Inside Track: A vision for Grand Rapids
Well Design Studio partner Tyler Doornbos finds inspiration to improve city’s culture after living on West Coast.
When Tyler Doornbos moved back to Michigan, he had a vision in his head about what an awesome city Grand Rapids could be. Now as managing partner at the community-focused Well Design Studio, the web wizard and recovering punk rocker is offering tools for nonprofits and small businesses to succeed online, as well.
Doornbos started making his own websites in the 1990s when the web was young, he said. When he was 16, he started a record label for various punk rock bands and started organizing shows around Grand Rapids.
Doornbos spoke fondly of the days when Jolly Pumpkin in Grand Rapids still was a coffee shop named Arco Iris. The building was a dilapidated diner before it was bought by an “old hippie named Mickey,” he said.
“Mickey bought it, and he didn’t really do anything to it,” Doornbos said. “All he did was add a couple airpots of coffee and stopped serving food and then you could do shows there, so for a kid like me … it was one of the only places in town that would let me organize punk shows.”
Doornbos and his friends would recruit both local and mainstream bands from all over Michigan and the Midwest to come and play at Arco Iris. Through his punk rock hobby, he was able to teach himself basic graphic and web design. Although he’d gotten out of the punk rock scene when he went to college, he still plays with his friends occasionally.
As a completely self-taught web developer, Doornbos has no formal education in the field. He studied business and the environment at Grand Valley State University, the rough equivalent of a sustainable business degree, which GVSU did not yet offer.
Although his formal college education factors practically nothing into his current work, Doornbos still is a proponent of a liberal arts education, arguing it exposed him to things he otherwise wouldn’t have considered and taught him how to think critically.
A series of serendipitous events at GVSU, however, did put Doornbos on the path to better develop his web skills. Doornbos took an internship program that required him to learn how to use the university’s website management system. For him, the task was easy, and while building another website just out of boredom, an instructor noticed his work and hired him to be a part of the Grand Valley web team.
“They taught me an enormous amount,” Doornbos said. “I thought I knew how to make websites before, but they really taught me what it was.”
After about a year working for GVSU, Doornbos picked up some freelance clients and eventually realized it paid better than his various college jobs and committed to it full time. The first website he was paid for was for a friend who was part of the Grand String Quartet. The group later played at Doornbos’ wedding.
“It felt like an unbelievable amount of money for doing that amount of work,” Doornbos said. “It was great for me. It was a great deal for them looking back on it. I maintained that website for the (next) 11 years until they disbanded.”
When Doornbos graduated from GVSU in 2006, he married his wife, Liz, who was a nurse with a stable job, which allowed him to focus on his web design career.
Doornbos’s wife eventually told him to get a “real job,” he said, which led him to work for Meijer’s web team. By 2008, he and Liz, who was a travel nurse, left Grand Rapids, traveling across the country before landing in Portland, Oregon.
While living in Portland, Doornbos still kept his Michigan clients because the local market, he said, was saturated with web developers.
“Every job you went for had 100 designer developers going for it. It’s just nuts,” Doornbos said. “Granted, lovely place to live.”
He said the craft beer scene in Portland in 2008-09 was unbelievable. From their loft in Portland’s Pearl District, they were within two blocks of Rogue Brewery and three blocks of Deschutes Brewery, as well as countless microbreweries in town.
“It was one of those places where it really made you see when you have a city that really focuses on creating remarkable businesses and is full of people with tons of creative energy, Portland was one of those places where I was like, ‘Oh this is what it should look like,’” he said.
Doornbos was inspired to return to Grand Rapids though because his brother, who was 7 years old at the time, had moved with their parents from Virginia back to Michigan around the same time Doornbos and his wife left.
Coming home with a fresh perspective, Doornbos said he believed Grand Rapids, not yet the city it is today, could be as fun and dynamic as Portland.
“I’d been here my whole life, and it was a really boring place,” Doornbos said. “I went to Portland … once a month they did this thing called Last Thursdays, and it was this bananas, free-for-all, anarchistic carnival on the main street … they had a DJ named Spinnaface, and he literally had a spinning hubcap on his face, and he would play on the street all night. Every bar had live music.”
Portland in the aughts also was very LGBTQ-friendly compared to the rest of the country, and Doornbos remembered how surprised he was just seeing two men holding hands in public.
“I was like, that’s what we need. You need that openness to just be weird and fun and crazy, and we had been missing that,” he said. “Grand Rapids has evolved a ton since I came home.”
When Doornbos came back from Portland, he tried to insert himself into the groups of people who wanted to improve the culture and the built environment of Grand Rapids. Biking was important to him, so he started advocating for cycling infrastructure.
Doornbos met his friend and future business partner Josh Leffingwell while complaining about bike lanes on Twitter. While the two didn’t know each other prior, they linked up ideologically about the lack of safe bike infrastructure in the city.
“Josh said, ‘I agree with that, and we should grab a beer,’” Doornbos said. “So, we did, we clicked and became friends.”
A previous Business Journal report noted Doornbos and Leffingwell got started designing novelty T-shirts to advocate for a bike-friendly Grand Rapids. Doornbos added the two of them worked with the city to create the guidelines for bike parking.
The two also were the creators of the Salon – Grand Rapids speaker series, which Doornbos lamented outgrew itself and dissolved into a “dumpster fire” of a Facebook page.
Doornbos and Leffingwell founded Well Design Studio in 2015 and moved into its current home at 705 W. Fulton St. in March 2019, but Doornbos said the studio already is running out of space.
Well Design Studio is not short on work, either. Recently, the group, in partnership with the city and Ingalls Pictures, launched “Don’t Play Around,” a campaign to raise awareness for parents about lead in their homes.
Well Design also has been pushing its Featherlight product. The platform is a cash flow-friendly website builder developed in-house for clients to be able to afford a quality website.
“We can impact small businesses and nonprofits by doing these Featherlight sites and giving them work that otherwise would be really hard to afford,” Doornbos said.
Well Design recently partnered with Start Garden to offer a free Featherlight website to the winner of 5x5 each month, as well as discounts to everyone involved in 5x5.