IIT Institute of Design Plans to Offer Graduate Program in Grand Rapids

If all goes according to plan, one of the nation's most prestigious graduate schools of design will offer a master's degree program in downtown Grand Rapids in the fall to teach advanced courses in design thinking to area executives.

Corporate and civic leaders hope the proposed program of the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design in Chicago will serve as a foundation for building metro Grand Rapids into a hub of design innovation, those involved in the plan say.

IIT's Institute of Design hopes to offer a master of design methods (MDM) program here if it can enroll at least 10 students by the end of July. Regular instructors from the Chicago campus will visit Grand Rapids to teach the two-year, part-time program.

Thus far, four potential students of the program have begun the application process, one of whom is Seth Starner, 37, senior business innovation manager at Alticor Inc. in Ada.

"What if Grand Rapids was a hub not only for product design, but also for design thinking?" says Starner, who approached design school with the idea of coming to Grand Rapids last year. "With lots of people in town who can think of creative solutions, it becomes a center, a place you want to live. If we could have that sort of collection of people, imagine how powerful that would be for the sustainability and growth of our community."

Starner's timing was ideal, as the school was looking to expand its reach outside of Chicago by offering executive programs in satellite locations.

"Part of the appeal is the commitment on the part of Grand Rapids' civic leaders to make the area a national innovation hub," says Hugh Musick, associate dean at IIT's Institute of Design. "If we can play a role in that, it's a compelling story to help us grow both nationally and internationally."

Some of the area's largest employers such as Alticor and Steelcase Inc. have expressed interest in supporting the program here, Starner and Musick say. Top executives from some of the largest corporations met at the Alticor headquarters in Ada last month to discuss the design school's plans and how it could be leveraged into transforming metro Grand Rapids into a design hub.

Masters of Design
Starner says this isn't your everyday art school program, and it isn't an MBA – it blends the best of both programs to meet somewhere in the middle. The program is centered on design thinking, with the goal of adding knowledge of the latest user-centered and strategic design methods and teaching new ways to solve problems.

"The master of design methods allows people to use design tools in a business context to create new ideas and through that, new value," Starner says. "This is about exploration in business, which isn't typically taught in business school."

The process of bringing a solution to Grand Rapids began in the summer of 2009, when Starner enrolled in one of IIT's "summer camp" programs – a week of intensive executive courses that compresses the basics of the MDM program into five days. "After summer camp, I knew I wanted more," he says. "I knew I needed these tools and I wanted more time with them."

His research indicated that local universities did not offer a comparable program, so Starner researched the highly respected programs offered by the design institutes at Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. The programs at those schools tended to skew heavily toward business or design instead of meeting in the middle, but Starner thinks IIT's program provides an optimal balance.

"IIT offers the most mixed program, with a good mix of both design and business," Starner says. "They were the only school who works in this space and I thought they brought it all together in one program very well."

The IIT Institute of Design was founded as New Bauhaus in 1937 and joined IIT in 1944. In addition to the MDM program, the ID also offers a master of design, a combination master of design/MBA program and was the first school in the country to offer a doctorate in design. The design school has an enrollment of 150 students.

Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago is a research university that offers undergraduate and graduate level programs in engineering, architecture, the sciences, humanities, psychology, business, law and design. It was formed in 1940 by the merger of the Armour Institute of Technology and Lewis Institute, which were both founded in the 1890s. The school has a population of just over 7,400.

Taking a Different Road
Though closer than other schools, Starner determined that its still wasn't feasible to travel to Chicago several times a week, with his full-time job at Alticor and a wife and two children in Grand Rapids. Always one to view obstacles as opportunities, Starner began thinking about how he could bring this top-tier education to Grand Rapids.

Starner approached Patrick Whitney, the dean of the Institute of Design, and asked if there was any way to make it happen. After some discussions, the design school decided to move forward with the pilot program in Grand Rapids because it could prove to be a win-win situation.

One aspect that differentiates IIT's Institute of Design admission process is that applicants are not required to submit a visual design portfolio, Musick says.

"Traditionally, designers have been thought of as people who can give form to ideas and are visually creative," says Musick, who has been actively involved in the logistics of bringing the school to Grand Rapids from the Institute's side. "But you don't need to have high level portfolio skills to think creatively. We view design as a way of thinking of problems and opportunities."

The 20-month program is slated to begin in the fall if Starner can help rally the critical mass of at least 10 students enrolled by the July deadline. With only 15 full-time and 23 part-time students currently enrolled in the MDM at the school's Chicago campus, the ID has a highly selective acceptance rate.

Starner collaborated with other local design-minded people and IIT Institute of Design faculty and staff to envision what the program would ideally look like.

"To make these classes exciting, it'll be important to have a mix of people from different backgrounds with different experiences and ideas," Starnersays. "That way you're challenged by people who think differently, which forces you to expand."

Getting with the Program
The program will be identical to the one offered at the Institute's Chicago campus, with the same professors traveling to Grand Rapids to teach the courses. Each month will focus on a different module, including design planning, user research, design analysis, problem framing and prototyping.

Students will work in interdisciplinary teams on a variety of projects, and will spend an intensive week at the school's Chicago campus after completing the first year of the program, where they'd be able to apply what they've learned to a single project.

Starner says one of the challenges has been in getting others to understand the differences between this program and an MFA or MBA. He is quick to point out that the program is not about product design; it's about system design. It can benefit individuals in a variety of industries, from nonprofits to medical organizations to manufacturers. And whereas most people are taught to think in a linear way, this program teaches students to embrace a more abstract way of thinking.

"With design thinking, there is no right answer. It's not like a puzzle with all the pieces that just have to be put in the right place," says Starner. "It's more like a painting and you're working with a team to put it on the canvas, but you don't know exactly what you'll come out with in the end."

Musick agrees, and says that although companies have the ability to make nearly anything they want, they often don't know what their customers actually need. This program will give students a new way to think about challenges and opportunities.

"In design, it's a very analytical, user-centered process to help understand by looking at the daily lives of people and figuring out what they really need," he says. "Only after you've analyzed the situation and understand what people want can you understand what kind of products or services could meet those needs."

The fully accredited program is geared toward individuals who already have at least five to seven years of leadership experience in business and/or design, though applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The average age for the Chicago program has been 36, with an even mix of men and women. Historically, only 24 percent of applicants have had a background in traditional design.

"The more work experience a student has, the more they'll get out of it," says Musick. "They have more points of reference and can immediately apply what they're learning and reflect upon their organization's current way of doing things."

Courses in the 20-month program will be held two weekends each month in the yet-to-be-disclosed downtown Grand Rapids location. Tuition will be about $46,000, and Starner hopes that employers will see the value in at least supplementing an employee's cost.

"New products are nice, but if you don't have a system around that product, it may or may not succeed," says Starner. "It's so important to bring this kind of thinking into Grand Rapids."

Starner thinks this program will thrive in West Michigan due to the number and strength of local networks, and views it as a catalyst that will help the community grow and advance. "If we come together with these tools to deal with abstract problems, we can come up with new value and solutions that benefit the community as a whole."

"Part of being innovative is welcoming new ideas, and not punishing change but rewarding it," says Starner. "If we can get into that mindset, Grand Rapids could be an even bigger engine of growth for the state."

Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in West Michigan.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Seth Starner photographed on location at the historic Ryerson Library in downtown Grand Rapids