West Michigan design leadership: Discover impressive opportunities

Tara McCrackin, photo by Elizabeth Cyr

“Design is problem solving, relationship building, and connection,” says Tara McCrackin. McCrackin is the president of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD). She is its third female president. She is also the first designer to lead the college in its 94-year history.  

McCrackin is quick to make the connection between design and leadership. An interior designer by education and practice, McCrackin was in corporate workplace design for 15 years. She also worked with an architectural firm and taught design at KCAD. McCrackin became the interim president at the college in 2019 and the full-time president in 2020. 

“All of those things that made me an effective designer make me an effective leader. Because all of those transferred to leadership,” she says. “Design is about making things better. It's about improving product, process, experience, function.”

Students may not be aware of how a design education can provide training for leadership positions. And many in the West Michigan community may not be aware that talented designers are in high demand.

“The typical community member is not necessarily so cognizant of design,” says McCrackin. “Design is not a part of K-12 education in most instances. And folks don't think about design, except when there's a high aesthetic impact,” she says. "That's the first impression. Or when something's not working or poorly designed — those are the two times when people become real cognizant of design.”

McCrackin points out that great designers are both disruptors and innovators. 

“Technology. Business. Health care. All of those processes. All of those industries are looking to design because design is about making things better. How do we do this better? Designers can help lead that path.”

Marjorie Simmons, photo courtesy of Landscape FormsLeveraging innovation for growth and design

Marjorie Simmons also believes that innovation is crucial for great design — and for attracting and retaining top design talent.  Simmons became CEO of Landscape Forms in 2019. With headquarters in Kalamazoo, Landscape Forms manufactures adaptive outdoor structures. A global company, the organization has exceeded $1B in sales and it employs over 400 people. 

“I think that I have sort of an atypical background or path to being engaged in the world of design,” she says. 

Simmons earned an accounting degree from Michigan State University. She also has a passion for good design.  

“My path to the design world is through the financial aspects,” Simmons says. “So I became the CFO of a small architectural firm.”

That was her first foray into the design world. She learned about design from that experience and then became a partner in an architectural firm. 

“You definitely have to listen to your customer and your clients,” says Simmons. “But you also have to be very, very forward looking and have the ability and the resources to be able to try things to find out what people might need or want they don't even know exists. And that's really what's exciting — to find those things.”

Simmons points to concrete examples of how Landscape Forms leads in innovation. They’re working with new materials and concepts. They're using technology to collaborate on designs and engage in flexible, remote work. The pandemic accelerated their commitment to innovation.
“We had an initiative early on in the pandemic that we entitled “Healthy Outdoor Spaces.” We really thought through all of the things that people were going to need going into the future. And one of the products was Artful House.”

Artful House, photo courtesy of Landscape Forms
Artful House is an outdoor structure where people can gather for discussions and meetings. It delineates space, which silently communicates the desire for appropriate social distance. The delineation helps prevent unwanted encroachment on personal space. 

Another pandemic-driven innovation is something familiar — hand sanitizing stations.

“It drives me crazy to see hand sanitizers,” says Simmons. “It's sloppy. It’s messy. It's ugly. So how can we provide hand sanitizer outdoors and have it be delivered in a beautiful way, and in a clean way? So we came up with a few different solutions to that as well.”

Healthy Outdoor Spaces Hand Sanitizing Station, photo courtesy of Landscape FormsAn innovative approach is also at the heart of attracting and retaining top design talent. Simmons notes the ongoing war to hire talented designers has heightened in the last few years. 

“One of the things that we've had to learn is that people want flexibility,” she says. “They want to be able to work from home. And so they have to use technology to be able to do that.”

And it’s not just about working from home. It’s also about working from anywhere.

“Landscape Forms is all about living, working, playing, traveling — everything associated with the outdoors,” she said. “Even learning outdoors.”

Remote work also allows designers to collaborate in new and innovative ways. And it provides companies the opportunities to make design more inclusive and accessible.

Frances Close, photo by Amy Carroll Photography

Promoting joy through intentional design 

Frances Close lives in Grand Rapids and has worked in design for over 15 years. In February 2022, Close started working remotely for Critical Mass — a top digital experience design agency headquartered in Canada.  

An Associate Director of User Experience, Close led the product design team for MINI of BMW. From her home office in Michigan, she collaborated with teams in Toronto, Costa Rica, Los Angeles and New York. 

“It's just like this really cool way to interact with various different people and get so many different perspectives,” she says. 

Close became adept at leading and collaborating across time zones and cultures. She is excited about delving into an inclusive and collaborative design approach that marries both aesthetics and functionality. 

She’s already working on bringing an additional component to her inclusive design approach — joy. 

“Working on MINI has got me excited about this notion of working on something with an intentional focus of bringing joy to people,” she said. “I like the aesthetics and the functionality piece of it. But I think there's something really interesting about what happens when people put some sort of intentional focus on ‘what can we do to bring joy into people's lives?’ Or ‘what can we do to bring joy and delight into the experiences that we make?’”

Nine months into working with Critical Mass, Close received three other design job offers. She wasn’t looking but noticed a lot of people reaching out to her. 

“Maybe that's a leadership gap that people are feeling,” Close says. “I'm just [going to] embrace the opportunity and see where that takes me.”

In the world of design and talent, things move fast. Close accepted a new position as the director of product design for a remote-first Grand Rapids-based company. She began her new job in November 2022. 

Close, Simmons and McCrackin are all inspired by the design and leadership potential in West Michigan. 

“There's a lot of opportunity in southwest Michigan for designers,” says Simmons. ”They just may not always be a traditional role.”

Like Simmons and Close, McCrackin notes that opportunities abound within the industry. When considering her career progression and the potential of these opportunities, McCrackin encourages others to be open-minded.

"Lean in and say ‘yes,’" says McCrackin. 

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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