Equitable by Design: Megan Robalewski ’20 Explores How Design Can Better Serve Humanity

By Samantha Quach ’23

For Megan Robalewski ’20, good design begins with confronting the people, ideas, and agendas that the design is serving. This concept, which originated in the field of human-centered design (HCD), is what led her to New York this past summer, where she compiled research on New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) (an opportunity made possible with Scripps’ Johnson Research Award). After spending the summer above- and underground at NYCTA, Robalewski saw something that she felt was in stark contrast to the principles of human-centered design: anti-fare evasion policies that seemed to take precedent over the accessibility of the stations’ turnstiles, which she sees as a system intentionally designed to put profits over accessibility.

“With origins in different liberal arts disciplines, HCD bridges the analysis of language, social relationships, graphic design, urban anthropology, and other human factors, together as one,” explains Robalewski. Put another way, HCD is about solving problems—like subway fare evasion—by focusing on the needs, contexts, behaviors, and emotions of all the people that the solutions will serve. If somebody who uses a wheelchair can’t get through the tight security of a turnstile, it’s not human-centered design.

This spring, Robalewski will be the first person from Scripps and The Claremont Colleges to graduate with a degree in human-centered design through Scripps’ self-designed major route. As an HCD major, she spends much of her time at The Hive, formally known as the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity, where she takes interdisciplinary courses like Building Los Angeles. The Hive also offers workshops such as screen printing and metalsmithing; projects like EnviroLab Asia and Sparkathon; and lectures on topics such as “Design and the Environment” and “Design as a Tool for Social Justice.”

One of The Hive’s full-semester courses is its popular human-centered design course led by Fred Leichter, executive director of The Hive and Robalewski’s academic advisor. “The human-centered design class that I teach involves students from all five colleges working together on big, ambiguous, real-world problems, such as redesigning the disaster preparedness experience for marginalized communities,” says Leichter.

Kareem Collie, the director of design and creativity at The Hive, adds that The Hive is “a hub for collaboration among five liberal arts schools that have very different disciplines and cultures, allowing them to come together to create and collide ideas together.”

Post Scripps, Robalewski is interested in continuing her exploration of the relationship between people, cities, and nature. She believes that these relationships can be enhanced through good urban landscaping and planning.

“My life goal is to work for an eco-friendly company that uses HCD in creating sustainable products,” says Robalewski. “With interdisciplinary, humanities roots, human-centered design holds the potential to help make the world more accessible and equitable.”