Designs on Detroit

Annual festival looks to the future


The word “design” is a triple threat. At least, that’s the way the Detroit Design Festival sees it. It has to do with a product, a place, and the process of creating. Returning in September, the annual celebration aims to shed light on local aesthetic accomplishments and happenings. 

This time around, DDF is shifting its vantage point to the future as a result of Detroit being named a “City of Design” by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) this past December. 

“We recently launched an initiative to really bring that designation to life,” says Olga Stella, executive director of Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), which has put on the festival since its 2010 inception. “What we’re planning on doing with this year’s design festival — where all of our energy is going — is using it as a way to inspire people to think about what that means. What does it mean for design to be a driver of sustainability and equity, and what could that look like in Detroit?”

Stella says what started as a weeklong smattering of events has since condensed to three days of “tried and true” staples as well as new endeavors. 

From Sept. 22-24, festival attendees can dive into a discussion with industry leaders and policymakers at the brand-new, three-day Design Summit event. 

A crowd favorite, Eastern Market After Dark provides an interactive, street-to-studio experience with live music and food. But the most impactful effort, according to Stella, is Youth Day.

“The idea behind Youth Day is to take the day and program a number of different experiences for young designers, so we can inspire (them) to really start to think of (design) maybe as a profession,” Stella says.

Giving exposure and support to established designers is another main goal for DDF. “The reason we do the festival is to help elevate the small, creative businesses and designers and the innovation that’s happening in design in Detroit to a local, national, and global stage,” Stella says. 

So what does it mean for “design” to drive Detroit’s future? 

First, the definition of “design” must be understood. DDF implores its attendees to look beyond the word’s materialistic connotation. Design, Stella says, encompasses more than just products and architecture.

“How we design customer service at City Hall? That’s a design opportunity. How we might design a rideshare app so that a working mother can figure out how to get to her job? That’s a design opportunity,” she says. “So it’s a little broader than just, ‘Can I design a beautiful piece of furniture?’ or ‘Can I design a beautiful place to live or work?’ And that’s where we’re hoping to expand people’s thinking beyond what they might be accustomed to, and beyond this idea that (design is) only for
the elite, it’s only if you have money, it’s only high-end. It really can be for everyone.”

At its core, Detroit Design Festival is an ode to this uplifting, creative thinking. And it plans to press on, just as the city has, in the hope of crafting a future worthy of the “City of Design” moniker.

“This is what’s great about Detroit: that we don’t give up,” Stella says. “This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. If we do it right, if we involve people in setting a vision, we get people involved in bringing their projects to the table, I think we can do it. And it’s not about DC3 doing it — it’s about our community doing it together.”

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