Can great design come from the Midwest? Yes it can.

October 30, 2014

When one thinks about where great design comes from, major foreign cities abundant with cultural diversity, artsy venues and/or rich historical surroundings may come to mind. Probably places like Milan, Paris, Melbourne, Berlin, Barcelona or Toronto among many other possibilities. In the US, any large city on the left or right coasts would be expected… Not too many would think of the Midwest.

It’s almost impossible to have a discussion about great design without first understanding the criteria by which design is deemed to be great. Considering the subjective nature of the topic, going in-depth without writing a book may not be possible. In fact, the more one ponders the profoundness of any kind of greatness, the more questions arise. So in the name of keeping this submission short, I am going to step out on a limband provide a brief perspective of what I think some of the key measures of great design are and how culture may play a role.

Factors that contribute to great design

There are countless factors that come together to formulate culture. Whether we see it or not, culture exists everywhere there are people – it could be a major city, a rural mountain community or the local high school football team.

I once heard someone say they couldn’t live in the Midwest because it is so devoid of cultural diversity and worldly significant historical richness that doing so would suck the life out of them. I could easily argue against those points, but I guess if you compare and judge against places like those mentioned in the first paragraph, maybe that perspective seems valid. But who says design-relevant culture is to be weighed by those measures? I have witnessed amazingly diverse creativity in some of the most remote areas in this country, which lacked worldly influence and a varied culture. As for the Midwest, could it be that our culture is simply operating on a plane that isn’t visible to the masses because it IS our culture to be quietly unpretentious and, well … humble?

The level of emotional impact is one very important measure of any great design. Unfortunately, it’s usually the extent of the initial impact that moves opinions most strongly when it comes to judging design. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle rumbles by or we hear the varoom-varoom of an Italian sports car and it stirs us, so we call it great. You catch a glimpse of the latest concept car and decide you want one – NOW! – because the aesthetic so strongly stirred something inside you. It may not have retractable windows, the doors don’t open, the seats are painful to sit in, and the wheels are too big to negotiate a tight corner… yet we call it great design. I may be exaggerating just a tad, but in essence this is what happens. Yet initial emotional impact is but one important component of great design.

Could it be that our culture is simply operating on a plane that isn’t visible to the masses because it IS our culture to be, well, humble?

Designing for emotional impact isn’t exclusive to the major design centers of the world. I struggle to find even a hint of correlation and yet it is far and above the measure by which design is judged. That seems very one-dimensional. And what about those emotionally stirring design attributes that aren’t always experienced at first glance? What about human factors and ergonomics, manufacturability, sustainability, authenticity of materials, user environment, packaging, and attention to details, details, details? What about the full experience from manufacture to purchase to disposal? What consideration are these things typically given when a particular design is deemed to be great? And, unfortunately, one of the greatest measures of all – timelessness – cannot be evaluated upfront.

Designing cool stuff is a culture

Now, I didn’t grow up hanging around Italian Design studios so I can’t speak to the specific mindset of designers in that culture as they create that which stirs us in their unique way. I CAN speak to the mindset of the culture here in Wisconsin, in Madison, and specifically, here at Design Concepts. It is my observation of the culture, the talent and process here that makes it obvious to me that GREAT design can and does come from the Midwest. Following is what I see and breathe every day I come to work to play in our culture:

The stated core values of our company, which in abbreviated form are akin to ‘have fun doing the right thing,’ were created by our culture, not the other way around — and they are something of which we are all proud. It is our mission and our passion to design really cool things that promote business success, solving real problems along the way. That enables us to design even more really cool things – all for the higher cause of making life better. With that mentality, how could we not be inspired by one another as we all endeavor to find a better solution? And from that comes inspiring design, which correlates closely with our vision as a company. That is the essence of the culture that runs through all of our veins.

There are multiple departments, each with their own subcultures and personalities, which combine to create a very dynamic and productive mix. This is a place where unusual is pretty usual. Nerf ICBMs on target for any vulnerable-looking individual just happens to happen on occasion. And if the skateboard is occupied when the need for expediency isn’t cooperating with a distant plotter, just hop on the low-rise Huffy bike with the sissy bars, front basket and banana seat to make-up the difference. Never mind the high profile meeting you may pass along the way. Yet, with all the quirky little oddities one might see in the course of any day, no one would question the significant number of neurons firing as serious cognition does its magic.

The Industrial Design group to which I belong consists of 14 designers for whom learning about a new problem to solve is like reliving our childhood while opening presents on Christmas day. We are a diverse group of highly contemplative individuals who happen to be bursting with curiosity. A group of Individuals who are modest and authentic, which feels right at home in this great state of Wisconsin. A place where we struggle to toot our own horns – so much so that just writing about it feels out of place – because we understand that it’s just not about us. It can’t be. Truly great design requires adeptness at being, living, experiencing from the vantage point of others. A detailed attention that makes it obvious the research was more than just a trip to a foreign land to ask a few questions. ‘Not about us’ means that finding solutions is the squeaky wheel. We rarely sign our own work. Concept sketches just go up on the wall for evaluation with the others. Yet the modesty and lack of narcissism all but disguise the depth of critical thinking going on beneath the surface, destined to bubble up in another no-named sketch on the wall.

So what does all of that have to do with great design? Well, everything! At least for anybody who understands that great design extends well beyond products that simply evoke that initial emotional response. There are many great cultures in this world, some small and some enormous. Large or small, the impact on design can be significant. But no culture can claim supremacy over another. And from a great culture in the lands of corn and red barns great design emerges. It’s a culture that is as relevant to great design as any other in the world. It just happens in our culture we don’t brag about it quite so much.