Inside Track: Teaching creatives how to change a community


Gayle DeBruyn is charged with helping students and administrators find ways to better Kendall's place in the community using the triple bottom line.

While other little girls were playing with Barbie dolls, Gayle DeBruyn was in her backyard building forts. Her proclivity for creating living spaces from scrap materials was the start of a life-long passion.

“It wasn’t a tree house, it was just a fort made from found objects like bricks and stones and sticks, and probably little earth berms,” said DeBruyn. “It was just fun. It was play — and play has connections to work, and that’s where I go with it. 

“My head has always been interested in spatial relationships with structures. I prefer geometry over algebra and I also like the outdoors. I’m not one to sit inside much.”

These days, DeBruyn, an assistant professor in design programs at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University for 22 years, is steeped in shepherding the next generation to conjoin interior design principles with  “green” action plans. 

The focus of her educational ambitions recently was expanded when she was named Kendall’s first chief sustainability officer. The new position demonstrates the college’s emphasis on sustainability under the leadership of President David Rosen.


Organization: Kendall College of Art and Design
Position: Chief Sustainability Officer; Associate Professor of Design Studies; Program Chair of Collaborative Design and Furniture Design
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Eastown
Family: Single
Business/Community Involvement: West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Alliance for Environmental Sustainability, Community Sustainability Partnership, TEDxGrandRapids, United Nations University Regional Center of Expertise committee for the City of Grand Rapids, Design West Michigan, founding member of U.S. Green Building Council.
Biggest Career Break: Landing her first professional job at Haworth Inc., where she worked for 11 years in the facilities and marketing departments.


With business partner Lee Davis, DeBruyn co-owns Lake Affect Design Studio Ltd. in Grand Rapids, a commercial and residential interior design company they launched in 1998 with an emphasis on sustainable design strategies. 

Davis and DeBruyn both are LEED-accredited professionals who bring their perspective on the triple bottom line — people, planet, profit — to their projects. Key examples of Lake Affect’s LEED project work include the Thompson residence in East Grand Rapids and the Helmus Building in the 900 block of Wealthy Street SE.

“Many of our clients seek us out because we have that area of professionalism, and we’re getting to be more proficient at it,” said DeBruyn.

1998 also was the year DeBruyn became aware of how interior design should serve as a positive force for treating the environment in a kinder, gentler way.

“About that time, I started to see issues around building and air quality and I started to be conscious of how design impacts the environment from a user point of view — because design, materials and chemistry play into this conversation.”

It’s a conversation that extends to other areas of DeBruyn’s professional life. Lake Affect, for example, cross fertilizes with her classroom lectures.

“It pulls perfectly with the teaching environment because I can share those practices back into the classroom,” she said.

DeBruyn, to a degree, was involved in creating Kendall’s MBA Certificate in Design and Innovation Management in 2006, which is intended to expose business people to the process of design thinking and teaches designers how to “talk business.”

Conserving an ecological balance without ravaging the earth’s natural resources needs to be at the forefront of creative people’s thinking, DeBruyn believes.

“We care about indoor air quality, maintenance, how long ago the last renovation was done,” said DeBruyn. “We’re having the same conversations architects are having. Interior design looks at the integration of all systems so it can put together a package that’s delightful.

“This conversation is more relevant in the home furnishings market — certainly relevant doing work in graphic design, printing and packaging. It impacts the fine arts,” added DeBruyn. “Every material comes from somewhere and goes somewhere when it’s done.”

It’s that fight to give sustainability more elbow room that convinced Rosen to name DeBruyn chief sustainability officer.

“He is very passionate about environmental issues,” DeBruyn said of Rosen. 

DeBruyn is charged with helping Kendall students and graduates forge a closer bond between art and design and environmental needs and social capital through their work. One of the first sustainable initiatives Kendall undertook since naming DeBruyn CSO was to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a national effort by colleges and universities to address global climate.

The ACUPCC is a policy that requires, within two years of an implementation start date, to develop a climate action plan for achieving climate neutrality — defined as having no net greenhouse gas emissions.

“I’m charged with working with students and administrators to find ways to better our place in the community with the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit,” DeBruyn said. 

“We’re looking at, internally, the way we run our buildings, our curriculum, our point of view on how to be a resource to the community, how to stay connected to the community.”

To that end, Kendall has linked arms with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, the Community Sustainability Partnership, community organizations and leaders to transform the greater Grand Rapids region through the development of sustainable neighborhoods and communities.

This may mean challenging old assumptions.

“Incremental change is trying to refine and tweak a process or a product, or whatever we’re trying to change, incrementally,” said DeBruyn. “Transformative is a bigger leap. For example, when I talk about innovate, a word that gets thrown around too often … it’s new thinking. It’s changing markets. It’s creating new markets, new behaviors. 

“As much as we appreciate incremental change — which is often an appropriate and right thing to do — we’re also looking at transformative change and how it impacts a community. ArtPrize is a transformative experience that’s changing our community. Is it longer term? I don’t know for how long, but it’s changed the conversation of art in the community.”

DeBruyn said it’s important for Kendall College to cast a wider, global net.

“We’re a regional planner of experts through the United Nations University, so now we’re having a global point of view,” she said.

“We can’t be inward thinking but also must be outward reaching. We have to have a point of view that’s broader than here. We’re a part of a larger system and we’re all interconnected, and that means we need to understand cultural differences. As much as I’d like things to be sourced locally, that may not always be available.”

Part of that global perspective will be achieved in July when DeBruyn takes a group of students on a 10-day trip to La Ramona, Dominican Republic.

“This will be a collaborative, interdisciplinary class project with students in my design program as well as students from digital media, interior and industrial design coupled with social science students, and we’re going to be engaged in a conversation … about getting water to folks who are living in developing communities,” said DeBruyn. 

“How do we get it, how does it get purified, and its impact on food sourcing, health and productivity, and how do all of these issues impact each other and what are the design opportunities there?

“We’ll probably find more than one need, but as design practitioners, how can using our design thinking make changes? It’s an opportunity for students to get out of a familiar place so they can gain some competency and look at that bigger world view.”

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