Human-Centered Design

DFA at WashU seeks innovative solutions to social problems

Posted by Maisie Heine for Student Life January 23, 2015

This story originally appeared in Student Life January 22, 2015.

Design for America describes itself as "an award-winning nationwide network of interdisciplinary student teams and community members using design to create local and social impact." It challenges its members to create solutions through human-centered design, a highly researched and detailed approach to design which focuses on socially conscious problem solving.

Senior Alex Mei and juniors Libby Perold and Julia Kong began their application to DFA's national studio in 2013, and Washington University received an official DFA studio in May 2014.

Each Design for America team is comprised of members from a variety of majors, fulfilling the "interdisciplinary" aspect of the project's vision.

"We encourage students of every major and level to join our studio because we want to see from as many viewpoints as [possible]...We believe that everyone has important insights into how designs are used and implemented," said Mei, an architecture student.

Participants last semester represented a range of departments, including philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, biomedical engineering, music, architecture, anthropology, and international area studies. Perold encourages people who may feel unsure about what they would be able to contribute to reconsider.

"People hear Design in our title and understandably back away, because they think they need to know special computer programs or be in Sam Fox....But any Wash. U. student can think critically, which is what DFA often needs," Perold said.

Each diverse team works to design solutions in whatever form it sees most fit. One student group created a prototype of a toy called "Healthy Harry the Hare" in order to address poor nutrition in young children's diets. Equipped with recipes that are pre-approved by nutritional specialists, Healthy Harry would encourage children to eat healthier at home in a fun, accessible way.

Freshman Katie Ehrlich, a member of the group, believes their prototype "could actually educate school children about cheap and easy healthy meal options. If we pursue our idea, it could even be utilized in schools in the St. Louis area, making a difference in real people's lives."

DFA's idea of a solution, however, is not limited to a physical product. Another group's project, "Snap Pack," focused on fostering stronger relationships between food donors and food banks. In the process, the group found that the relationship they formed with a local church was the most valuable outcome.

"Designing is only part of Human-Centered Design; it's also about learning to have empathy for the people in our community...DFA believes in the importance of building up relationships with people around us," Perold said.

The groups were not without their challenges while developing their projects. One obstacle involved devising ways to push individual projects into the "User Testing" stage of design—when a prototype is introduced to the prospective community. Like with any new idea, human-centered design will take time to garner enough credibility in the public eye to allow for testing in schools and other institutions.

"You can't meet with community members once or twice and expect them to respect or trust your intentions. Building that trusting relationship is an important step since it allows them to feel comfortable opening up about their experiences or thoughts," Kong said.

In early February, DFA is hosting a panel discussion with Wash. U. faculty and St. Louis professionals on the Ethics of Human-Centered Design. The goal of the discussion will be to examine the importance of this methodology in the larger design process.

Despite the roadblocks that the program encountered in its early stages, Perold's experience thus far has been personally valuable.

"DFA has impacted me in countless meaningful ways. From a professional point of view, I have learned the importance of working in teams, have gotten to familiarize myself in the HCD process—which is extremely important to know in professional design studios—and have met students from all over the country who share similar passions for design and social impact," Perold said.

In terms of its goals for the future, DFA hopes to continue establishing its presence at Wash. U. and improving the quality of its projects.

"In the long term, I think DFA will be at the forefront of discussion regarding design for the community," Mei said. "The organization is constantly trying new ways to make our design process more effective and more grounded in our own user research, and I think what we'll find will be very insightful for the larger field of design."