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Innovation & Design

Who Thought Up Famous Brands?

Raise your right hand if you've stopped at Starbucks, bought their coffee beans or loaded your own swill into a Starbucks mug this month.

Raise your left if you've Swiffered your floor recently.

Now put them together in a round of applause if you have an iPod tucked in your gym bag or briefcase.

Starbucks, Swiffer, iPod - these are among the finest in recent consumer-product innovations. While the end products are highly useful, of eye-catching design, heavily branded and profitable, what you don't see immediately is how they got there.

Who came up with these ideas? What company executives recognized their value? What team put the manufacturing wheels in motion, and who developed the patent, marketing and branding processes?

Welcome to Craig Vogel's world.

Since the internationally known product-design expert arrived at University of Cincinnati in 2004, he has been quietly building a research empire in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.

It is an empire that already has helped win a $1.88 million grant from Ohio's Third Frontier high-tech jobs initiative, forged unique research collaboration among UC departments and elevated Cincinnati's profile as one of the top product design and branding cities in the country.

"UC has a very strong legacy and practice of design," explains Steve D'Amico, associate director of corporate design at P&G, which developed Swiffer cleaning tools. "What was missing was research on great design... Social, cultural, societal trends that will affect who we are as a culture.

"We know that Craig did that at Carnegie Mellon," D'Amico says. "His thinking is right on target."

Luring Vogel from his tenured position at the renowned Pittsburgh university was widely considered a coup for UC. Vogel acknowledges he was drawn here by P&G - for whom he already was a consultant - Federated, Kroger, and the almost 1,000 product design and branding experts already in Cincinnati.

"It fit exactly where I wanted to go," Vogel says. "I'm taking 15 years of experience and giving it title and context in a new center": UC's Center for Design Research and Innovation.

Most important for the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky business community, Vogel's brand of research has immediate application.

The Third Frontier grant, for example, has already funded workshops for a dozen small and medium-sized businesses to teach them how to build creative teams, identify promising product ideas earlier and speed up production. For some, it will provide matching money for this process.

Ohio's Third Frontier program, launched in 2002, is a 10-year, $1.1 billion initiative to create jobs through high-tech innovation and the formation of new companies.

"The state of innovation in Ohio's small and medium manufacturing organizations is rather bleak," says Ken Bloemer of the Bond Hill business consulting group TechSolve, Vogel's partner on the grant.

"Most of them don't have robust new product-development processes, yet that's the lifeblood of new products and the way to compete in Ohio and the U.S.," Bloemer says.

Vogel, he says matter-of-factly, is a key part of juicing Ohio's economy.

Environmental fits

Craig Vogel stands with a colleague near the fourth-floor deli in the design college's building on UC's main campus. Today's topic: The beige, rectangular bulletin board does not fit the eclectic, ultra-modern interior of the Peter Eisenman-designed facility.

While it may seem to be mundane water-cooler talk, the aesthetics of how products - bulletin boards, cars or even Web pages - fit their environment is at the heart of Vogel's work.

In his office, shelves are crowded with collections of toasters, Heinz ketchup - including green and purple versions for kids - Coke bottles and Spam. He rummages through a box in the back for examples of new-age flashlights, including the hands-free Black & Decker SnakeLight.

Vogel, 53, is a graduate of the Pratt Institute and former president of Industrial Designers Society of America. He's also been a consultant on innovation processes to manufacturing giants such as Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Alcoa and Motorola.

He hoists his foot up to display shoes with noticeable Z-coil shock absorbers. These help alleviate arthritis, he explains.

He mentions this in the context of his strong belief that the aging baby-boomer generation offers some of the best product-development opportunities out there.

For example, consider the OXO GoodGrips vegetable peeler, sold at Target and other discount stores. Developed by a man whose wife had arthritic hands, the peeler has a large oval handle, a patterned grip that prevents slippage and a blade guard that adds balance to the design.

Or the Mirra office chair, designed by Herman Miller, which has great ergonomics to counteract back problems but is aesthetically pleasing, too. Vogel uses one in his office.

Both of these are examples outlined in Vogel's new book, "The Design of Things to Come: How Ordinary People Create Extraordinary Products," released in June by Wharton School Publishing.

His co-authors are two former Carnegie Mellon colleagues - one an engineer, the other a marketing whiz - with whom he devised a unique, multi-discipline graduate program that companies like Ford, GM and New Balance used as research collaborators.

And that's exactly what Vogel wants to do at UC.

Third Frontier grant

Vogel's new center is getting about $1 million of the $1.88 million Third Frontier grant it won with TechSolve in April. UC is matching that with about $500,000, according to Vogel and UC provost Tony Perzigian.

Some of the things the money will do initially: Bring in up to 10 product-design graduate students this fall; beef up workshop space with high-tech teleconferencing, computer and presentation equipment; re-outfit rooms for R&D use; and purchase rapid prototyping equipment that can create high-end models of cars, shoes or machine tools, for example.

Vogel says the funding will enhance the whole education sequence at DAAP, already nationally known for its undergraduate art, fashion and architecture co-op programs.

But his center already has forged strong ties to other UC schools, including biomedical engineering, business and medicine - which Perzigian calls historic, given UC's tradition of independent schools.

The new center is in line for a Pace grant from General Motors, Vogel says, that could provide more hardware and software. Perzigian and others hint the center is a serious contender for other prestigious grants.

"This will be a cutting-edge opportunity for UC at fostering strong collaborations with industry and manufacturing," says Perzigian, who calls Vogel one of UC's "star scholars."

In 2004, UC received $320 million in research funding. Annual revenue from licensing inventions is about $1 million, according to Anne Chasser, UC associate vice president for intellectual property.

Product-design mecca

Despite P&G's product branding reputation - think Pampers, Olay and, of course, Swiffer - it's been a quiet fact that Greater Cincinnati has one of the largest groupings of product designers and marketing experts in the country.

Quiet until June, that is.

That's when the international Design Management Institute held its largest conference ever at the Netherland Hilton Hotel downtown, attracting 300 top design managers from companies such as Estee Lauder and Toyota. Vogel spoke at that conference.

The conference's success highlights the depth of experience here, says Jerry Kathman, CEO of downtown design firm Libby Perszyk Kathman. LPK billed more than $40 million last year with clients including IBM, Hershey's, Heinz and Hallmark.

LPK is also among area firms that recently formed the local Brand Design Alliance. Others include Landor, Fisher Design, Interbrand and FRCH Design Worldwide.

"The creative community here is bigger than most people think,'' says Kathman. "We're the kind of people that (Cincinnati) should be attracting, the so-called creative class. Great practitioners, great clients, great researchers. Now (with Vogel and his center) we've got the whole package.''

Getting the best ideas

For companies such as Planet Product - a Blue Ash manufacturer of precision food-packaging equipment, with about $15 million in annual revenue - the impact of Craig Vogel is direct.

Top Planet Product management recently attended a TechSolve workshop, funded by the joint Third Frontier grant, that helped them write a roadmap to better product innovation, says Bill Harrison, engineering manager.

One of the biggest lessons Harrison says he learned: Though he has a seven-person design team, bringing in machinists, sales people and clients to devise new products is smarter.

"The guy pushing the broom may have the best idea," Harrison explains. "And if we are a better company, then we will grow and thrive from that and help the state" of Ohio out of its economic slump.

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