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Designing in a Different Country: Nicaragua Summer Study Away

In this guest blog, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Collaborative Design student Elizabeth Bush recounts her experience working alongside faculty and students from KCAD and Grand Valley State University this summer to help students and faculty from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua learn how to design and implement solutions to pressing challenges.

While most college students spend the first month of their summer break road-tripping, working, or just binging on Netflix, I, along with a group of students, professors, and interested community members from both Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) and Grand Valley State University (GVSU), ventured to Nicaragua to explore how the power of design extends beyond cultural and geographic boundaries.

There, we partnered with professors and students from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, (UNAN), to better understand environmental and social issues that occur in the country and help drive solutions to those issues.

This trip was condensed into a tight timeframe of three weeks. Before we departed, I prepared myself for what would be, in my mind, a “normal” trip—some exploring of the land (hiking, swimming, etc.), some relaxation, and lots of getting to know my peers in the class. However, it was much more of a learning experience than that.

While there were many things we could have focused on during our time in Nicaragua, we narrowed down our learning and exploration to three main topics: rising temperatures (I used to think Michigan summers were brutal, but these temperatures were like nothing I’d ever felt before), water contamination and conservation (we were advised to not eat street food or drink any water not from bottles to avoid becoming sick), and toxic and compact soil. All three issues pertain to environmental and community impacts that Nicaragua experiences year after year.

On top of that, while staying with host families, we did not have air conditioning and rarely did we have running water for a shower, two things that feel like blessings after a long, hot day. Before embarking on the trip, I had envisioned witnessing these problems, but didn’t realize how much we’d encounter them personally. After a while, it became natural to empathize with Nicaraguans and the problems that their environment creates for them.

When we were not focused on learning, researching, and designing solutions to problems, we were playing. We hiked, kayaked, swam, tasted, talked, and explored the beautiful environment that Nicaragua offers. We traveled around the country to many cities to sample different types of cultures, environments, and living situations. One of the most enriching parts of this experience was being able to talk with peers in Nicaragua. We specifically got to know our translators, college students from UNAN, remarkably well. Making connections in Nicaragua with students, professors, and community members are some of the best things I could have brought home from my experience.

The last week of the trip was spent in Esteli, one of Nicaragua’s fastest growing and progressive cities, where we held a design workshop titled “XIII Taller Iniciativa Global de Innovacion Aplicada” or, in English, the “XIII Workshop Global Initiative for Applied Innovation.” Here, our group from KCAD and GVSU led 150 students and professors from all of UNAN’s different locations in practicing the full design process, from researching and comprehending the problem all the way to sketching, prototyping, and presenting ideas.

Not one UNAN participant was alike; everyone brought different education levels, income levels, backgrounds, experiences, and interests to the table. This made for diverse conversations and ideas, which in turn made the whole experience that much more engaging. However, with a diversified group came predictable problems that most teams encountered. There was some head-butting when it came to solution ideation, with some members hyperfocusing on a specific solution and ignoring other’s suggestions. Yet when creative minds set aside their differences, genuinely great ideas can result from it.

User-centered design was at the forefront of the design process during the workshop. As workshop facilitators, we encouraged groups to remember their target audience’s education levels, main speaking language, and age. Designing and marketing for a target market is key, especially when trying to sell products that are brand new to a market.

Nicaraguans, just like other people all over the world, seem to be set in their ways. Traditions are passed down from generation to generation with little desire to change. With these challenges, participants of the workshop managed to tailor their designs to counteract these difficulties.

In the end, workshop participants did a stellar job of using limited resources, narrow and occasionally stubborn user groups, and combined group efforts to create and present their ideas and products. It was inspiring to watch peers imagine and make their ideas reality. It was even more inspiring to watch them motivate each other.

Boxing up and bringing home this entire Nicaraguan experience was a challenge all its own. The ideas of splitting work and play equally (and learning from both), creating with a diverse group of people despite major design constraints, and always thinking about the target audience during the entire design process will transfer directly into my work here at KCAD.

Not only did I make connections with students and professors in Nicaragua that I now consider dear friends, but I also experienced and learned about problems that we do not regularly encounter in the United States.Designing in, and for, a different country is only learned by being there and experiencing the issues first hand. I encourage any student interested in design, travel, and truly “thinking outside the box” to attend this, or any study away opportunity, in the future.

Spontaneous Sustainability Awards at the 2017 Annual Student Exhibition

On 28, Jul 2017 | No Comments | In Student | By Collaborative Design

This year, the KCAD Green Council wanted to put a twist on the Annual Student Exhibition. The awards followed the model of “Metropolis Likes” – social media coverage on the top spaces, products, and ideas hand picked by Metropolis editors during New York Design week (learn more about this here). The KCAD Green Council handed out personally designed awards to students in the exhibition who they believed had work that best exemplified sustainability with materials used and concepts portrayed.

15 awards were distributed among all areas of study at KCAD by the Green Council. Student work included a diversity of mediums and backgrounds: from environmentally conscious clothing to wildlife illustration, furniture design to advertising, and innovative material processes to packaging design. Each piece was unique in the way it handled the complex topic of sustainability, whether or not it was the focus of the project.

The KCAD Green Council hopes to continue these spontaneous awards in future KCAD exhibitions as an inventive way to inspire students to be curious about how their art and design could be sustainable.

Here’s a list of the Sustainability Award winners during the 2017 Annual Student Exhibition:

Alex Twaddle – Industrial Design
Alyssa Natoci – Fashion Design
Amy Schafer – Graphic Design
Ashley Newton, Molly Kalep, & Tori Hays – Interior Design
Ben Schumitz – Collaborative Design
Colleen Bruce – Graphic Design
Erica Eeman – Graphic Design
Eric Schroder – Furniture Design
Ian Culver – Collaborative Design
Jennifer Marcussen – Graphic Design
Jessica Waite – Graphic Design
Larissa Thompson – Illustration
Matthew VanSweden – Collaborative Design
Olivia Minzer – Graphic Design
Steph Dear – Graphic Design

Wege Prize Finalist Weekend

What do you get when you mix one wicked problem, five finalist teams, and $30,000 in cash prizes? An amazing Wege Prize Finalist Weekend! This year, I had the opportunity to be apart of this inspiring weekend by watching the finalist teams present and receive awards.

Being unfamiliar with Wege Prize, I had to start at the beginning. I learned that Wege Prize is a competition that tests design thinking within collaborative groups of undergraduate college students from all over the world by attempting to solve a ‘wicked problem’. This year, teams came up with solutions to wicked problems such as hospital waste management, slum sanitation, and powering a rural manufacturing facility all through the constraint of creating a circular economy. It seems impossible to tackle a problem this large solo, but that’s why this competition is based on collaborative teamwork, a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds working towards a common goal. This year, teams were comprised of students who study design, engineering, science, business, and many other fields of study. It seemed the more diverse the team was, the farther the group progressed in the competition. This just goes to show how effective working collaboratively can be.

The finalist teams’ projects were phenomenal. They were thought provoking and creative. From backpacks to waste management systems, all of the solutions presented had the potential of creating a circular economy. Just listening to the students present their ideas sparked a desire within me to want to solve wicked problems.

However, even more than watching students present and compete, I enjoyed getting to know all of the students participating. Students came from all over the world; from states in the U.S. like Michigan, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas, to international countries such as the Netherlands and Kenya. In addition, finalist teams included students from China, Costa Rica, and Nigeria. Getting fresh and new perspectives from peer undergraduate students was insightful and inspiring. When all of the participants were together, it was evident how much higher functioning a group can be when there is diversity in race, gender, age, experience, and field of study.

Being able to attend this year’s Wege Prize finalist competition has provoked me to look deeper into participating in the 2017 Wege Prize competition, form a team, and compete for the grand prize. Looking past the cash prize, I am most excited to get to know other creative individuals with a great deal of motivation. Expanding my network, not only with professional adults, but also peer students from around the world, is a huge advantage of participating in this competition. I cannot wait to see where this year’s Wege Prize will lead me.

If you are just as interested in learning more about Wege Prize as I was, visit Wege Prize to get more information about the foundation, the challenge, team forming, and the prizes.

Adventures at UNTITLED.

On a cold and dark November morning, as the snow lay crisp and shiny, we pulled our fully loaded truck out of a parking lot in Grand Rapids and started off on a journey to warmer destinations. We were heading south to Miami Beach, but we weren’t making this 22-hour drive to work on our tans down by the ocean or bask in the neon nightlife; we had work to do, and serious work at that.

For the next five days, my fellow Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) student Eric Schroeder and I were given the opportunity to work with the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit art organization SiTE:LAB to install artist Julie Schenkelberg’s massive piece, titled “Lumerian Shift,” at this year’s UNTITLED. Art Fair, the biggest contemporary art fair in North America.

We arrived in South Beach with the truck ready to be unloaded. Julie, SiTE:LAB founder/curator Paul Amenta and builder/handyman Bob Rogers were there to greet us, and we were all escorted to our ocean-side tent by Miami Beach police officers. As we began to empty the truck, we quickly filled our part of the exhibition space with Julie’s materials, drawing attention to what would be the biggest installation at UNTITLED.

The physical installation was rather efficient, and the first two days flew by successfully. This is the true magic of working with a collaborative group like SiTE:LAB; stuff just gets done when a bunch of people contribute their own talents and insights. For example, the piece was mostly pre-engineered at SiTE:LAB’s current headquarters on Rumsey St. in Grand Rapids by one of SiTE:LAB’s master builders, Tom Simmons. Because of this preparatory logistical planning, we went down with (just about) every detail and item we needed to assemble Julie’s piece smoothly.

Because “Lumerian Shift” was so enormous – the work curated by Paul is often at a scale incomparable to most – UNTITLED officials had allowed us to begin two days early (in fact, the UNTITLED curator we worked with continually encouraged us to “go bigger,” something that made us all happy). It was a bit comical to see people’s reactions as this 25-foot tower of beautifully aligned rubble was more or less completed by the time other galleries came in to hang their paintings and position their sculptures just right. In the end, we actually finished helping Julie earlier than anticipated. At that point, she needed to take over and go into detailed perfection, but Paul kept us busy by connecting us with the Chicago-based Carrie Secrist Gallery, and Eric and I headed to their area to help Brooklyn-based artist Danielle Tegeder with her installation.

OK, so turkey sandwiches and gas station food in a hotel for Thanksgiving dinner was different, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. The experience was incredible, especially for a student such as myself who aspires to do similar work in the future. I couldn’t be more thankful to KCAD for their support of SiTE:LAB and helping make connections for students in the world of art and design beyond the classroom, and of course to the entire SiTE:LAB crew for being such an amazing group of highly-talented, smart and creative individuals. Not only was this trip an extremely beneficial learning experience that provided me with new insights into the art world, it also provided possibilities for professional networking that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else, and in warm, sunny Florida no less – how can you beat that?

To me, our experience in Miami strongly showcases the importance of student volunteering, and demonstrates how those opportunities can open up doors rarely imaginable otherwise as an undergrad student. As a collaborative designer, I find it critically important to blur the lines between art and design, especially as I find myself taking quite the cross-disciplinary approach to a creative career.

Do I plan to become a fine artist someday? Maybe. Do I plan to work with/for nonprofits, collaborate with individuals of different backgrounds, travel, build stuff, engineer things and work my butt off until I’m drained? Absolutely. And it’s experiences like this that makes me feel as if I’m heading in the right direction.

Oh, and the great feedback we received from Julie didn’t hurt either. Here’s what she had to say when we touched base with her after UNTITLED:

“Eric and Ian’s involvement was instrumental in assembling the installation. They were present to offer their skills of organization, design and understanding of the artistic process. It was important to stay organized in a limited amount of space and time to assemble the installation. They efficiently arranged and pre-staged materials that were constructed on-site into the sculpture. Their sensitivity to being present and ready to help while watching me make a decision was effectively smooth for the whole process.”

-Julie Schenkelberg

Dialogue and Personality: Vital Communication Tools For Every Design and Art Student

Dialogue and Personality is a rather complex class. We study how individuals communicate, think and learn. The class is very diverse; it consists of individuals with a variety of personality types. We learn how to work together with our differences. As a group we devise our semester project based upon a problem we decide needs to be assessed. We collaboratively find a way to come to a conclusion that we are all satisfied with.

I have gathered tools from this course that I will carry with me through a lifetime of collaboration. To list a few: conflict resolution, project management, team building and public speaking skills. I learned the true definition of dialogue.. and it’s not just two people communicating! Through setting aside my assumptions, treating others equally, and listening with empathy I have learned to take my dialogue to a whole new level. However, perhaps most importantly I learned so much about myself. I feel as though this class provided me with a lot of direction and it really reinforced my desire to pursue Collaborative Design.

The guest speakers were extremely beneficial to us as a team for many reasons. They provided us with a fresh outlook on our project plan and each had a new perspective. They also all had different styles of communicating so it was a great way for us to practice facilitating dialogue and problem solving with varying personalities. Another bonus was our guest speakers were all working professionals from the community! It was a great opportunity to make connections.

The class worked very hard throughout the semester on one single project. It was a lot of work spread over a long time, however it all came together seemingly simply due to our amazing facilitator Zoe Carmichael. Zoe had concise “roadmaps” for us to follow each day that greatly assisted us in staying on track. On a larger scale, we had a plan stating where we wanted to be in our project each week. We went through many stages of research, information gathering and continuously implementing our learning into our final pitch.

I would recommend this course to any student of any major. It assists you in becoming so much more confident in your work and your ability to pitch it. The skills you acquire in this course are skills that are applicable in day-to-day situations. This is not just a Collaborative Design course; it really is a LIFE course.

Design Conductors: Collaborative Design Students Exercise Versatile Skill Sets in Internships

Collaborative Design Program Chair Gayle DeBruyn likens the talents of her students to those of an orchestra conductor. Unlike virtuosos of a specific instrument, these students become fully versed in uniting different voices in harmony to solve layered, complex problems, often referred to as ‘wicked’ problems.

“Innovation doesn’t happen without cooperation,” DeBruyn says. “The design-based thinking process we teach in our program is present everywhere throughout the business world and nonprofit sector. Our students develop a unique set of skills that can bring together a diverse collection of stakeholders and break down the traditional silos that constrict creative problem solving.”

This summer, Collaborative Design students Leslie Yarhouse and Anthony Murtha each had the chance to put their skills to work in internship positions that on the surface may seem an odd fit for a design student. A closer look reveals otherwise.

In a position with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF), Yarhouse worked alongside a team of biochemists and other scientists, digging through bags of trash to gather data for a waste characterization study the WMSBF is undertaking in pursuit of grant funding from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Collaborative Design student Leslie YarhouseCollaborative Design student Leslie Yarhouse during her summer internship with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (image courtesy of Leslie Yarhouse)

“Collaborative Design classes at KCAD are very team-oriented and involve students from all different majors, and that really helped me in my internship, because none of the other interns that worked with me were design students,” Yarhouse says.
So what role does a design student play in mulling over mounds of trash and drafting reports for the government? In addition to physically sorting through waste, Yarhouse conducted an extensive review of the methods and benchmarks other communities employ in the order to better manage waste. She then had to communicate her findings to her team members in a way that brought a broader perspective to the group’s efforts to more deeply understand the problem of waste management here in West Michigan.

“As a Collaborative Design student, you’re approaching the world as a generalist who wants to know about everything,” Yarhouse says. “In that way, you take a broad approach but then can dig deeper into specific things.”

Yarhouse has a keen interest in matters of sustainability, but her internship wasn’t only concerned with exploring different waste management techniques; she also had to help her teammates ensure that their findings were presented in a way that aligned with rigid expectations of the DEQ’s grant program. While methodology is certainly a critical tool in solving the wicked problem of waste management, Yarhouse quickly learned that funding is just as important.

“A lot of times you’re just given a problem and there is a lot of pressure to look at that problem on its own, but design thinking makes you think about the whole system that’s involved in that problem,” she says.

Collaborative Design student Leslie YarhouseYarhouse spent a good portion of her internship working alongside a team of biochemists and other scientists to gather data for a waste characterization study (image courtesy of Leslie Yarhouse)

Dan Schoonmaker, director of the WMSBF and Yarhouse’s supervisor, says the project involved much more than sifting through and analyzing trash.

“We were asking Leslie to interface with several different types of recyclers, with economists, with garbage-truck drivers and regulators, and other interns from several different majors. She went from problem solving on the face of a landfill to reviewing economic literature over the course of a week.  I think that collaborative, design-based approach was essential to her success.  She was able to understand the overarching goal and how all the various perspective fit into it.”

Murtha found systems-based thinking integral to landing a position as a research and strategic development intern at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). While working on a visual mapping exercise for one of his classes at KCAD, Murtha began thinking about how to improve the marketing of Michigan’s state parks to entice more visitors. To learn more about what attracts people to the state’s parks, Murtha created a survey that he disbursed on Facebook. The survey caught the attention of the DNR, which offered him an internship its marketing department.

Collaborative Design student Anthony MurthaCollaborative Design student Anthony Murtha spent his summer in an internship with the Michigan DNR (image courtesy of Anthony Murtha)

“The Collaborative Design program teaches us about systems on a large scale and how they are impacting smaller intricate parts,” Murtha says. “It made me think beyond the aesthetic aspects of design towards how design could help connect people to the bigger picture of exploring the state of Michigan.”

While the DNR has largely tasked Murtha with graphic design work, he’s incorporated systems-based thinking into his design process to not only design material that will attract people to Michigan’s state parks but also the entire state as a whole. On top of his graphic design work, Murtha has also begun to work more closely with the DNR’s marketing department to develop the organization’s larger tourism strategy.

Collaborative Design student Anthony MurthaAs part of his internships, Murtha helped shape the Michigan DNR’s tourisim strategy, a task which neccessitated some on-site research (image courtesy of Anthony Murtha)

Though Murtha hasn’t been trained specifically as a marketer, he was easily able to interface with the rest of his team at the DNR because of the ways teamwork and collaboration are emphasized in the Collaborative Design Program.

“I don’t want to settle down in one specific area,” Murtha says. “The fact that I can speak the language of Industrial Designers and Graphic Designers and can understand the programs they use is huge. …The foundational classes in the Collaborative Design program set us up to be able to create individually, but also to work on a diverse team of people for a common goal.”

Murtha’s long-term goal is to eventually open his own fully collaborative design firm with specialists from a variety of disciplines able to tackle any design problem. In the meantime, he’s confident that his experience in the Collaborative Design program will translate into meaningful career opportunities.

“Even if I’m competing against more specialized designers for a position, I still feel like I have a fighting chance,” Murtha says. “Each new skill I gain is another tool in the tool box.”

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Accessibility, Empathy, and Creating a World for Everyone

On 26, Aug 2015 | No Comments | In Student | By Collaborative Design

Written by Kat Mattisse.

To many, namely those outside the “Design Community”, design means product. It means clothes, and chairs, and office spaces. To me, and many designers like me, design means people – it means crafting worthwhile, meaningful, and transformative experiences. It means making the world at large more enjoyable and accessible to all the people in it, regardless of class, race, gender, and ability. Last semester, as a junior in the Collaborative Design program at KCAD, I was granted the opportunity to help design a more accessible world through working with the DisArt Festival in its first year of existence. Under the always intelligent direction of our professor, Paul Amenta, and the patient, dedicated guidance of DisArt director Chris Smit, our class was able to understand to the best of our knowledge what disability meant, and the ways in which design is vital in the constant growth and transformation of our world.




My personal devotion to designing a world accessible to all people, along with my involvement with the DisArt Festival, led me to an internship with the Disability Advocates of Kent County in their Community Relations and Education department. On my first day in the office I was overwhelmed by conversations with coworkers that reaffirmed my belief that empathy is central to all we do. The work I want to do, and the work I believe we designers need to do, is dependent upon the building of services and experiences that are accessible to everyone. At Disability Advocates of Kent County I work on social media, event planning, and strategic development of programs that are all centered not around product, but around people. I believe that designers of all descriptions must fight continuously to make all experiences accessible, because design means empathy, design means accessibility, design means people – all people.

Kat Mattisse DisArt


Transdisciplinary KCAD Team Wins Trendway Student Design Competition

Posted June 12, 2015 in Student

Give a group of creative young minds a design challenge and you’re likely to get some very interesting results. That’s especially true in Collaborative Design classes at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), where students from different majors work across disciplinary boundaries to solve problems by converging their individual perspectives and skill sets.

Recently, students in professor Ken Krayer’s User Centered Design class participated in a design competition held by Trendway Corporation that challenged student teams to explore the creative possibilities inherent in the company’s Feek® coated foam products. Ever since its 2013 North America introduction, Feek® has captured the imagination of designers all over the US and Canada. The material offers a fast, simple process to bring creative ideas to life – a blank canvas on which to create memorable statements for every kind of interior. By nature, the coated foam process enables shapes and configurations that traditional materials can’t match.

Feek foam seatingA physical prototype of a butterfly-shaped seating element made from Feek® coated foam, designed by the winning KCAD team (image courtesy of Trendway Corporation)

“Feek® coated foam offers unique design flexibility for a manufactured product,” said Krayer. “There’s no tooling, no molds required – concepts go directly from the computer to manufacturing. Students have the opportunity to see their concept through final production in an amazingly brief timeframe.”

The transdisciplinary makeup of Krayer’s class, composed of both Collaborative Design majors and students from other programs, allowed teams to think outside the box in order to make the most of the innovative material. The winning team, consisting of Industrial Design students Jordan Eastwood and Linghom Wang, Digital Media student Amanda Lumley, and Interior Design student Hannah Snyder, designed a series of seating elements for use in a pediatric care waiting room.

Winning team(left to right) Digital Media student Amanda Lumley, Industrial Design student Jordan Eastwood, Interior Design student Hannah Snyder, professor Ken Krayer, Industrial Design student Linghom Wang, and Trendway President and CEO Bill Bundy

“By converging our separate perspectives, we were able to understand the end user and the environment we were designing for,” said Eastwood. “We focused on pediatric care because we felt the current scenario was weak in providing an environment the user appreciated and could look forward to entering.”

Inspired by nature, the team arranged hexagonal elements in a honeycomb pattern that offers versatile seating options. They also designed separate seating elements shaped like butterflies, dragonflies, and bees and used a bright color palette.

design rendering by KCAD studnets fpr Trendway competitionThis design redering from the winning team shows a possible configuration of different Feek® coated foam seating elements in a pediatric waiting room setting

“We looked to nature for our design inspiration for two major reasons: One, nature has design elements that are aesthetic or pleasing to the eye, such as with color and geometry; secondly, children are drawn to objects from nature that are large-scale, colorful, and playful like in playgrounds or mall play areas,” said Eastwood.

By touring Trendway’s facilities and meeting with some of its employees and executives, the students got to know the Feek®coated foam inside and out. Along the way, they learned that the material is safe, easy to clean, and has no sharp edges or rigid framing, making it perfect for a pediatric setting.

“That emphasis on research and observation was huge,” said Snyder. “You have to make sure you really get the most out of the people you talk to, and focus on the user in everything you do, because that’s who’s really going to benefit.”

Eastwood added, “We were allowed to play with our color palette and think outside the box to come up with designs that pushed the envelope on complexity and construction.  We had to think within the restraints of how the foam is cut and coated during every stage of development. This didn’t make things difficult; it made us contemplate how something complex in nature could be translated into the design language of Feek®.”

Feek coated foam seating element designed by KCAD stduentsTrendway made physical prototypes of the bee-shaped seating elements designed by the winning team that will be displayed in the company’s Neocon showroom(image courtesy of Trendway Corporation)

A panel of judges, including representatives of KCAD, Trendway, and G&T Foam, evaluated entries on originality, creativity, form, and function. “It is always exciting to partner with young, creative minds,” says Tracy Reed, Trendway Director of Marketing. “Seeing the students’ thoughtful and innovative ideas for Feek coated foam inspired all of us!”

The winning design will soon be prominently featured in Trendway’s Chicago Showroom during NeoCon week, June 15 through 17, after which it will be donated to KCAD. Each member of the winning team also received a piece of Feek®QBee furniture.

Stay up-to-date on the latest DisArt happenings at

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News Bites: KCAD Students Talk Community Building with Activist Nikki Silvestri

On 15, Mar 2015 | No Comments | In News | By Collaborative Design

Posted March 16, 2015 in News BitesPublicCollaborative DesignIndustrial Design

Nikki Silvestri knows a thing or two about building strong relationships with her fellow human beings. After all, she’s spent the last decade trying to tackle some of the world’s most layered and complex problems – social equity, food scarcity, social services, public health, and climate change, to name a few – and you don’t get very far doing that alone.

The Oakland, CA-based activist was recently in West Michigan as the featured speaker of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s (WMEAC) Women and the Environment Symposium, and she took some time beforehand to talk with a group of KCAD students from the Collaborative Design and Industrial Design programs about what it takes to create meaningful social change. As she spoke, she frequently referenced her own experience moving from a graduate student at UCLA to a burgeoning activist to a bonafide social leader involved in both the food systems and environmental movements.

Nikki Silvestri (left) speaks with KCAD students

Silvestri told the students that, in order to become an effective leader she had to let go of her own ego. Through firsthand experience as Executive Director of both People’s Grocery and Green For All, she learned that solutions don’t always work out the way they’re planned to on paper. And when they don’t create the desired impact, the right thing to do is always to connect directly with those who are affected and admit that there’s still work to be done.

Three-quarters of the way through her 2014 talk at TEDxManhattan, Silvestri makes a powerful statement on empathy: “When you’re with struggle, really with struggle, it hurts,” she says. “Privilege is the ability to be with that pain until it gets to be too much and then walk over here and sleep in the nice bed in the nice home with the trees and clean air. Lack of privilege is having to stay here even when it’s too much and then seeing when you crack. When one is allowed to empathize with that and stop trying to fix things all the time, it’s amazing what we can create. When one builds a relationship first, that relationship is the thing that actually breeds the solution.”

These same sentiments were echoed in her conversation with the KCAD students, who are working to become designers capable not just of creating work, but of creating positive and lasting impact with that work. But that desire, Silvestri told them, is not enough on its own. It’s only when we make meaningful connections with those who will be affected by our work that its larger sense of purpose emerges.

Find out more about Nikki Silvestri at

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Wege Prize 2014

This first inaugural Wege Prize was won by FusionGRow on March 3rd when the event was held at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. Organized by the Wege Foundation and Kendall College of Art and Design, the competition’s focus centered around circular economies.

2014 Wege Prize - 3

Jacob Czarniecki (General Business, Grand Valley State University)

Aziza Ahmadi (Public Administration and Sustainability, Grand Valley State University)

Philip Han (Collaborative Design, KCAD)

Yulia Conley (Applied Economics and Urban Planning, Grand Valley State University)

Eric Choike (Industrial Design, KCAD)