GRAND RAPIDS - Throughout the 80-year history of Kendall College of Art and Design, the school has produced thousands of skilled artisans who have gone on to work in myriad industries across the globe. But until recently, the school didn’t necessarily have a direct link to economic development.
That changed in 2008 when Kendall announced it would help support Design West Michigan, an organization created to explore the economic impact design has on the region. According to Oliver Evans, president of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, the school pursued the partnership to "be able to bring significant people together to provide insight into the whole ocean of what design is" and to move design education forward.
The design field and designers have been stereotyped as the make-it-pretty people by those in industry who lack understanding about what design meant to businesses and their products, services and processes.
"Design West Michigan successfully linked economic development and design in a crucial way," Evans told MiBiz.
The organization was originally funded through the West Michigan Strategic Alliance with Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) funds, which expired at the end of January, and was spearheaded by John Berry, senior consultant for Greystone Global and former designer in the office furniture industry. He was tasked to define what it means to be a design-centric region.
Initial work focused on grasping the impact of the design community in West Michigan and generating a cooperative, versus a competitive atmosphere among the community, many of whom worked at fiercely rivalrous companies.
Design West Michigan also held a business academy for non-designers, including the decision makers at firms in disparate industries, to help foster an understanding of design’s problem-solving role.
However, if Design West Michigan was to live past the WIRED grant, it needed to find funding sources. Kendall College, as well as economic development groups Lakeshore Advantage and The Right Place Inc., stepped up to keep the program rolling.
"One of the reasons we asked John along is that he’s able to bring people to the table who can say what design education should look like," said Evans, who has served as president since 1994. "As we consider the role (design) can play, we need to ask, ‘How do we teach that in the most effective way.’"
Going forward, Evans expects the design for non-designers academy to evolve. He’s also hopeful the group will continue to attract national design figures to West Michigan to discuss how design and designers can better state their role in economic development. Those discussions will only help design education to innovate and change to become better, he said.
"In one sense, we’ve always been tied to (economic development) because we prepare people for work in the economy," Evans said. "With this new opportunity, we’re part of the conversation of how does what’s here have to change and innovate (to develop) new kinds of businesses, products, and processes; how is it reinvented; and how does innovation take place?"
Eyeing the economy’s impact
While becoming directly involved in economic development might be new to Kendall, the school doesn’t operate outside the normal economic pressures that befall the region.
According to Evans, Kendall is in "excellent shape" with strong enrollments and high retention rates, but the college is watching carefully how the changing economy will affect students. For the 2008 fall semester, Kendall had record enrollment of 1,350 students.
"We’re watching very carefully the impact of the economy on students’ ability to attend college and the impact of the economy on our alumni," Evans said.
Like most schools across the country, Kendall’s endowment has been hit by the falloff in the markets. But the college has little dependence on those funds for operational purposes, Evans said. Although a part of Ferris State University, Kendall College does not receive any of Ferris’ state appropriation, so any cut there won’t impact Kendall, either.
However, a potential side effect of the economy could be felt if the school has fewer students enrolling for the next school year. Most of the college’s operating funds come from tuition. Evans said fall 2009 enrollment, although very early in the process, is running "very close to last year."
"We’re not seeing the decline, but we’ll be very sensitive to the impact the economy will have on some people’s ability to attend college," he said. "If we sustain our enrollments, we’ll come through this just fine.As anybody is these days, we’re being very cautious."
He added that Kendall is considered a value among the art and design schools, many of which are located on the coasts.
One positive note is that the credit markets for student loans appear to be "in very fine shape," Evans said.
The college also doesn’t want to forget about its alumni and has offered counseling and resume preparation services to past graduates. They’re also asking that alums still at work tell the college when positions come open at their facilities so the college can pass that word along to those who are out of work.
On a related note, Evans also wonders what impact the economy will have on the availability of internship for students in the coming year, especially those experiences that are paid.
Benefiting from Ferris ties
Kendall began its relationship with FSU in 1996 but didn’t officially become a part of the Big Rapids-based university until 2000. According to Evans, Kendall has been afforded the opportunity to "chart its own course" with the backing of a much larger institution.
"Knowing that we had the university there allowed us to take some risks we wouldn’t have taken if we had been standing alone," Evans said. The merger, he added, allowed Kendall to do a great deal of program enhancements as well as physically expand the school’s campus.
"Our enrollments have grown, the school is robust and able to attract students and expand its programs and has not become a burden to the larger university," he said.
But despite the growth, Evans notes the school has been operating as it did when it had only 500 or 600 students per year. He’s now turning his focus to the school’s infrastructure by adding faculty and staff, bolstering technological capabilities, and finding ways to enhance the school’s fine arts programming.
Making those changes didn’t come without risks. Evans said expanding Kendall’s physical size didn’t guarantee an influx of more students, but luckily, just that has happened since the expansions.
Architecture of downtown expansion
Kendall is looking for ways to continue growing, perhaps most notably via the potential purchase of the nearby Federal Building, the former home of the Grand Rapids Art Museum before it moved to a new facility. The school is considering the property as a possible home for a new graduate-level program in architecture.
The idea for the graduate program came about after discussions with those in the local design community about the region’s needs for advanced degrees in architecture. No graduate degrees in architecture are offered on the west side of the state.
"Architecture really plays on the strengths of Kendall and the strengths of the university," Evans said. "It’s really a program that speaks to the potential of the merger, what the two sides could do if they collaborated on architecture that neither one could do alone."
Evans anticipates such a program would attract about 40-50 students per year and would require the hiring of faculty. At issue is where to house the program since the current facilities wouldn’t accommodate such an expansion.
"We are exploring the potential of a public-private partnership as one part of financing (the Federal Building)," Evans said.
When the building was first considered, the administration assumed the building’s infrastructure would work for the school’s intended function, but further investigation revealed that it would need to be replaced at significant cost.
"One way or another, we need more space," Evans said. "We’re very tight; 1,300 students require a lot of space, and design programs are space-intensive anyway."
The Ferris State board of trustees meets in March and will consider the college’s options. Evans is hopeful the situation will resolve after that meeting and potential vote.