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Sunday, 01 February 2015 22:00

Michigan Design Council to promote industrial design prowess

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The state’s economic development organization wants to better promote Michigan’s long-established industrial design cluster as it seeks to attract new corporate investment in the state.

To do so, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) and a Detroit-area design firm have collaborated to create the new Michigan Design Council, which was announced as part of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in mid-January. The inclusive, statewide group aims to promote and grow Michigan’s existing design talent base and aid in attracting new corporate research and design centers to locate in the state.

However, the announcement of the Design Council’s creation came as a surprise to many established design industry leaders in West Michigan.

Only two of the nine current members of the council have operations in West Michigan. None of the office furniture companies, for example, are represented.

“It was a surprise,” said John Berry, the director of design thinking at Grand Valley State University and the former executive director of the 1,150-member Design West Michigan. “Part of me is very happy that there has been (a Design Council) established, but the other part of me is very disappointed that West Michigan wasn’t involved in concepting the evolution of, or appearing on the council.”

From West Michigan, only Benton Harbor-based Whirlpool Corp. and Newell Rubbermaid Inc. — a global Atlanta-based consumer products company with a design center in Kalamazoo — have representation on the Design Council.

Other founding members represent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors, Continental Automotive Systems Inc., University of Michigan, College for Creative Studies and Industrial Designers Society of America.

The Design Council plans to cap the size of the group at a dozen members who each represent a broad sampling of key Michigan industries that lean heavily on industrial design, said Jeff DeBoer, owner and vice president of Sundberg-Ferar Inc., the Walled Lake-based design firm that’s heading up the council’s leadership.

Sundberg-Ferar President Curt Bailey and Research Manager Michelle Zurowick also hold seats on the council.

In response to the surprise West Michigan-based designers had about the announcement, DeBoer was quick to note that the Design Council is far from finished in filling out its ranks. The group is actively seeking members from West Michigan’s furniture industry and from Kalamazoo-based medical device manufacturer Stryker Corp., he said.

“(The announcement) probably looked like it was spur-of-the-moment,” DeBoer said. “We weren’t trying to be secretive, but we didn’t want to prematurely announce it before it all came together if it didn’t gel.”

The only people who knew about the Design Council’s announcement at NAIAS were the people invited to serve on the group’s board, DeBoer said.

“It was very fortuitous and we just took advantage of it,” he said of the announcement’s timing. “Everyone found out at the same time.”


Organizers say the purpose of the Michigan Design Council is to grow the state’s already large pool of industrial designers, which is the largest in the country, DeBoer said.

There were 4,020 industrial designers employed in the state as of May 2013, representing 14 percent of industrial designers nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Michigan’s concentration of designers is 4.67 times the national average. California comes in second with 3,660 industrial designers.

“We’re talking about the design professions that drive our manufacturing engine — we aren’t talking about the fine arts,” DeBoer said. “The reality is that people don’t know what you’re talking about when you say industrial design (because) it doesn’t express the breadth of what goes on in that field.”

To grow the pool further, the Michigan Design Council hopes to work with its higher education partners to encourage artistically talented college students to pursue industrial and product design as a viable career path, said Patrick Schiavone, vice president of global consumer design at appliance maker Whirlpool.

“I’m always looking for designers in this job,” Schiavone said. “Artists don’t really understand that there is something else out there for them. A lot of industrial designers make the same amount as an engineer. We’re missing a lot of kids.”

Beyond talent development, the Design Council’s goals are to market the state’s existing design talent to attract more corporate research and design centers or design studios to the state, giving Michigan credence as an “R&D center instead of only as a (manufacturing) center,” Schiavone said.

“We’re trying to market the fact that Michigan is the industrial design center of the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not turning it into one because it already is. To be a product development powerhouse and stay competitive, you have to embrace industrial design as (much) as engineering.”

Michigan has talked about its strength in industrial design before, but the creation of the statewide Design Council spawned from an idea at the state’s regional economic development organizations, said Tim Mroz, vice president of communications and marketing for The Right Place Inc.

The Grand Rapids-based regional economic development group lists commercial design as one of its key pillars to strategic growth for West Michigan.

“It’s one thing for West Michigan and other areas to have regional-based initiatives for themselves, but the real strength and power in demonstrating the expertise we have as a state will only happen in a statewide initiative,” Mroz said. “This council is the first step in that direction.”


Sundberg-Ferar has spent the last eight months working with the MEDC and other government officials to develop a strategy to coincide with Gov. Rick Snyder’s strategic plan for the state, DeBoer said. During that period, the group researched other design centers across the country and conducted “rigorous” interviews with design leaders outside of the state.

In the coming year, the Design Council plans to create a Michigan Design Prize event that’s “loosely modeled after Art Prize” as it seeks to raise awareness about Michigan’s industrial design prowess and attract talent to the state, DeBoer said.

The group also plans to launch District 313, a “design zone” in Detroit devoted to collaborative design. The council plans to spin off a similar District 616 that will operate in West Michigan, DeBoer said.

While the Design Council is still very much in its infancy, having conducted only one of its four annual meetings thus far, Berry questions the effectiveness of having a for-profit entity spearhead a multi-industry statewide initiative.

“I have been involved in a lot of design-based activities and those efforts are best accomplished when there is a common share of interests which doesn’t get tied specifically to a profit entity,” Berry said. “But maybe this is a new way to establish a common goal.”

DeBoer countered that creating the Design Council with for-profit leadership was an intentional step.

“We have a reputation for getting things done,” he said. “I don’t want to besmirch people in government, but when everyone in the government was already engaged with something else, they thought we were best-suited to jump on it fast.”

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