Tom Strini
Design thinking

our next competitive advantage?

By - Nov 11th, 2010 04:00 am

A new book, Roger Martin’s The Design of Business, came in the mail two weeks ago. The subtitle is: “Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage.”

At UWM, the Department of Visual Art has changed its name to the Department of Art and Design. The department and the Peck School of the Arts are launching a Design Research Institute charged with fostering “design thinking and collaborative design research projects with university departments, corporations and industry in areas such as industrial design, engineering, architecture, business, fresh water sciences, education, human experience, interactivity and informatics.” The UWM School of Engineering and the art department are already collaborating in a number of areas, with the idea of bringing aesthetic thinking to engineers and practical problem-solving to artists.

A blockbuster show, European Design Since 1985, just happens to be at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Alberto Alessi, director of marketing strategies and design management, Alessi S.p.A., will speak at the musuem on Nov. 18.

Last weekend, Flux Design hosted Feed Your Soul, a fundraiser that has taken in over $200,000 for Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin over the last eight years. MIAD graduates own and operate Flux, a thriving design business. They think like sculptors because, for the most part, they are sculptors, and scores of restaurants and other businesses have found that the Flux sensibility adds value. The Flux shop isn’t fancy, but everything about the place, housed in a nondescript factory in Riverwest, shows a savvy awareness of space and scale. You walk into that place and right away, you’re happy. Design changes the way you live.

I recently learned that Ryan Ramos, lead industrial designer at GE Medical, did not graduate from MIT or Cal Poly. He’s another MIAD guy. Kohler Co. finds it useful to have artists in residence working in their ceramics shop. The Pfister Hotel, too, has an artist in residence, because an artistic presence enhances the experience of guests and sets the Pfister apart.

The Milwaukee Ballet is leading the ambitious, exciting Harmony Initiative. It would give the company new studios and the new 200-300 seat theater the dance community has always wanted. The UWM Department of Dance would be a partner, but so would Froedert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin, which would operate a sports medicine and wellness clinic in the same building. The for-profit clinic would work hand in hand with the dance community, to promote the idea of dance as a healthy activity, with the clinic also serving the general public. The ballet, UWM and the clinic will work closely with the City of Milwaukee to leverage the new construction and activity to spur nearby development.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The notion that artistic thinking applies to and enhances almost every area of business development is beginning to supplant the old conception of the arts as velvet-lined charity cases, which Milwaukee could do without in a pinch. Business leaders are starting to see creative types not as bohemians looking for handouts, but as essential resources in a future economy in which a creative edge will be at least as important as faster-cheaper.

All this has implications for the traditional arts non-profits, too. Creative people won’t settle in a place that lacks an art museum. They want a music scene, they want theater.  They want cities. We have all that stuff, at a very high level, and it all matters economically beyond restaurant meals consumed by symphony patrons. A vibrant non-profit arts sector can mesh very productively with for-profits.

It seems rather hazy and theoretical, I know. But the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee has been trying to make some sense of it. The alliance, led by Christine Harris, commissioned Mt. Auburn Associates to define and survey the creative sectors of Milwaukee’s economy. A preliminary report came out in late October. Mt. Auburn identified about 67,000 creative industry jobs in five segments: Design, divided into communications, built environment and product design (by far the biggest sector); Culture and Heritage, meaning museums, libraries and historic sites; media and film (that includes TCD); Performing Arts; and Visual Arts and Crafts.

The final report is in progress. It could serve as a directory to connect creative types and to raise awareness of their presence in the larger community.  When a manufacturer wants to bring creative thinking into product design from the ground up, perhaps it won’t be necessary to look elsewhere for talent, because UWM and MIAD are manufacturing the talent right here. And once the wider world understands that the talent is here, it could attract the sorts of industries that will drive the economy in the coming decades.

The Cultural Alliance is trying to figure it out and make it work for the region. Jon Anne Willow, my partner at ThirdCoast and in MPTV’s Arts Digest show, and I are trying to connect the dots as well. We’ve just started work on a 30-minute special on the subject, to air early in the new year. We would love to hear from our readers on this subject. Comment below and/or email me at Be part of the discussion.

0 thoughts on “Design thinking: our next competitive advantage?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The integration of art(creative energy applied to heart, mind and spirit) into daily life in the ways you note above makes you want to be here, live here, grow here and stay here. Reminds me of Holland and Sweden and places where progress is measured in terms beyond GDNP and tax cuts.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t agree more, John. A lot of people are working very hard to connect all the dots that have, in meaningful ways, been here all along. It’s an exciting endeavor and a really interesting, productive way to think about the synthesis of all the elements of the way we live in this region

  3. Anonymous says:

    Wonderfully written, you have explained in such a way that broadens such an initiative for all to strive for; to work towards. Yet another story written by Tom Strini that exemplifies ones writing skills along with great understanding of the subject matter. We don’t get that very often in these parts. Most of all however, thank you Tom for not politicizing this article. Not politicizing this article only strengthens its credence.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Tom, You weren’t kidding when you said you knew what you were talking about. You ARE good at this stuff. “The notion that artistic thinking applies to and enhances almost every area of business development is beginning to supplant the old conception of the arts as velvet-lined charity cases” YES!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Tom. Well written article with wonderful insights.

    We are very excited about what we are learning about the economic and community value of our creative industries. The public report and launch of implementation projects (watch for something really exciting about our design segment!) will be January 19 at the Harley Davidson Museum.

    Thanks for TCD’s terrific support of our arts and culture and the leading edge Creativity Works!

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