Q&A: Turning Designers into Managers

Educator Richard Koshalek talks about the changing role of industrial design

Two years ago, when Richard Koshalek was offered the opportunity to run Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, he didn't jump at the chance, despite the center's sterling reputation in the design world. True, Art Center alumni had become top car designers at the Big Three auto makers and at Volkswagen/Audi, where two graduates brought the new VW Beetle to life. And alumni were shaping everything from Nokia phones to advertisements at agency TBWA\Chiat\Day.

But prestige alone didn't cut it for Koshalek, an architect by training who had recently left his job as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He bluntly explained to the Art Center's board of trustees that he didn't want to run some high-brow art school that failed to teach its students how to become managers in corporations or leaders in society. Curiously enough, the board embraced his vision.

Now, after two years in his new post, Koshalek is rebuilding the Art Center's curriculum to include courses on entrepreneurial leadership. The center is also working with nearby California Institute of Technology to introduce humanities studies. And while most grads can sketch out a great-looking chair or car, some enter the workforce lacking experience with advanced digital-design tools. So one of Koshalek's first moves was to get the school to develop a new technical center--still in the planning stage--to teach students how to design virtual prototypes or automatically fabricate real models in just hours.

In addition to his views on designer-managers, Koshalek has strong feelings about individual companies. He thinks U.S. automakers have missed an opportunity to take the lead in styling, for example. And in consumer goods, Sony and Nokia rule. BusinessWeek correspondent David Welch recently talked with Koshalek for several hours. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:

Q: Corporate designers have long complained that they are kept cloistered from the rest of the company. Is that still the case?

A: Even universities do this. They keep creative people isolated. Corporations still bury them away too. But technology is helping to change that. Computers have given architects, for example, a greater advantage in getting involved in the building process. They don't have to be on-site to take part.

Q: So are designers getting a bigger voice?

A: Not yet. Companies still have to develop a business model--how a product is produced and marketed. The creative people are largely eliminated from that process.

Q: Is that changing? Are creatives getting better training to enter management--and are schools playing a role in that?

A: At the Art Center, we're completely rethinking the curriculum. Liberal arts will play a much bigger role. The curriculum will become more complicated and more comprehensive. Art Center students used to be trained only in their discipline--such as vehicle and industrial design, or even film. Now they'll be trained in other disciplines, such as communications and cultural awareness.

Q: But companies are still promoting MBAs and attorneys. Can designers really become corporate leaders?

A: My strong feeling is that design people are the best problem solvers. If they had the right education, they could become CEOs or mayors of major cities.

Q: So are your art students taking business management classes? Or are they at least expressing interest in that area?

A: A lot of requests for that are coming from students. And alumni are saying they left Art Center College with no business experience and no knowledge of issues of the outside world. Now they're taking classes in business. But the liberal arts curriculum also has to be part of every year of study.

Q: Years ago, all design work was done by hand. How is the introduction of new, digital design tools changing the practice?

A: It's going to revolutionize design and how it interacts with the larger world. You have rapid prototyping and virtual prototyping. Rapid prototyping will, once an object is programmed into a computer, mill something out of wood or foam in three dimensions--almost immediately. Virtual prototyping makes no object at all, but makes a prototype in virtual reality. Digital design software is giving designers greater confidence and flexibility. They are able to create multiple solutions to a problem more quickly. Designers are also capable of communicating design more easily to those who create the problem.

Q: But are these goods easily manufactured without old-style, real-life prototypes?

A: Actually, you can move much more quickly to production from these prototypes. You can resolve more design issues faster with new prototyping. It's more accurate than making prototypes by hand.

Q: Is there a risk that computer-generated designs will look too machined, too cold?

A: Yes. Designers have to find a balance. In architecture, if someone wants to change the exterior of a building in downtown Los Angeles, digital design tools let them produce 40 different proposals in minutes. But those ideas will lack emotion. The technology is a tool. The ideas have to come from the individual. It's a huge mistake to rely on the technology.

Q: With the economy slumping and corporate profits drying up, are you worried that design will get pushed aside?

A: With the car companies, one of the first things to get cut is research and development and design. We keep hearing that Ford will cut back on product development. They can't make that mistake--the market's too competitive.

Q: Who is leading in design these days?

A: Sony has a great design mechanism that is constantly experimenting with new product ideas. Most of them never get to market, but they're constantly experimenting. Nokia is another design leader. They have a better quality of design with new products, materials, and colors. Look at the success of Nokia versus Ericsson. Nike also has a strong commitment to design. On the other hand, that's been a problem with the Gap. They never established design leadership in clothing.

Q: What about car design? Two years ago, you said Detroit had a unique opportunity to seize design leadership in the auto industry. Have the Big Three succeeded?

A: I still think they're struggling with that. There are very talented people there, but there's still a corporate structure in the way--one that doesn't allow the talent to be as free as it should be. It has taken longer than I thought it would. Detroit is moving toward giving designers more freedom. But the Japanese are closer to granting designers this freedom. And there's something very good going on at Audi and Volkswagen. Renault is doing good work, too. The company has actually surprised me. They're pushing design, but it's a little too eccentric. The ones to watch are Chrysler and BMW.

Q: What about General Motors? GM has hired a lot of talented designers lately and brought in Bob Lutz to make sure the creativity gets translated into products.

A: People who follow the design world are extremely optimistic about GM. They hired Anne Asensio from Renault, and she could make a difference. With Lutz, the breakthroughs will be inevitable. Lutz brings a different perspective, and he's a strong leader. He believes in the value of design. It may be better that he's only there for three years, because it creates an urgency to get things done.

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