“I was missing this sense of working with and for people, and not for myself,” Abril Vela, a senior in the School of Information, says on founding University of Michigan’s first Design for America design studio.
Vela came to UM with an interest in tech and social entrepreneurship, finding a natural home in the School of Information where she could focus on front facing, human oriented design. Vela spent her first two years at school here “very entrenched in the entrepreneurial world” of U of M. She liked being involved in the process of building out products with other students, but missed having a social component to the design work she was doing. Vela also wanted to find a space where students didn’t have to come in with “a big, grand, idea already thought of,” but rather where they could be “supported by a team” to learn the fundamentals of socially engaged design. Seeing a need for this kind of opportunity on campus, Vela brought Design for America to U of M last year, creating a space for students to learn about design and use it to impact community.
The student project team became an official Design for America design studio this year and is currently working with Avalon Housing to improve conditions for people experiencing homelessness
in Ann Arbor. “We’re trying to create more accessible furniture and a living environment for the elderly and medically declining residents” of a residence that’s about a mile away from campus, Vela explains. The students working on the project realized that the couches at the residency weren’t being used at all, “they’ll sit on the sides of the couches, because they’re high enough. But the part where you’re supposed to sit— no one sits in them.” The challenge is creating a product that will keep both users happy— the residents who need accessibility, and the staff who worry about keeping the couches clean. Vela remarks that, “It’s a simple project, but it will ideally improve the community inside the household by giving them an additional space.”
Vela plans to use her design experience after graduating in the realm of education. For the past two years, she’s been working for the Chicago Public School District, doing program development for their computer science department. This kind of work is a marriage of socially engaged design concepts and her passion for “equity and accessibility in the world of tech.” Vela says that this has been a different way of applying socially engaged design than with Design for America. She says that she’ll always use this design thinking mindset, “modifying the tactics and strategies” as she goes. Vela hasn’t made a final decision as to where she’ll be working next year, but is confident that it will be in the field of education. She says “I’m excited about a lot of things, but very indecisive.”