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Design For America's Students Want To Change The World
The United States of Design
Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Stars In Their Eyes: From far left, Mariel Strauch, Tara Jasinski, Ada Ng, and Alix Gerber are trying to design a fresh solution to the eternal problem of cafeteria grub at Cornell—when they're not doodling stars for Fast Company. | Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Design For America's Students Want To Change The World

By Rick Tetzeli

Through Design for America, college students apply their skills to real-world problems.

"It was all about the squishy bell peppers," laughs Tara Jasinski, a recent Cornell University grad who now works in Princeton, New Jersey, as an interior designer at architecture firm HDR. She's recalling the inspiration for the Design for America project she worked on this past spring at her alma mater. "That was all you could get. The grocery stores with good fresh food were just too far away."

So Jasinski, along with Ada Ng, Mariel Strauch, and other students led by Alix Gerber, set out to design a solution that would get more fresh food to students and the Ithaca community as a whole. They followed a process established by Design for America, a grassroots initiative started in 2009 at Northwestern University, that encourages problem-solving design students to apply their skills to real-world issues.

As Ng and Strauch explain, the DFA approach is to define, discover, reframe, ideate, prototype, and implement. Ng calls this kind of problem solving—as opposed to drawing, or envisioning beautiful interior spaces or products—the essential wonder of design: "to have an idea and make it happen."

DFA's can-do approach is catching on. Seven more universities plan to launch their own DFA studios this fall. The Cornell branch will try to make the most of a new farmers' market that will be open each Thursday at the university's Ho Plaza, courtesy of the group Farm to Cornell. Strauch thinks the DFA crew she will lead with Ng can help get that fresh food into students' mouths. "Maybe we can work with vendors to package the vegetables in boxes with labels like 'stir-fry,' with recipes inside," she says. "We'd give demos at the farmers' market, let them see that this tastes good—and that it doesn't take much work." After all, says Strauch, "I want people to be able to use what we design."

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A version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.