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Conduit Studio mirrors growth of West Michigan design scene

Conduit Studio's Kelly O’Hara, Sally Herman, John O’Neill, Ryan Mitchell and Aaron Vanderzwan (on the iPad).

In the new space, Ryan Mitchell, Kelly O’Hara, John O’Neill and Sally Herman




Ryan Mitchell


As Conduit Studio doubles its studio space, the vibrant West Michigan design scene grows right alongside it - and garners some national attention. Stephanie Doublestein checks out one space were beautiful ideas get born and finds out what's ahead for the local design community.
Talking with John O'Neill of Conduit Studio over sparkling water in their gorgeous workspace at 80 Ottawa Ave. NW, it's obvious that each element of the room has been thoughtfully chosen: the small glassed-in conference room, the lovely settee, the modern kitchenette, the carefully arranged desks where designers are deep in thought at their laptops. But peek into Conduit's new space across the hall – informally referred to by the team as "The Lab" – and it's clear that all this beauty belies the messy and exuberant growth and creativity behind the scenes. Pay close attention to what's happening in the West Michigan design community as a whole, and it's clear that the profession is having a heyday.
 
Conduit Studio is in the midst of doubling its size with an 1800-square-foot addition, by taking over the space that 616 Lofts used to claim just across the hall. Founded in 2001, the design studio has since grown to five employees and is looking for a sixth, so the new space will let the team spread out and work more freely. At the same time, the scope of their work has evolved, as clients have asked for design solutions around mobile technology, digital publishing, and creating interactive environments. Adding more people and more services were both factors that pushed O'Neill to snatch up the space when it became available.
 
"What we realized is that this space is beautiful and a little finicky and it looks best when it's clean," he says. "But some projects just need to explode and the best place to do it is in a space that's not client-facing." He envisions The Lab, which the team is slowly renovating on its own, being a place for projects to spread out and a good spot for confidential work to happen in a city where clients can still be competitors.
 
Ryan Mitchell, a senior designer at Conduit who came on board at the studio full-time in 2010 after interning there while a student at Grand Valley State University, thinks the additional space has great potential. "I think it's important to have a space that allows you to be expressive – we're talking about print-making, a screen-printer – and space to spread out and dig in and get dirty," says Mitchell.
 
Senior Designer Kelly O'Hara concurs. "I think definitely for design it's important to be a little messy sometimes." O'Hara, on board at Conduit since October, also serves on the board of AIGA West Michigan and the leadership team of TEDxGrandRapids, which is characteristic of the studio. O'Neill says the studio tends to jump in quickly where it sees there's "passion and a need," and several members find themselves giving their time to Runway for Charity, UICA's Live Coverage, and other community organizations in addition to their board membership.
 
The studio has also recently established a scholarship with Kendall College of Art and Design, which will support the study abroad experience of one deserving student per year. "We want to help the next generation of talent to have a well-rounded education and be able to see the world," says O'Neill, who hopes the scholarship will also attract and retain talent to the region. The scholarship is just one example of how the local design community is infused with an ethos of giving back, with events like Design for Good and nonprofit involvement tending to be the norm among designers.
 
"I really feel like there's a critical mass within the design community," says O'Neill, who says he was "pretty isolated" when he opened his doors in 2001. "Now it really feels like you have a group of colleagues and you really feel a part of a community. Between AIGA and Design West Michigan, there are events happening every week."
 
In fact, a couple of those upcoming events in Grand Rapids will highlight the vibrancy of the design community. The first is the city's first-ever West Michigan Design Week, happening May 5-10, a week of workshops, speakers, tours, and exhibitions that John Berry, executive director of Design West Michigan, says "is evidence of the growing design scene and the understanding of the importance of design to the region by the city, local companies, educational institutions and designers." Berry says the idea for the week was embraced and supported by all the major local design associations, and allows the community to come together in a unique way.
 
In another big win for local design, AIGA West Michigan recently announced that Grand Rapids has been chosen as the location for the AIGA Leadership Retreat for spring 2015, which will bring designers from all of AIGA's 66 national chapters to West Michigan for four days. "It will be fun to flaunt the talents and design activities to that national audience," says Berry, who adds that national AIGA leadership has recognized Design West Michigan as "the petri dish of the future of design associations."
 
Mitchell thinks these important upcoming events are huge, adding that they're an "opportunity to showcase what we're doing as a design community . . . and really kind of break the mold of what people think of when they think of West Michigan." Mitchell, who grew up in Kalamazoo, says, "Grand Rapids is a really special area and I think the quality of design that's coming out of here is really top-notch. I think we're establishing ourselves as a design hub in the Midwest on par with Chicago and Minneapolis."
 
O'Hara thinks designers like herself who are fairly new to the local design community may take for granted how robust it is now. "I just feel super lucky that in a town our size and in our location that we have a design community that rivals some of the larger areas," she says.
 
O'Neill's willingness to expand the studio and provide dedicated space for some projects to "explode" is a mark of the studio's insightful design thinking. "We use Conduit because they stretch our thinking, exceed our expectations and deliver ‘out of the box’ work.  I believe they are the best creative source in our area and we’ve come to respect the level of work they produce," says Edris Takeda, manager of digital and corporate communications at Steelcase and one of Conduit's clients.
 
In many ways, Conduit is a microcosm of the entire West Michigan design community: one part beautiful solutions, one part messy behind-the-scenes collaboration, and plenty of small-town generosity mixed in with national ambitions. "You get the right people together," says O'Neill, "and great things happen."
 
Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media. 

Photography by Adam Bird
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