By Dean Whittaker

Experiencing life at 7 knots (8.4 mph) for two weeks on a sailboat gave me a chance to ponder. So why cast off the dock lines, leave one of the best, if not the best, marina on the Great Lakes and make myself vulnerable to the uncertainties of wind and weather? Why not stay put and enjoy the hot tub, swimming pool, marble restrooms and showers, washer/dryer facilities and the friendship and camaraderie of my fellow “crazy” dock mates?  The reason is adventure, going into the unknown, chasing the dream over the horizon, curiosity, overcoming obstacles and above all else, having fun.  A world without time was created when two days into my annual sailing sabbatical, my battery-powered electric watch quit working. It was the perfect symbolic manifestation of my desire to get away and think, unencumbered by the usual day-to-day.  Sometimes it’s important to slip our moorings and get away from the dock.

Meanwhile, back on the “hard,” I am getting used to driving at 70 mph and seeing the world zoom by without giving the flower along the road a second look. My melancholy about the end of the trip is waning as I return to my semi-conscious state to await the next opportunity to cast off the dock lines and head out for another adventure in the world of business and/or on the Great Lakes.

In one of those business adventures, I’m continuing my learning by attending the pilot design workshop conducted by the Design Academy, a program of Design West Michigan, a WIRED-funded experiment in the use of design by local firms as a global competitive advantage. Hats off to Lakeshore Advantage, one of our local economic development organizations, for introducing many West Michigan companies to the use of design as a competitive strategy.

My take-aways from the two-day session, in which several companies told their stories about the use of design in their product or services, were 1. design is a problem-solving process done within constraints; 2. design engages our emotions through our senses; 3. design can be a VERY effective tool in creating a competitive advantage (as several of the case studies proved); 4. everyone thinks they are a designer (and they are); and 5. the combination of the engineering (left brain) with the design (right brain) produces outstanding, globally competitive products and services.

The Whirlpool Case Study of the creation of the “Duet” Washer/Dryer illustrates many of these points. A collaborative effort of enthnographers, demographers, graphic designers, product designers, photographers, etc., the creation of the Duet relied on in-depth research for the basis of the design.  But a folksy observation that someone had placed a washer/dryer on blocks in order to reduce back strain resulted in the crucial “pedestal” concept on the Duet. Further design work not only elevated the front-loading machine to an easily accessible level, but provided storage, a patented look, and even sound signals for the visually impaired. Applying design to the product also solved an economic dilemma. Until the advent of the “Duet,” only 5% of washers and dryers were purchased together. But 60% of Duets are sold as a pair.

Clearly, adventures can be had without leaving the desk, especially if we manage to unmoor our thinking from the everyday.