UI Design for America pairs community building with human-based design


The University’s Design for America’s electronic waste team meets to brainstorm, a process they call “ideation.” The registered student organization met on Feb. 8 for its weekly Saturday meeting at the Art and Design building from 1 to 3 p.m.

By Saher Khan

Philanthropy takes a creative form in Design for America UIUC. Connected to a national organization, the University’s chapter of DFA, a registered student organization, wants to make a difference in the Champaign-Urbana community through human-centered design.

“It’s not just an RSO or putting something on our resume; it’s going out in the community, seeing what’s wrong with it and figuring out how we can help,” said Ryan Johnson, the RSO’s head of marketing and sophomore in Business.

Launched at Northwestern University in 2008, DFA now has several university chapters that create projects aiming to help local communities and society as a whole.

“One thing people don’t realize is how much we do for the community,” Johnson said. “It’s really hands on. We go out, and we research the community. We interview people and get their opinion on things, and we try to fix their problems.”

At the University of Illinois chapter, DFA members are divided into groups focused on specific initiatives. During the fall semester, DFA had four teams working on different issues: electronic waste, natural disasters, homelessness and driving independence for older adults.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

During the spring semester, the e-waste team continued its project, and two new teams also formed: a health care project and OpenIDEO challenge, an online platform for design. OpenIDEO focuses on how to help women and girls feel safe and empowered in low-income areas.

According to Zonghe Chua, junior in Engineering, DFA is important because it teaches people that design is not just about aesthetics — it is about problem solving creatively. This, in turn, can be used to better the community and the nation.

Sanny Lin, chapter co-founder and senior in FAA, said DFA brings together students from all majors to contribute to something positive.

“DFA is also important because it acknowledges the importance of diversity in problem solving,” Chua said. “A psychology major is not going to have the same viewpoint as an engineer, a biologist or a marketing guy. All are equally valuable.”

Lin said that part of DFA’s goal is to educate people on the design process. By design, they do not necessarily mean graphic design, industrial design or interior design but, rather, human-centered design, using community members and engaging them in the design process.

“That’s a process anybody can learn and take away from,” Lin said.

Since DFA’s goal is to design something that can be applied in society, a huge part of the process is to find a community partner that is relevant to the project and work with that community partner to implement what they design. For example, Johnson’s e-waste team met with U-Cycle, an Urbana recycling program, to discuss what DFA could do to help and improve the situation.

On a national level, DFA has done a lot effective projects. 

To combat the issue of patients getting infections after hospital stays, DFA Northwestern created SwipeSense, a clip-on hand sanitizer that can be used by hospital workers and doctors to maintain better hygiene while at the hospital. The team’s community partner was Chicago health system NorthShore. Success met the team when it presented its idea to hospitals. Now, SwipeSense is a start-up looking to sell their product to various hospitals.

“You design something, and it kind of fades away,” Johnson said. “But other times, someone will pick up your idea, and it’ll really become something.”

One of Johnson’s favorite DFA UIUC projects from the fall semester was the Driving Independence for Older Adults project. DFA national gave a project sponsored by Chrysler to five different universities, and each school worked on it independently so that there were five unique ideas to pitch.

The DFA UIUC eight-member team went to the Stevick Center, a senior center in Champaign, and talked to seniors about problems they faced when driving. The center’s seniors changed from just being the team’s target users to its design partners. 

One of the ideas they came up with was “Turning Headlight,” a headlight that turns on whenever the vehicle slows down before taking a turn. This helps seniors with their visibility because seeing becomes harder for senior drivers at night. The team also developed “Spatial Lights,” an internal, colored lighting system that signals drivers of their position relative to other external objects to prevent them from hitting them.

On Dec. 5, four team members had the to opportunity to go to the Chrysler headquarters in Michigan and present their ideas to Chrysler.

“It was a surreal experience to be honest,” Chua said, who was a part of the team that presented to Chrysler.

The team did things like tour the complex and have lunch with top level executives — such as the chief engineer and head of finances. 

“If I ever hop into a Chrysler group car and see something that looks like our concepts, I would be immensely fulfilled knowing that my work has made it to production and is helping many people drive safer,” Chua said.

According to Lin, DFA UIUC’s next step is to secure funding from the University for project materials. Previously, companies like Chrysler have sponsored them but getting University funding will help DFA with buying project materials. DFA UIUC also plans to get a permanent space for its organization. That space would be used for meetings, and it would be available for them to work on projects. Having a permanent creative space would significantly change how DFA functions as an organization, Lin said. 

“I think everybody wants to do something that matters and do something that makes an impact. With DFA, that is our goal; we take you through a hands-on process that makes an impact,” Lin said. “And you can see the results directly from your work in the local community, and you can talk about it and you can see your users’ reactions first hand.”

For those who want to get involved, DFA hosts meeting every Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Art and Design Building in Room 331.

Saher can be reached at [email protected]