Design industry pipeline keeping workers in town

An education-to-employment infrastructure has brought businesses, kept workers, and made Kalamazoo a national hub for industrial design and related jobs.

Designers of everything from medical equipment to remotely-operated gas grills are not only developing their skills in West Michigan, but they are getting the opportunity to put them into practice in the area as well.

That’s something that both the burgeoning design workforce and a myriad of employers are calling a win-win situation for Kalamazoo and the surrounding area.

“In the last year alone we have attracted a new design director role, and three other design/creative type roles from the local community,” said Robb Smalldon, president of Landscape Forms, a Kalamazoo-based company with a global presence as a designer and manufacturer of outdoor furniture, structures, and spaces.

According to the regional economic development organization Southwest Michigan First, Kalamazoo County has 2,703 designers, engineers, and architects, a density 120 percent higher than the national average, in a state with one of the highest density of designers in the country.

For the last couple of years, Western Michigan University has been turning out design graduates at its recently established Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation – which itself came about because of a need to retain talent and lure companies to relocate to the area.

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Local businesses have provided some of their education, and then, like Landscape Forms, have provided them with jobs.

It’s gotten to the point that so many opportunities abound locally that designers have a strong incentive to stay here rather than to seek jobs elsewhere, further enhancing the talent pool for area companies, according to Petey Stephanak, a partner in talent and workforce development at Southwest Michigan First.

“With international companies like Whirlpool, Tekna, Newell Brands, Stryker, Fabri-Kal, Landscape Forms and Eaton here in our backyard, it only makes sense for WMU to have a program like this. These leading manufacturing and design companies are in constant need of talent to advance their products through creativity and innovation,” according to the Richmond Institute’s website.

“We have been able to help as adjunct professors for the design school at WMU, which continues to give us a fresh approach to design as well as recognize new trends … that we should be aware of,” Smalldon said in an email interview. “In addition, we have had a handful of interns that have been a great addition to our product development and product lifecycle teams.”

This has created a pipeline not only for a traditional design workforce, where former students are creating future products, Stephanak said, and infused throughout business such as in marketing. Smalldon said each year of graduates who land a job and stay in the area means less of a need to hire people to move to Kalamazoo.

“I was very intrigued by the combination of art, engineering and business all packaged into one curriculum,” Richmond Institute graduate Nick Koch said of his reason to come to Kalamazoo from Chelsea for his education. “I have always loved to design and make things with my hands. The program was also brand new so it offered a great opportunity to be part of something new with like-minded individuals and help build the program experience from the ground up.”

After an internship at product development company Tekna, Koch moved to Stryker Medical, where he is an industrial designer.

“On a day-to-day basis, I can expect anything from sketching products and analyzing the user experience the concept may entail, or I may be designing/facilitating a workshop with the project team of engineers, marketers, sales reps, directors, and so on to help provide direction, opportunity, and clarity to the team moving forward in the project,” he wrote in an email interview.  

“Kalamazoo is a wonderful place for designers. There are a lot of great design jobs and opportunities in West Michigan,” he said. “The design community here seems to be tighter than ever. From MIX events to sketching groups around town, Kalamazoo has a ton to offer whether it be a career, inspiration or a way to build your personal design network.”

Southwest Michigan First, which helped connect business needs with WMU potential, has also coordinated a series of design industry-focused networking events called MIX (Michigan: X Marks the Spot). MIX “events, seminars and workshops harness Southwest Michigan’s power of creativity and invite participants to express and share their individual specialties,” according to Stephanak. “MIX brings together local creators and innovators to inspire, educate and expose area creatives to the great ideas, people and companies that call Southwest Michigan home.”  

A recent MIX event brought together Churu Yun, founder of the Argenta Park design studio in Kalamazoo, and Matt Czach, vice president of design and product experience for Traeger Grills, of Salt Lake City.

Traeger has several employees originally from Michigan, including Czach, and has been capitalizing on the design talent and support pipeline in Kalamazoo. It has a team of six design engineers working out of an office at Jerico, at 1501 Fulford Ave., which is a set of old factory buildings in Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood that have been converted into workspaces for more than two dozen designers, creative entrepreneurs, and artists.

Yun, a Kalamazoo Central High School and Kendall School of Art and Design graduate, moved back to Kalamazoo in 2017 from Seattle, where he was working as a designer, and set up shop at Jerico the next year.

Yun began working with Traeger on their high-tech grills in early 2019 after hiring his first employee. That’s when business really took off.

“Right away we needed more people,” Yun said, and by the end of that year Argenta Park had five employees. It continues to grow with a client list that includes Stryker, Bissell, Everest, and Peloton. 

And even though his clients include non-local companies, he is comfortable working in his hometown.

“The people I’ve worked with in Michigan showed interest in having me stay,” he said at the MIX event, which was hosted by Jerico.

“Since MIX events aren’t only limited to industrial design, it is great to meet and learn from professionals in other industries such as graphic design and architecture,” Koch said.

LI Sheng Kim, a mechanical design engineer for Tekna, attended the MIX event at which Yun and Czach made presentations.

A recent WMU graduate, he did not attend the Richmond Institute, but taught himself computer-aided drafting (CAD) while he was studying engineering.

“The CAD skills are not something commonly taught in college,” he said.

He landed the job at Tekna earlier this year after interning at a small company in Portage. He said the internships offered by local companies are important to people as they enter the design workforce. “Employers are more convinced that this person can work well as an employee,” he said.

The MIX events also attract educators, such as Lorri Batsie and Charles Heidelberg.

Heidelberg, academic and career pathways adviser and veterans adviser at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, said he attends MIX events looking for ideas for his students who are struggling with what their futures will look like.

“They want to do something, but they don’t know what’s out there,” he said. “It gives another context to talk to students wherever they are.”

Batsie, a career development counselor for the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, said she uses design thinking in problem-solving situations with students.

“So much of what I’ve done [with students] is formed through this community,” she said of her reason for attending MIX events. “Our kids need to see themselves in this job.”

“Part of it, too, is it’s fun,” she added.

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