UX in the Midwest: Exploring an Unexpected Design Powerhouse

Image source: jrossphoto / Adobe Stock.

by Linn Vizard

posted on 07-09-2018

When you think about the American Midwest, what comes to mind? Perhaps the recent Netflix hit “Fargo” (set in Minnesota), or deep-dish pizza from Chicago, or maybe it’s cheese from Wisconsin? Design and user experience (UX) are unlikely to be on that list. “We’re not really known for it. When you think of UX you don’t think of the Midwest, and so we’re potentially overlooked,” said Heidi Munc, associate vice president of user experience at Nationwide, based in Columbus, Ohio. However, it turns out there is a thriving, diverse UX scene in the Midwest. I talked to three experienced UX professionals who have carved out successful careers about living, working, and being part of the design community in the Midwest.

Heidi Munc, AVP of UX at Nationwide, speaking at the Financial Experience Design Conference in 2017. Image source: YouTube.

A surprisingly rich design history

One thing that often surprises people is the history of design in the Midwest. “Companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller were doing human factors work a long time ago. There’s always been a sense of design and craftsmanship here,” said Karen VanHouten, founder and principal at Curious Red LLC, an enterprise design and experience consultancy.

Steelcase was founded in 1912 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Products like the Multiple 15 Desk, introduced in 1946, became universal standards in the office furniture industry. Image source: 100 Steelcase.

This rich history creates a fertile ground for UX professionals as industries and organizations evolve. It’s a different perspective to Silicon Valley startups and tech-driven culture. This can also be seen in organizations that are now trying to figure out how to integrate design. “That’s part of the legacy of the Midwest — a lot of the work that’s done here is done by companies that aren’t traditionally software companies. It creates so much opportunity to do enterprise-level work, which is really complicated and interesting,” said Erik Dahl, founder of Dahl Design Co., a UX and product design consultancy.

Where do designers in the Midwest work?

The history of design and the evolution of the market means there are really diverse opportunities available in the Midwest. Some of the UX employers and roles mentioned throughout my interviews included in-house UX roles at large corporations and work at smaller agencies and consultancies. The range of industries was diverse, spanning financial services companies like Chase Bank and Huntington Bank, health care companies like Spectrum Health and Humana, and furniture companies like Herman Miller and Steelcase. “It’s becoming a bit more rich for startups as well. A lot of people are seeing there’s talent here but it’s a lot cheaper, and so we’re starting to draw financing,” said Karen. “There’s also a lot of unique of opportunities here in addition to digital work. It’s a really rich fertile environment for UX designers.”

Karen VanHouten speaking at the Midwest UX Conference in Cincinnati in 2017 Image source: LinkedIn.

Progressive, interesting work and a high quality of life

Everyone I spoke with mentioned lifestyle as a huge draw to living and working as a UX designer in the Midwest. “So much of it for me is being able to craft a lifestyle here. I’ve never had a commute that’s more than 20 minutes, I have space for a great home office, I’m there for my kids when they come home from school, I can focus on training for ultramarathons, and I love my work!” said Erik. “I can do progressive, interesting work and have a comfortable life.”

That balance between work and quality of life also means a lot to Karen, “The best thing about being here is the balance between cost of living and the level of opportunity, which means I don’t have to kill myself to own a house and have a decent lifestyle.” Heidi agrees, saying that “it’s easy to live here!” This quality of life is greatly enhanced by the amazing landscapes and natural resources in certain areas. As Erik said, “In Grand Rapids, we’re 30 minutes from Lake Michigan and incredible beaches. There’s immense natural beauty and a freshwater lake that looks like the ocean that we can escape to any time.”

Erik Dahl presenting at UX Week in 2017. Being close to nature and having time to train for ultrarunning (in which people run races longer than the 26.2 miles of a marathon) is an important part of the lifestyle he has created in the Midwest. Image source: Medium.

Connecting with the community

**“**The UX community is very generous here in Columbus. It’s wonderful how willing and open people are to sharing tips and tricks,” said Heidi. “We’re shaping this community right now, and design has a big part to play in that.” This echoed what I heard from others, where a real sense of community and connection is a characteristic of being a designer and working in UX in the Midwest.

This close-knit community also has its professional benefits. “If you’re interested in something professionally, it’s ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ — and you always find someone who will put you in touch with the right people,” said Karen. Both of them mentioned organizations like local IxDA (Interaction Design Association), UXPA (UX Professionals Association), Creative Mornings, and Ladies That UX as excellent places to connect with the community.

The Midwest UX Conference has been bringing the UX community in the region together annually since 2011. In 2018, Chicago will be the host city. Image source: Midwest UX Conference.

Erik himself has played a crucial role in building that community as a founder of the popular Midwest UX Conference. “I wanted to make sure that I personally was making broad connections that went beyond where I worked, as well as highlighting the UX work that is being done in the Midwest that is on par with work happening in places like San Francisco and New York,” he said. Getting involved with UX organizations and founding the Midwest UX Conference was also a way of tackling an issue in the region — designers aren’t concentrated in one area, unlike bigger cities where they’re in close proximity. “I was really interested in creating virtual density, connections on a human scale that lead to collaboration, jobs, and mentorship,” said Erik. It’s working, too. “People really look forward to Midwest UX, they make it their one conference to go to,” said Heidi.

Advice for designers considering the Midwest

If all of this is starting to make the Midwest seem like a viable option for a UX career, you’re not alone. Erik mentioned that some people are starting to move back to the region after careers in Silicon Valley, and that graduates are considering staying.

Being a potentially less obvious choice for talent creates lots of opportunity, said Heidi. “The Midwest feels like it’s at a disadvantage in the talent war, so that’s an opportunity for people to negotiate harder. There are a lot of great companies that are starting to build their design competency and need great people to do so.” Seeing the opportunity and using this to craft a career and lifestyle is a fantastic possibility, she added.

Erik cautions that while there is opportunity, it’s important to find mentors. “There are a lot of jobs available, but often you’re the only designer in an organization or in a team. It’s crucial for junior designers or anyone coming back to the midwest to find people that are doing good work and can provide support and guidance.” This all comes back to advice the others gave as well about finding ways to connect to — and invest in — the UX community.

“Even for me, when I decided to invest in this community, it really opened my eyes to the breadth of impact that people are having. UX is not pushing pixels, it’s not designing software, it’s how a customer interacts with your brand,” said Karen. “There’s so much talent here, so get involved with IxDA, get involved with Ladies That UX. A lot of jobs around here that are a one or two-person team, but you can get support from the community to grow your skills.”

Go and see for yourself

Overall, the Midwest has a lot going for it if you’re looking to build a career in design and UX, and Karen, Heidi, and Erik are great examples of what’s possible. As with anything, it’s not all rosey, so the best way to understand design and UX in the Midwest is to explore it for yourself. As Heidi puts it, “Try to find ways to visit the cities here. The Midwest doesn’t get a lot of press, and so people can have preconceived ideas of what it’s like to be here.”

For ongoing tweets and insights into design life in the Midwest, check out the Twitter accounts of designers Karen, Erik, and Heidi.

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