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Designing for America

02/08/2012

Students involved in the RISD/Brown Design for America studio.

On the night of the 2008 election that ushered Barack Obama into the White House, Sami Nerenberg 07 ID found herself searching for a design outlet to harness her surging feelings of patriotism. She wasn’t sure what that outlet would be or do, but she already had a name for it. “That night I decided to buy the domain names for designforamerica.com and designforamerica.org,” says Nerenberg, who was teaching at RISD as an adjunct faculty member that year. “And then I started going around telling everybody I knew about this idea – Design for America, trying to figure out what it should be.”

It just so happened that Nerenberg’s friend, IDEO.org Executive Director Jocelyn Wyatt, knew exactly what it should or could be: she knew of design thinkers at Northwestern University’s Segal Design Institute who had already launched a project called Design for America (DFA). The initiative – a network of student-run studios working to create social change through interdisciplinary design – was being led by Segal Professor Elizabeth Gerber and a team of design students. Suddenly, Nerenberg had found her call to action.

Since joining forces with the organization last year, Nerenberg is now playing a leading role as DFA’s director of operations. From the handful of students initially involved, the initiative has quickly gone national and now engages more than 600 students at eight campuses across the country. In two short years, the studios have begun to tackle everything from childhood diabetes to the millions of tons of water wasted each year in cafeterias. DFA’s student-led innovations are also attracting interest across the design world and in the national media, with recent articles in Forbes and Fast Company (which featured DFA students from Cornell on the cover of its October issue).

Growing network attracts RISD students 

“Part of what is so amazing about Design for America is that we work with students in over 60 different majors – engineers, biologists, psychologists, artists,” says Nerenberg. “I love the fact that one of the biggest majors of DFA students is ‘undecided.’ We want to involve everyone in this problem-solving process, and we need those different perspectives to come up with new and innovative solutions to problems.”

But for Nerenberg, some of the most exciting DFA news is emanating from the school where she first started thinking about design for social change: Last year two dozen RISD and Brown students came together to form a joint RISD/Brown DFA studio in Providence. Led by Annie Wu 13 ID, Sophia Yang 12ID and Brown Engineering major David Emmanuel 13, the studio is tackling three projects simultaneously, including one public health issue that heavily impacts Rhode Islanders: childhood lead poisoning.

“There is a direct correlation between lead in homes and developmental disabilities, because lead can damage the neurological system. So it’s a huge issue,” says Wu, who is heading the studio and working in collaboration with the state’s Childhood Lead Action Project. “Right now we are focusing on the window or the door as potential areas of counteracting lead poisoning. So much of lead gets tracked into the home through lead soil on shoes, for example, which children then come into contact with when they crawl on the floor. And a lot of lead dust collects along windows as well, so there are potential solutions there.”

For Nerenberg, whose goal is to expand the number of studios from eight to 50 by 2015, the commitment by RISD and Brown is especially gratifying. “It’s really exciting to see my alma mater become part of the DFA network and see all these familiar faces,” she says. “Probably the biggest influence on my own views about design was [Associate Professor of Industrial Design] Charlie Cannon’s Innovation Studio, looking at industrial design from a systems-oriented, problem-solving view as opposed to a solely product-oriented view. That was the part of my design education that really opened my eyes, and I’ve taken huge inspiration from that ever since.”

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tags: alumni, Brown, entrepreneurship, innovation, interdisciplinary, nonprofits, Industrial Design, partnerships + collaborations, public engagement, social responsibility, STEAM, students

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Brett Newman, BFA 12, Letter Holder, ash veneer