Q&A: Olga Stella of Design Core Detroit on why the future of design must be inclusive

Last week, the Detroit Creative Corridor Center rebranded itself Design Core Detroit. As the organization that's shepherding Detroit's "City of Design" designation, awarded by UNESCO, Design Core Detroit has had an essential role in elevating the importance of design locally, and promoting Detroit's design contributions globally. 

We spoke with Olga Stella, executive director of Design Core Detroit, about her organization's rebrand, the state of design in Detroit, and the importance of inclusive design to Detroit's future.

Model D: What are the reasons behind Design Core Detroit's rebrand?

Olga Stella: We've been doing a lot of strategic review and analysis over last two years, especially since the city received the UNESCO "City of Design" designation. Looking at our work and the design landscape, we recognized that there was a mismatch between the original name of our organization and the work we're doing today.

It's really been an evolution over the years. Our work didn't change this month, but the new name better matches how people have come to know us and what we do. When we formed, our services and programs focused on the Woodward corridor. For several years now, the scope has been much larger, and it's time to have our name reflect that. 

When it came down to it, design is at the core of Detroit's revitalization. And we aspire to be at the core of Detroit's design community. 

A good example is the transition from the Detroit Design Festival to the Month of Design. What we had developed was a platform, and our mission evolved to showcase the whole city as a global resource for creative talent. By using September as Detroit's Month of Design, we've been better positioned to do that. 

MD: How has the state of design changed in Detroit? And how has DCD changed alongside it?

OS: We're a small organization and so much of what we do is support others. The thing we've tried to do is elevate the role of design and amplify the message and values of design in Detroit. A lot of that was going after the City of Design designation, seeing that as an opportunity to take design here to another level of global recognition. We worked on exhibits for the St. Etienne International Biennale and really helped carry this Detroit message to France and around the world. 

I'd also point to the success of the Detroit Design Festival. For example, who would have expected that seven years ago a homegrown event like Eastern Market After Dark would become what it is today? Well over 10,000 people coming out, tons of makers and companies exhibiting design work, at a community gathering event.

We're also seeing a great deal of momentum and enthusiasm about what's emerging from the design community here, whether in the built environment or communications or from makers, and we feel we can take some credit for that.

We've been so impressed with the emphasis on design in the public sector, especially in the city's Planning Department, which has been very unique. We've not typically had that in Detroit, so to be able to have a conversation about design every single day as it relates to Detroit's neighborhood revitalization is refreshing and wonderful and right. The Riverfront Conservancy and its public process around designs for the West Riverfront, a public gathering space, is something you might not have seen 10 years ago. We're starting to learn and duplicate these models from each other. 

And then the growth of the maker movement, and people seeing Detroit as a place for product-based businesses. It's grown so much that Design Core Detroit is going to get out of the maker market business. There's so many wonderful people doing maker markets and popup events that there isn't a gap there anymore. 

We had an event in February around the Urban Manufacturing Alliance study, and almost 100 people came out—makers, manufacturers, service providers—to help figure out how to scale product-based businesses, whether it's fashion, home goods, furniture. It's a build-up of what's been happening over the last few years.

MD: I know you're releasing a comprehensive economic development strategy soon, but can you divulge some important themes or initiatives DCD will be pursuing in the next year or so?

OS: Part of the action plan, which will be released April 12, will answer the questions: Can you drive growth in Detroit through the practice of inclusive design? And how do you make a model of what inclusive design looks like? If can do that, not only will it have a positive impact on the city, but it will also bring to the forefront something of global relevance.

First, what is "inclusive design"? It's about both the process and the outcomes of design, allowing people to act independently, confidently, and equally in society. It's really the idea of designing for the person who seems like the exception, so that they experience a service, product, or place the way it works for everybody. A lot of user-centered design is made for the person who seems "typical." But what we're saying is A) there's no such thing, and B) if you design for people who might be marginalized, then you develop products that everyone can use and makes everyone's lives better. 

That's the idea. And as a way to develop a model of inclusive design, we focused on three strategic areas: 1) Talent development and promotion. The way to get there is to develop a more diverse talent pool. Design is not known for its diversity. How do today's youth in Detroit become tomorrow's designers, and how can we expand the definition of what a designer can be? 2) How do we invest in design-driven businesses and resources and help support them? You're not going to get inclusive design if you don't get the design community to practice this way. 3) Develop a policy environment that promotes inclusive design. We need to demonstrate the value of inclusive design from a societal and economic perspective. If we can have lots of evidence and examples of why this matters, more and more people will see it as the right approach. 
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.