Design as an ‘inescapable’ part of life in West Michigan and where you can find it

Design plays a significant role in the past, present and future of West Michigan.

That’s “Design” with a big D, big enough to motivate the industrial expansions that formed Furniture City as well as Beer City.

Design plays a leading role in the arts (Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts, Kalamazoo’s Black Arts Festival, Sculpture Off the Pedestal), botanical/arts (Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park), equity (Code for Good West Michigan, Ladies That UX) and recreation (Grand Rapids WhiteWater and others throughout the state).

It has also shaped some of the most influential industries in the area — today’s office interiors, automobile experiences, exterior spaces, medical facilities and more are made more productive, more comfortable and safer, thanks to the work of designers in the region.

Products and services will always provide opportunities for design improvements that make lives easier in some way. A level deeper than that, there are opportunities for designing social movements that effect change for the better.

The world of big “D” Design involves hard and soft skills, hands-on creativity and abstract vision. Some tools and terms are shared between industries but there’s likely no unified training or process that will prepare a Designer for their role more than an innate human curiosity.

Here’s how design is defined by a few of those who are doing the work in West Michigan and helping to redefine the impact of design through the region and beyond.

Design as life

Adam Weiler, global manager of social innovation at Steelcase considers design a form of “pragmatic optimism,” running on “the underlying belief that one, things can be better and two, we can iterate our way there.”

Adam Weiler, global manager of social innovation at Steelcase

“I also like how design unifies two modes of thinking that — on their own — aren’t always useful,” Weiler says. “Creativity (the generation of alternatives) can spiral into irrelevance and criticism (the intentional reduction of options) doesn’t generate new options for the future. Design holds them in a productive tension that helps us determine what ‘the next right thing’ is.”

In his work at Steelcase, Weiler says he is “grateful to be a part of an organization that’s leading the conversation of what ‘business as a force for good’ might look like.”

“The progress we’re making with ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) measurement and reporting is substantial, and our global team in Social Innovation has brought some really cool programming into existence these past two years around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” he says.

Steelcase is making an impact on a global scale, helping better the world through furthering work on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and driving social innovation from its headquarters in West Michigan.

Steelcase is making an impact on a global scale, helping better the world through furthering work on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and driving social innovation from its headquarters in West Michigan.

Before Steelcase, Weiler was involved with shaping design programs at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) and played a critical role in launching Public Agency. “That team continues to do incredible work blending design and equitable community engagement,” Weiler says. “Codesigning with those closest to the issues, the team has had the opportunity to contribute to projects in cradle-to-career talent pipelines, social determinants of health, public safety, philanthropy, re-skilling labor and more.”

Weiler cites Victor Papanek as a personal inspiration. In his book, Design for the Real World, Papanek writes, “[t]he planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life.”

“For me, design is inescapable,” Weiler says. “On the surface, it’s the clothing you wear, the chair you’re sitting in, how you’ve arranged your living space and the design of the building you’re in. But, it’s also the choices, in the form of policy, that dictate how much time you spend commuting in your car, how far you have to walk to get groceries, how close a high-quality school is and how dependent you are on your employer for health care,” Weiler says. “These are all design decisions people are making about the best way to live.”

Patrick Plank, now an independent designer, has spent a good part of his career designing experiences for private and commercial spaces as a creative director, visual merchandising lead and head of visual marketing in addition to other roles.

Plank’s work has focused on creating experiences like lavish runway fashion events, and once, a “really fun Studio 54 party.” In addition to designing for the fashion industry, Plank has had the opportunity to design a retail space for a tea shop and yoga studio on the northeast side. Outside of work, he finds design just as “inescapable.”

“When you work in the design world and have a feel for how it all works, it’s not something you can just turn off when you leave work,” Plank says. “It’s all encompassing 24/7 You have an opinion about your experience with everything from the cap on your toothpaste — I despise the cap design on my brand which seems constantly stuck open and oozing product — to the font used on an invitation you received in your mailbox that evening. It’s a blessing and a curse to be too tuned into it!”

Plank says he enjoys all aspects of the design process, but the most exciting is right at the beginning “when anything is possible and choices are endless.”

Christy Ennis-Kloote has worked in the user experience (UX) area of the design world for more than a decade, in graphic design before that, and currently serves as managing director of experience design for Argenta Park. Her professional work focuses on shaping experiences “from physical to digital but most often the impact and design of exchanges between people,” she says.

“Design work is still curating experiences and being thoughtful to the holistic impact across any system,” Ennis-Kloote says. “I work with clients as a consultant to elevate the work advocating for the best digital or physical experience to deliver a service with value to their customers.”

She defines design not only in terms of the physical or visual space that objects realize, but in “a movement through life and what we experience.

“We curate, intentionally or not, what interactions and products we let in and how those things influence how we live,” Ennis-Kloote says. She advocates for a healthier sense of design by taking “the time to appreciate the experiences and the exchange of senses, be it physical, emotional or audible.”

Ennis-Kloote says her experiences with Midwest UX and helping Bissell launch an ecosystem of connected smart products stand out as career highlights, but she always finds a worthwhile challenge in solving new problems. She compares the design process to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

“It is all about finding a gap or opportunity or arranging pieces so they come together to make something even larger and more exciting than one piece alone,” Ennis-Kloote says. ”It’s the impact you can make with people and lives. This could be a subtle role that makes the service so seamless it is never noticed. Or the impact could be as overt as something visual or physical [people] keep as a token to remember. Mostly, [the impact is seen in] the collaboration across diverse disciplines design requires for full execution. The range of diversity and perspectives constantly challenges me to see things differently and to not get too comfortable.“
Design inspiration

Through professional and personal experiences, Weiler has worked with many types of designers. In the context of regional impact, Weiler says he has been recently impressed with the work of Ryan Kilpatrick and Housing Next.

Housing Next worked with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Michigan Development Economic Corporation to invest in Bridge Street Market.

“I like their future oriented, data informed and collaborative approach — working across sectors, philanthropy, business, government, to increase quality of life and access to housing of all types,” Weiler says.”We might not think about zoning codes as a design, but those policies dictate how our neighborhoods look [and] feel and how economically diverse our networks are, more than anything else.”

Kilpatrick is now owner & lead consultant of Flywheel Community Development Services and Senior Program Officer for the DeVos Family Foundation’s Facing Home Initiative.

Plank says he admires the “great graphic design work of John O’Neill [at] Conduit Studio and the interior design of Kathryn Chaplow. Both great talents and fun collaborators!”

Ennis-Kloote says she finds inspiration in local designers through “a range of characteristics — starting with the brave but also grounded entrepreneurs, willing to take the risk to be the first in a market.”

Among those on her shortlist, “Stephen and Taylor Smith opened Muse showing art galleries are viable in new neighborhoods in Grand Rapids and made spaces to welcome a wider community,” Ennis-Kloote says. “I’m inspired by people younger than myself which have harnessed their passion to learn by just stepping in and doing, not waiting. This is why I keep watching folks like Elizabeth Bush, senior UX researcher at OST and David Schofield, [an] independent designer to see what’s coming next.”

“Fellow UX designers such as Joel McClure also are humbly making a large impact in national products from West Michigan with their work with various state and federal agencies, specifically to eliminate the fraud, waste and abuse, in turn making all our tax dollars go farther,” she adds. “All of them are motivated and, by proximity, it motivates me.”

As well, inspiration can be found in the works of those who have come before. The volunteer-run West Michigan Design Archives houses volumes of design work from companies like Herman Miller and French Paper.

While most design-focused events take place during the warmer months, there are many opportunities to be found throughout the year. For those in search of events, the convenience of the digital age means that happenings may be no more than an internet search away. And, if you still can’t find the right event, maybe it’s time to design your own.

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a new story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan’s past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has more than 25 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable farm in West Michigan.


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