We highlighted organizations that are working to design a better world. One of those was Design for America (DFA). DFA is a national network of students, alumni, mentors and partners focused on using design to make a positive difference and tackle social changes. The network uses tools and coaching to encourage and support students in innovation and community building.
To learn more about DFA and the work it’s doing, we spoke with Glory Dang, a designer and design educator at DFA, and Maheen Khizar, a recent graduate of Rice University, where they studied philosophy, human-centered design and served as the Studio Lead for the DFA Rice studio.
What do you see as design’s role in improving the world?
Glory Dang: PEOPLE improve the world — and design is an excellent tool for people to practice listening, being empathetic, thinking critically about systems, and addressing issues with full creativity in context. When we use a collaborative approach to design — including diverse perspectives and disciplines in conjunction with community-based practices — we can build sustainable systems that elevate quality of life for all. This includes minimizing the negative outcomes of structural inequity and creating innovative interventions that empower communities of need. Design is also a toolkit and methodology for bringing people together: whether to bridge disparate communities, create a consensus, or to unite movements.
Maheen Khizar: Design is a complex discipline and often poorly defined. Some folks use design as a way to learn about the world as a means to improve it, others think the design process only works if a code of ethics has been specified, and a growing community of folks feel design’s place is in bringing about incremental change. I’m still learning about this, so I keep a broad definition of design as a tool that people use to plan and create. This helps me think about how design fits into a bigger picture, and in some places doesn’t fit at all. As someone that learned about design in a classroom, I do see design as a useful educational tool for encouraging students’ creativity in their work and accountability in their communities. That encouragement can happen without design, too.
What’s been one of your most rewarding experiences with the organization?
Glory Dang: Design for America gave me three things as a student: (1) The hope and belief in young people — that we absolutely have the capacity to make an impact on the world; (2) A fresh take on the design practice, one that was not tied to traditional white male academic heritage, but instead reframed as a method to work with communities and create positive social impact; (3) I found a wonderful community of people, from all different backgrounds and practices, that shared a common value of solving problems for social good. Through the DFA community, I’ve been inspired over and over by both my peers and the alumni trailblazers that muddled through the same tensions that I’ve had about social impact in career and found a unique path that works for them.
Maheen Khizar: At this point, I’ve had several years of learning alongside DFA alumni, students, advisors, staff and community partners. As a student, DFA meant a sense of social belonging at my PWI (predominantly white institution) alma mater. It also meant being around folks that saw and thought about design differently from me — the community guideline of respect meant that we could enter a space and try to figure out which of those perspectives could be instructive. I’m glad it was early on in my development as a young adult because it gave me a reference point for the respect and reciprocity I desire within any workplace, academic, or social setting.
DFA also expanded how I understand my strengths as a designer, thinker, and organizer. At Rice, I’d often run into people who thought I was unemployable as a philosophy major. But in 2019 I presented the DFA Rice and Compass project on food insecurity for the National Association of College Auxiliary Services (NACAS). When I presented to the large crowd of professionals about the project’s goal of making an on-campus food pantry better known amongst students dealing with food insecurity, I walked away with a dozen job offers in hand. That helped me recognize that others took me seriously and helped me develop an attitude that I now find necessary to direct my own life and career.
What type of impact do you hope your work has?
Glory Dang: I hope to inspire students to deeply consider how their work relates to community and impact. By sharing diverse perspectives through the people in the DFA community, opportunities arise for a plethora of new ways, even unimagined ways, for young students to shape their life and career around social impact. You don’t need to be a designer to use design tools for social good.
Before I joined DFA in my junior year at RISD, I had little direction on how to use my academic work to contribute to society in a way that really resonated with me. I had a lot of volunteering experience with food banks and clothing charities, but that work felt so separate from my creative interests. I’d always liked the idea of helping people and solving problems, but the simulated scenarios in which my Industrial Design coursework had us play with were similarly unrelated to the pressing needs of society. It wasn’t until I worked on a DFA project, where we collaborated directly with nurses and elders living with dementia in care homes to reimagine a better experience, that I was able to connect the dots between my academic expertise, the human-centered design training through DFA, and my desire for purpose in my work. The DFA experience opened those doors for me to explore design education and design for social impact in a tangible way, and I want to share that opportunity with other students as well.
What have been some of the most successful or most important design projects you’ve seen?
Glory Dang: The projects that are most successful are the ones that create community impact. Take a look at any student-led DFA project and you’ll see young designers embedding themselves in local communities, listening thoughtfully to peoples’ needs, and analyzing their design research to find underlying root causes. The ideas and concepts that follow directly respond to those community voices fielded from research and those voices are folded into the rest of the design process through ideation, prototyping, and testing.
One example of a student-led DFA project that accomplished meaningful engagement with their community was the Act on Access team from the RISD|Brown Studio. This team, led by Malaika Franks and Cyvian Chen, spent over a year investigating the barriers that the built world presents to people of varying abilities. Through their intimate research process with 7+ diverse community partners, including the RI Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, the Perkins School for the Blind, InSight, Brown University’s Student and Employee Accessibility Services, Institute for Human Centered Design, and RAMP (Real Access Makes Progress), they conducted field observations, interviewed restaurant staff, and learned about the experiences of people with low-vision/blindness. Their first outcome was a three-part Awareness Campaign): an accessibility checklist for restaurant owners to better serve their elderly and differently abled customers; a sticker campaign to tackle accessibility stigmas; and a student-facilitated panel in partnership with DesignxRI’s Design Week centered in the RISD community and involving disability rights leaders, inclusive design practitioners, design educators, and students to have an active discussion about how to design an inclusive and accessible community for all. Through the process of empathizing and collaborating with partners, the team became fully invested in their impact work and are continuing the project this year to develop an app to facilitates efficient communication between the grocery store assistants and shoppers with visual impairment, in addition to finalizing the restaurant checklist in PDF and booklet format to share with RAMP and other partners.
Another student-led design initiative that sprung out of DFA’s community-based design principles is Atutu. Co-founded by DFA UCSD Alumni Eric Richards while he was a student, Atutu is an international non-profit organization that brings community-based design innovation across the world to build equitable and sustainable communities. They’ve started a Grassroots Design approach to help youth in developing countries design and implement change in their own communities. Their work has already touched communities in India, Mexico, and Myanmar, connecting people together with tools and platforms to support envisioning, enacting, and sustaining equitable local development. As a first-generation Chinese-American whose parents are from Hainan and Vietnam, I would have loved to reconnect with my heritage and empower my parents’ communities through Atutu.
The community impact of DFA projects is multi-faceted; students are inspired to see each others’ work, community members feel heard and welcomed through student efforts, and every conversation sparked from showcasing these projects to universities contribute to a complex and nuanced shift toward the effort of building up communities and creating positive social impact.
Maheen Khizar: I pay attention to learning from the work done in the field of accessibility design. The 30-year anniversary of the enactment of the ADA has been celebrated with recognition of the relative recency of rights-based, enforceable, legal acknowledgment of accessibility. I think of a line from a tenants rights’ handbook by the San Francisco Tenants Union – “Until relatively recently, if a house burned down, the tenant was required to continue paying rent…it was not until 1974 that the California courts finally recognized that a tenant had an obligation to pay rent only if the…landlords provide certain basic housing standards, such as plumbing, heating, and electricity.” I see this as useful for understanding what the context is for asking designers to be accountable and take a proactive approach to accessibility and usability in their work. Developing that context can even happen through a design project. This happened at DFA Rice with a project on increasing the usability of campus cafeterias for students that use motorized scooters to move around campus. The campus cafeterias were ADA compliant, as it was built to be accessible to wheelchair users. Rice is a large campus in hot and sunny Texas, so not many people with a meal plan on-campus use wheelchairs. The DFA Rice team on this project had to be imaginative to think and build for accessibility beyond the bare minimum of existing regulations. I’d have to write a whole essay to write about this stuff, so I’ll just say that the field of accessibility design is where I see a lot more examples of design being helpful.
Is there any particular direction you’d like to see the field move in?
Glory Dang: Design needs to be more accessible to groups that are not traditionally represented in the design space, as well as fully encapsulate ethical and community-based practices with the goal of building communities and creating holistic positive impact. Not just human-centered design, but ALL design disciplines—graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and more.
We already have a history of people and organizations who have established practices that further this mission: Greater Good Studio is a strategic design firm focused on advancing equity; Beytna Design was founded by DFA Stanford Alumni Tania Anaissie and helps socially minded organizations actualize their commitment to equity; Creative Reaction Lab was founded in support of the Uprising in Ferguson, and today with DFA Alumni Isabelle Yisak, is building a youth-led, community-centered movement for new civic leaders. All of these organizations and many others fold in humility, acknowledge history and culture, share power, embrace complexity, and welcome healing processes to serve the communities that have been affected by inequity the most.
New organizations have sprung up recently with Black Lives Matter uprising as well, continuing the hard work to further this mission: The Design Justice Network, Where Are The Black Designers?, and the Design as Protest Collective are just a few that are actively bringing design communities together to work toward equity, justice, and liberation.
I mentioned earlier my desire to find deeper meaning and purpose in my design work. Thanks to DFA, I met incredible alumni like Isabelle Yisak, who introduced me to principles of Power Dynamics in design research; Lulu Mickelson who inspired me with her incredible civic engagement and design work for NYC; and Alex Chen who is a usability and accessibility UX designer and leader in Chicago. These are only a handful of the unique folks in DFA that have taken social impact to heart, and I look up to them as I’m discovering my own role as a designer and educator working toward impact.
Maheen Khizar: To mirror the above point, there is a long history of folks who have supported the work being done today to promote the practice of design in an accountable, ethical way. I think about Tania Anaisse at Beytna Design and the work they are doing on liberatory design, grounded in the belief that “Oppression and racism were designed. Therefore they can be redesigned.” Also, the work happening at Greater Good Studio, led by George Aye and Sara Cantor Aye, to shift power imbalances and create power through good design. I also look to Sasha Costanza Chock’s work and am particularly struck by a chapter in their recent book, Design Justice, “Introduction: #TravelingWhileTrans, Design Justice, and Escape from the Matrix of Domination.” I highly recommend reading the open-access chapter as it draws out the design decisions that lead TSA security screening processes to disproportionately pat down non-gender conforming people. I want to see the design field move more in the direction of this work.
If you want a way to support Design for America today, you can donate here to help fund the organization and its important work.
Glory Dang is a designer and design educator at DFA. She is fascinated by big-picture thinking, complex systems, and tools that drive positive social impact. Her undergraduate years were spent at RISD and Brown, where she studied Industrial Design and Experience Design and led the DFA RISD|Brown studio. In her free time, you can find her reading non-fiction or making hand-bound journals.
Maheen Khizar is a recent graduate of Rice University, where they studied philosophy, human-centered design, and served as the Studio Lead for the DFA Rice studio. Maheen is currently part of the operations team at MassChallenge, the world’s most startup-friendly accelerator, and is incoming at Accenture as a Strategy Analyst. They’re using quarantine time, which feels more nonlinear by the day, to process their position as an educationally privileged South Asian in the Southern United States.