616 Collective

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Laurel Stanley

To understand Laurel Stanley’s career philosophy, it begins with one question: What is the difference between a designer and an artist?

“An artist serves themselves and a designer serves others,” said Stanley, Founder of 616 Collective. “If you are a designer, who are you serving?”

At 616 Collective, Stanley strives to bridge the gap between creativity and business through user experience design. The concept for 616 Collective is simple: Organize work around a diverse set of talented people, focus on a certain topic, and see what new ideas are spurred. 

“Creativity at its core is discovery, exploration, and play,” said Stanley in a recent GR Flow video confessional, which promotes diverse thinking in Grand Rapids. “Bring those minds to business side, and you can bring more innovative solutions to problems.”

Stanley said, in her experience, designers primarily end up serving the client--the person or organization that pays for their work. During this process, the designer may realize their work is failing the user, and this is where things can get tricky.

“It’s very easy to fall into only serving your clients, and it’s hard to challenge their perspective,” Stanley said. “Being empathetic (toward) those that are impacted and wanting to do better for them is really key for being a user experience designer.”

In its most basic function, design is the act of creating anything new. Stanley believes it is a designer’s responsibility to ask the right questions in that creation process.

“If you aren’t asking the right questions, you won’t know if it is impacting the world in the right way,” Stanley said.

A Kendall College of Art and Design alumni, Stanley began her career as a web designer. Over the years, her interest has shifted from web design to a holistic focus on user experience design. She remembers a five-day boot camp by usability consultant Jakob Nielsen as a turning point in her career. The boot camp provided her with some of the skills and knowledge to build a user experience practice inside Priority Health, where she worked for seven years. Her career has never looked the same since, as she has become involved with increasingly diverse, community-focused projects.

Later becoming a leader in the Grand Rapids community, Stanley used her passion to fuel major projects at ArtPrize, TEDx Grand Rapids and the recent Midwest UX Conference. She has helped design, expand and refine user experience at each of these projects. For Stanley, asking the right questions is essential to being a design leader.

“If you aren’t asking questions, you not leading, you are following,” Stanley said. “How do you make change if you are following?”

User experience is a young and growing field, expanding rapidly in the last few decades in correlation to technological advances. Defined broadly, user experience is any way in which a person interacts with a product, service or system.

“If you take that into definition, every company and every product has a user experience,” Stanley said. “Most of the time it isn’t paid attention to.” 

At the forefront of this push towards user experience was the Midwest UX 2013 Conference, which was hosted in Grand Rapids in mid-October. Stanley, along with co-chairs Samuel Bowles and Grant Carmichael, helped organize the conference. Endorsed by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), the conference presented a mix of regional professionals and international experts. The organizers chose speakers across multiple disciplines, hoping to inspire a grassroots feel while addressing the areas of community and creativity.

One of the goals of the conference was to show participants examples of community in Grand Rapids. To accomplish this, the organizers created 14 excursions that highlighted different areas of the city. Participants experienced the city and were also given narratives of what work was happening in the community.

“We do have a lot of companies here designed around people, communities and experiences,” Stanley said. “I wanted tangible evidence and I think it was positively impactful.”

User experience was designed directly into the conference planning; all the details were addressed. The conference hosts were responsible for picking up all speakers directly from the airport, an uncommon practice for most events. Environmental sustainability was also a large focus. The conference chairs challenged their vendors to be sustainable in all of their products and materials. Even though some vendors brought bottled water, the conference chairs organized quickly to set up a process to recycle those bottles.

The impact of the conference was significant. Following the conference, the Kendall College of Art and Design announced they would be building UX Program into their curriculum. Stanley and her colleagues hope to influence this new discipline within the college, having a greater role in molding future user experience designers in the Midwest.

“Being empathetic with those who are impacted and wanting to do better for them is really key for being a user experience designer,” Stanley said.

Stanley also hopes her work with 616 Collective, Midwest UX and the new master’s program at Kendall will lead to an increased focus towards user experience.

To learn more about Laurel Stanley and her work, visit

Kevin Lignell is a community activist, globetrotter, and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids

Photography by Adam Bird

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