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Monday, 07 May 2012 09:11

Design Matters Q&A: Stephanie Elhart

Written by  Kym Reinstadler
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Design Matters Q&A: Stephanie Elhart PHOTO: Adam Bird
Stephanie Elhart is director of communications at NewNorth Center for Design in Business, a nonprofit business and educational organization in Holland. The center offers classes of varying lengths. Twenty percent of participants are designers. The rest want to learn to think like designers to launch new companies or reinvigorate old ones. Elhart, who earned a degree in graphic design from the University of Michigan, worked in marketing, communication and business development services — including at Johnson Controls Inc. and fuel-D — before helping launch NewNorth in 2009. She sees this role as the synthesis of all her prior experiences.


What’s NewNorth’s mission?

Everyone’s brain has two lobes. The left side is analytical. The right is creative/intuitive. Business emphasizes developing the analytical side, and we get that. But we recognize a need to cultivate the creative capabilities, too. Our classes are heavy on hands-on visualization exercises that develop the right side. We’re not trying to create more designers. We’re trying to create a culture that welcomes design thinking.

Why teach creativity in groups?

So many feel like they’re pushing a noodle up the hill. So much more happens after you bring together people who are thinking the same way.

How important is innovation?

Innovation is a differientiator. Companies that survived the downturn did so by buckling down, cutting costs and pushing staff to do more with less. Now I believe we’re starting to see the economy pick up. Look around and you see that people are tired. Their portfolios look tired, too. Global competition is really hard. Any of us can find what we want anywhere in the world. What you’re offering has to be different. And because what you have can be duplicated, you have to keep innovating. Creating a culture of innovation, increasing chances of survival and growth tenfold.

NewNorth launched when our economy was at a low point. Wasn’t that difficult?

That was the time we were needed most. Our founders didn’t like what was happening in our region. Industry was having trouble, especially automotive. There were companies that had to do something because margins weren’t what they used to be. We saw companies close and people leave the state. Our community was hurting and it was tough to be part of. Fortunately, a lot of creative talent is still here. We have top automotive, furniture and medical designers. And there’s a shared vision of growing our creative capacity.

Is it hard to convince companies and organizations emerging from survival mode to spend time and money on innovation?

Investment doesn’t have to be huge and can be imbedded with current staff. Translating ideas into products or services, and then sales, takes time. Growth can be monumental, but usually it’s incremental. A lot can happen before there’s something to measure, but measuring is what we do.

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