Co.Design

To Elevate the Design Profession, Boston Tries Grassroots Advocacy

Grassroots movements like those happening in Massachusetts might be the U.S.'s best bet for establishing design's value to business and society.


I recently went to the opening reception for the Creative Capital exhibit at Boston City Hall, one of several exhibits created by the Design Museum of Boston. This exhibit highlights Boston as a cultural center for creativity, but more importantly, it attempts to make a connection between design and business; the space where creativity and industry meet.

The Creative Capital show focused specifically on the creative economy that resides within Massachusetts, and it's only one of several local initiatives that highlights the positive economic effect design has on the state's economy. Other initiatives in Massachusetts, such as the Creative Economy Council, the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts (DIGMA) and Boston's proposed Innovation District are all interesting developments where design is at the center of the conversation. But we don't yet have a single cohesive movement or organization to help designers show their value to business and society.

In the U.S., design and designers still sit under a very large creative tent, one that includes virtually every artistic and design endeavor in the nation with each group seeking to elevate their own special interests and gain their own funding. It's challenging to imagine a clear voice for design evolving from these somewhat confusing and bureaucratic bodies. And as much as I would love design to pitch its own tent in Washington, I actually think some of the most effective connections are being made at the state level, like the one we see in Massachusetts.


Unlike the more mature design organizations in nations such as Denmark, Germany, and Britain, the U.S. continues to lack a national perspective and understanding that design has been directly tied to the economic success of virtually every business venture and experience that we touch. For example, the British Design Council has been promoting the value of design for business in both the private and public sectors for over 60 years. It is not part of a broader "arts" organization or "museum" model; rather it is a separate government agency, funded by the Department of Business Innovation, which actively demonstrates how design helps build a stronger economy through connecting business with design and designers with business.

With the ongoing adoption of "D-School" curriculums within traditional business school environments, one could hope that a similar U.S.-driven initiative connecting design and designers through a national body would be the next step. For those in the design economy, we know that we are much more than the cool graphics and shiny objects that people tend to focus on. Design today informs businesses about the effective use of design strategies and we have the tools and methods to integrate design thinking to solve the myriad of systems and service problems that plague everything from transportation, health care and our education system.


The Design Museum is likely one of many local, grassroots organizations throughout the country that aim to elevate the way that the design profession delivers value to business, culture and society as a whole. Unfortunately, I feel the majority reside within the hollowed walls of museums or design interest groups. They're not particularly accessible to the public, nor are they necessarily created to make a clear connection with the business community.

However, design is about connecting the dots, and it is that principle that is beginning to give me hope that a broader national point of view will develop from more local initiatives pushing the needle. Jason Schupbach, who was the director of the Creative Economy in Massachusetts is now the design director at the National Endowment of the Arts, and Bill Moggridge, co-founder at IDEO is now the director of The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. With these two individuals in significantly influential roles, I hope we can begin a new dialogue and look forward to the day when we can more effectively communicate the true strategic value of design and business on a national scale.

[Top image by Rob Stalnaker]

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