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Northwestern University

Exploring the Heart of Design

Students immerse themselves in Chicago design culture in new Segal class

Students visited Horween Leather as part of Segal's new Chicago Design Immersion class. Photo credit: Horween Leather staff

Although Chicago is just 15 miles south of the Evanston campus, Dexter Gormley had barely explored the city during his four years as a Northwestern student. 

That changed this fall when he enrolled in DSGN 395: Chicago Design Immersion, a new Segal Design Institute course that gives students a behind-the-scenes look into the heart of the city’s design community.  

Inspired by the Bay Area Immersion program and co-taught by Segal faculty members Pam Daniels and Hemmant Jha, the course marks a departure from campus-based classes, offering a hands-on exploration of Chicago’s vibrant design story and its makers. 

Daniels, who teaches in San Francisco as well as Evanston, conceptualized the course as a response to the pandemic, providing a much-needed antidote to the fatigue of online learning. 

“It was the un-Zoom-ist thing I could think of,” Daniels said.  

In week six, students explored the intersection of design and public impact at Chicago Design Museum. Photo credit: Pam Daniels

The course investigates the intersections between design and various industries, while encouraging students to engage with the local design community through weekly visits to Chicago-area makerspaces, social-impact design firms, manufacturers, museums, cultural centers, and innovation hubs.   

Both Daniels and Jha are practicing designers as well as educators, and they longed to share their diverse experiences in the city with the next generation of designers. 

In week five, the cohort focused on “design x craft” and traveled to Horween Leather, one of the oldest tanneries in the US. During the trip, students received samples and off-cuts of leather to take home and experiment with in their designs.   

In week nine, students visited Honest Structures, where Jha is a principal, as part of their exploration of design and manufacturing. Photo credit: Hemmant Jha

For Gormley, a senior majoring in neuroscience and pursuing the Segal Design Certificate, having a front-row seat to local designers’ work challenged him to incorporate new materials into his own design process. 

“I like building physical things, so seeing tangible examples each week of how designers think about and use materials helped me think differently about the types of materials I can use in my projects, beyond what we have available at the shop,” Gormley said. 

Jha, reflecting on the structure of the class, emphasized the importance of expanding students' perspectives beyond the classroom.  
“In the classroom it’s easy to forget that we’re part of a much larger world,” Jha said. “It’s important for students to have as many kinds of real-world experiences as possible during this formative time. There’s so much to learn from being out there.” 

Students visited the Art Institute of Chicago during week eleven, an exploration of design and art. Photo credit: Pam Daniels

The course involved pre-class readings followed by in-depth discussions during the bus commute from Evanston to Chicago, creating an environment for rich conversations and insights. Jha noted that students found the journey through Chicago to be an inspirational exploration of design in the real world. 

Integral to the success of DSGN 396 were shop skills taught by Segal’s prototyping specialists who guided students in hands-on fabrication. In particular, Bob Taglia and Eric Capper received special shoutouts from students as being integral to the success of their projects. The class culminated in a design showcase on December 4 featuring tangible artifacts representing what students learned through the immersive experiences offered in the course. 

Julia Azevedo created a Chicago skyline that reflected her experience in the class. Photo credit: Pam Daniels

Julia Azevedo, a senior majoring in industrial engineering and art history, created a Chicago skyline where each building incorporated a pattern inspired by materials and designs seen during various site visits. 

“We got to see a bunch of different paths you can take with design every single week,” Azevedo said. “That was a major reason I wanted to take the class, and it really lived up to that promise.” 

“I’m so proud of the students for doing bold, brave things,” Daniels said. “I hope they’re delighted with what they created.” 

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