Designs on business: a new exchange aims to market innovation


The 40,000-sq-ft Design Exchange opened in fall 1994, in Toronto, Ontario, and will serve as an teaching center, product launching facility, and exhibition hall for Canadian-designed goods. The building took seven years to build, and cost an estimated $20 million.

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When the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE) moved into its stunning, new, Art Deco headquarters on Bay Street in 1937, the Canadian economy was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. In 1994, as the economy emerges from the ravages of a recession, the grand old building in the heart of Toronto’s financial district is again housing an institution whose mandate is to promote prosperity. But where the exchange of the 1930s helped businesses to exploit Canada’s natural resources, the new Design Exchange, which opened last week, focuses on the benefits of design and innovation. Simply put, good design is the creative process that provides the vital link between a concept and a product that appeals to consumers. Guided by that philosophy, the new 40,000-square-foot nonprofit facility houses resource centres, meeting rooms and exhibition halls. Proponents of design excellence say its ability to add value to products is essential in today’s rapidly changing economy. Says architect Howard Cohen, president of the exchange: “Good design can produce distinctive, salable products and services, lower production costs, increase prestige for Canada–and ultimately create jobs.”

The need for a new edge is clear. According to the annual World Competitiveness Report published in September, Canada has fallen to 14th place among 22 industrialized countries, from fourth in 1989. When the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America are included in the rankings by the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Canada slips to 16th place. One reason Canada seems to be falling behind, says Cohen, is only two per cent of the goods manufactured in Canada are designed in Canada.

The exchange, which took seven years to complete and is valued at $20 million, including more than $6 million invested in the facility by governments, has a mission to improve those numbers. Its full-time and volunteer staff, including graphic artists, museum curators and even a former banker who acts as a liaison with business, will encourage Canadian business to be more innovative by staging exhibitions featuring the best in Canadian and international design, and by offering seminars, lectures and conferences. The facility will also serve as a venue for product launches from new cars to office furniture, and will act as a central resource for designers, businesses and academics. One key way it will do this is by creating and maintaining a multimedia electronic database, the Canadian Design Directory. The directory will be available on-line in the spring of 1995, so that anyone from Vancouver to Halifax can gather information on Canadian design, designers and products since 1945. The electric kettle, the snowmobile and the cordless-electric lawnmower are all Canadian design innovations.

While the exchange was set up to help designers and manufacturers, Cohen says he hopes that it will also bolster consumer demand for better products. To do that, most of the exchange’s exhibitions will be open to the public. The first, Second Nature: Things and Worlds of Our Making, features 14 international and Canadian companies recognized for their effective design work. The self-guided exhibit, which features everything from twinkling Christmas tree lights from Toronto’s Noma Industries Ltd. to recyclable packaging from The Body Shop of London, shows visitors that design is part of their everyday lives.

The exchange itself experienced how difficult the design and development process can be. In 1983, the TSE moved to new larger quarters just a block away. The old building stood empty while politicians, developers and citizens’ groups dickered over possible uses for it, from an urban garden to a banquet hall. In 1989, a small group of designers and academics gained the support of Toronto officials to occupy the historic building, if a deal could be struck with the developer, TD Centre West, which also had plans for the site. Eventually, they all agreed that the developer could build a fifth office tower on its city-block-sized site–literally on top of the old TSE building–in return for giving the building to the city and restoring the original trading floor.

The recession slowed further fund-raising efforts, but proponents of the exchange eventually raised $8 million to complete it. This included $3.8 million from the federal government and $2.5 million from the Ontario government, as well as $1.7 million from the private sector. Fund-raising efforts, however, must continue. Only 40 per cent of the exchange’s estimated annual operating budget of $2.9 million will come from revenues–and none from any level of government, says Cohen.

Still, Canada can now boast the first design promotion and exhibition centre in North America. That puts it in the select ranks of such countries as Singapore, Germany and Sweden. The Design Exchange’s next major challenge will be to convince Canadian business that incorporating design excellence into its products and processes is an investment in its future and not just an added cost.

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Writen by watesle