Last night, the Barnard/Columbia chapter of Design for America held their spring semester introductory meeting in Room 504 of Diana. It featured everything you would expect from one of these – an introduction of board members, a presentation, a Q&A session – and those will be addressed, if not necessarily in order. I must begin, however, by asking you a question.

“How can we cultivate an atmosphere of respect within dining halls at Barnumbia?”

This is a question that could likely inspire a lively night of discussion among a number of different interested and concerned parties on campus, held in the Lerner Auditorium. Posters would advertise the event for weeks before the day came, there might be a waitlist for tickets, this organization would do a LectureHop – the whole shebang.

I had to provide eight answers to that question within thirty seconds.

I came up with two. (One was to “say ‘excuse me’ as you push past someone to get chicken wings at JJ’s.” Inspired, I know.)

Quite the first impression to make on your prospective members – but it served as an example of the culture of thinking up “radical ideas” that Design for America fosters among its club members. Per one of the board members, the activity is officially called “Crazy Eights.” While it may seem manic, the fast-paced, “say anything” nature of the activity can serve as a launchpad for finding solutions to the topic at hand.

Well, topics at hand. Design for America has what are called “teams” – upon applying (which we’ll get to, trust me), each member joins a cooperative of around 4 to 5 members each tackling a certain issue, be it “making athletics on campus more welcoming of LGBTQ athletes” or “creating data visualizations that help demonstrate racial biases in the NYC court system.” Board members stressed during both the presentation and the Q&A session that each project required people of varying skill sets – so, in theory, members should have no problem finding a cooperative where they could best put their skills to use.

The common thread among all projects done in DfA is a focus on “human centered design” – which was, of all the buzzword-y words and phrases I heard that night, the most buzzword-y phrase. Board members emphasized during the presentation that any and all ideas were iterative – just because a project can be considered complete does not mean that the project’s problem and applied solution is never revisited and improved upon. Given the attention that DfA gives to community issues, there never is no “one-and-done” solution.

You know what? I take back what I said. The buzzword of this meeting was “community.” Granted, there’s the community of people that DfA works with locally on projects. But there’s also the community of the club, affectionately referred to as the “DFAmily.” There’s the national community – because remember, Columbia is one chapter of forty-plus DfA chapters – which holds a five-day national conference with three of those days dedicated to a “design sprint.” One of the freshman members of the Q&A panel applied to DfA after learning about it only twelve hours before the application due date, because he was trying to find “community.” And another person on the panel – when asked what one word he would use to best describe the club – communicated exactly the answer you think he did.

And of course, there’s nothing wrong with community – it’s the reason I’m writing for this site still. But you have to apply to be part of DfA. (A gated community, if you will.) What happens if your application falls short of the criteria: being passionate and empathetic; willing to implement changes; and being interested in creative problem solving?

“Apply again,” said one board member. Club president Kavya Tewari (CC ‘20) noted that though she herself had been rejected by the club in the fall of her freshman year, she’d now been with the club for four years – and had the presidency to show for it. DfA also holds an event known as the “Design-a-Thon” on campus every year, so that people might have the opportunity to become familiar with the type of work the club does. DfA members may be a “rare” and “self-selecting” group of “caring” students – but keep in mind that Board still has to select you and match you to a project.

Nevertheless, DfA members do love their club. One engineering student said that working in the club has helped prepare him for “the real world.” Another was excited to have the opportunity to gain exposure to work he was yet unfamiliar with. Per one panelist, everyone can gain a lot of knowledge as a designer working with DfA. Be they urban studies majors or environmental engineering majors, club members come from all four of Columbia’s undergraduate schools.

If accepted, club members will spend two hours every Monday working in Barnard’s studio space on their assigned project, with a midterm and final review period during the course of the semester to present their work at that given stage. Of course, actual completion of the project requires more time spent outside of those two hours, performing relevant research and field interviews. (Never to fear, however; per the president, the workload is “really manageable.”)

The projects sound rewarding, the people seem great, and they like to eat PopCorners. What’s not to love?

The application is open now and closes on February 2nd at 11:59 PM. For more information, visit their website, find them on Facebook or email them at

P.S.: a couple extra anecdotes from the meeting:

  •  One board member gave the following real-world example of “Crazy Eights” in action: in trying to figure out how to get rid of snow that consistently accumulated on power lines in a region of Canada, a team at IBM used the method to suggest having bears shake the power lines… by pouring honey on the snow to attract the bears… and using a helicopter to get the honey on the snow… but finally simpliflying things by just using the gust from helicopter blades to get rid of the accumulated snow. (They decided on the last idea.)
  •  One panelist told of his experience working on a project concerning food cart vendors – he now gets recognized by some of the owners he worked with, which he really likes.

Columbia DfA Logo via