Rebuilding our Region with Design – IDSA Mideast Conference

Last month over 150 Industrial Design professionals from neighboring states came together for IDSA’s Regional Conference in Detroit.  Designers from as far away as Pennsylvania came to hear industry experts present on topics as diverse as Cars and Kids to the modern office space – all based on the conference theme of Rebuilding our Region with Design.  According to Kevin Shinn, the outgoing Mideast Region VP and Global Industrial Design manager at Dow Corning Corporation, the theme was developed as a topic that both speakers and attendees would enjoy and would be especially salient considering Detroit’s recent rebirth.

Julie Heard started the conference off with someinteresting facts and figures about the IDSA Organization.  Even in the face of a stagnant economy, IDSA grew by 24% in 2011 to over 3200 members so they must be doing something right.  The organization presented more than 150 events last year and received more than 1.6M visits to their website, where members can take advantage of Design Case Studies, a directory of Education Papers and network with other professionals.

After the typical technical gremils were put to bed, the conference started with a couple of presentations from The College of Creative Studies.  Mark West took us through an interesting story of his childhood, and the inextricable link he had to the auto industry.  He lamented the current state of the education system as he sees art, history, language and music classes being eliminated to make way for the emphasis on English and math brought about by No Child Left Behind.  Maria Luisa Rossi took us through how design can have a positive impact on society, which is not surprising since “most designers are optimists”.  It was interesting to see how many students from around the world have been brought to the Detroit-area by CCS.

Brian Baker kept the audience entertained with stories about the auto industry.  But not just any stories.  He brought many misconceptions and little know facts to light that have been obscured by the passage of time.  Like the misapplied desire to be different that caused the Edsel to have a face that “looked like an Olds sucking a lemon”.  Apparently “the thrill starts with the grille” only applies to certain cars.  Baker also brought attention to the talents of Bill Porter, his special guest for the conference.

Speaking of great designer, Jeff Gale from Chrysler took us through the story of the new Dodge Dart.  Gale is that rare designer, who also has taken the time to understand the engineering of the vehicles through his time spent autocrossing and working on his 1970 Road Runner.  OK, rare might be a bit of a stretch because I know more than a few designers who spend their free time wrenching.  But it is still refreshing to see people in the auto industry who actually understand how a car works.

Gale took us through Chrysler’s design philosophy that strives to create a performance aura around their cars.  The image that was presented was that of an ice cube on fire and it appears that they have managed to present a vehicle that is at times both memorable yet sensible – sort of a modern day Steve McQueen. 

After seeing the wonderful images of the Dart in development, Jeff Block then took us through some wonderful images of Steelcase’s new ideas for the office of the future.  His presentation really brought the point home that Space Matters.  He brought to light the fact that this is the first time in history that 4 generations have been together  in the workforce.   He also talked about the fact that Millennials feared cubicles more than minivans and how the way we work today is driving the design of the future office.

On Saturday we were treated to a great story about the Damsels of Design at GM by Teckla Rhoads and Susan Skarsgard.  The first, Helene Pollins, was brought on board in 1943 by Harley Earl.  By 1956 there were 11, yet only 10 more were added by 1994.  While women may have opriginally been hired to be “the look-out for anything that might snag their nylons”, women designers now hold positions of design importance at various car companies.

All in all the event was enjoyable and if you are in the design industry I would higher suggest attending a future event.  I made some new friend, learned some new facts and came away with a greater appreciation for the talent in this industry.  Check out to find an upcoming event in your area.

About Frank Schwartz

Frank Schwartz is the founder of and Advanced Automotive Consulting Services, partner in The Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment and serial entrepeneur. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank started reading car magazines at the age of 8 and has spent 30+ years working inside the automotive industry. In his spare time Frank races with the Sports Car Club of America, spends time working on his numerous project cars and supports many local charities.
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