Design is ‘hot,’ but will it warm local job market?

It’s not often that a manager for a manufacturer of soap and similar products stands in front of a group of designers explaining the intricacies of personal-care regulations. And yet, that is exactly what Chris Buckley was doing in January.

The executive vice president of business development for Bradford Soap Works was holding the training session as part of a new initiative at the company to take advantage of the design talent that is in Rhode Island and the growing desire of companies in varied industries to infuse their service and product offerings with fresh, creative approaches.

“The goal is to actively promote those designers to our customers,” said Deb McDonough, vice president of marketing for 140-year-old Bradford. “It’s one more resource West Warwick’s Bradford Soap is offering to our customers. The hope is the customers will see value in the designers having an understanding of the company.”

Whereas before, clients would ask Bradford to recommend designers to create product packaging, now the company will actively promote designers it trains in personal care, McDonough said.

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“This is new, and it’s important, because a lot of time designers don’t understand personal care, and we saw a need in the market to have designers who are really well-versed in personal care,” she said.

Bradford is not alone in looking at putting design thinking more to the fore of its offerings. Increasingly, design is seen as a way to stand out and deliver in the highly competitive global marketplace.

“The market is hot everywhere,” said Aidan Petrie, co-founder and chief innovation officer for Ximedica, a Providence medical-devices firm. “It is hot here, it is hot on the East Coast, because it’s being driven by supporting a number of industries, the user-interface industry, the medical space. It is hot here because of [Rhode Island School of Design].”

The Brookings Institution in a report released in late January affirmed Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor’s suspicions that design, particularly industrial design, along with food and custom manufacturing, have the potential to provide “significant competitive advantages for companies” here.

Pryor and DESIGNxRI, which formed three years ago to spotlight and promote design, want to foster not only greater awareness but a “hotter” economic climate for a host of professions.

“There is an enormous amount of innovation going on in our academic institutions and hospitals: Brown [University] brain and translational science; [Johnson & Wales University] food science; [University of Rhode Island] ocean science,” Pryor said. “The aim is to promote continued and accelerated commercialization of research at these institutions. In some instances, there’ll be terrific opportunities to combine the research and development that’s going on with [a] healthy dose of design thinking.”

In her fiscal 2017 budget, Gov. Gina M. Raimondo proposed $20 million to create innovation centers across the state. Design is one of the potential job-growth focus areas for the centers.

Providence’s Business Innovation Factory, according to Saul Kaplan, founder, chairman of the board and chief catalyst, is helping customers “design experiences” in at least half the projects they do by engaging customers directly in design thinking.

“When we started we were the designers delivering the design to [the customer]. Now we’re enabling design [by the customer],” said Kaplan. “More of this is coming: Anytime you can get the customer directly involved, just think about how committed and motivated they are to it, and likely to tell their friends. It’s an entire new way of thinking.”


Providence, home base not just to the 139-year-old RISD but a once-thriving Jewelry District, also boasts a new constellation of design occupations. These jobs, also found statewide, include traditional design jobs such as graphic artist, architect, engineer and interior designer, and emerging occupations of industrial and user-experience designers, all of them infused with “design thinking.”

Design talent emerging across disciplines, particularly from RISD, URI, JWU and Roger Williams University, is dense, according to educators, professionals and Rhode Island policymakers. JWU is redefining its engineering design and configuration-management degree, with a new rollout expected in fall 2017, said Jonathan Harris, assistant professor in the department of design at the JWU School of Engineering & Design.

The program used to look “at design as more of a technical field, teaching AutoCAD [commercial computer-aided drafting], as a means to an end. That’s no longer the case. Every design student picks up CAD on [his] own. They know the tools they need to get the job done, so our focus [will be] on the design process and the design entrepreneur.”

Yet, how much the Rhode Island economy is really benefiting from the growing interest in business and government in design is an unanswered question.

Studies and analysis in 2014 and 2015 point to the emergence of design businesses and occupations in the state as an economic force. And policymakers are actively shaping a Providence Innovation and Design District, for which design is a key component. But several design professionals say local design talent is leaving for Boston and New York City, and business for firms here remains largely out of state.

“Successful design agencies in Rhode Island are having to build networks with businesses outside of Rhode Island and are using the lower costs in Rhode Island for design talent to have better margins and be lower priced than what they’d be in larger markets,” said Coryndon Luxmoore, a Providence resident who is head of user-experience design at Mortgage Builder, a Boston-based firm that makes loan-origination software for banks. He also leads a user-experience design meetup in Providence.

“Someone who wants to start a design agency in Rhode Island needs to build networks in a larger market in order to be able to survive in Rhode Island,” he said.

While finding customers outside the Ocean State is not unusual in many industries, many believe that something more is happening here. Rhode Island is on the cusp of design growth, insists Lisa Carnevale, a co-founder of DESIGNxRI, launched in 2013 as a way to connect designers across disciplines and promote design in what the R.I. Department of Labor and Training called a “design industry group.”

Not an independent economic sector, design in Rhode Island is nonetheless benefiting from that density of talent and the networking DESIGNxRI is facilitating to raise awareness about both traditional and new jobs, she said.

“We export design talent,” Carnevale conceded, “but most of the design businesses are based here [and] have clients that are national and outside of Rhode Island. They’re here because of the affordability, the community and quality of life, the proximity to New York or Boston. Not everybody wants to be in the bigger metropolitan area.”

In 2002, about 1,000 people, or one-quarter of 1 percent, of the 403,995 privately employed people in Rhode Island, worked in design services, which the DLT recorded as including architectural services, landscape architectural services and such “specialized” roles as interior, graphic and industrial design. (The figures do not include those employed in government occupations.)

By 2015, that percentage had fallen to one-fifth of 1 percent, with 836 people employed in design services, compared with total employment of 409,371, DLT reported, a decline of 16.4 percent over the period.

But DLT data fails to capture the many freelancers and contractors in design, acknowledged DLT Director Scott Jensen – workers that help power the industry.

A 2014 Atlantic Magazine “City Lab” analysis of design clusters across the country found that Providence has the third-highest concentration of industrial designers in the country, after Detroit, which was No. 1, and Cincinnati, which came in second.

Author Richard Florida compiled occupational data from the labor market data and research firm EMSI, a Moscow, Idaho-based company.

Florida could not be immediately reached for comment, but the article ascribes a “location quotient” of 2.6 to Providence, 2.62 to Cincinnati, and 5.74 to Detroit. That “LQ” measures the concentration of a given occupation in a metro area as compared with its concentration across the country. Florida relied on data from EMSI to calculate the LQ. An LQ of 1 matches the national average and higher LQs exceed it, the story states.

“Providence is ahead of the curve because of the number per capita of industrial designers you have,” said Richard Overmoyer, president of Fourth Economy Consulting of Pittsburgh, who has reviewed the data. He produced a November 2015 report for the city, “City of Providence: Economic Cluster Strategy.”

“What you see happening in the manufacturing, information technology and health care sectors is, there’s going to be a strong push for design skills; there already is,” Overmoyer contended. “Designers are being hired to help re-engineer products and systems and help them perform better. So that’s why we think there’s going to be growth in those markets.”

That vision for the future does not always match up with the past. Jr Neville Songwe, founder and president of Joneso Design & Consulting Inc. of Central Falls, has seen development of his product, interior consoles for police cars, lag for lack of investment, and remains skeptical.

“Do we have designers? Yes. Do we have demand? There’s a whole lot to that question,” Songwe said.

“You do not see the pitch for innovative design,” Songwe insisted. “If I came up with a wonderful concept, the real question is, where is the market in Rhode Island? Who wants to sponsor innovation? What type of innovation do they want to sponsor? If you do not have that initial trigger and the definition of what that demand is in Rhode Island, you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the market?’ ”


Many design companies in Rhode Island are thriving – from architectural, to industrial to user-experience design firms.

Work-Shop’s Greg Nemes lists “co-founder” as the job title on his business card, but he identifies himself as a “designer maker.”

The Providence-based design firm describes its interdisciplinary design studio and shop as one in which employees design and make spaces, furniture, objects, websites and apps.

Nemes, who is a Rhode Island School of Design alumnus and a RISD adjunct professor of graduate studies, works across disciplines not only to create products and services that are aesthetically pleasing in the traditional design sense, but of use to others.

Justin Sirotin, owner of Octo Product Development Inc. in Pawtucket, does work for Summer Infant Inc. juvenile products in Woonsocket, Canada and the United Kingdom, and Quonset Point businesses Focal Upright Furniture and Hexagon Metrology. The firm developed Born Free infant seating in 2012 and more recently created a “jog box” for Hexagon Metrology – a tool used to control a coordinate measuring machine, Sirotin said.

“The field is very hot,” Sirotin said. “It’s hotter than people can imagine because our role in the business culture has changed. We’re no longer an idea that you add at the end of the process. We’re now integral in the success of a brand.”

Working with companies outside of Rhode Island is just as feasible as working with companies in Rhode Island, he said, noting recent work with clients in Australia handled both remotely and face to face.

“The reality is there are so many opportunities globally, that while proximity is helpful it’s not a requirement,” he said.

In architecture, the Birchwood Design Group, which founding partner Kris M. Bradner said made a “conscious decision” to locate in Rhode Island, as opposed to a suburb of Boston, is entering its fifth year of steady growth. Besides garnering work at academic institutions and municipalities, Birchwood is doing more residential work, Bradner said, and connecting with peers through DESIGNxRI.

“There seems to be a constellation of creative people who are around who you can connect with,” added Tim E. Brown, a registered landscape architect at Birchwood.

At the same time, established companies like Collette and Fidelity, which are not by definition design companies, are finding more uses for user-experience designers.

Though Fidelity has only a small user-experience design team in Rhode Island, its team numbers 250 across the country, and has more than doubled in the past four years, said Josephine Holmboe, creative director for user experience design. Holmboe has found more than eight RISD interns through the Design Portfolio Review process held at the R.I. Convention Center, though of those, only one was hired permanently, she said.

“Design students aren’t thinking they want to go work for financial services,” explained Holmboe. “Our presence is really important there because we have such a large design department and team. So because financial services don’t ‘float up’ to their minds, what we try to do is try to expose them to the type of design we do.”

When Collette was founded in 1918 it relied chiefly on freelance graphic designers. For the past 15 years, it has relied on in-house graphic designers. For the past two years it has found user-experience and digital design to be a focus, said Ryan Holmes, digital marketing designer and producer.

“[In the past], everything was driven around print, and digital would be an afterthought,” he said. “We’re changing that pattern now. We’re trying to have digital-focused campaigns that don’t have to rely on any print piece.”

Commerce’s Pryor says a Providence Innovation and Design District – recommended in a January report by a consultant hired by the state – has the potential to “distinguish Rhode Island by infusing design thinking into our innovation processes.”

This business district would be larger than the existing footprint of undeveloped Interstate 195 land, and would be guided by an advisory council that would include the perspectives of anchor industries and universities.

Infusing design thinking into innovation processes could be modeled on the state’s universities, Pryor said, which “regularly engage in partnerships with global companies seeking advanced product research, development, prototyping and evaluation – often in collaboration with Rhode Island’s diverse professional design community.”


At DESIGNxRI, multiple initiatives are underway to promote design as an industry in the Ocean State. Carnevale says a Real Jobs RI grant obtained recently will train 15 midcareer designers, 10 emerging postgraduate design fellows and 18 high school students, emphasizing job training on a small scale that can lead through skills development to jobs.

The employer partners include a diverse mix – Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Ximedica, Taylor Box and Kite Architects – so the jobs people will train for cover all types of design, Carnevale said.

DESIGNxRI also has individual initiatives that are pushing the boundaries of how professional designers compete and interact. One such program is the initiative at Bradford Soap, which is actively working with four Rhode Island designers to train them in personal-care regulations so the company’s clients might consider hiring them to design packaging for Bradford Soap products.

A designer at Fuzion Design in Pawtucket, two at Firebox Creatives in Barrington and one at Eddins Design in Burrillville are involved.

But DESIGNxRI is not the only organization actively promoting the sector and its practitioners. A first-time open enrollment program at RISD in partnership with the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and dubbed “Design and Entrepreneurial Thinking” is being offered Feb. 29 and March 7, said Greg Victory, executive director of Continuing Education at RISD. It’s a two-day workshop targeted for mid- to senior-level organizational leaders, he said. RISD developed the programming through conversations with Chamber President Laurie White, he added.

Even small groups like the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, whose president, Dana Haddad, confirms that many designing professionals have to leave Rhode Island to find work – are excited about DESIGNxRI’s initiatives. The chapter was dormant for a couple years but now has 13 board members, social events, speakers and design competitions, she said.

At a Jan. 5 “Drinks with Designers” meetup at Wild Colonial Tavern in downtown Providence, 24-year-old Doug Cuddeback, an associate art director at Duffy & Shanley, said he stayed in Rhode Island for the job, despite initially yearning for work in a bigger city, because the city itself is vibrant and accessible. He graduated from JWU in 2013 with a traditional degree in advertising and a concentration in graphic design. Now much of his work is moving toward video and the Web.

“I love it because it’s different every day,” he said. “You get to work with so many different industries, and get to use your creative juices.” •

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