Guest Column

Michigan needs to cultivate its design side

June 6, 2014
| By Lou Glazer |
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Upjohn Institute economist George Erickcek said in a recent interview, “If you ask me, ‘Do you think a designer is more important than an engineer?' The answer is yes.”

In a recent Bridge Magazine column, Meijer Co-CEO Mark Murray and ArtServe Michigan President and CEO Jennifer H. Goulet wrote: “The creative sector must be in our mindset as we develop economic priorities and policies at state, regional and local levels to maximize growth in the creative industries — for profit and nonprofit. It is a key to accelerating momentum in our state’s economy.”

Murray and Goulet cite data from the 2014 Creative State Michigan report that the creative industries in Michigan — architecture, design, advertising, publishing/printing and film/audiovisual/broadcasting — account for nearly $3.6 billion statewide in total wages, almost 75,000 Michigan workers and almost 10,000 businesses.

They continue: “These figures don’t count all the design work that goes on inside Detroit’s auto industry or Grand Rapids’ office furniture industry. Neither of those two great sectors survives without creative skills, talent and systems where design is integral. The same can be said for many other great Michigan businesses.”

This is the broader point Erickcek is making in his assertion about the primacy of design over engineering. Increasingly, design is what sells products.

Design almost certainly will be an important engine of future economic success, and that’s particularly true in West Michigan and metro Detroit. Although it never ends up on the industries of the future or hot job lists, design is likely to be both. In part, that’s because of growing consumer demand for well designed products (something that gives products and enterprises a competitive edge), but also because it is hard to automate.

This is consistent with the ideas in Daniel Pink’s must-read book “A Whole New Mind.” It’s the best book I have read on the future of jobs. Pink entitles one of the book’s sections “Design means business/ business means design.” Worth reading!

Pink argues persuasively that our economy is increasingly going to demand right brain, rather than left brain,  jobs. Pink helps us understand that globalization and technology are fundamentally changing the work that will be done in America. It’s not just low-skill work that can be automated or outsourced, but also lots of high skill, high paying, rule driven and routine work. New good paying jobs increasingly will go to people who are creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.

Murray and Goulet ask: “Are we doing all we can to train and cultivate our future talent?”

It’s clear the answer is no. It’s starting with the messages we are constantly sending to our kids about future jobs. The new conventional — but wrong — wisdom is that future jobs are going to be concentrated in science, technology, engineering, math and in the skilled trades — particularly in manufacturing. They’re also hearing that if you are not headed into one of those career areas, you are likely going to have a hard time finding a job, and that even if you get a college degree, you will likely face great difficulty paying off student loans.

To make matters worse, this “conventional wisdom” is increasingly driving state policy. The critical skills list Lansing policy makers included in the 2012 higher education funding bill includes no arts and design occupations. With the exception of architecture (interestingly, the professional occupation with the highest current unemployment rate), every occupation on the list is left-brain dominant.

And then there are the otherwise valuable new high school graduation requirements. Those, too, are left-brain dominant. Requiring one arts course and eight in math and science does not reflect the likely skills needed by the economy going forward.

All of this needs to change. The future success of our kids and the Michigan economy require us to understand the growing importance of design and, more broadly, right-brain skills.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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