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Sunday, 27 September 2015 19:56

West Michigan designers promote state as hub for innovation and design

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Newell Rubbermaid opened its design center at the Business Technology and Research Park on Western Michigan University’s campus in Kalamazoo to tap into the pool of industrial designers in the region. Newell Rubbermaid opened its design center at the Business Technology and Research Park on Western Michigan University’s campus in Kalamazoo to tap into the pool of industrial designers in the region. COURTESY PHOTO

Companies who get their products produced in Michigan only use a portion of the state’s highly skilled advanced manufacturing resources.

That’s the message from design professionals across the state who say companies that have their products designed elsewhere before moving production to Michigan have missed out on the state’s abundant research and design capabilities.

“No longer can we say that West Michigan is just about making stuff — that’s only part of the equation,” said Nate Young, vice president of global innovation at Newell Rubbermaid Inc.’s design center in Kalamazoo. “I think there’s a whole other level of mastery coming around making things. We don’t want companies buying (design services) then have them come to Michigan just to make stuff.”

Because designers are taught to constantly anticipate the needs of their consumers, design remains essential to the planning, development and production stages of an advanced manufacturing product, Young said. In addition, Michigan’s robust legacy in automotive, furniture and consumer product design puts designers in an ideal position to serve future advanced manufacturing needs.

“There’s nothing that gets developed — whether you’re in manufacturing or in a consumer-facing business — that doesn’t get designed,” Young said. “What you find is that even selling a tooling press, it still has to look well-designed, well-intentioned, something that actually gets the user excited to some degree.

“It’s design’s responsibility to go out there and anticipate consumer needs, so by the time they do want it, we have it.”


To help promote Michigan’s research and design prowess to companies outside the state, a group of corporations, universities and nonprofits have joined together under the banner of the Michigan Design Council.

To accomplish its goal, the Design Council, which was officially formed by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Walled Lake-based Sundberg-Ferar Inc. in January of this year, plans to host the state’s first-ever MPrize next year, a design competition loosely modeled after ArtPrize.

The MPrize competition will feature a central problem that teams of designers from a variety of organizations will work on to find a design-based solution, said Jeff DeBoer, who heads up the Design Council. Participants in the inaugural MPrize will be tasked with enhancing the enjoyment of Michigan’s freshwater resources.

“It’s intentionally broad so that it would not only attract those in academia, professional designers and students but also everyday Michiganders,” DeBoer told MiBiz for a prior report. “We all rely on (the Great Lakes) and are affected by it. There could be massive product innovation capabilities developed around that topic.”

The Design Council includes Young from Newell Rubbermaid and representatives from Whirlpool Corp., Herman Miller Inc., Steelcase Inc. and Stryker Corp. in West Michigan.

Newell Rubbermaid itself practiced the mission of the Design Council. The company in May 2014 opened its design center at Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research Park in Kalamazoo. At the time, the company cited the depth of West Michigan’s industrial design talent pool as the primary attraction to the area.

The company employs more than 100 workers and continues to grow, Young said.

In addition to attracting outside companies to Michigan, the Design Council is also tasked with attracting and training the next wave of designers so that the state can continue to meet the design needs of advanced manufacturers.

“The big goal for the Michigan Design Council is to try to grow talent here,” Young said. “That’s from grade school all the way through staying in Michigan and working in Michigan as a professional. It’s all about getting into schools and getting exposure to design and how design can help business.”


While most industry insiders agree that design serves as an integral part of the innovation process, the actual impacts of design can often be lost as products and ideas move through production.

To gain a better perspective of the importance of design and innovation to Michigan, Wixom-based Creative Many Inc. recently completed a study detailing the creative economy’s impact on the state’s economy.

Since the study surveys companies in a variety of industries ranging from industrial design to art, its diversity will give economic developers and other organizations more accurate data to further boost the state’s creative economy.

Groups such as The Right Place Inc. hope that the study will showcase real data indicating the importance of the design industry on the West Michigan economy.

“(The study) will provide validation of the value that design brings to industry,” Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications at The Right Place, told MiBiz for a previous report. “Many times, it’s seen as a tangential or supporting role in overall industry. Doing studies like this, specifically for industrial design, will provide that dollars-and-cents impact on what industrial design brings for the entire process.”

The Right Place has pegged commercial design as one of its key pillars for strategic growth in West Michigan.


Designers likely will become a more integrated part of the advanced manufacturing process as companies experience shortened product cycles, forcing businesses to innovate more frequently than in the past, Young said.

“The age of ‘I’ve been making this widget and I’m going to be making it for another 10 years’ is really an absurd idea now because there is so little of that,” Young said. “There’s a constant drive to replenish and build portfolios of the future. We have to be innovative-minded — there’s no other way to get there. It’s massively economic.”

For Ken Krayer, executive director for Design West Michigan, innovation doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with a new aesthetic design. Instead, Krayer sees designers uniquely positioned to find other innovative solutions that aren’t necessarily tied to looks.

“A lot of what design is concerned with is aesthetics, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a successful product,” he said. “Innovation sometimes can be as simple as a tip in price point. It doesn’t always necessarily have something to do with customers seeing something the right way.”

Read 5672 times Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2015 11:25

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