When Ralph Gilles looks at Detroit he sees it through a different lens.
The head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA) Global views the community like he views most things – with a sensibility toward its potential to demonstrate outward appeal.
It’s not as superficial as it might seem, as Gilles and other city and business leaders recently discussed at “Detroit: City of Design Launch.” In fact, the advocates say making Detroit more aesthetically inviting is critical to the strategy of revitalizing its neighborhoods.
“To me, designers are emotional manipulators,” Gilles says.
An emotional response, positive or negative, can “trump logic” used by developers, he adds.
Convened by Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), the launch drew about 100 people to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) where the presentation of everything from privately owned storefronts to public space was examined.
Earlier this year DC3 announced the launch of the ten-year Detroit City of Design initiative. At the launch Olga Stella, DC3 executive director, said the building process would be inclusive and bring Detroit into the world marketplace for its sustained and impressive contributions to art, music, literature and more.
Detroit is 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, which includes connecting and collaboration with such cities as Montreal, Berlin and Buenos Aires.
DC3 also urges city collaborators to promote design and creativity as tools for equity, goodwill, and sustainable development, as panelist Maurice Cox discussed.
“I think design is an extremely useful tool for helping communities to project themselves,” says Cox, city planning director and former mayor of Charlottesville, Va. He pointed out how President Thomas Jefferson left his imprint on government through architecture.
“I always come from a perspective that when you think about design you think about democracy,” adds Cox.
Factors as subtle as how light hits window glass or as conspicuous as the appearance of community gathering places can all reflect thoughtful design, he says. He calls the “Hart Plazas, main streets, the libraries” places of opportunity.
“Just as design can be a course for good, clearly design can be a course for bad,” he says. “We can ignore design and allow it to happen without any criteria … This happens every day.”
Katy Locker, program director of the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, says the foundation targets arts organizations and design endeavors for regular grant support.
“Our belief is that great design and great art are what engage us as a community,” she says.
Not only can design make a difference in what attracts residents to the city, Gilles says it can sustain current residents in ways that go beyond aesthetics. He was reminded of his profession’s potential to make greater impact on the community when he had dinner with a colleague who’d begun designing water systems in Haiti.
“We were catching up on what we’d been doing,” says Gilles. “He made me feel so small.”
What encourages Gilles is the power represented by a talented crop of Detroiters with potential to do things as significant as his friend’s work in Haiti.
“I think the creative class in Detroit has never been more fertile,” he says.
An increasingly diverse society of various ages, genders and complexions calls for new perspectives and visions to meet community needs and demands, adds Cox.
“So it’s no surprise that designers are being used to address these problems.”