Newell's Road to Smart Design Leads Through Kalamazoo

New Design Center Unites Far-Flung Company, Raises Product Test Scores

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Newell Rubbermaid makes everything from plastic storage containers that go in kitchen cabinets to the Irwin hand and power tools used to build those cabinets. Then there's Graco baby car seats, Calphalon cookware, Sharpie pens, Levolor blinds and Goody hairbrushes in a mix that might look to some like an untidy clutter of brands crammed into a company with not quite $6 billion in sales.

But Newell Chief Design Officer Chuck Jones believes it all fits neatly into a box. That box would be the minimalist, modern design center he opened in May to bring roughly 120 designers from about 20 sites around the world to a technology and research park at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

The center is part of a plan to take Newell on a journey that Mr. Jones, who joined in late 2012, likens with a laugh to the distance separating Veg-O-Matic marketer Ronco and the lofty heights achieved by Apple. Newell's benchmark is a four-step staircase the Design Management Institute uses to describe companies' design maturity. He rates Newell as a two -- defined as where design management works on a project level -- "nibbling on the edges of three," where design is a true company-wide function. Ultimately, he wants to get to four, where design infuses company culture to the point that "people stop talking about it," he said.

But that's "a 10-year journey," acknowledged the veteran of top design posts at companies including Herman Miller, Xerox and Whirlpool. He sees the design center as an early move in the right direction.

"Where a lot of corporations [go] wrong is that they'll make the investment in people, but they'll stop there and not think about what's the enabling culture," Mr. Jones said. The center is a key enabler, making once far-flung designers a cohesive unit.

For example, designers of pens have some of the same issues as designers of handgrips for tools, Mr. Jones said. Now, they can talk shop at the coffee machine. "These are conversations that historically never took place," he said.

It's all one part of Chairman-CEO Mike Polk's vision of moving Newell from a holding company to an operating company, where all the pieces work together.

The design center also has resources all the businesses can use, such as a usability engineer, human-factors engineer and cognitive engineers, as well as someone whose job is to faciliate brainstorms. While considering a mop design for Goody, for example, "we looked at calorie burn, heart rate, grip strength and musculoskeletal fatigue," Mr. Jones said.

The center also has a rapid prototyping shop that designers can use for any of the brands. "Historically, Newell never had a design-model shop," Mr. Jones said. "Where design often falls apart is on that transition from 2-D to 3-D."

Mr. Polk hired Mr. Jones about a month before rounding out his top executive team with a new CMO and top sales executive, which sent a signal about the importance of design.

The marketing and consumer-insights functions headed by Chief Marketing Officer Richard Davies have taken a similar path, bringing marketers from Newell's scattered businesses into the company's Atlanta headquarters. Consolidating the functions has eased communications and working relationships, Mr. Davies said.

But why Kalamazoo, especially when not one of Newell's widely scattered businesses is based there and headquarters is in Georgia?

The Kalamazoo area has a reputation -- albeit a quiet one -- as a global design hub, as home to furniture makers Herman Miller and Steelcase and appliance maker Whirlpool. The design-intensive automotive industry is in nearby Detroit and Chicago isn't far, meaning around 1,800 designers are in the region. Newell's center now has designers from 18 countries speaking 12 languages.

Sure, Newell is competing against bigger, more cosmopolitan cities for talent. None of them, however, have the Kalamazoo Promise: a pledge by a group of anonymous donors to pay 65% to 100% of the tuition at any Michigan state university for four-year graduates of Kalamazoo public high schools. That's been a big draw for designers with school-age children, Mr. Jones said.

The increased output from the designers can already be seen in improved concept test scores. Lately, Newell has had so many high-scoring ideas with research firm Ipsos that it's had to increase the minimum threshold ideas must meet for further development, Mr. Davies said.

While it's too early to cite new products that have come out of the center, Mr. Jones said: "When I look at 2015, I get excited. When I look at 2016, I get more excited. When I look at 2017, I'm positively vibrating."

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