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Young Presidents' Organization Visits McCormick for Design Symposium

Members of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) gathered at the McCormick School of Engineering on Tuesday, April 24 for a day-long symposium, “Design: The Ultimate Competitive Advantage,” focusing on the intersection of design and business success.

Front (left to right): Bruce Mau, Gordon Segal, Julio M. Ottino. Back: Mark Dziersk, Walter Herbst, event co-chars Geoff Cubit and Tim Stojka, Pat Ryan Jr., and Nick Kokonas.The young chief executives gained insights from five speakers, among them retailers, brand designers, and restaurateurs, all of whom have used design to leverage success for themselves or others.

Whether developing branding or designing a restaurant, a successful education forms the foundation for success, noted McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino. In today’s fast-changing world, schools must provide more than classroom learning; they must be forward-thinkers, preparing thinkers and workers for fields that may not even exist yet.

“Essentially schools need to be able to read the future,” Ottino said.

As a burgeoning entrepreneur in 1962, Crate and Barrel co-founder Gordon Segal learned the route to his success was “following (his) gut.” Fresh from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Segal had little experience, but he did have a concept: stylish but budget-conscious housewares and furnishings.

Fifty years and 100 stores later, design continues to be a driving force for the company, not just in products but in their surroundings. “We wanted to bring design full-circle, from product design to the way it’s displayed to the architecture of the building the display sits in,”

Gordon SegalBruce Mau, founder of Bruce Mau Design and the Massive Change Network, shared with the YPO his broad definition of design: “the intersection of art and science.”

Nature, culture, and business are all design projects, Mau argued, and they can intersect in powerful and socially important ways. One aspect of the “Live Positively” campaign that Mau developed for Coca-Cola demonstrated that each chair built from waste plastic could keep 180 soda bottles out of landfills.

Design can help save the environment; it can also help companies achieve their bottom line, noted Mark Dziersk, managing director of the strategic design, engineering, and branding firm LUNAR.

Dziersk urged the YPO members to view design as their brand, and also to remember that those brands must constantly be tweaked and transformed. “Great design always connects emotionally,” he said, “but you have to recognize that needs change over time.”

After a product design and development workshop led by Walter Herbst, founder of the design firm Herbst LaZar Bell and director of McCormick’s Master of Product Design and Development Management Program, the YPO members gained insight into an entirely new industry: restaurants. Nick Kokonas, managing partner of Achatz LLC, shared how design has impacted his work at Aliniea, Next, and The Aviary.
Walter Herbst and members of the YPO
“Everything we do is design-driven,” said Kokonas, who met chef Grant Achatz when Achatz was a chef at Evanston’s Trio. That includes everything from handling marketing and photography in-house to cooling guests’ drinking water to a temperature that will prevent tabletop-scarring condensation.

Emotion also plays a role in a well-designed restaurant, Kokonas explained; at Alinea, the entryway is designed in a way that puts guests on a rollercoaster of tension (i.e., anxiety to discover that there is no sign on the door) and finally relief (i.e., arriving to find a host who seems, cleverly, to know you by name). “In order to feel welcome, you have to first feel nervous,” Kokonas said.

Among the event’s organizers were Tim Stojka, CEO of Agentis Energy and member of the McCormick Advisory Council, and Pat Ryan Jr., CEO of Incisient and member of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees.