Arts & Culture

Business by Design

How two Baltimore institutions came together to create an education like no other.

In a classroom overlooking the colorful Howard Street Bridge, Paul D. Miller swipes a finger across his iPad mini and pulls up a DJ app he developed with Apple. An image of turntables appears on a projector screen, and the room fills with the soulful voice of James Brown singing “Make It Funky.” As the turntables spin, Miller (better known as DJ Spooky) scratches the virtual record with a few flicks of his fingers, breaking down the percussion and horns until the funky beat becomes something new. As the music fades, Miller poses a question to the class of 13 students: What makes something original? “If I have 10 Lego blocks and I put them together in one way and millions of people see that one way, and I say, ‘Let me flip that around,’ that’s okay,” he says, describing an artist’s ability to subvert, or “remix” the familiar into something with new meaning. “It’s a healthy, creative response.”

Miller, an artist-in-residence through spring 2014 at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), teaches a Creativity and Innovation course with WYPR radio producer Aaron Henkin. Something of a globetrotting Renaissance man, Miller is the author of various books (including 2004’s Rhythm Science, published by MIT Press), and his multimedia work has been featured at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial. The class is part of the Design Leadership program, a groundbreaking partnership between MICA and The Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School. The 20-month graduate degree earns students both a Masters of Art and a Masters in Business Administration.

Sipping an after-class espresso at Red Emma’s, a North Avenue coffeehouse/bookstore across the street from MICA’s Graduate Studio Center, Miller says such discussions push students to think about the causes of creativity and the effects of human design in business settings and elsewhere. “Anyone can watch a YouTube clip or read a book,” he says, “but the problem is people aren’t given enough tools for thinking. How do you channel all that [information]? How do you shape and mold it to a practical and impact-oriented approach?”

“It’s almost like you’ve got these two sides of creativity,” adds Henkin. “You’re giving these students all of these tools to create, but then there’s the question: ‘How will they apply these creations for the best all-around benefit, not only to themselves, but to the world?’”

This type of approach is necessary, Miller says, because of the rapid rate of change in technology and business today. And while design challenges, and even the course curriculum, may change, “thinking about thinking is a tool that people can always use,” Miller says.

As the corporate world plays catch-up to embrace adaptability, graduates of the Design Leadership program can bridge the world of business and the world of design. “Paul says imagination is the ultimate renewable resource,” says Henkin, “and one of the best resources you can have on your team is—”

“A good idea,” Miller interjects.

“And also flexibility,” Henkin continues. “The business person who’s got that more humanistic platform is going to be less brittle than someone who’s just trained in business.”

It’s that depth and breadth of skills that draws students to the new program, which graduates its first class this spring. Students take 22 credits at MICA and 44 credits at Hopkins.

“I was looking for a mix of MBA and design,” says first-year Design Leadership student Julie Buisson, a native of France who has lived in the U.S. for the past 10 years. Buisson moved from Athens, GA, to Baltimore for the Design Leadership program after discovering it through a Google search. Dressed in a bulky, mustard-yellow sweater and holding a mug of coffee and a well-loved Moleskin journal, Buisson fits the picture of an art student, though she earned her undergraduate degree—in marketing, with an emphasis in sales—at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

“At Georgia, all of my friends were art students,” she says. “They showed me a different way of working. I took some art classes, and I realized that creativity is something you work on just like anything else.”

With the Design Leadership program, she’s filling a gap in her education. It’s the same for her classmates, who come from varied backgrounds, including architecture, nonprofits, photography, and even the oil industry. “There is something more that’s driving us,” says Buisson. “We all believe we should be trained as creatives—it’s just as important as being trained in analytics.”

That passion for cross-disciplinary education is exactly what the two schools look for in applicants, says David Gracyalny, dean of MICA’s School for Professional and Continuing Studies and the de-facto head of MICA’s side of the Design Leadership program. Sitting in his office inside MICA’s Bungalow building on Mount Royal Avenue, Gracyalny notes that Design Leadership students, like typical MICA graduates, develop skills to be more adaptable, resourceful, and collaborative-minded.

“We use the practice of art and design to teach people to be creative thinkers,” he says. “What they’ve learned here is a tolerance for ambiguity. This is not a degree teaching designers how to run a business. It’s about teaching transformational leaders in a variety of enterprises—people who can think through complicated problems—with a theme of multidisciplinary collaboration.”

And multidisciplinary collaboration is why the Design Leadership program was developed. Its beginnings can be traced back to 2007, when Carey professors Blair Johnson, Toni Ungaretti, and Ed Weiss began teaching Competitive Advantage: Design + Innovation, a class where students came up with creative solutions for challenges posed by local businesses.

For DAP (the Baltimore-based caulk and sealant firm), for instance, the Hopkins students proposed new products, marketing strategies, financial models, and prototype websites to help promote the brand to young do-it-yourselfers without alienating their baby-boomer parents.

After Johnson was recruited by MICA to assist with an unrelated project, he says the schools “recognized that there were knowledge gaps that could be bridged by adopting teaching, research, and industry practices from each school into an integrated experience.”

It came at a time when new research and publications—including Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind—ushered in an era of creative, right-brain thinking. This cultural shift prompted the two schools to create a more formal partnership. After a few iterations, the schools settled on a dual-degree program that folded Carey’s already-existing flex MBA, which exposes students to other disciplines, into MICA’s Design Leadership MA.

From an office in Harbor East’s glistening Legg Mason building, Kevin Frick, Carey’s vice dean for education, handles the staff-management side of the university’s MBA programs and works with Gracyalny on the Design Leadership program. The Carey School administration, Frick says, sees value in the program, because it provides MBA students with deep expertise in design, which can be applied to any business. “Design, as one student phrased it, is a way of thinking about the world,” says Frick. “We are not talking about just designing things; we’re talking about fundamentally shifting a thought process.”

Such comments echo Miller’s and Henkin’s sentiments and align with Carey’s slogan, “Business with humanity in mind.” Frick admits that some people hear the slogan and immediately think of not-for-profits, but he points out that it also means a healthy business is most likely to be found in a healthy community. He believes the Design Leadership program directly addresses that issue.

“Design, and thinking about the end user and the end-user community, is quite powerful as a combination,” says Frick.

As graduation looms, employment is on the minds of the 13 students. In between presentations of their final projects at the Graduate Studio Center, Molly Needelman, who studied graphic design as an undergraduate, knows there are challenges ahead in the employment market. In past jobs, she saw a divide between strategy and design and was often brought in at the end of the process instead of being involved from the beginning.

“I want to change that business model to bridge the different worlds,” says Needelman.

With that in mind, she’s been presenting herself as a design strategist, or in-house creative consultant, to potential employers. “It’s a lot of us trying to develop a position,” Needelman says, rather than fitting into already-existing job descriptions. “A lot of it has been a huge educational moment for employers as well.”

But Gracyalny isn’t worried. He describes the first grads as highly driven, pioneering spirits and notes that a company like Under Armour might be a good match for their cross-disciplinary skills.

And he sees Baltimore—a place where innovative ideas can not only be considered, but implemented—as the perfect environment to embrace this unconventional thinking. “What’s going to save the economy of cities like Baltimore,” he says, “are people who are willing to take a risk at times where maybe the best thing to do is try something new.”

Aaron Henkin agrees and likens it to the collaborative spirit he sees in Baltimore’s music scene. “You’ve got these musicians who, because of the spirit of this place, don’t have any qualms about getting together and making this new sound they didn’t know they were capable of,” he says “It’s the same thing with these two schools.

“They said, ‘Hey, why not try this out? We’re in town together, let’s take the best of what you’ve got and the best of what we’ve got.’ It’s almost like they’re making a new genre.”