Interview with Michigan's Governor

Governor Jennifer Granholm tells Corporate Design Foundation Chairman Peter Lawrence why she has placed design at the forefront of her program to make the State of Michigan the innovation capital of the United States.

Could you give me your definition of design, because it means different things to different people?

To me, design is more customer-focused—which is exactly what it should be if you're going to sell a product today. You've got to make sure that the product is designed in a way that doesn't just work, but is really responsive to the customer. Good design is a critical factor when people make their buying decisions.

Does Michigan have a design heritage?

Michigan has a rich design tradition. It is part of our DNA. Detroit is synonymous with automobiles and Motown music. West Central Michigan is a great center for cutting-edge office furniture, including Herman Miller, Steelcase and Haworth. That area has been very well known for its design focus from way back. In Benton Harbor, Whirlpool has used design to turn basic household appliances into fashionable best-sellers. Michigan has also made significant contributions to architecture over the years. We have been the home of such giants as Albert Kahn, designer of the modern concrete factory; Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center; and Eliel Saarinen, who co-founded and designed the Cranbrook Academy of Art. We continue to have a large concentration of phenomenal architects here today as well.

You are the first governor in the nation to promote the importance of design to your state's economy and to give it priority. Why design?

The bottom line for why design is important to the State of Michigan—especially a state that has been challenged by a global economy where we see manufacturing jobs leave—is because future growth will be based more and more on the creative work that goes into making great products, or developing great cities, or even providing great customer service. We are going to base our economy more and more on our intellectual property, on the creative side, the value-added side of what we can offer. We have a strong record as a producer of new products, and now we want to make sure that Michigan's brand image is all about innovation, design and creativity.

Can professions in creative fields really make that much of an impact on Michigan's economic future?

The power of creativity in propelling our economy is a fundamental building block of our state's transformation. Since we have lost many repetitive-motion-type jobs, we have moved from muscle to mind, from brawn to brain, from carrying to creating. Aesthetics are part of a functional economy. Aesthetics matter, curb appeal matters—for a state, a city, a car, or any mass-produced product. We have worked to use design in our efforts to promote and reshape Michigan. We recognize the importance of design in attracting and retaining the creative workforce that is necessary for our state to survive.

Michigan is known as the world's automotive center. For decades, it has defined emerging trends. What are you doing to hang onto that reputation?

The effort that I am engaged in now is focused on the creative aspects of the products that we produce. We have the R&D facilities of domestic automakers here, and we just got Toyota to place their North American R&D center in Ann Arbor. We also got Hyundai and Nissan to locate their global R&D centers in Michigan. R&D is where design and engineering innovations emerge in this industry. Expanding the pipeline of engineers for those facilities is an enormous focus of ours. We have policies in place to forgive loans to engineering students so we can generate the numbers of that creative workforce that we need. Related to that is our intention to excel in simulation software, which is critical in R&D facilities.

A recent Business Week article, titled "Get Creative," describes how successful companies must understand that they exist in a creative economy where design and design-thinking are essential for innovation. How does Michigan fit into that model?

Michigan is home to major industries that shape how the nation travels, works and lives. They all rely on good design. No other state has the history and future that we have relative to design impacting people's lives. No other state has the combination of success with respect to products—namely, cars and furniture—that virtually everyone in the U.S. and the world touches. This means that huge opportunities still lie before us. Where do I think Michigan fits into this creative economy? Michigan is poised and has taken advantage of creativity to shape its economy. We are dissatisfied with status quo. We want to continually evolve and shape and attract others who are at that level in a design, research and development economy.

Does that mean Michigan will also seek to foster the growth of new industries and businesses?

We want to be the most entrepreneurial state in the country. We want to be the place where entrepreneurs come and where they are supported and incubated. Some of the folks we want to attract are those who only need a computer and some software to provide value to what they are designing. We have smart zones attached to our 15 universities around the state as start-ups for people who can create the workforce for the 21st century.

What about jobs in the fast-growing digital arts field?

Absolutely. Diversification is important. In Michigan, we seek to foster a welcoming environment for those we fondly refer to as "the green hairs," the iconoclasts, so we can take advantage of their imagination and ease around computer technologies. When you look at the digital magic of movies and all that unbelievable software that goes into the development of video games, that's what we want to link to. Right now those kids are going to Pixar in California. We want them here. That means we must support schools that put the focus on the creative side of digital technologies.

Michigan is the home of several respected art and design schools. Are you working with them in any way?

Yes, we have great art and design schools here—The College for Creative Studies, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Kendall College of Art & Design and others. We have been focusing on connecting the private sector with the education system, encouraging internships that give students hands-on experience in applying what they learn in real-life situations. Several active dialogues between businesses, educational institutions and economic development groups aim to identify ways to build on our creative environments. Focused scholarships, internships and interdisciplinary educational experiences, symposiums and conferences are some considerations.

Are you going to push design exposure to the high school level?

You bet. In fact, we would love for a major design firm to join with us in piloting a curriculum. We are canvassing the field for those who would help us create a high school that is focused on design. Maybe some of those folks reading @Issue would be willing to step forward.

In a manufacturing-heavy state such as Michigan, is the value of design education widely understood?

I think lay people who are not deeply imbedded in design still see art education as unrelated to practical use. There is a tendency to see design as exclusive versus inclusive. They think of artists drawing pictures rather than about how designers recognize a need and apply their skills to improving the effectiveness, beauty, functionality and enjoyment of all the products that touch our lives. Our school systems can help provide the educational experience that integrates design into good business decisions. We want to promote that awareness.

In 2004, you introduced a pilot program called "Cool Cities" that uses environmental design to revitalize low-income downtown neighborhoods and attract businesses and a skilled workforce to the area. Could you tell us more about it?

It emerged from the idea that Michigan needs "cool cities" to attract the jobs, young professionals, diversity and innovation necessary to make the state economically competitive. It stemmed from my belief that successful neighborhood revitalization requires broad, inclusive and thoughtful planning, rather than sporadic and piecemeal projects here and there. We wanted to create places where people were willing and able to invest themselves and their resources in their homes, businesses and neighborhoods. Strong neighborhoods linked closely with commercial districts are the key to keeping downtown areas vibrant. So two years ago, we held a conference that drew together 2,000 people from municipalities all over the state to talk about enhancing their environment. They were invited to apply for catalyst resource grants by submitting a detailed plan on how they would enhance their neighborhood through facade and physical infrastructure improvements, addition of streetscapes including public art, creation of green spaces and parks, and rehabilitation of dilapidated buildings and the like. The first year, we had 100 cities that applied and 20 that qualified because they had phenomenal plans.

I understand that Cool Cities has been very successful.

Yes. It has opened up a whole toolbox of state resources, including expert consultants who work alongside neighborhood stakeholders, to grant recipients. It has enabled communities to redevelop factories as loft housing, revive blocks of abandoned storefronts, add miles of new landscaping, bike paths and sidewalks and even fund new mass transit systems. It has given communities a way to implement their vision for their city and move projects along faster than they could on their own. The end result is creating places that people say are cool places to work and live.

The design-related programs that you outline for Michigan encompass everything from urban renewal and new business development to education. Do they cover the full spectrum of issues Michigan faces?

Design is about problem-solving. For us, it is an opportunity to leverage technology to solve problems and sell products—whether it's an industrial product or interior design or the landscape, healthcare, the design of tourism promotion, the design of cities or the design of a new economy. It is all about breaking down the way things have been done before. We see great value in creating and sustaining the environment where creative disciplines can flourish and continue to lead the innovative process so important for our state's future. That, to me, is the richest opportunity we have.