Chicago: my kind of *design* town

Milling at Segal Design Institute

Chicago Ideas Week is in full swing, with a wide range of forums and workshops taking place all over the city—sort of like a dispersed TED conference.  Last night, Malcolm Gladwell was here talking about innovation.  This morning, you could choose between workshops at a local glass maker, tour the facilities at crowd-designed t-shirt maker Threadless, or develop social enterprise concepts with The Cara Program.  Tomorrow, IDEO is hosting a design thinking workshop, Table XI is using Legos to show how agile software development works, and Leo Burnett’s Farmhouse is offering the opportunity re-imagine, re-design and re-market an everyday object. There’s an astonishing range of very cool things happening in the design & innovation space, right here in Chicago.

Are we becoming the new product design & innovation capitol?  Or is “all the design talent on the coasts” (as I’ve been told more than once).  A few facts to consider about Chicago’s prowess as a place for design & innovation:

  • Four of the top ten most-funded design projects on Kickstarter were initiated in Chicago, generating $3.4 million.  And that’s not a speculative investment figure—that’s in pre-sales of actual products.
  • Design for America was started here. Assistant Professor Liz Gerber at Northwestern University’s Segal Design Institute initiated the formation of this student-led organization focused on using human-centered design methods to solve local social issues. DFA now has chapters at seventeen campuses across the United States.
  • The international conference of the IDSA (The Industrial Designers Society of America) was held in Chicago this year and led by Chicagoan Paul Hatch of TEAMS Design.
  • Chicago-based product start-up SwipeSense, a hand cleaning device for healthcare providers, is one of five contenders for WSJ Startup of the Year 2013. (The company was founded by two of Design for America’s first student members).

The maker movement is alive and well here too, with Pumping Station One, a Maker Lab at the Chicago Public Library, a FabLab at the Museum of Science and Industry, an active MakerBiz group of product entrepreneurs, and a newly-formed Oak Park chapter of Hacker Scouts.  Chicago is home to Grainger and McMaster Carr and Inventables, which supply materials for makers and designers.  And we still actually produce things here too: one in ten jobs in Illinois is in manufacturing.

Design has been described as the intersection of thinking and doing.  And when design is done well, it is a very boots-on-the-ground exercise in meeting people’s needs through getting out and interacting, prototyping, building, and re-building. That seems to fit Chicago’s reputation to a tee, a town described a century ago by Carl Sandberg as:

“Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

 Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

 Stormy, husky, brawling,

 City of the Big Shoulders:

[… ]

Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,


Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”

What words would the poet use to describe Chicago today?

© October 2013 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.  Full text of Carl Sandberg’s poem “Chicago,” published in 1914 in Poetry magazine, can be found here:


What art really teaches

My local school district, like so many others, is struggling with difficult budget choices.  As is typical, the arts become an easy target for financial cuts because we do not understand how or why they matter.  The arts somehow seem superfluous.  I wish that were not so.  Here is a letter I composed and shared with school board members; perhaps others might find it helpful too.

Dear Board of Education member:

As you grapple with budget choices and curriculum trade-offs related to the arts, I’d like to share a quote from Larry Rosenstock who leads High Tech High, a San Diego school started by a group of local tech executives frustrated by a lack of skilled workers.  “There is no test for the future that we can teach to.  What we do know, however, is that being able to make new things is still going to be the way to succeed.  Creativity is a skill that never goes out of style.”   As school environments get ever more rigid and test oriented, arts is the area which advances the traits needed for the future—how to cope with complexity and connect ideas, how to develop grit and determination, how to find your voice and say something– whether with music, words, dance or art.  I can think of nothing more essential for the children of our community.  Please preserve the arts as a critical element of education.

To copy or to iterate?

An article in a recent issue of The Economist argued that being good at copying is at least as important as being innovative.  Here’s my take on it.

Schumpeter’s recent piece on Pretty Profitable Parrots seemed to confuse iteration with copying.  Building on the ideas of others is how the world gets better.  All progress stems from what preceded it.  Sir Isaac Newton captured this concept, saying  “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  It can be both brilliant and noble to seek and reapply ideas from one field to another (as in the case of Victoria’s Secret) or to envision an interface so elegant and simple that it transforms a technology (as with Apple and the MP3 player).  But it is not the same as being a copycat.  Copying is taking what is not yours and claiming it as your own, as illustrated by the image of a student leaning over to view his classmate’s work so he can scribble it down on his own test.  Iteration is listening well and contributing something to the conversation.

What do you think?

© May 2012 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.