Design thinking pays

April 9, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Design West Michigan has a special guest slated for its private Designers Gathering in late April: Bill Moggridge, executive director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design.

Moggridge is credited with designing the first laptop computer, the Grid Compass, in 1980. A British industrial and interaction designer, he is co-founder of the Silicon Valley-based design firm IDEO.

Moggridge is part of Design West Michigan’s ongoing speaker series focusing on design and the economy. The topic of his presentation poses a question: “Does Design Pay?”

Indeed it does, according to Moggridge.

Industrial leaders today realize that design pays, and in more ways than just working with designers in the development of new products. The design process that has evolved over recent decades “can be used very effectively for interdisciplinary teams which don’t include designers, or only include one designer out of all the different backgrounds on the team,” said Moggridge.

“Those teams seem to be able to solve very much more challenging problems and be more effective in terms of innovation than the more academic methods that don’t allow the harnessing of the intuition in the way that design does.”

Some of the more challenging examples today include social innovation, or design for sustainability, which Moggridge describes as “these things really too complicated for any individual to manage themselves.”

Of course, design also pays in a more direct way — as it did in the vast sales of well-designed products produced for generations by the furniture industry in West Michigan. It’s no coincidence that the best-known office furniture manufacturers are Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth, according to Moggridge.

“They’ve always been design-led companies, so from Eames forward, you find that the thing that has driven those businesses has been the designs for the product,” he said.

There are now more contemporary examples of the impact of design, such as Apple Computer and even big-box retailer Target.

Minneapolis-based Target Corp. has 1,755 stores in 49 states, as well as a global presence with a headquarters location in India and sourcing offices around the world. It has more than 350,000 employees worldwide. The first Target store opened in 1962 in the Minneapolis suburb of Roseville, Minn., with a focus on convenient shopping for household goods.

Target pioneered the concept of designer partnerships in 1999 when it launched a relationship with renowned designer Michael Graves, and since then, collaborations with names such as Mossimo Giannulli and Sonia Kashuk.

Those designer products in Target are displayed “with the designer visibly identified,” said Moggridge. “That brought in a broader audience, and instead of just being thought of as a place for cheap goods, they were thought of as a place for interesting and high-quality goods, as well.”

The Target customer who comes in to buy bathroom supplies might well leave with a designer lemon squeezer for the kitchen, noted Moggridge.

The Business Journal turned the question around and asked Moggridge if design pays as far as the design professional is concerned. His answer reflects, perhaps, the sharp difference between those who see their work as an art form — and those who do not.

“I think designers think they are badly paid, and probably, in general, that might be true,” he replied. “The great motivating reason there is that they’re in love with designing, so they don’t negotiate very well. They don’t care very much about whether they’re being paid well because they’re so happy to do the job they find interesting.”

He agrees that designers are halfway between artists and those who aren’t artists.

“I think the definition of design is: the people who are good at mixing artistic values with those of problem solving,” said Moggridge.

Moggridge describes his career as having three phases, first as a designer, second as a leader of design teams and third as a communicator. For the first two decades as a designer, he developed his business internationally in 10 countries. With the co-founding of IDEO in 1991, he turned his focus to developing practices for interdisciplinary teams and built client relationships with multinational companies.

Since 2000, he has been a spokesperson for the value of design in everyday life — writing books, producing videos, giving presentations and teaching.

Moggridge was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Awards at the White House in 2009. The award is given in recognition of an individual who has made a profound, long-term contribution to contemporary design practice.

Moggridge founded his design firm in London in 1969, adding a second office in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1979. In 1991, he merged his company with those of David Kelley and Mike Nuttall to form IDEO. Today, IDEO has offices in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, London, Munich and Shanghai.

Moggridge is the author of “Designing Interactions,” published by MIT Press in 2006 and named one of the 10 Best Innovation and Design Books of the year by BusinessWeek magazine.

Cooper-Hewitt has 70 full-time staff members, including curators, conservators and design education specialists, with a 2010 operating budget of $14 million. The museum is 70 percent funded by earned and contributed income. It presents perspectives on the impact of design on daily life through active educational programs, exhibitions and publications.

The museum’s holdings range from the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.) to the present, and total more than 200,000 objects. Founded in 1897, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is housed in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It has been part of the Smithsonian since 1967.

The Design West Michigan Designers Gathering featuring Moggridge is only open to members of DWM, although those members are encouraged to bring a guest, according to DWM executive director John Berry, a senior consultant with Greystone Global.

Design West Michigan promotes design as an economic building block for the region, built on the legacy of West Michigan companies that grew through design innovations. In partnership with The Right Place and led by Zeeland’s Lakeshore Advantage, DWM is evolving as a regional advisory group of more than 50 design professionals representing the area’s major furniture companies, design firms, independent designers, colleges and other employers.

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