Using Design Thinking, to Bring Michigan Out of Its Doldrums

NewNorth attempts to teach staid manufacturing executives the process of innovation.

Using Design Thinking, to Bring Michigan Out of Its Doldrums

It’s hard to sell a service no one understands–just ask Nate Young, CEO of NewNorth, a fledgling non-profit education center that’s using design thinking to help companies innovate. When Young makes his pitch, he gets a lot of head scratching in response–and that’s precisely why he believes he’s needed.


It’s no secret that Michigan, and its generations of blue-collar factory workers, was one of the hardest-hit states by globalization. Fast-evolving technologies have left many companies there scrambling to stay relevant. NewNorth Center for Design in Business in Holland, Michigan officially launched last year with the blessings of the local economic development heavies; it hopes a key resource for businesses hoping to reinvent themselves.

Young, whose former lives include stints as provost at Art Center College of Design and vice president of design for a Michigan auto supplier, wants to be a kind of shepherd of right brain thinking into a mostly left brain thinking work environment. (Its logo is half an apple and half an orange, fused together.) “At NewNorth, imagination is the beginning, the place in your mind where ideas are formed,” says Young. “Innovation is the process of doing something with that imagination.”

Huh? Exactly. Clients often tell Young to take out the word ‘design’ in NewNorth’s name, because they view it as both confusing and meaningless. Yet, some of the country’s top business schools–MIT Sloan and Harvard among them–are incorporating design into their curriculum. Meanwhile authors such as Daniel Pink have become best sellers by flogging “design thinking.”

According to Young, the power of the word “design” is simply that the design world uses skills–imagination, creativity, empathy–which are pushed aside in most executive suites. “We’re not saying to be innovative, go hire designers. We’re saying, ‘First, tell us what you mean by innovation. Let’s take a systematic approach towards it. We’ll help design that. And then we’ll help train that,” he says.

NewNorth is part innovation consultant, part school, part creative retreat–all with a small staff of three, plus a handful of faculty. The classes are feature open enrollment and take participants through brainstorming processes of the sort you’d find IDEO engaged in every day. It also holds what sounds like executive retreats but held in a studio-like setting, with a checklist of activities: observation, investigation, ideation, decision and validation. The classes lean heavily on visualization–For example, rather than creating a simple 2-D flowchart of how their business works, executive are called on to create 3-D models, to better foster unexpected connections.

NewNorth also travels. A team is currently working with a large motorcycle company in south Asia, leading a team of engineers and program managers through a simulation developing a product under extreme time constraints. Young says the project will either amplify existing problems or show what can go away.


Of course, the danger is that a design-thinking seminar becomes nothing more than an afternoon’s diversion–and that design-thinking becomes 2010’s equivalent of trust falls and a rope course. Some, such as Joshua Handy, design director for method products, argue that design consultants are less effective than internal personnel to effect change from top management. The design pros will reinvent, leave, but have less buy-in than inside-out initiatives.

[Participants are blindfolded in an exercise that teases out the different decisions people make on data versus intuition.]

But that internal tension at change will always be there in any organization, says Ray Kennedy, marketing director for office furniture–maker Haworth, which has tapped NewNorth for help on a new business initiative. “Bringing in an organization like [NewNorth] and exposing the leadership to the methodology of commercializing an idea helps to bring along naysayers,” he says. “To get them exposed to the creative process is really powerful.”

Nate Young echoes that sentiment: “I really believe the most important element to get innovation happening is trust. And relationships help, but that takes time.”

About the author

Kaomi Goetz is a writer for Co Design. She also uses audio to tell stories about technology and social and economic trends for National Public Radio and others.