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Design Conductors: Collaborative Design Students Exercise Versatile Skill Sets in Internships

Collaborative Design Program Chair Gayle DeBruyn likens the talents of her students to those of an orchestra conductor. Unlike virtuosos of a specific instrument, these students become fully versed in uniting different voices in harmony to solve layered, complex problems, often referred to as ‘wicked’ problems.

“Innovation doesn’t happen without cooperation,” DeBruyn says. “The design-based thinking process we teach in our program is present everywhere throughout the business world and nonprofit sector. Our students develop a unique set of skills that can bring together a diverse collection of stakeholders and break down the traditional silos that constrict creative problem solving.”

This summer, Collaborative Design students Leslie Yarhouse and Anthony Murtha each had the chance to put their skills to work in internship positions that on the surface may seem an odd fit for a design student. A closer look reveals otherwise.

In a position with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF), Yarhouse worked alongside a team of biochemists and other scientists, digging through bags of trash to gather data for a waste characterization study the WMSBF is undertaking in pursuit of grant funding from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Collaborative Design student Leslie YarhouseCollaborative Design student Leslie Yarhouse during her summer internship with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (image courtesy of Leslie Yarhouse)

“Collaborative Design classes at KCAD are very team-oriented and involve students from all different majors, and that really helped me in my internship, because none of the other interns that worked with me were design students,” Yarhouse says.
So what role does a design student play in mulling over mounds of trash and drafting reports for the government? In addition to physically sorting through waste, Yarhouse conducted an extensive review of the methods and benchmarks other communities employ in the order to better manage waste. She then had to communicate her findings to her team members in a way that brought a broader perspective to the group’s efforts to more deeply understand the problem of waste management here in West Michigan.

“As a Collaborative Design student, you’re approaching the world as a generalist who wants to know about everything,” Yarhouse says. “In that way, you take a broad approach but then can dig deeper into specific things.”

Yarhouse has a keen interest in matters of sustainability, but her internship wasn’t only concerned with exploring different waste management techniques; she also had to help her teammates ensure that their findings were presented in a way that aligned with rigid expectations of the DEQ’s grant program. While methodology is certainly a critical tool in solving the wicked problem of waste management, Yarhouse quickly learned that funding is just as important.

“A lot of times you’re just given a problem and there is a lot of pressure to look at that problem on its own, but design thinking makes you think about the whole system that’s involved in that problem,” she says.

Collaborative Design student Leslie YarhouseYarhouse spent a good portion of her internship working alongside a team of biochemists and other scientists to gather data for a waste characterization study (image courtesy of Leslie Yarhouse)

Dan Schoonmaker, director of the WMSBF and Yarhouse’s supervisor, says the project involved much more than sifting through and analyzing trash.

“We were asking Leslie to interface with several different types of recyclers, with economists, with garbage-truck drivers and regulators, and other interns from several different majors. She went from problem solving on the face of a landfill to reviewing economic literature over the course of a week.  I think that collaborative, design-based approach was essential to her success.  She was able to understand the overarching goal and how all the various perspective fit into it.”

Murtha found systems-based thinking integral to landing a position as a research and strategic development intern at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). While working on a visual mapping exercise for one of his classes at KCAD, Murtha began thinking about how to improve the marketing of Michigan’s state parks to entice more visitors. To learn more about what attracts people to the state’s parks, Murtha created a survey that he disbursed on Facebook. The survey caught the attention of the DNR, which offered him an internship its marketing department.

Collaborative Design student Anthony MurthaCollaborative Design student Anthony Murtha spent his summer in an internship with the Michigan DNR (image courtesy of Anthony Murtha)

“The Collaborative Design program teaches us about systems on a large scale and how they are impacting smaller intricate parts,” Murtha says. “It made me think beyond the aesthetic aspects of design towards how design could help connect people to the bigger picture of exploring the state of Michigan.”

While the DNR has largely tasked Murtha with graphic design work, he’s incorporated systems-based thinking into his design process to not only design material that will attract people to Michigan’s state parks but also the entire state as a whole. On top of his graphic design work, Murtha has also begun to work more closely with the DNR’s marketing department to develop the organization’s larger tourism strategy.

Collaborative Design student Anthony MurthaAs part of his internships, Murtha helped shape the Michigan DNR’s tourisim strategy, a task which neccessitated some on-site research (image courtesy of Anthony Murtha)

Though Murtha hasn’t been trained specifically as a marketer, he was easily able to interface with the rest of his team at the DNR because of the ways teamwork and collaboration are emphasized in the Collaborative Design Program.

“I don’t want to settle down in one specific area,” Murtha says. “The fact that I can speak the language of Industrial Designers and Graphic Designers and can understand the programs they use is huge. …The foundational classes in the Collaborative Design program set us up to be able to create individually, but also to work on a diverse team of people for a common goal.”

Murtha’s long-term goal is to eventually open his own fully collaborative design firm with specialists from a variety of disciplines able to tackle any design problem. In the meantime, he’s confident that his experience in the Collaborative Design program will translate into meaningful career opportunities.

“Even if I’m competing against more specialized designers for a position, I still feel like I have a fighting chance,” Murtha says. “Each new skill I gain is another tool in the tool box.”

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