Taking action in the community: Design for America students enact positive change in Cleveland

For Aarushi Nayak, the goal of Design for America (DFA) is simple. “We are people who want to help other people,” the studio lead said.

With a vision of “a world where people believe in their ability to innovate and tackle the most ill-structured challenges of our time,” DFA, a nationwide organization with a chapter at Case Western Reserve University, resonates with students across campus and even across Cleveland, collaborating with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art. 

Each year, student-led teams partner with community organizations to identify a problem, then, using the human centered design process, develop and execute solutions. The process takes a full academic year. During the fall semester, teams take their time researching and identifying a real problem that needs to be solved, not a “solution looking for a problem” as Jim Horwitz explained. Then, by spring, the teams are ready to take action. 

This year, five teams have forged partnerships with organizations around Cleveland. In the past, students have collaborated with places like United Cerebral Palsy, University Farms, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Sight Center and Replay for Kids.

“All of our projects have a goal to make the world a better place,” Horwitz, the group’s director of projects & programming, shared.


Last year, before taking on their leadership roles, Nayak, Horwitz and their team created EYEVEND. In partnership with Cleveland Sight Center, the group created an accessible vending machine. A typical vending machine presents challenges for blind and visually impaired individuals. With no menu, users must be able to read the labels of the snacks inside the machine, the coin return slot is tricky to reach, and the numbers on the pad are extremely small, making them difficult to see. 

So, the team of CWRU and CIA students developed a solution and built a prototype right inside Cleveland Sight Center. With larger numbers created with more contrast—black numbers on a white background—that were also 3D allowed users to more easily see and push the proper buttons when ordering. The solutions didn’t stop there, however. Because it can be challenging to see what items are actually available to be ordered, the students developed an audible element that reads out what is available in each row of the machine by pushing a button. 

“We got a surprisingly high amount of positive feedback,” Horwitz said. “More than we were expecting and that’s validating.”

Now, the team will make their work publicly available, publishing a step-by-step process describing how others can transform a vending machine to be more accessible. 

The Impact of DFA

“It means a lot to be able to give back to the community and see the impact that projects in DFA have made,” Nayak said. “Being able to focus my passion on helping people alongside other students who want to do the same thing has been amazing.”

Nayak said the group refers to themselves as the “DFAmily” and she, Horwitz and Seth Walters were all drawn to join because of its “empathy driven culture”, which attracts a special type of people that they enjoy spending time with and working with. 

“Creation as an art form, with people I want to spend time with makes me so happy,” Walters, team lead, shared. “This club allows me to pour my passion into something I care about. With each team I run, I want them to come away with the same feeling: we did something, we made something better for someone, and we had fun.”

The trio looks forward to watching DFA attract more like-minded students who are passionate about solving problems that improve the lives of others right here in Cleveland. Students who want to get involved should contact Jago Dorn, director of external relations.