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Sunday, 17 February 2013 22:00

Kendall program focuses on ‘holistic’ design thinkers

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DeBruyn DeBruyn

GRAND RAPIDS — When Jeff Reuschel, global design director at Holland-based office furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc., looks to hire new members of his design team, he says he notices many of the candidates make a common mistake.

By skipping right to examples of final product solutions in their work portfolios, they pass over exactly what Reuschel wants to see: the often messy process they used to arrive at that solution.

“They have a tendency of showing me the end product, of showing me the solution, but the last thing I want to see is your solution,” he said. “I can hire any of the top global designers. If you think your solution can look better than theirs, I can assure you it won’t. You cannot design better than the people I hire. What I want to know is that you know how to solve a problem. I need to see the thought process that you went through.

“It’s more important to see what you threw away than to see what you kept.”

That collaborative process of design involving many disciplines to arrive at potential user-driven solutions is at the heart of a fledgling degree program at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids.

Rather than focus narrowly on a single design discipline, the bachelor of fine arts degree in collaborative design, which launched in the fall 2012 semester, focuses on exposing students to a broad range of design, largely in reaction to the needs of industry for well-rounded designers, said Gayle DeBruyn, the leading faculty member for the program and the college’s new chief sustainability officer.

The program features a host of industry professionals as instructors, DeBruyn said.

“The adjunct professors are all practicing industry professionals, and that was very intentional to make those industry connections,” she said. “We pulled from the business community, and not only from design. We have people coming from a strong communications background and others you wouldn’t necessarily consider design-centric.”

One of those industry professionals tapped to teach students is Zoe Carmichael, manager of Zoe Carmichael Consulting. While she comes from a background in academia, Carmichael has also worked with companies and various organizations on communications strategies and speaker training.

Carmichael teaches the dialogue and personality course for the collaborative design program.

“In dialogue and personality, students learn to collaborate with multiple styles and personality types,” Carmichael said. “We facilitate group activities, team building and human-centered design thinking. We have meaningful conversations about personalities and how they affect problem solving.”

That focus on problem solving culminates in a group project selected by the students, who come from different design backgrounds. Last fall, for example, the group tackled the complex issue of the need for more student housing in downtown Grand Rapids. They started working on the project in the second week of class, mixing in research, concept mapping, discussion and collaboration to come up with a presentation that they gave to Kendall administrators and other community leaders.

“(Graduates of the program) are going to understand how to work with a variety of personality types and how to work in a collaborative setting,” Carmichael said. “They will have the ability to ask good questions for meaningful conversations and understand the importance of a successful customer experience. And they’ll really understand dialogue.”

DeBruyn said the college has been very pleased with businesses’ reaction to the program thus far, even as many of the courses are just exiting the pilot phase. Even other programs at Kendall want to get in on some of the BFA program’s courses, she said.

Haworth’s Reuschel said he’s interested in the program because he sees a need for designers who can “think holistically” and work with many people with deep “domain expertise” in very narrow, specialized areas.

“In a world of solving really complicated problems, the more information we have, the more complicated the problem gets and the more diverse domain expertise I need to bring to bear on the problem,” Reuschel said. “We need people to synthesize expertise and ideas from a diverse group and make sense of it. You need people with deep domain expertise because the problem is complicated. But if there is no one to coordinate all that, to be the intersection for all that stuff, each domain will think they’re right. Designers are pre-wired to think broadly and across boundaries.”

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