The Detroit Design Renaissance

From the rubble of the financial collapse, the creative class is rising to reinvigorate the spirit of innovation that once made Detroit a beacon of success among American cities. Through hard work and high hopes, the Motor City is becoming a design town with a capital “D.”

Detroit, once synonymous with automotive innovation, has more recently been in the limelight as the town that went belly up. As one of the cities hit hardest by the Great Recession, Detroit has faced a weakened automotive industry, blight and population decline. Although Detroit played a key role in the industrialization of America throughout the 20th century, the Motor City filed for bankruptcy in July 2013 after racking up $18 billion in debt, garnering both bad press and a tarnished reputation.

But midsize Midwestern cities were built on the backs of hardworking, forward-looking individuals with fighting spirits, and Detroit is still seeing that same optimism and perseverance, especially among its creative citizens. In a five-part series titled “The State of Detroit” published in The Atlantic Cities in May 2012, senior editor Richard Florida—one of the world’s leading thinkers on economic competitiveness and author of Rise of the Creative Class—wrote: “Great economic crises are generational events. We’re only four or five years into this one, and already you can see the seeds of renewal and revitalization. And up from the bootstraps! It’s not like there was any big government plan to remake Detroit. In fact, most government plans hurt the city over time. It’s really the efforts of creative people.”

That’s a notion that Detroit’s ever-growing design population shares, as small, independent firms pop up around the city and design-related events unite a network of hopeful, inspired creatives. “In Detroit, design will serve as a catalyst to our resurgence,” says Tim Smith, CEO and president of Skidmore Studio, Detroit’s oldest design firm. “Detroit’s motto is ‘Resurget cineribus,’ which means ‘we shall rise from the ashes.’ Design thinking is the process that will allow us to accomplish that goal.”

Karen Larson, principal and creative director of LMstudio, located in nearby Lathrup Village, MI, agrees: “It might sound cliché, but the people in Detroit and the surrounding communities are survivors. We grew up with a solid work ethic and do what needs to be done to move forward. That’s what we’re all doing.”


Skidmore Studio, Detroit’s oldest design firm, is part of the city’s creative resurgence. Photography by Joe Vaughn.

Facilitating Connections

For years, Larson was deeply involved with the design community on a national level, primarily through the HOW Design Conference and the relationships she built around that event. “I realized that amazing things were happening right in my own backyard, so I joined AIGA Detroit and got involved with other local designers,” she says. “I started making an effort to help drive and partake in all the monthly events that are happening in the city. It’s nonstop.”

The thriving AIGA chapter hosts a variety of regular events, from informal opportunities for designers to casually network, drink and draw at local bars in the metro area to a 48-hour design-a-thon where the city’s creative talent bands together to help generate a new visual brand for one lucky nonprofit.

“After the two days of creative brainstorming and collaboration, The Information Center—a private
nonprofit organization that provides information, referrals and senior services to residents of southeast Michigan—went away with a new logo, stationery, brochure templates, social media graphics, a graphic standards manual and more,” Larson says. Twenty-five AIGA Detroit designers from such companies and institutes as General Motors, Team Detroit, Avfuel, Mars Advertising, Mott Community College, Little Caesars Enterprise Inc. and College for Creative Studies participated in the event, which was held at D:hive, a physical storefront in Detroit’s central business district that serves as a well-designed welcome center for the city.

Detroit Design Festival

Detroit Design Festival 2013 brought an estimated 20,000 attendees to the city for six days filled with more than 70 design-related events. Photography by Mark Hall.

Another organization at the epicenter of Detroit’s design scene is The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3). Its mission focuses on “design and creative innovation” by accelerating industries, attracting businesses, advancing talent, and connecting national brands and campaigns to Detroit. Founded in 2010, DC3 is the catalyst behind a number of successful events including the ever-popular Creative Mornings—a free monthly breakfast lecture series for creative types—and Drinks x Design, which has been running strong for three-plus years.

Drinks x Design, a monthly happy hour formerly held at bars around town, now takes place in a different private studio each month. “It’s a way for people, who are outsiders in a sense but still inside the creative community, to become familiar with these companies and faces and get to know each other over drinks and maybe a couple of appetizers,” says Melinda Anderson, engagement manager for DC3. She says Detroit isn’t a “clique-y” town and, therefore, different people attend the mixer each month, allowing for a lot of organic networking to happen.

Skidmore Studio was the first firm to host the event privately. In 2011, Skidmore moved from the Royal Oak suburb back to the urban core where it was founded in 1959. “We loved hosting Drinks x Design because it brought thinkers and doers from all over town into the studio,” says Smith, who began working with Skidmore as a client in the late ’80s, joined the firm in 2001 and acquired the studio in 2010. “Through our space, we were able to share our love of design and our commitment to Detroit with an incredibly important audience.”


Photo from the AIGA Detroit Impact48 event in which a group of professional designers gets together to brainstorm, collaborate and create a new brand for a nonprofit—all within 48 hours. Photography by Shannon Leutzinger.

Strengthening a Community

The creative community is also making investments in the city through business attraction and development. “There are business incubators here, but they’re not geared toward a specific creative industry. That was one of the gaps that DC3 filled,” Anderson says. The organization’s biggest coup was enticing Shinola, maker of drool-worthy watches, bicycles and leather goods, to set up shop in downtown Detroit.

Situated inside the former General Motors Research Laboratory that houses Detroit’s College of Creative Studies, Shinola manufactures its goods using as many American-made parts as possible. “We know there’s not just history in Detroit, there’s a future. It’s why we’re here. Making an investment in skill, at scale. Creating a community that will thrive through excellence of craft and pride of work,” Shinola’s website proclaims. DC3 has succeeded in attracting other creative businesses that espouse this philosophy to Detroit as well, including entrepreneurs who need help with both startup and acceleration.

DC3’s Creative Ventures Business Accelerator is a yearlong business development program for creative-sector entrepreneurs in Detroit. Selected firms receive mentoring, project-management support, and coaching with professional leaders and experts. Each has access to dedicated, collaborative studio space in the Detroit Creative Corridor Center during the one-year program. Qualified staff and an international pool of mentors ensure that participating firms are connected to resources to meet their respective milestones.

In addition to attracting creative talent, DC3 is committed to advancing it. Through its programming, the center gives design practitioners a platform to showcase and share their work—most notably during the annual Detroit Design Festival. Concentrated in Detroit’s Creative Corridor and featuring various neighborhoods throughout Detroit, the festival includes product shows and launches, lectures, panel discussions, trunk shows, tours, open houses, retail events and design battles. The event is user-generated and user-supported: Designers submit proposals for various design happenings during an open call. Residents and local businesses pledge support, be it venues, volunteers, promotion or resources during the open call to help realize proposals that the community identifies as being of local, national or international significance. DC3 distributed 90,000 guides for its third annual festival in September, and an estimated 20,000 people attended more than 70 events during the six-day celebration of design.

The festival puts an emphasis on individual designers, drawing them out of their workspaces and into the community to connect with one another. “Most of the designers in the city of Detroit work in silos,” says Jacquelin Kirouac, project coordinator for DC3. “Sure, they’re also busy starting their businesses, running their businesses, freelancing, working for clients. You’ll find that many designers are skilled across various trades; they have their hands in a lot of different pots. But sometimes, because we’re all so busy, we lose the opportunity to get to know our neighbors.”

As part of the 2013 festival, the AIGA sponsored a contest called Design Lives Here: I Am Detroit. Designers were asked to create print or mixed-media posters depicting what “I am Detroit” means to them. The call to action was a familiar one: “With all the recent negative press concerning the bankruptcy, our southeast Michigan design community needs to stand united for the city we love—Detroit. Let’s show them the true essence of our talented community by doing what we do best—design what it means to be a Detroiter. Once again, lets stand up and tell the world we’re from Detroit!” The winning entries were featured at the Detroit Design Festival kickoff party.
The AIGA also shows its pride in the city by celebrating Detroit’s legacy of diversity. Beyond the Bar is an LGBT art and design showcase that raises funds for The Ruth Ellis Center, a youth social services agency that provides short- and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless and at-risk lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

Detroit Design Festival events

Participants from the Detroit Design Festival Youth Innovation Center and “Light up Livernois” project at the 2013 festival.

And the local AIGA chapter engages the next generation of designers through Shout, a high school design studio that challenges students to use their voices in the creative process and develop projects that make their community better. The chapter has conducted five sessions to date, which are organized as four-day, three-hours-per-day, after-school or summer design studios. During the studio, students work in teams of four, with one or two professional design mentors per team. The teams are assigned projects that are intended to walk them through the creative process as a problem-solving method, and to help students develop smart communication solutions. Each studio concludes with an exhibition, where students invite parents, friends and teachers to see their process work and completed projects.

Philanthropy is also a fundamental principle at Skidmore Studio, whether it’s donating services to nonprofits, participating in community events like the Detroit Design Festival or founding new events such as Free Art Friday Detroit, through which the firm seeks to inspire and grow the city’s artistic community by encouraging the public to take an active role in the arts. “Each Friday, we transform Detroit into a citywide scavenger hunt with free art spread throughout,” Smith says. “The goal is to promote creativity, celebrate art and encourage the exploration of our city.”

Beyond the Bar

At Beyond the Bar, attendees pose on the red carpet in front of the media wall before entering the show. The event also features art and design works and performances from the Detroit Party Marching Band. Photography by Remus Roman.

Investing in a City

Among the traditional design firms and institutions in Detroit, there are other, more unusual, creative ventures such as design collectives, hands-on shops and even studios operating solely to serve clients invested in improving cities. One of the most popular design destinations is Signal-Return Press, inspired by Nashville’s Hatch Show Print. Located in Detroit’s bustling Eastern Market, the 3,000-square-foot letterpress shop offers classes, lectures, live music and more to not only designers, but also other creatively inclined individuals who learn about the shop during their weekly trips to the six-block public market.

“We looked around at a lot of locations in Detroit and ultimately chose Eastern Market because it’s a natural crossroads. Tens of thousands of people come in from all over the region every Saturday morning to shop the market. It seemed smart to give them a chance to buy some art, too,” says Toby Barlow, founder and chairman of Signal-Return Press and chief creative officer for Team Detroit, an ad agency in Dearborn, MI, that counts Detroit-based brands like Ford, Lincoln and Bosch among its clients. “The name was something the original launch team came up with. The idea is that a ‘Signal-Return’ is the response one gets when sending out a radio broadcast. It’s a sign of life.” Which is exactly what Detroit needed when the outfit opened in winter 2011.

“The response has been incredibly supportive,” Barlow continues. “Some of the people who take our workshops are often designers and illustrators looking to expand their craft, but a lot of them are just print-curious. We’ve also done free workshops for local schools and shelters. Another wonderful thing is how printers from all over the region have embraced the space. There’s a spectacular ‘aha’ moment when they walk through the doors and see what we’ve built. We have old mothballed print shops calling us up and donating drawers of type. It’s been fun and inspiring.”

Signal-Return Press

“Open Studio” at Signal-Return Press. Photography by Tim Thayer

Tomorrow Today is another design studio with a passion for urban outreach, serving private family foundations that care about cities like Detroit, Cincinnati and Chattanooga, TN. In partnership with visionary patrons, the studio develops civic labs and tools that equip citizens, inspire communities, connect networks and enhance places. Co-founder Megan Deal moved from Flint, MI, to Detroit in 2004 to attend the College for Creative Studies. After college, she briefly lived in Alabama, Maine and Chicago, but came back to Detroit in 2011. “I returned to Detroit because I was eager to be a part of the change happening in the city—a critical mass of activity that seemed to be focused on positively changing the city for the better,” Deal says.

Although Detroit’s design scene has been historically tied to its automotive roots, Deal says she’s seen a shift. “We’re seeing small, independent groups and individuals raise the bar and demand better. Bigger brands coming to town—like Shinola—certainly help, but I’d suggest that it’s a lot of the smaller groups and individuals who are leading the charge and elevating the design bar in the city,” she says. “There’s a real energy in the air in Detroit right now. It’s been exciting to see the creative ways people are addressing many civic challenges.”

Tomorrow Today strives to elevate design by avoiding industry jargon when talking about design with clients and by introducing customers to creative processes—how to move from A to B in an iterative, rather than linear, way. The firm is also building and running design workshops that are introducing individuals who might not be familiar with design to proven problem-solving processes that they can use to have a positive impact on their community. “We make a point to hire and collaborate with local design talent as much as possible and, in that way, hope to build a platform to accelerate the development of young designers throughout the city,” Deal says.

A similar sentiment is what motivated Smith to move Skidmore Studio back to downtown Detroit. “I had a very strong feeling in my gut that moving the studio would make a statement to the community that the creative power of the 1950s and 1960s of Detroit was on its way back,” he says. “I also believed that the move would allow us to do better work and partner with more Detroit-based clients. The results have bore that decision out as Skidmore’s revenues grew by 30% the first year, and our staff increased in size by 20% that same year. Today, we enjoy a much higher profile as a leader in the creative space and are often pointed to as an early adopter of the change that continues to take place.”

Tomorrow Today

This photo was taken at a design-thinking workshop Tomorrow Today ran in June. The workshop took place at Ponyride and was part of the VanDusen Urban Leadership Forum at Wayne State University. Photography by Ali Elisabeth.

Believing in a Bright Future

According to DC3, Metropolitan Detroit is home to the highest concentrations and quantities of commercial and industrial designers of all the U.S. metropolitan regions. And designers, artists, business owners, educators and creative catalysts are hoping to harness the collective power of that population to make a positive impact on a city not only plagued with challenges, but also rife with opportunity.

DC3 has been able to quantify the results of its business attraction and acceleration efforts and its talent advancement endeavors. In 2012 alone, the organization generated $434,000 in direct economic impact (revenues); 203 new jobs; 104,000 square feet of space absorbed; and 16,000 people directly connected to leaders in Detroit’s creative community. “Many ask what inspired our return to Detroit, and the answer is always the same: the city, the people and the possibility,” Smith says. “We feel strongly that a creative community can impact whether a city flourishes or fails. Creative people are inspired by their surroundings, and we’ve found that Detroit’s engaging, unique atmosphere is making our work better.”

Sure, Detroiters know that the road back to black is a long one. The undercurrent of optimism fights against a strong wave of doom and gloom. But the creative class is hoping that a rising tide of connectivity, community and investment will lift all boats.

Signal-Return Press letter drawers

Drawers of type have been donated to the Signal-Return Press letterpress shop to support the design destination’s educational endeavors. Photography by Tim Thayer.

“I think, culturally, more and more people are starting to understand and see the value in good design,” Deal says. “Better put, design is becoming a bigger part of the everyday vocabulary. Moreover, individuals are starting to recognize that the voice of a city is built by many, and therefore, we see a lot of organizations start to understand that their individual brand/voice matters to the shape of the city as a whole.

“Peer pressure is everything—we’ve seen some trailblazers demonstrate what good design looks like, and that’s starting to set the bar,” she says. “It’s been exciting to see. From a business standpoint, Detroit is really returning to its roots as a city of entrepreneurs and small businesses. The most successful companies understand that brand matters. It’s been great to see so many small business owners utilize local design talent to develop their unique story.”

Barlow shares Deal’s confidence in art and design’s power to transform a town: “Every real city has to embrace and live with contradiction and conflict. It simply happens,” he says. “So while City Hall tries to figure out how to manage pensions and other legacy costs, we’re out trying to make art and commerce happen. We have a lot of momentum, and the change in the atmosphere is electric.”


Melinda Anderson, Detroit;
Toby Barlow, Detroit;;
Megan Deal, Chattanooga, TN;
Jacquelin Kirouac, Detroit;
Karen Larson, Lathrup Village, MI;
Tim Smith, Detroit;

Discover Detroit Online

LMstudio principal Karen Larson handpicked events, programs and more for her Creative Guide to Detroit.