A Mind on a Mission

When Dan Cuffaro said Cleveland could become the U.S. capital of consumer-product design — ”The Milan of the Midwest” — he assumed people would laugh. Instead, they latched on to his idea of turning an area east of downtown into an
Directly behind Daniel Cuffaro’s forehead is where it happens.

Activity flares in a small part of his brain’s right temporal lobe — the anterior superior temporal gyrus, if you want to get medical about it. It is not the sort of activity prompted by Cuffaro organizing his black daily planner or arranging bath towels in the closet of his Lakewood home.

It’s more rare than that. It is the “Eureka!” moment. It’s the flash of insight of a problem solved — seeing what had previously been unseen and knowing it’s right — a sensation researchers have identified by a sudden burst of high-frequency activity in that small part of the right temporal lobe about one-third of a second before the solution arrives.
It is the culmination of close observation and intense thought. It is the biology of a problem solved — and that’s the sort of thing Dan Cuffaro does. Constantly. 

Cuffaro, 38, is the chair of the Design Environment at the Cleveland Institute of Art and an associate professor in its Industrial Design department. He’s also the brains behind the Cleveland District of Design, a concept that would transform a 24-block swath of Euclid Avenue just east of downtown into a bustling consumer-product design mecca, replete with street-level showrooms featuring products offered by regional firms. (See “Breaking Down the District of Design” on page 61.)

Cuffaro realizes that to most people, design is about veneer, not vocation. It’s professional decorating, the way nice fabric looks on a sofa. To him, design can transform the fabric of a street and be the catalyst that merges culture and commerce in a potent economic reaction.

The idea is big, but so is Cuffaro’s list of achievements. Procter & Gamble now sells a faster-acting thermometer, Nikon USA now makes a more reliable camera, and industrial toolmaker DeWalt now produces its most profitable product, the Worksite Radio, because of his fastidious ability to select, route and catalogue information before sketching a design.

“He’s constantly observing small details of everyday life. I’m not sure he’s aware he does that; it’s just ingrained,” says Heather Andrus, general manager of Altitude Inc., a Boston-based product development firm where Cuffaro worked as director of design from 1997 to 2003. “You say, ‘eating apples,’ and he could spout off the 10 things he’s observed about apple-eating for the last decade.”

Andrus realizes this sounds like hyperbole. “No kidding,” she says. “He also might tell you the three most efficient ways to bite into one, plus five ideas to improve the way the apple looks and tastes.”

During his tenure at Altitude, Cuffaro won five IDEA Awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America, the industry’s highest honor.

Cuffaro says he applies a fundamental, three-step process — research, conceptualize, refine — to “pretty much everything I do,” from industrial-design work to yard work. “But before I begin that process, I start with a blue-sky idea with no limitations,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘What if … ?’ ”

Colleagues and collaborators are struck by Cuffaro’s “pure art ability” and his dynamic personality. But what seems to separate him from others is his talent for starting with the outcome and finding a way to get there.

“Dan decides what ‘10’ is going to be,” says Scott Richardson, an interior designer and fellow CIA grad who recently collaborated with Cuffaro on a proposal to revamp the city’s lakefront. “Then he decides what ‘five’ needs to look like. He fills in the missing numbers with a heck of a lot of hard work and design skill.”

When Cuffaro is locked in, look out. When he identifies a gap separating How Things Are from How Things Should Be, his synapses fire until that sucker begins to close. During these times, he doesn’t like to rest. And in his mind, losing focus of the outcome is simply unfeasible, like looking at a word without reading it.

This evening, Dan Cuffaro is on his home turf. His athletic build looks relaxed as he stands behind a podium in a meeting room at CIA’s FUTURE: Center for Design and Technology Transfer. About a dozen CIA students and 25 members of IDSA’s local chapter are seated, ready to hear about the District of Design concept.

A Cleveland native, Cuffaro left Boston and took the helm of CIA’s Industrial Design department in August 2003. He immediately revamped its curriculum, focusing not only on how products are made but also on why — big-picture business concepts such as marketing, ergonomics and sustainability. He also emphasized visual communication methods, including painting and drawing. CIA instructors now hammer home the importance of both form and function.

The retooling is working. Since his tenure began, internship placement has increased 30 percent, students have collected an unprecedented 21 design awards, and graduate recruitment by companies has expanded nationwide. Last year, BusinessWeek named CIA one of the country’s top 25 design schools. The caliber of CIA students has increased “tenfold” since Cuffaro’s arrival, according to Anthony DeMore, director of business development at Balance Product Development, a Chagrin Falls firm  at which five of six employees are CIA graduates.

“He quickly has built a foundation of credibility,” says DeMore. One that extends from the school to the District of Design.

Cuffaro and the other key promoter of the idea, Edward “Ned” Hill, vice president of economic development for Cleveland State University, have made this presentation dozens of times already to business leaders, city officials, real-estate developers and companies that might occupy space in the district.

Cuffaro’s process-driven brain might seem nerdy, but his appearance is fashionable in his white dress shirt, gray sport coat, no tie. He has a full-cheeked, endearing face, and not a piece of his parted, dark-brown hair is out of place. His controlled voice — clear and precise — matches his personality. He begins by announcing the outcome.

“Cleveland is going to be the Milan of the Midwest,” he says, referencing how the Northern Italian city’s rich history of product design, fashion and furniture defines its economy. “It’s going to be the capital of consumer-product design in the country.”

He outlines Northeast Ohio’s consumer-product assets: its regional expertise as the home to more than 40 successful consumer product marketers and manufacturers (such as Hoover, Little Tikes and Moen) and a bevy of renowned design firms (such as Nottingham-Spirk Design Associates, which invented Crest’s Spin toothbrush and Sherwin-Williams’ dripless paint can).

Northeast Ohio also has a design legacy. Viktor Schreckengost, sometimes called “the American da Vinci,” founded CIA’s industrial-design program in the 1930s and is considered one of the most prolific designers in history, with an impact on the economy totaling $250 billion. His accomplishments include crafting the first mass-produced dinnerware.
When Cuffaro wants a word to resonate, he slows down and emphasizes its syllables. “We have a ne-bu-la of consumer product development, but it’s not a star,” he says. “Why isn’t it a star? Because our whole is less than the sum of our parts. We’re not seen as a consumer-product development re-gion, despite our resources and capabilities. We lack a design cul-ture, and that needs to change!”

He points to several CIA students in the back of the room and says local industrial-design talent is leaving the area for opportunities in more progressive cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston. A few students nod their heads in agreement.

Cuffaro points to an artist’s rendering of what the district might look like in a few years: a lively street scene, with sleek consumer-product wholesale showrooms and design studios lining Euclid Avenue between Playhouse Square and East 22nd Street. A related cluster of manufacturers, material suppliers and marketers also would occupy space in the district, which is bordered by St. Clair Avenue on the north, Prospect Avenue on the south, East 12th Street to the west and East 36th Street to the east.

About 135 design-related companies employing some 1,400 people currently exist in the area. SmartShape Design Inc., which designed and developed the popular Discover 2GO credit card, an oblong card that can be attached to a key chain, is among those expected to benefit if Cuffaro’s district becomes reality.

The vitality would help retain talent, and the product showrooms the district promises would attract clients. “It would be like a permanent exhibit for buyers to plan their product lines,” SmartShape Design president Mike Maczuzak says later, adding that collaboration is critical in the product-development industry.

An audience member raises her hand and wants to know how the District of Design would differ from Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. Cuffaro explains Chicago’s building has showrooms where design professionals choose home and office furnishings, and a shopping mall on the first two floors.

“Ours will be different for two reasons,” Cuffaro says. “It will be the only design district in the country focused on consumer products, and street-level showrooms will promote collaboration and interaction.”

When he explains a decision or expands on a thought, Cuffaro often enumerates his points, moving his left hand downward when beginning each one. It’s his systematic mind in action. The same mind that always looked for “six traits” when he hired new employees at Altitude (including a command of visual communication terms). The mind that has “three ideas” besides the District of Design to improve the city’s design culture (including more education in grades K-12). 
Cuffaro moves to another slide, telling the audience the district would rely on its amenities — hotels, restaurants, entertainment spots — to create a premium experience for buyers from national retailers.

“Picture the buyer from Williams-Sonoma,” he says. “She could travel from the airport and arrive at this one-stop shopping destination in 20 minutes. She would maximize her time by visiting five companies in a day instead of two.”
In time, Cuffaro and Hill explain, a critical mass of creative, consumer-oriented professionals would accelerate innovation, and tens of thousands of jobs would be created.

Ninety minutes after the presentation begins, audience members give Cuffaro and Hill an ovation and chat about the concept. Cuffaro accepts the applause graciously, and then says quietly to no one in particular, “We still have a lot of people to convince.”
Orange and black jackhammers rip through concrete on the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 21st Street, sending billows of dust into the air. Workers are making room for the Silver Line of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, a bus rapid-transit line scheduled to be operating by late 2008. The main artery will  link CIA, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University and their design, business and engineering expertise.

Three stories above the street, Ned Hill sits in his corner office at CSU’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs building. “Absolutely, yes, absolutely,” he says. “The District of Design is going to succeed, I have no doubt.”
Hill should know. He has authored two books, co-authored five others, and written more than 90 articles and book chapters on economic development-related topics. He recently helped draft the strategic plans for manufacturing in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and has worked in places ranging from Hungary to Camden, N.J. Now, his lab is the street he sees out his office window.

“Euclid Avenue is a dead street, and it’s a main street,” Hill says. “Anything that pumps energy and income into businesses there is a huge positive for the city.”

The way cities grow and change is through thought leadership, he explains. “Just as Silicon Valley provides that to the information-technology and venture-capital industries, Cleveland can provide that to the consumer-product design industry.”

Last February, he received an e-mail from Cuffaro, who had stumbled upon Hill’s bio on CSU’s Web site. Cuffaro’s message briefly discussed his “Milan of the Midwest” idea. He asked Hill if he could complement or sharpen the concept. Cuffaro had reached the right guy: Five years earlier, Hill and several others had studied using industrial design as a way to revitalize small- and mid-sized companies.

“To stimulate an economy, you have to figure out what assets are undervalued and have great potential,” Hill says. “We have that in consumer-product design talent and resources. But you can’t make an idea like this work without standing in the industry itself, and Dan clearly has that.”

Less than 24 hours after receiving Cuffaro’s e-mail, Hill had organized a roundtable meeting with local stakeholders — including Tom Schorgl, president and CEO of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, and Thomas A. Einhouse, vice president of Playhouse Square Foundation Management Co., which owns significant property in the District of Design — who could contribute.

Schorgl thought it was a natural fit, especially considering the types of businesses in the region. “Then I saw how dynamic and creative Dan is,” he says, “and that’s what the district will be all about.”

Hill and Cuffaro fit together like a well-crafted dovetail joint. “[Dan] knows how to apply the techniques and skills of designers to generate business,” says Schorgl.

Or, as Cuffaro puts it: “I can say, ‘Design has value.’ Ned would pull out a chart and show you how much.”

The duo is trumpeting a simple premise: Companies that embrace design’s value (think Apple and Ikea) are more likely to increase revenue and their competitive advantage. “The value proposition for designers, the city and property owners with vacancies has been an extremely easy sell,” Hill says. “The slightly harder sell will be getting CEOs to invest in showrooms and storefronts, but it will happen.”

He says a Rubbermaid official told him the company’s Home Products headquarters might have remained in Fairlawn instead of relocating to Huntersville, N.C., if the District of Design had existed a few years ago.

Hill and Cuffaro are working with city officials to line up empowerment-zone tax credits, specialized zoning and other incentives to entice firms to move into the district. They are also pinpointing privately held, midsize companies (less than $70 million in annual sales) that are reliant on design. They hope to land commitments from six firms for a cluster of buildings around Playhouse Square by the end of the year. Within three years, they hope 12 to 15 companies are in the district.

A few months ago, John McCann, CEO of Glenwillow-based Saeco USA Inc., makers of high-end espresso machines, told Cuffaro he wants his firm to be part of the district. He envisions occupying space that would house a showroom, educational center and coffee shop, so Saeco could educate consumers on premium coffee, while also testing its products and gaining immediate feedback.

“The best part of Dan’s idea is that it could change the city’s personality,” McCann says. “Cleveland has such a negative outlook sometimes, and we’re too afraid of big ideas. We need to capitalize on our regional strengths, and I haven’t heard of a better way than the District of Design.”

Hill adds that the issue is statewide. “Ohio aims to be the Good Enough State, the benchmark for the middle,” he says. “What I love about Dan is he’s shooting for the moon, and damn it, I know we’re going to get there.”

Cuffaro’s black daily planner rests on the desk of his cramped, sweltering office in CIA’s basement. It’s 3 p.m., and he removes his gray sport coat and cranks open a window. “I’ve been on the go all day,” he says.

One glance at the calendar’s arrows and numerous color-coded entries, and you wonder when Cuffaro has time to sleep or spend time with his wife, Amy, and two sons. “Don’t let Dan fool you,” Andrus of Altitude will say later. “He enjoys having so many balls in the air. If you took those balls away, he’d go nuts and look for more.”

Earlier in the day, Cuffaro met with leaders of the Greater Cleveland Partnership to discuss economic incentives for firms interested in committing to the District of Design. And with Jennifer Thomas, director of the Civic Innovation Lab, which gave Cuffaro $30,000 — the group’s maximum amount — to create a visual identity for the district.

Cuffaro has four more district-related meetings scheduled for the afternoon and evening, including one with Chip Nowacek, Viktor Schreckengost’s stepson and executive director of the Schreckengost Foundation in Cleveland Heights. The nonprofit’s retail ventures want space in the district.

“Thank heavens for Dan Cuffaro and his recognition of this city’s legacy and possibilities,” Nowacek later says. “There’s no road map for accomplishing something of this magnitude. The man is a breath of fresh air.”

Cuffaro talks eagerly about the more than 120 volunteers now supporting his mission. In the 10 days since his presentation at the CIA FUTURE: Center, he has welcomed dozens of new supporters. He also has created a more formal structure for the group, creating five committees, including ones for real estate and finance, and marketing and sales.

“Just as the field of medicine constantly evolves, the discipline of design does. So should the way we approach this idea,” Cuffaro says, now wanting words to resonate. “The knowledge of design isn’t sta-tic. We constantly must e-volve and find better methods to integrate design with business and the community. To make a difference, we need to lead the con-ver-sa-tion.”

Cuffaro raises his right hand and wipes a band of sweat from his forehead. “There’s no logical reason why Cleveland can’t be the Milan of the Midwest,” he says. “In 10 years, the District of Design can be part of the infrastructure that generates tens of thou-sands of jobs.”

He pauses, then continues. “OK, maybe ‘Milan of the Midwest’ was an absurd statement, but hey, it’s a statement that launched a thousand ships.” 
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