Building relationships is at the heart of great design

Skot Welch loves taking personality assessments. Whenever he takes one about vocations, the results are the same. They say he’s an architect. 

“And I guess I am in a broader sense, I am, because I build things, right?” says Welch. “But also, I’m very cognizant of the fact that before you build things, you have to build people.”

A Kentwood resident, Welch says he creates things that make him want to stay in West MIchigan. He is president and founder of Global Bridgebuilders, a firm that focuses on employee engagement, inclusion initiatives and multicultural competency. He’s also president of Moja Initiatives and founder of the Mosaic Film Experience. 

Skot Welch is president & founder of the newly launching Greater Michigan Chapter of The National Black MBA Association

According to Welch, West Michigan has about 18 months to win over newcomers to the area. He started the Belonging Initiative so that people who live and work in the area feel they belong in West Michigan. 

“People need to understand that there's a difference between a welcoming community and a belonging community,” Welch says.

Welch believes that welcoming can serve to inoculate people against belonging. When people welcome you, it’s like a vaccination against belonging. Welcoming lacks the depth of human connection that fosters belonging.

“An inanimate object can welcome you,” says Welch. “Welcome to Grand Rapids. Welcome to Kent County Airport. A sign said that. But you can only belong to other human beings.”

Welch builds relationships and meaning over conversations … and food. 

“I began to have dinners and I began to have film crews follow me,” says Welch. “And now, if you go to you’ll see some of the summation of the films that we've been shooting. And it's really about helping communities, both corporate and citizen, and different cities, talk with each other.”

Talking informally over dinner and drinks sounds fun. But Welch cautions that it's not always easy. 

“It takes work,” says Welch. "It takes allocating some of our time to connect with people, to take people out.”

Being intentional about making professional connections

Julia Swenson puts in the effort to build relationships. As partner and vice president at WillowTree — a digital agency based in Virginia — she works remotely from her home office in East Grand Rapids.

Swenson first came to West Michigan in her mid-twenties. She had been working at a creative  agency in Chicago when her boyfriend (now husband) got into medical school at Michigan State University. 

Swenson decided to join him in Grand Rapids but felt apprehensive about the move. She didn’t know the area or anyone in it. 

“At the time, I felt like ‘Oh, is this going to be a big mistake?’” says Swenson. “But for me, it worked out much better to be in Grand Rapids, because I felt like it was easier to navigate the design community here.”

In addition to digital design, Julia Swenson also designs interiors.

Swenson got involved with AIGA - the American Institute of Graphic Arts West Michigan. And she became the founding host and coordinator of Creative Mornings in Grand Rapids. This initiative provides in-person opportunities for designers to learn, grow and network.

“I just felt like there was tons of opportunity, tons of different things that you could go to,” says Swenson. “I liked that it was this nice size that you might bump into the same people rather than a larger city.”

After a few years in West Michigan, Swenson and her husband moved to North Carolina. There, she helped WillowTree build their Durham office.

“It was very much an in-person culture,” says Swenson, “but through the pandemic, we started to work remotely. And at that time, we'd had two kids and we were really missing our family and being in Michigan."

Going away showed Swenson and her husband how much they liked West Michigan. And now, Swenson is more intentional about connecting and networking.

“I try to set up a coffee or a lunch with someone every month or every other month,” says Swenson. “I put it on the calendar.”

Swenson remains optimistic about West Michigan. At the end of March, she plans on finishing her role at WillowTree to build her own creative business in Grand Rapids.
“There are many other people starting restaurants and new initiatives and new businesses. I like the accessibility of the community,” she says. 

Fostering belonging through community engagement
Carl Dunker
Carl Dunker also works remotely out of his home office. Dunker is a senior designer/content strategist at Y Media Labs (YML) –  a California company that focuses on building digital products for companies all around the world. 

Originally, Dunker came to Holland to attend Hope College. He stayed in West Michigan, living in both Grand Rapids and St. Joseph. He moved back to Holland when he got married. 

“There is a definite culture of entrepreneurship and design in the area around here,” says Dunker. “And design excellence is something that a lot of people obviously in the circles I run in care about, but a lot of people in general seem to care about excellence in the craft of what they're doing.”

Whether they're working in digital design or running a brewery, Dunker is impressed by this commitment to excellence.

“But not with this dogged pursuit that some other cities have in terms of the vibe,” he says. “It’s like we're not New York or Chicago. We're not scrambling around, trying to hustle for the next thing. It's much more collegial and we all work together.”

Dunker wants to see more diversity and inclusion in West Michigan. 

“People want to feel like they're living in a community where they belong, not in a community where they really are kind of putting themselves out there all the time. So giving that kind of comfortable space where people can thrive is really important.”

One of the things Dunker does to foster belongingness is to co-chair the AIGA West Michigan's mentorship program.

“We really focus on trying to make design students and young design professionals who are living in West Michigan feel like their career can have growth and meaning here,” says Dunker. “They don't need to just run away to the biggest city in order to make it. And we try to equip them with the tools that they need and the connections that they need to be able to feel like this is a place where [they] can build [their] design careers.”

The AIGA mentorship program pairs young professionals with more seasoned professional designers in the area. The organization gives mentors and mentees weekly prompts to engage in meaningful discussions.

Having served as a mentor as well, Dunker understands the value and impact of these interactions. He says he still meets with one of his mentees.

"The mentees really appreciate the insight or knowledge that you get from having a mentor who's actually working in the field, and knows the ins and outs of what it's like to actually be a working designer," Dunker says.

Creating connections and building relationships is part of the work designers do. These three West Michigan designers are working to create a community where people belong.

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a new story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.

Laura Bergells is an executive business communications coach from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Connect with her at LinkedIn.
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