Creating Creative Culture

I bought my wife an iPod for her birthday. When we opened the package, prominently displayed on the inside were the words, "Designed by Apple in California." On the back, in small type, I read "Assembled in China." This elegant little music machine — sleek, functional, beautiful and profitable —came from a culture that values creativity. To Detroiters it also begs the question: Do we nurture creative talent? Do we invent new and beneficial ideas and products or do we just assemble things conceived by others? Which one do we want? Which one do we want to take into the future? There is no doubt for me: it's the creative one.

What does it really mean to be creative? My favorite definition is this: Having the power and the will to bring something new into being.

Creativity is not just for artists, architects, writers and musicians. Creativity happens in many places. Parents can be creative as they explore better ways to raise their children. Storeowners can be creative in marketing their wares. Computer programmers can be creative. Any occupation can and should be the focus of the creative mind.

Let's look at Detroit's biggest and most obvious creative culture: the auto industry. Because of that word, "industry," and because of the emphasis on manufacturing, we forget that the auto industry is indeed a very creative place. From the beginning there was intense creativity. The design, engineering and building of the first car and the concept of the assembly line were all very creative acts. The car started as a rickety motorized carriage and has become sleek, powerful and reliable, a climate controlled space capsule on wheels. This evolution required intense creative effort from many people who have lived and worked in Detroit.

Driving creativity

The design of a car requires many minds. There are designers and engineers that focus on every bit of the automobile, from grill to taillight. There are product development specialists that conceive new vehicle concepts. There are stylists that take the concepts and mold the car's shape and form. They explore the aesthetic and emotional possibilities by sculpting prototypes in clay and modeling them in virtual 3D.

There are aerodynamicists that explore the efficiency of its shape as it slips through the air. There are designers that specialize in ergonomics. They understand how the human body fits into the car. They design the vehicle to human interface — the controls, gauges, the interior layout and the seats all thought through many times over. There are engineers that specialize in the combustion engine, diesel and gas. There is research into new hybrid and hydrogen drivetrain technologies. The goal is to make lighter, less polluting, more efficient power plants. There are engineers that focus on computer components, engine management and navigation systems. There are paint specialists seeking more vivid, durable and less toxic formulations. Each of these activities and many more, when done well, is a creative exploration that employs a creative person.

Some consider Detroit a "Rustbelt City" but they miss a vital part of our heritage. They miss the engineers and designers that support the industry, the creative minds that steer automotive innovation in Detroit, which remains the nerve center for automotive innovation for North America. Recent troubles have slowed growth but it is still fertile ground. The three American auto companies and many foreign companies have large research and development facilities in and around Detroit. The College for Creative Studies (CCS), University of Detroit-Mercy, Wayne State University, Lawrence Technological University, Oakland University and the University of Michigan offer excellent design and engineering programs that contribute to this strength.

Not so rusty

Like Silicon Valley, Detroit is known for a revolutionary, modern and complex product. The car is a bit oilier and older than the personal computer but it is still an integral part of the modern world. As Detroit searches for a vibrant economy, there are many areas to look toward. New transportation technologies, new sustainable energy research, music, the arts and entertainment are all possible. The search for diversity is critical but we can't ignore the largest creative community we already have in place. Let's encourage and build that community of creative people. Let's encourage them to design more affordable, nonpolluting, fuel-efficient vehicles, wrapped in the sleekest aerodynamic and most evocative shapes possible.

When Thomas Edison's created the first phonograph in 1877, it changed forever the way recorded music is transported. Likewise, Ford's Model T in 1908 revolutionized personal transportation. The iPod evolved, several generations of sound innovation later, from Edison's crotchety contraption. It is the phonograph's small and efficient hip great great granddaughter. The car has evolved but has not yet taken that leap into the future. It will when the creative spirit thrives and Detroit's designers and engineers renew their innovative design culture. When this happens we will have a dramatic iPod-like evolution in the people transport business. Then, more than ever, the words, "Designed by — Ford, GM or DaimlerChrysler, take your pick — in Detroit" will show how essential car designers and engineers are to the modern creative class.

Francis X. Arvan is a native metro Detroiter and a graduate of Lawrence Technological University and Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture. He's practiced architecture in New York City and Westchester County, and taught architecture at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Arvan moved back to Michigan in 1997, and established his own firm, Royal Oak-based FX Architecture, in 2000. He is also the chair of the Royal Oak Main Street Design Committee.

All photographs are of new cars with Detroit based design teams
Photographs by Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved