Innovation in Milwaukee (MiKE)

Greater Milwaukee Committee

Funding Received: 2011
Milwaukee, WI
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
February 1, 2012

50 Design Entrepreneurs Present at OPEN MiKE

Designers are used to working for clients, but there is nothing more freeing than when the client is oneself.

A semester-long project in product innovation provided University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graphic design students the opportunity to investigate design entrepreneurialism. “The entrepreneurial spirit is built into every designer, whether they realize it or not," says UWM professor Kim Beckmann, who teaches the class along with Associate Lecturer Amy Decker. "Every human is innovative and manipulates their environment to fit their needs, it’s instinctual.” Beckmann has been developing this unique curriculum for the past six years.

In order to advance the students’ abilities in the design process, the focus of the course was on the most critical piece of the design process—identifying and defining a problem. Students spent weeks using behavioral research techniques to gather existing data on local, national and international college campus communities. Next steps in the design process were to identify gaps in the research, and then develop a strategic research plan to generate new data to contribute to the development of identifying what needs and wants were not being met or not being met fully.

“Most undergrad programs focus on tactical design where problem-solving is the focus. At UWM we teach students to be strong problem solvers and strategic thinkers,” states Beckmann. “We emphasize research and the tools and techniques that not only enable students to analyze data but to generate new data to create new knowledge. Design demands multi-disciplinary collaboration when you’re identifying a problem and trying to solve it.”

For the majority of the students, this course is their first exposure to identifying a problem and taking on a leadership role in identifying and orchestrating a team of experts to effectively solve a problem. Students for the first time are introduced to writing a business plan to support their entrepreneurial pursuits. “Designers are inventors, innovators, and researchers. We want to give our students the skills and knowledge to understand the broad application and value they bring to the table as a designer. We want them to have choices in the role they have as designers in the design process. Their participation at the strategic level in identifying a problem is extremely valuable in addition to the role they play at tactical level in effectively solving a problem,” says Beckmann.

Once the problems are thoroughly defined, the students produce a unique solution for exhibit at the Design Entrepreneur Showcase, which was held at MiKE’s innovation lab in downtown Milwaukee this winter. The showcase was a way for students to use their storytelling abilities to share and promote their product to investors, designers, and the public.

Take Ann Odbert, a senior at UWM, who developed a product called Tamandua, designed to reduce single-use bag waste. In just 15 weeks, Odbert created a business plan, a brand and numerous product samples. She is currently approaching investors to take Tamandua from a school project to a viable product for the market.

Other products included a mobile app, Query by Melissa Dahlman, which provides support to LGBT youth community, or Fido's File by Elizabeth Schuenke, a website for pet owners that tracks medical records and other key information for owners and temporary care-givers. Kevin Sparrow, another senior and victim of numerous bike light thefts, created Transit, a lockable bike light. Sparrow partnered with Milwaukee School of Engineering student, Chris Jones, to fabricate Transit.

A successful design entrepreneur must take the leap away from the safety of the traditional designer role into the precarious territory where the public decides what works and does not.  “Building the confidence in leadership abilities is critical to make students successful entrepreneurs. Many students haven’t considered it and their first exposure to entrepreneurship is this 15-week course” says Beckmann. She hopes that at the end of the semester, students discover that multi-disciplinary collaboration is in everyone's best interest because design is social – it lives in society, builds society, and needs a society of its own to thrive.