Business Strategy Behind Newell Rubbermaid’s New Design Center

Newell Rubbermaid’s new Design Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, marks a monumental shift in the company’s design thinking and practices. This consolidation of design functions in a single location addresses how design in the 21st century has become a team activity that pulls in disciplines beyond design.

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In 2012, after Newell Rubbermaid adopted its Growth Game Plan strategy focused on four winning capabilities, including design and R&D, it brought in acclaimed designer Chuck Jones as its first Chief Design and Research & Development Officer to make the company more agile and responsive to consumers through design. Jones’ reputation preceded him, having successfully built global design and development teams that boosted sales and won awards for innovation at companies including Whirlpool and Xerox. Here, Jones talks about how Newell Rubbermaid is creating a brand-and-innovation-led company that is famous for design and product performance.

Q. Could you first give us some background on Newell Rubbermaid’s history?
Jones: Newell started out making metal curtain rods back in 1903, but since the 1990s, it has acquired an impressive portfolio of products and brands, including – Rubbermaid storage containers, Calphalon cookware, Graco and Aprica baby products, Paper Mate, Sharpie and Prismacolor writing instruments, Irwin Tools, Levolor blinds, and Dymo labels – to name just a few. For years, it was run as a holding company for 13 independent business units, but more recently it shifted its strategy to that of an operating company, and brought Michael Polk on in July 2011 as president and CEO to implement a strategy to accelerate into a larger, faster growing, more global and more profitable company. This strategy emphasizes design and R&D to help create new innovative products that win with consumers while Marketing helps cultivate global brand equity. The 13 independent business units were collapsed and organized into the five global business segments we have now.

Q. How was design at Newell Rubbermaid carried out before the Design Center?
Jones: Design functions were disaggregated and geographically spread across the world. Collectively, Newell Rubbermaid had 138 inhouse designers and external designers with relationships with more than 200 outside agencies.

Q. What benefits did centralization offer inhouse designers and outside agencies?
Jones: For one, it gave us the ability to offer designers a meaningful career path. If you have only three inhouse designers in a single location, that’s not a deep career ladder. Dealing with so many outside agencies also limited the amount of spend that we were able to leverage with any one of them. Going from 200 plus external partners down to five globally ensured that we’d have significant spend with all five and command more of their attention. We are achieving better cost effectiveness, better quality and far better consistency under the new model.

Q. What functions does the new Design Center include?
Jones: Our 40,000-square foot facility was planned to foster creativity, maximize the sharing of ideas and technologies among our brands, and enhance our product innovation funnel. A large, open studio space provides the ideal environment for designers to collaborate and work cross-functionally. Six immersion labs – one for each business segment and one to grow on – is the place where design comes alive for our partners in insights and marketing, customer development and the supply chain. It’s where the cross-functional design/marketing team can test prototypes and imagine possibilities for future product roadmaps. Previously, we had to tie-up a conference room. Now everything in the immersion lab stays up for the duration of the project. Our model shop is equipped with state-of-the-art prototyping machines, and we have a usability lab so our design/engineering teams can interact with consumers and end-users to study human usability factors first-hand.

Q. How did Southwestern Michigan come to be chosen for the site of the Design Center when Newell has operations all over the world?
Jones: It appealed to us because it is home to many renowned design-led companies, including Herman Miller, Steelcase, Whirlpool, Stryker and Kellogg, that are recognized for innovation. Its proximity to Chicago, Detroit and Grand Rapids also helps us tap into automotive and furnishings capabilities and research.

Q. Was it hard to convince designers to relocate to Kalamazoo?
Jones: Out of those extended the opportunity to move to the Design Center, about 42% elected to move with us. Among multi-brand peer companies, Newell Rubbermaid is singularly unique in the fact that we have organized innovation, design, engineering, and R&D into an integrated design center. This provides our designers with a more promising career path, and it makes us more agile and responsive to consumer needs. We have found the equation of quality of life, affordability and easy access to Chicago and Detroit have made the West Michigan region very appealing to those who choose to join our team.

Q. What do you hope the Design Center will ultimately accomplish for Newell Rubbermaid?
Jones: Our goal is to become the preeminent consumer durables company in the world. We want to make sure that our next generation of products leverage design in a meaningful way to show consumers that we are demonstrably better, different, and worth it.