leadership team driving this forward. The passion and commitment is as strong as ever. Just today, they were coaching a studio at Dartmouth about the studio start-up process.
Why do you think health care topics have been so central?
The students have worked on several healthcare topics including hand sanitation and diabetic support tools for kids. This is a grand challenge to which most members of the teams have some very personal connection. It’s easy to see the impact when they tell others what they are working on—they get it. This is very motivating.
Do you think user-centered design lends itself to these types of studies?
I think it's community driven. And again, the students are the ones moving it. It actually doesn't seem right to call them "the students," because I want to call them by name. Tristan has this perspective. And Hannah has this perspective. And Yuri has this perspective. They're really colleagues and collaborators. We're rethinking the relationship between faculty and students.