Design West Sees Its Plan Taking Shape

January 21, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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ZEELAND — Design West Michigan is fine tuning and will soon launch some key initiatives intended to make design more of a driving force in the West Michigan economy.

DWM spokesman John Berry said the group will meet in late January to develop plans for a “Design Thinking Institute” and “Design Swat Teams” to help West Michigan businesses or organizations in critical situations where design can play a pivotal role.

DWM descended from the design council organized about a year ago by the Zeeland economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage as one of the 12 Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development grant projects.

Berry, a senior consultant with industrial design firm Greystone Global, said the Design Thinking Institute will not be like a four-year college but rather like a “two-day experience” that would amount to “design for non-designers” by providing managers, local business people and others with “exposure to design thinking,” which is “quite different from linear thinking.”

“Faculty” could include local design professionals, along with others from outside the region, with national reputations, he suggested. Case studies would provide exposure to experiences and projects, as well as organizations that have done very well with this kind of thinking.

The group is also looking at developing multi-disciplinary design “SWAT teams,” said Berry. Team membership, probably three to five people, might include an architect, industrial designer, interior designer, graphic designer, packing designer or other design-related profession. In some circumstances, a team might be sent to an organization that feels it is in trouble and has need for help, or perhaps sent to help individuals who have a new idea that has not yet been converted into a new company, “or a new product struggling in its evolution,” he said.

Over a two-day session, the SWAT team would develop a series of ideas and solutions that it would turn over to its host for implementation, explained Berry.

When the 40 or so members of Design West Michigan first broached the idea of Design SWAT Teams, said Berry, there was concern raised about the possibility of a SWAT team giving away free professional design assistance that could ultimately generate a great deal of money for the company or individuals getting the help. The solution is a required prior agreement, in which the beneficiary of the help would pay a percentage of any increased revenue due to the help into a pool that would be used to fund design-based education programs for K-12 students in the West Michigan region.

He mentioned that the idea to involve K-12 education was particularly interesting to one advisor to DWM, who is curator of design at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Berry said details will be worked out by DWM members on how individuals or organizations can apply for SWAT team help, keeping in mind that the Design SWAT Teams would naturally be limited in the number of people or organizations it could help. The group will also have to determine just what would be the percentage of any increased revenue the beneficiary would have to pay into the education pool.

A third endeavor by DWM will be an annual recognition program to identify good design and its economic benefit to the region, said Berry. Most design-award programs around the country, he said, are juried by other designers, based on aesthetic or functional issues.

“What we are advocating is that the evaluation of design applied in the region ought to be evaluated on the economic benefits it brings to the region. That’s a different twist,” he said.

Those measurements would include revenue figures and the number of people throughout West Michigan who benefit, he added.

Berry said there is a tradition of good designers working in West Michigan, as evidenced over the years by companies such as Steelcase Inc., Haworth Inc., Herman Miller Inc., Gentex Corp., Wolverine World Wide Inc. and others. But there are others not so well known.

“Design is an integral part of our economy” in West Michigan, said Berry, but some “amazing little companies around here” that have grown through a strong design focus aren’t even on the public radar. He said the DWM group will be identifying some of those companies in the near future.

Another source of information used by the DWM is the United Kingdom Design Council, which has compiled extensive research on how design has proven very helpful to the economic growth of Great Britain.

Two years ago, the seven-county West Michigan region was one of 13 U.S. regions to receive federal funding for economic development under the federal WIRED initiative. The U.S. Department of Labor granted $15 million to the West Michigan region, of which $150,000 was designated for the design innovation project over two years.

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