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Showing off Michigan's design excellence to the world

The Eames lounge chair from Herman Miller is an icon of 20th century design.
Courtesy of Michigan Modern
The Eames lounge chair from Herman Miller is an icon of 20th century design.

The Next Idea

Did you know that barbecue grills, refrigerators and hospital beds were all designed in Michigan? What about the electric toothbrush and the golf cart?

These products, and thousands more, are just some of the many everyday items that Michigan’s industrial designers gave the world.

The Eames lounge chair from Herman Miller is an icon of 20th century design.
Credit Courtesy of Michigan Modern
The Eames lounge chair from Herman Miller is an icon of 20th century design.

In fact, with more than 4,000 strong, Michigan has a higher concentration of industrial designers than any other state in the nation. Chances are, you didn’t know that either. That’s where a change has to start, because product design is something Michigan does better than just about everyone else, and we must do a lot more to leverage this in order to help our state grow.

An early eye for what’s cool

Before the early20thcentury, beautiful products were one-offs, the work of artisans who excelled at their craft and created for the wealthy few who could afford them.

The industrial design profession emerged as manufacturers realized new customers could be attracted to their products and more money could be made if their offerings combined beauty with functionality. Think of early wringer-washer machines, vacuum cleaners, and automobiles. These products improved our lives by saving time and releasing us from the drudgery of daily chores, but by-and-large, they were unattractive, and sometimes dangerous, products.

Thanks to designers, the average American could own a car that got them to places quickly and also had lines that were stylish and modern. They could have a kitchen that looked sleek and futuristic, and call their friends with a telephone that had sculpted, flowing lines. These were products that went beyond being merely useful, they made their owners proud. These were products that told your friends you had arrived, you had good taste, you were modern.

The proof was in the pudding, as they say, as profits rose, markets grew, and the industrial design profession came into its own as a necessary piece of the manufacturing puzzle.

Michigan-based industrial designers were at the forefront of this “design revolution”. Think of Michigan as the Florence of the Italian Renaissance, where anything could be made and designed to improve the lives of millions around the world.

Great industrial design put Michigan on the global map as the design capital of the world.

More style to come

The nation’s manufacturing economy is on the rebound. One way to tell is that Michigan’s talent pool of industrial designers is being quickly absorbed into the new manufacturing landscape and companies are struggling to find more. A design talent shortage could cripple our gathering economic momentum and stall our recovery.

The impact that industrial design has on Michigan’s economy cannot be overstated. Industrial designers are high-income earners -- Michigan industrial designers earn $70,000 a year, more than $10,000 above the national average for the profession. Estimates show that every industrial designer creates eight additional jobs, which, according to current estimates, means about 32,000 more jobs for our state.

Michigan remains a manufacturing giant with an industrial base that crosses product categories – from medical devices to furniture to automobiles. Industrial designers are still the critical first step in the production process, and as our nation’s factories hum loudly again, it’s showing in the form of increasing orders for Michigan-designed products. Without more designers, this momentum could be stalled. 

So what’s the Next Idea?

What if we created a “Design Mecca” in Detroit? It would be a place where designers, makers, and entrepreneurs could create, collaborate, prototype, and live in a community that became a magnet for industrial designers and other creative professionals from around the world.

The lines on a Buick Electra.
Credit Flickr/Oliver Dresen
The lines on a Buick Electra.

What if Michigan sponsored an international product design competition? It could build awareness and attract designers and manufacturers from around the globe.

What if every Michigan citizen were aware of our state’s industrial design legacy and became an ambassador? A grassroots pride would contribute greatly to Michigan’s allure.

Six months ago the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) askedSundberg-Ferar, a Detroit-based industrial design and innovation consultancy, to define a plan to grow the industrial design profession in Michigan. The result of that effort was the January announcement of the Michigan Design Council (MDC).

The MDC is considered to be the only statewide organization of its kind in the country. Its mission is to establish Michigan as the premier destination for industrial designers, and related design professionals; to help Michigan-based businesses prosper; and to encourage businesses to relocate here because of our robust talent pool.

The Council is made up of design thought leaders from across our state, representing our major industries, academic institutions, and professional organizations. These founding members are already collaborating with individuals and groups statewide to launch design-centric events, such as the international design competition, and outreach campaigns to grow our creative talent base.

This is not a short-term plan. It will take a sustained effort to maintain Michigan’s status as THE place where great products are designed.  As it matures, the MDC will be asking corporations, foundations, professional organizations, and individuals to step forward and participate in the “design talent” mission. The more who participate, the more we can use this important state resource to help build a better Michigan for everyone. 

Jeff DeBoeris Vice President and Principal of Sundberg-Ferar, where he works with major industries to create efficient product solutions. He has also taught at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

Jeff DeBoer discusses Michigan's long history of making beautiful products on "Stateside with Cynthia Canty"

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Jeff DeBoer