Upjohn Institute to research design’s importance

February 24, 2009
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Kendall College of Art and Design and Design West Michigan recently teamed up with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. The mission? To deduce the impact of design on businesses and their products, services and processes — a mission that George Erickcek, senior regional analyst for the Upjohn Institute, says is unique.

“The focus of the research effort is to try and tease out of the data the importance of design in the success of area firms,” says Erickcek. “To me this is extremely important, because as we are very much aware West Michigan cannot compete on price alone.”

Erickcek added that the marketplace is increasingly changing, citing the fact that Chinese auto sales had exceeded those in the U.S. in January. With the marketplace finding strong ground in other countries, more routine manufacturing will move offshore to meet the growing markets. Erickcek believes design and innovation are key if manufacturing companies are to survive in West Michigan and keep the “high value added” manufacturing in-state.

“What we’re hoping to do with this study — which is, as far as I know, a brand new approach — with the assistance of these firms that volunteered to be case studies is to try and show the importance of design of not only goods but services, as well,” he said.

“The end product, we hope, may show enough evidence that other firms will take design more seriously in their production of their goods and services.”

The research will take place over nine months and make use of 10 case studies from firms already incorporating design into their activities. The firms are being identified and recruited by Design West Michigan, directed by John Berry.

Design West Michigan is an organization that was originally funded through the InnovationWorks/WIRED grant to promote use design as an economic building block for the West Michigan region as well as provide education for design thinking.

“We are looking forward to participating with the Upjohn Institute with input from our members’ experiences as well as incorporating the final outcome into our work within the regional and national design communities,” said Berry.

Erickcek said he is particularly excited about this research because it leans a little more on the abstract and puts meaning behind the numbers.

“For the Upjohn Institute, we’re number crunchers. We think we add value by interpreting hard numbers that we can then analyze. This one is stepping beyond that. We’re working closely with Design West Michigan, first of all to be able to ask the right questions and be able get information that we can then use to verify whether or not design makes a difference,” said Erickcek.

“To me this is one of the more challenging projects Upjohn has taken in quite some time, because it does go beyond just looking at the numbers.”

Kendall College of Art and Design will be collaborating with Upjohn, but will also be contributing through the support it gives to DWM.

“We are very aware that design is more than simply an aesthetic, but is an approach to thinking and an approach to solving issues. We believe, as Design West Michigan believes, that it is an extremely important part of what any organization should try to do and incorporate,” said Kendall president Dr. Oliver Evans.

“The problem is there’s never been really any research to indicate does this make a difference. Now, if it’s a company that is product-based, then there’s research on whether or not the product sells. If you’re looking at something where you’re trying to bring design thinking to bear on a process in a company or a nonprofit organization or any organization, does it make a difference and can you measure that difference? We think it’s a critically important question.”

Evans hopes that the research will give some insight into how the design process can strengthen businesses and serve as an economic building block for the region. “Is there a way we can show that (design) not only makes it better for the person having the experience, but can you also show that it contributes to the bottom line?”

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