Team to study role design plays in Detroit’s comeback

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Team to study role design plays in Detroit’s comeback

Originally posted by John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press:

 

Back in the mid-20th Century, Detroit ranked among the world’s centers for design excellence. Ford produced the first Mustang, architects Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki crafted buildings of lasting beauty, and Motown music was charting hit after hit.

Detroit’s design community has seen its ups and downs since then. Lackluster buildings and vehicle designs too often dominated. But lately Detroit has enjoyed a renewed interest in good design. Everything from bold new modernist architecture to locally designed clothing, vehicles, murals and other public artwork have all inspired interest.

Now the organization created to harness this energy, the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), has embarked on a months-long process to define and expand Detroit’s economy of innovation and design.

Olga Stella, director of DC3, has engaged four firms to help define our design economy. They will help her look for ways to engage more people in the creative economy, and map out how that creative economy can benefit all and not just the lucky few.

“We want to be able to do something that’s really visionary and not just incremental,” Stella told me recently. “If we really understand the role that design can play in our economy and in the world around us we can really use it to make things better.”

DC3, a partnership between Business Leaders for Michigan and College for Creative Studies, is an economic development entity that works to strengthen Detroit’s creative economy.

Stella has hired four organizations— Urbane Development, The Work Department, Lambert, Edwards & Associates, and GYRO —and gave each a role in achieving a vision for design to play a role in shaping a more sustainable and equitable Detroit.

This visioning process aims toward events in late summer and fall including the Detroit Design Festival in September that celebrates all manner of creativity in the Motor City. The process culminates in the release of DC3’s economic development plan that will help shape how we make design a key driver of growth.

Stella hopes the process will create a unified coalition of partners in industry, government, the arts, and more, to show how valuable and fundamental design is to achieving great outcomes.

It’s odd but true that now and then Detroit needs to remind itself that design matters. We should have learned that lesson by now.

Let’s not forget that years of mundane automotive designs led to a loss of market share for domestic automakers in the ’70s and ’80s. And the current popularity of place-making — meaning the creation of walkable urban neighborhoods — followed decades of building bland subdivisions and office parks out along suburban freeways.

So, yes, design matters, and Detroit has a lot to say on the subject.

The promise here is great. In 2015, Detroit became the first U.S. city to receive a UNESCO City of Design designation, joining 47 cities from 33 countries as new members of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. The Creative Cities Network is comprised of cities that represent a strong legacy in one of seven creative fields, from Gastronomy and Literature to Design. Detroit ranks among them.

So an obvious question remains: What is design? Stella makes the case that it covers more than the obvious answers — car designs, architecture, and the like.

A retail shop, she notes, relies on design in many ways — from the storefront façade, the interior layout, the signage, down to the design of a menu in a restaurant. It’s all part of success or failure.

And recently the Ilitch family’s Olympia Entertainment posted a job opening for a “Guest Experience Designer.” They described the post as someone who is “continuously advocating the guest perspective and driving performance of turning moments into memories.”

So design is everywhere. “There’s probably very, very few businesses in Detroit that do not heavily rely on design. They just don’t know it,” Stella said.

And she is spot-on trying to envision how an economy based on innovation should benefit all, not just those at the top. Recently, author Richard Florida acknowledged that his 2002 book championing innovators, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” missed how highly educated creative types moving into cities can’t, by themselves, improve the lot of poorer folks in the neighborhoods and may, in fact, make their lives worse.

So figuring out how to make design relevant to the lives of everyone may be the toughest design problem of all.

But in efforts like DC3’s visioning exercise, at least we’re beginning to ask the right questions.

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