Product, service design merits diligent emphasis

October 30, 2010
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The W.K. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research this week released a survey of regional businesses, which covertly measured the importance of design among area manufacturers, and also among pharmaceutical companies, makers of medical instruments, electronics and computers.

The survey is a singular accomplishment in and of itself, and it weights the importance of this region’s legacy as a center of design. That, too, is underscored in importance as businesses are attracted to populations of the creative class — a.k.a. this millennium’s “skilled” work force.

This economic marker will certainly provide ample ammunition in the battle to attract new business to this region.

The survey was funded by Ferris State University Kendall College of Art & Design, on behalf of Design West Michigan. Of the firms surveyed, 75 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their business success relies on the ability to compete on product or service design. One in four of the firms indicated company leaders are very likely to hire a new production or system designer in the next five years, even before hiring information technology or accounting professionals.

Kendall President/Vice Chancellor Oliver Evans told the Business Journal: “Beyond (the significance of the design jobs), the overriding significance of this report is its development of a research methodology that can identify that significance.”

Indeed, it is the only such survey in the U.S., though the British Design Council has seen similar results and coordinates specific design programs as an economic initiative. It is interesting, too, to note that Kendall is now the largest art and design school in Michigan.

According to Design West Michigan Executive Director John Berry, leaders of the U.S. Society for Industrial Design view West Michigan as a “Petri dish” of design. It could be said, then, that even in the absence of manufacturing the residential furniture that provided Grand Rapids its “Furniture City” moniker, what counts is that it has kept and grown its intellectual property. Furthermore, it remains a common business practice.

The survey also showed that those firms ranking design as important were more profitable (the rate of sales growth was 9.93 percent compared to 5.64 percent).

It is important for purposes here to highlight the Business Journal’s 2010 class of 40 Under 40, painstakingly culled from 132 nominations from bosses, partners, nonprofit board members and business community leaders. Their profiles are published in this edition. The Class of 2010 includes 19 women and 21 men. Two hold elected office; 16 are entrepreneurs as young as 22.

The ability of Upjohn to scientifically measure “creative” values provides a first step for New Millennium research and reporting. It is the precursor for long-anticipated changes in federal and state policies, and provides economic development offices with windows on the change and to make change. The Michigan Economic Development Corp, for example, has new information in any transition from a manufacturing model to new economy in its system of values and job creation.

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