| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Embracing creativity: How one designer is changing Grand Rapids - and the world

David Kelley

David Kelley, routinely called one of the most innovative thinkers of our time, has done everything from build a school system in Peru to redesign the way we die. To celebrate his contributions to the world, including to Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology will honor him next week.
When you think of what makes a city — or even the world — run, what comes to mind? Transportation? Education? Business? Government?

How about creativity?

David Kelley, who has been called one of the most innovative thinkers of our time and is the founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University and the Silicon Valley design firm IDEO — which has brought to the world thousands of products, services and organizations, from an entire school system in Peru to homes for wounded veterans and the first-ever computer mouse — knows the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

“This is an exciting time,” Kelley says in an interview with Rapid Growth. “Creative people, designers, are working on really important, large, difficult problems in the world.”

Those problems, and solutions, range from fixing a floundering school system to creating a global plan for disaster response and even redesigning death — and, as a result, people who are thinking outside of the box are having an overwhelmingly important impact on people’s day-to-day lives, as well as entire systems across the globe. All of this rethinking about the way we live, about the way we eat, play, work, travel, and, yes, die, falls under a methodology that Kelley has pioneered: design thinking. Or, in other words, incorporating human behavior into design.

It’s a concept that has brought new thinking and problem solving to the globe on a wide scale, and the fact that it has changed lives en masse means design is landing the respect of leaders across the world, including here in Grand Rapids, a city that boasts an ever-growing creative class.

To celebrate Kelley and his contributions to the city and world community, the Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) will honor him at the organization’s iBall 2016 on March 18 at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

“David Kelley is a true innovator, having built the creative confidence of hundreds of business and community leaders through human-centered design,” says Daniel Williams, executive director at WMCAT. “At WMCAT, we use design thinking to give our students a voice and a platform for social change, and we are grateful to David for inspiring this action.”

WMCAT will also honor Meijer at the iBall for supporting and fostering “innovation and creativity on a local and national scale.”

A nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a “culture of opportunity for people to create social and economic progress in their lives and community,” as the group explains on its website,  WMCAT provides a host of design thinking programs, from art to technology and more, that aim to help students transform the world into a more interesting, equitable and connected place. For example, its “Leadership by Design”  program connects West Michigan teens with peers in Romania, Mexico and other countries to tackle challenges and build relationships. There’s a wide range of art offerings from WMCAT, including an “Art Lab” program that teaches high school doodlers, painters, graffiti artists, and comic book aficionados new skills, which they use to produce original works of art that make a positive impact on the community.

“The real goal of design thinking is people have a sense of the world, and that they can accomplish what they set out to do,” Kelley says. “You look at people whose lives have been changed by WMCAT, and you’ll find they’ve used this human-centered approach to building their confidence and accomplish what they want to do. It’s a big deal.”

What is it about human-centered design that boosts confidence? As Kelley explains, people are born creative, but they become more cautious and analytical as they grow older. In other words, you grow to have that nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that you can’t do what you love for your career because that’s just not the way the real world works. Right? No, Kelley says — that’s wrong. And it’s so wrong that it disastrously creates a population not confident enough to go out on a limb and problem solve.

“You build kids’ confidence not by telling them they’re creative but by accomplishment,” Kelley says. “If you believe your success, or the good things that have happened to you, have come through your diligence and work, you know how to work harder.”

For example, instead of telling a child they’re brilliant because, well, they’re your child, a parent can encourage creativity, whether that comes in the form of building a robot or emailing a pen-pal (er, keyboard-pal?) in another state or country to brainstorm solutions to global problems.

While Kelley himself has long been an innovator — his first foray into design that “caused a stir” entailed him sandblasting a bicycle his parents bought for him at the age of 12 in order to repaint it fluorescent green — he says he “didn’t discover my confidence until I was a student at Stanford.”

“I was raised in northern Ohio, and I was always repainting bicycles and building engines and painting things on the wall and building planters for my mother, but I never thought of it as something I’d do for my life’s work,” Kelley says. “Coming from the Midwest, we’re naturally makers and self-reliant — the washing machine is broken? We didn’t call the repairman, we took the machine apart and tried to put it back together again.”

He loved all of this, the tinkering and the figuring things out and the end product that made life better. Still, he says, “I always thought that was the stuff you did on weekends. I thought I’d work as a regular guy, an engineer, five days a week so I could enjoy the weekend, when I’d build the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks or build waterskis.”

Instead, Kelley learned in college that he didn’t have to wait for the weekend to do what he loved, and he has spent much of his career trying to get this message across to others. And it seems to be getting through.

“I’m proud design has moved from being at the kids’ table to the adults’ table,” he says. “Most big companies have an innovation center. Whether it’s IBM or Steelcase, they have some kind of innovation initiative that has designers at the center.”

“Companies want this culture and methodology that routinely innovates,” Kelley continues. “We’re continually coming up with breakthrough ideas, and we as designers are getting credit to deal with these important, large, difficult problems.”

What does all of this — a focus and respect for human-centered design, an emphasis on creativity — mean for the future of design? It, Kelley says, means people will start to measure things differently. Yes, companies will still want to see bottom lines and hard numbers, but people will also start to look at social, and not just financial, impact. It translates to a more thoughtful approach to everything from education to hospice — to a world that not only says yes more than no, but says yes — and now what? Now what else can we do to make people’s lives better? It translates to a lack of complacency, a heartfelt inquisitiveness about how to better connect people, places and ideas.

“I’m excited about the really innovating things we’ve got going on in K-12 education; we’re designing the school system of Peru,” Kelley says. “I’m excited about mobility and autonomous cars and what that means for saving lives and what that means for work habits.”

Essentially, Kelley is excited for people to stop accepting the world for what it is and know they can do something to change it.

iBall will be held in the Amway’s Ambassador Ballroom on Friday, March 18 from 6-10pm. In addition to the WMCAT awards, the evening will feature live entertainment from Vox Vidorra. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts