Design Council Forming

January 22, 2007
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ZEELAND — Design could be a driving force in helping West Michigan’s economy, bringing innovation together with products and services, said Randy Thelen, president of the economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage.

Thelen and members of the design community in West Michigan and beyond have drafted a proposal for a design council as one of the 12 Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) grant innovations.

Thelen said the proposal seeks $480,000 over two years from the $15 million U.S. Department of Labor grant. The money would be used to form the council and to conduct a gap analysis survey to determine how design services would aid companies in West Michigan.

“The beauty of WIRED is that it provides resources to move conversation to action,” Thelen said.

Following completion of the survey, the council would help connect different companies and markets with the design services that would best enhance their products and services, Thelen said.

“We live in such a complex economic world; one of the few ways to differentiate your company is excellent design,” he said. “We think it can be a really transformative initiative.”

Goals for the council would include creating a cluster of design services, bringing together people from various areas of design, including industrial, graphic, architectural, interior, new digital media, interactive media, fashion and landscape architecture. The council would help that base connect with the proper markets and also would use design to influence K-12 and higher education, bringing the design element into the learning process.

West Michigan has a rich design history, through its furniture industry as well as companies such as Tiara Yacht and Whirlpool, Thelen said, and the design council would be drawing on that history to help make West Michigan a known design center.

“We can elevate West Michigan design and put it on a global map,” he said.

Thelen said many people have shown interest in working with and on the council if it receives funding.

“There is great talent here, energized talent that wants to enhance and move our economy forward,” he said.

John Berry, a senior consultant with Greystone Global and part of the committee behind the council proposal, said he believes the council has precedence-setting potential.

“There always has been a certain design consciousness in West Michigan, certainly with the furniture companies, Wolverine (World Wide) and others, but there’s never been a collective effort to utilize all that design can do as an economic building block for West Michigan,” he said. “The excitement here is that we, as a region, have a leg up in being able to capitalize on what design can bring to business. In a changing economy, creative-idea, innovative solutions to ever-changing needs require a different kind of thinking than we’ve had in the past.”

Berry said the design council would give the region better access to the design tools needed to be competitive.

“The term design means so many different things to so many different people, and the role or the goal of the council is to clarify design, what it is, what it can do, and how it can help grow the economy of West Michigan,” he said.

It would also help prepare the next generation of workers by involving design in education, Berry said.

“Another aspect of what the council will help do — and this is long-term thinking, which I think is wonderful — is to help K-12 and higher education programs to recognize and be able to have content to bring design into the education system,” he said.

Rather than just teaching design, Berry said including design in the curriculum would help students learn creative problem-solving and the creative process that goes with good design.

“If the council is able to demonstrate not only the ‘why’ but some of the ‘how’ to do that — that gets to be pretty exciting stuff,” he said.

Thelen said the funding for the council is currently being reviewed and will go before the WIRED board in February; a decision will be made no later than March.    

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