The Prime Time to Design

Innovating something new can be lucrative business in the knowledge economy. And big ideas tend to start up in the brains of creative people. Tim Carpenter and John O’Neil design web-based communication platforms capturing the interest of the likes of Disney.

The duo, principals at Conduit Studios in Grand Rapids, brand organizations as diverse as the San Francisco Youth Arts Festival and Hush Puppies. They also recently built a fully animated virtual showroom of Steelcase furniture for Neocon, the World’s Fair of furnishings shows held last year in Chicago. The project was a big hit.

“The tour fit well into our overall campaign,” says Damion Van Slyke, the art director at Steelcase. “And it really caught the attention of the Dream Works people when they saw it on the plasma screen at our exhibit.”

You might say that Carpenter and O'Neil met by design. Because the two Gen X'ers essentially lived parallel lives before forming a business partnership seven years ago.

They both grew up in the eastern suburbs of Grand Rapids – Carpenter in Cascade, O'Neil in Forest Hills. They both majored in fine art – Carpenter at Western Michigan, O'Neil at Kendall College. They both went exploring the world after graduation – Carpenter to San Francisco, O'Neil to London. And they both somehow wound up back in Grand Rapids, MI around 2000 working on the exact same project.

Not long after that the two merged creative forces. Conduit Studios, established in 2001, is a hip little design firm located in a second-story loft with exposed brick walls in the Heartside District. The company specializes in branding and web applications and business is going global.

“We have clients all over," says O'Neil, 29. "We are currently working in London, New York, Santa Monica, and Chicago in addition to our client base in Grand Rapids."

New Designs in West Michigan
Whether noun or verb, design is an ambiguous term. But the MFA is the new MBA in the creative economy, experts agree. So it's perhaps not a stretch to say that design know-how plays an integral role in a seemingly unlimited number of business transactions today.

Engineering. Architecture. Software development. Graphic Arts. Landscaping. Fashion. Packaging. Medical devices. These and countless other disciplines rely heavily on creative, talented people to do the research, thinking, problem solving, conceiving, planning, modeling, and manufacturing that goes into designing new products, services, and systems.

Throughout history, this cycle of innovation has given society groundbreaking inventions such as the wheel, the telephone, and the personal computer. In the Digital Age, the design industry is generating incredible wealth with uber popular advancements like the iPod and YouTube. In an attempt to get a piece of the action, local business leaders recently launched a campaign to strengthen and promote West Michigan’s creative community of companies like Conduit Studios to a worldwide audience.

The initiative, known as Design West Michigan, is an effort to organize the region’s design community around a common branding and development strategy. Kicked off officially last fall, the effort aims, among other things, to inventory area design firms and expertise, assess how that capacity compares with similar regions, and strengthen West Michigan’s reputation as a leading hub of advanced design innovation and activity. The project is funded in part by a major grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and, housed under the umbrella of the regional WIRED initiative, is rising as a critical component in West Michigan's 21st century business plan.

“We are looking at how design impacts economic development,” says John Berry, a local communication strategist and an organizer of the effort. “We hope to develop a bridge between designers and the business community that uses them.”

Building the Brand
Entrepreneurial firms like Conduit Studios, which generally focuses on strategic communication design, are generating lucrative opportunities for both themselves and their clients. The company's work includes branding the local restaurant Naya, creating high tech display kiosks for Hush Puppies, and promoting the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

A recent project with A.K. Rikks, the swanky Cascade men's store, illustrates how designers like Tim Carpenter and John O'Neil can add value to a company's bottom line. Before hiring the duo, Jim Murray, the general manager of A.K. Rikks, said his business wasn't "even on the marketing radar."

But Conduit came in, Murray says, and combined a unique understanding of image and fashion, communication creativity, and technological ability. They redesigned the clothier's website with a classy, more international look. As a direct result of the new metropolitan attitude, A.K. Rikks was able to ink a deal with the glamorous Dolce and Gabbana fashion house and begin selling a limited line of the Italian-designed clothes later this spring. Murray's reply to vendors around the world today: "check out our web site."

What's more, Conduit developed a strategic email campaign to compliment A.K. Rikks new web presence. That operation ultimately connected with a VIP shopper in Florida who was looking for stylish Eton shirts in the U.S. and, impressed by the Cascade shop's extensive selection, now plans to take a shopping trip to Grand Rapids, MI.

“The return on investment in design has generated incremental sales to A.K. Rikks,” says Tim Carpenter, 37.

It could also give rise to a productive sector of the economy in West Michigan. Carpenter and O'Neil both actively support the Design West Michigan initiative. They believe a more concerted effort to organize and promote the region as a creative center of design innovation is a smart way to accelerate the transition to knowledge-driven economy.

“No one has ever really quantified the effect of a strong design community on the overall economy,” O’Neil says. "But look at the implications of Conduit Studio’s success. We not only eat, park, and buy entertainment around our downtown office. As we grow, we hire more people, we continue to spend money on local vendors, and the community grows and is strengthened."


Nancy Davis is an independent writer and artist living in Grand Rapids. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about St. Cecilia's Music Center.

Photos:

Tim Carpenter

John O'Neil, Wes Kampa and Tim Carpenter make up Conduit Studios

John O'Neil

A web page designed by Conduit Studios

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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