MiBiz West: Kendall develops new B.F.A. in Design Collaboration

“The challenge for a practice-based program such as design is preparing students to participate in a professional world that can change very quickly. The successful people will be those who can define how those changes will happen, who have a broad base of knowledge, and are able to move beyond their own discipline and collaborate with people in other fields.”

Oliver Evans, president, Kendall College of Art and Design

That’s why Kendall College of Art and Design is developing an undergraduate degree in Design Collaboration. And it’s why one of the pilot offerings being considered for the new B.F.A. is a class called “Improvisation and Design Thinking.”

“Yes and” describes a basic principle of improvisational theatre. The rule is you take whatever a team member puts out there and you add to it. You never say, “no,” you always say, “yes and.” In the larger world, this process is known as collaboration, its end result is innovation, and smart business leaders are hungry for it.

“Improvisers agree on a series of default behaviors known to help them be effective, playful problem-solvers,” says Mary Jane Pories, who designed and plans to teach the course. She maintains that learning and practicing these behaviors will help design students increase their ability to communicate and “problem-solve in the moment, to quickly grasp what this one moment is about, define and accept the relevant parameters, have a keen awareness of the opportunities.”

An alumna of The Second City improvisational troupe in Chicago, Pories heads the Grand Rapids-based Fishladder Inc., which uses improvisational tools to create and facilitate corporate training programs. She is pleased to be included as an adjunct faculty member in the new degree program and “excited to see West Michigan moving in this direction.”

The improv course is one of several class descriptions initially outlined for the program by Design West Michigan Executive Director John Berry, serving in his role as special assistant to the Kendall president for Academic Initiatives.

“One of the great benefits this degree brings is the connection with business and industry,” says President Evans. “The college is looking at design education as it currently exists to see what kind of expectations there are for designers as they enter the workforce.”

Beginning with what Berry calls “the generally recognized need for an educational experience that develops well-rounded design thinkers,” he and Kendall administration met with corporate leaders, design principals, and Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, to better understand and “confirm the need for such ‘general/flexible’ design thinkers.”

Based on this input and interactions with design friends, magazine editors, and business acquaintances, Berry and his team of Kendall design faculty collaborated to design a B.F.A. in Collaborative Design.

“The design collaboration degree really builds on strengths we already have,” says Kendall Dean Max Shangle. “Our Collaborative Design classes have been running for going on 10 years, with projects involving everything from pediatric cancer to Habitat for Humanity. But up until now, the best a student could do was minor in Collaborative Design. With this new degree, we can offer more classes, like a Design Ethics course that’s available to anyone who wants to take it, but is supported by this major.”

Shangle expects the B.F.A. in Collaborative Design will attract a new type of student and also prove satisfying to certain Kendall students already enrolled in other disciplines. “There are generalist thinkers out there, and they’re different from the ones who were born to be an industrial or interior designer,” he says. “Now we’ve got something to offer both types of design students.”

The new degree will require majors to have a studio minor, so students will bring strong backgrounds in diverse disciplines to their Collaborative Design classes and carry learnings from courses like Design Ethics, Improv, and Materials Science back into other art and design disciplines.

“It raises the possibilities for all of the disciplines when you have that kind of a student, that kind of an education experience taking place here,” says Shangle. “It’s a department and it’s an institutional support that is very cool for Kendall and distinguishes it from most other design schools in the country.”

Offering the new degree program is key in shaping the future regional economy in West Michigan, says Ferris State University President David L. Eisler, as the university looked to expand opportunities in West Michigan through Kendall College’s continued success.

“Kendall is furthering educational opportunities for its students with the creation of a B.F.A.,” says President Eisler. “These learning opportunities are a direct link to the rewarding and successful careers of its graduates. The vitality and growth of Ferris’ Kendall College of Art and Design is paramount to shaping West Michigan’s business environment. A college with the caliber of students Kendall attracts means there are many more young people in downtown Grand Rapids fueling the city’s economic and cultural life. Kendall graduates are the new generation of designers and innovators who will be crucial players in shaping a vital and sustainable economy.”

President Evans is pleased with the outcome of his directive and eager to see the new degree program become a reality. “In conjunction with the work we will be doing with the Federal Building, bringing this program online and finding a director for it will be among the most important things that we do this year,” says Evans.

“We’ll have a program that is collaboratively based and that will provide students with solid prep in a discipline but also a broad, broad understanding across disciplines. It’s a program where the students are prepared not only to do the jobs that are available to them today, but can really play active roles in defining what will go on tomorrow. In that way, design becomes an instrument of economic development, helping to define what will be.”

Read the MiBiz West article online.