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Social design course challenges students from Notre Dame and India to use creativity to tackle a global problem

Author: Carrie Gates

Verma Design Class 1000Therese Nelligan, Takeyra Stewart, and Kushagra Singh interview students at the Gujarat Vidyapith university for their design project.

When Kacey Hengesbach began her undergraduate career at Notre Dame, she didn’t imagine that it would include traveling 8,000 miles to Ahmedabad, India.

But thanks to a new course created by Neeta Verma, the Robert P. Sedlack Jr. Associate Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, she had the chance to spend three weeks there last summer, working collaboratively with students from India’s National Institute of Design.

“I feel like I learned more in those three weeks than I have in most of my life, because it was so vastly different than anything I’ve done before,” said Hengesbach, a senior design and marketing major. “Until I did this class, I would often design solely for the atmosphere that I was in. But this experience has definitely opened my eyes to the bigger, global picture. That’s a way of thinking that I will definitely take into my line of work.”

Verma Design Presentation 1000Kushagra Singh and Tess Nelligan present their preliminary research into existing solutions enabling a healthy lifestyle by reducing the use of processed food.

Hengesbach and the other students in Verma’s Social Design course continued their partnership with the NID students throughout the fall semester, hosting them for a two-week visit to Notre Dame in September and communicating via Skype and email for the remainder of the course.

The idea behind the course, which Verma is planning to offer again, is to tackle a singular, global problem — like sustainability — and examine it from both a U.S. and Indian perspective.

“To look at a problem cross-culturally is a much bigger challenge,” Verma said. “That started me thinking, how do I make these students really step out of their comfort zones and give them an opportunity to address issues that are far more challenging?”

Setting up the exchange between Notre Dame and the National Institute of Design was a critical part of the course, she said, because it created a reciprocal engagement that was beneficial for both sets of students.

When the students first met in India, they formed six teams — each comprised of at least one Notre Dame student and one NID student — and began exploring various issues related to sustainability. The teams conducted site visits and interviews in both countries to research  topics like sustainable packaging and the journey of food from farm to table.

“This was such a good opportunity to really explore social design in its fullest,” said Alison Snarponis, a junior design and marketing major. “The research that we did isn’t research you could find online.”

“The process of framing a problem is crucial and is rarely driven by discipline. When you look at systemic problems of a global nature, I think it is imperative that students remain open. And the more disciplines you have around the table, the stronger your design solution will be, since each student brings the strengths of their particular discipline to the process.”

VermaNeeta Verma

After both visits, the students communicated via Skype to transform their research into possible solutions and explore design interventions. Snarponis and her partner, Sonu Yadav, worked on the concept of sustainable bedding, presenting a project that would recycle old clothing to create blankets.

“We all developed strong relationships with our design partners,” she said. “We grew very close during our project, and I definitely want to keep checking in with him in the future to see what he’s working on.”

For Takeyra Stewart, a senior design major, the process of designing across cultures led to some surprises. Her team’s project focused on encouraging young adults to learn cooking skills in order to reduce reliance on processed foods.

“I think how we designed was the most interesting part,” she said. “Even when we were working on the color scheme, if I just think of the word ‘food,’ I think about the color green, like vegetables and plants. But my partner in India thinks about the color red, because food is very warm. Just seeing the cultural differences in certain words or ideas was fun.

“And it’s influenced the way I design. When you come back, you just have all these ideas you never would have thought of beforehand.”

Verma Design Class 800Therese Nelligan documenting self-sustainable methods where meals are prepared by the students at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth.

Even when the teams experienced technical difficulties — slower internet speeds in India that made it difficult for them to exchange large files or photos, for example — the students took it in stride.

“That was something we had to work around, but it just makes you think about your design problem more,” Hengesbach said. “I had to come up with other solutions instead of high-res photos. It’s just one of those challenges that as a designer, you make your solution fit around it, and it all works out in the end.”

That kind of thinking is a fundamental component of the design process, Verma said, and one of the reasons the course is valuable for students from all fields. The first cohort included majors in anthropology, psychology, and business, as well as design majors.

“The process of framing a problem is crucial and is rarely driven by discipline,” she said. “When you look at systemic problems of a global nature, I think it is imperative that students remain open. And the more disciplines you have around the table, the stronger your design solution will be, since each student brings the strengths of their particular discipline to the process.”

Verma, who came to Notre Dame in 2016, sees the Social Design course as a natural fit for the University.

“It is completely aligned with Notre Dame’s mission in philosophy, principle, and practice,” she said. “It is an enduring engagement with global communities where students learn through immersion and involvement. I can’t wait to see the impact this will have — not only on the students in the course, but also how this impact translates to the larger community.”

Verma Class All 1000Students and faculty from India’s National Institute of Design and Notre Dame.