Designing An Economic Future

June 30, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — From the toothbrush that scrubs teeth in the morning to the bed linens that cover up the body at night, design is infused into daily life much like air: It is everywhere and unavoidable.

And while the importance of design as it relates to products is generally understood, what is often overlooked is how design relates to economic development and problem solving.

“Design thinking is really problem solving, and if you’re going beyond the question of ‘Is the problem simply a product that we need to think up, or is the problem really something in terms of new approaches we need to make, to how we think about our economy and how we think about economic development,’” said Dr. Oliver Evans, president of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.

“I think what Design West Michigan is trying to provide is a way to go beyond seeing design as just something that results in a product, but really results in a way of thinking about challenges that are faced and how we can go about to solve those.”

Design West Michigan was originally funded through the InnovationWorks/WIRED grant with the intention of seeking to use design as an economic building block for the West Michigan region as well as provide education.

“I think what makes Design West Michigan unique, and what’s attracting the attention of people like Daniel Pink (author of “A Whole New Mind”), is that people usually talk about design in terms of innovation and in terms of a response to competition and so on,” said Evans. “But this is the one instance I know of where there has been a real attempt to tie the attention to design to economic development and to bring an educational institution into it also.”

Design West Michigan, led by John Berry, a consultant with Greystone Global, is also striving to nationally brand West Michigan as design centric.

The organization held its first meeting last week to gather designers from the wide spectrum of design professions.

“It was all around the kind of dialogue of ‘We need a creative community, this is wonderful, I’m really glad we’re doing what we’re doing, how can we help,” said Berry. “It was really a rollicking good time.”

Evans believes that West Michigan is well suited for the purposes of Design West Michigan because of the diversity and history of its design professions.

“Its one of the places in the United States you can really say has had a tremendous and rich design history — often associated with the contract furniture industry, but before that with residential furniture — but also with graphic design, advertising, and so on,” said Evans.

Randy Thelen, president of Lakeshore Advantage, the economic development organization along the lakeshore that helped launch Design West Michigan, expanded on the region’s design history.

“The roots go back to the craft nature of work that’s been done in West Michigan, going back to the home furnishing days, the yacht building days, and then translating into the now office furniture and automotive days. We have a base of companies that have relied heavily on design as a differentiator, and that’s help build this really talented cluster of companies and individuals who found West Michigan to be a great place to stay and grow.”

The June 23 meeting held at Haworth’s new corporate headquarters building in Holland gathered people from an array of professions, but who all are connected through “design thinking,” Berry said.

“Last night was the first time that there had been a cross-discipline gathering — and I use that term purposefully — of the designers in West Michigan who represent all the different design disciplines.”

Berry went on to list a number of design disciplines including industrial design, graphic design, architecture, interior design, landscape, fashion, digital, interactive media and others.

“When you start thinking about what design means, which is part of what Design West Michigan is about, and you realize it’s not only a noun, a verb, but also a process, and there are X number of designed degrees given by college and universities, you really end up with quite a list.”

Berry hopes the organization will prompt a better understanding of the link between design, business and economic issues. The event brought designers from companies which are typically rivals and united them to help define design’s role in the West Michigan economy.

“If you’re sharing an interest in both raising a bar and generating a creative community, they’re all together on it,” said Berry.

“When I first started this whole effort, I got in touch with the heads of design of all of them (Haworth, Herman Miller, Steelcase) and said, ‘What do you think about this?’ Every one of them said, ‘Right there. Anything that can help raise the recognition that this is a more creative environment is helpful to us. It’s helpful to attract employees that we want to have here. It’s helpful to attract designers.’ … It’s just supportive of what we all believe.”

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