There's no disputing design’s growing contribution to the evolution of cities. From ambitious public art projects to the rise of the global “design district,” both private and public sectors have begun weaving aesthetics into daily life. This has led to the ascendancy of the “Chief Design Officer”—a figure who often works within tech companies, non-profits, even government agencies, to improve the overall design culture.
Recently, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne left his role at the paper to step into the newly created position of Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles. According to L.A.’s Mayor Eric Garcetti, Hawthorne has been tasked with “bringing a unified design vision to projects that are shaping Los Angeles’ urban landscape,” collaborating with city officials, departments, and architects on a wide range of public projects, from housing to transit. Los Angeles isn’t alone in creating this position. Helsinki, Finland and Edmonton, Canada both recently appointed Chief Design Officers to encourage local governments to reimagine their cities. But what exactly do these CDO’s do? Will all cities one day need them? And can design, let alone a designer, really have an impact on something as big and sprawling (and complicated) as a major metropolis?
To answer the first question I reached out to Anne Stenros, Helsinki’s former Chief Design Officer. One of the first to hire a CDO, Helsinki recruited Stenros, in part, because of her experience as former Managing Director of Design Forum Finland. “The City of Helsinki is going through its biggest transformation in 100 years,” she explained. “There is a new organization and leadership model.” In 2000, Helsinki became the Cultural Capital of Europe, and in 2012 was appointed a World Design Capital. “They realized they needed a leadership-level representative for design to go further,” she explained.
Her role, ultimately, was to help bring new ideas and design approaches to the city’s strategy process and develop and implement standards and best practices. She quickly learned, however, that most of the issues afflicting cities can’t be easily fixed. “They are so-called ‘wicked problems,’ open-ended and complex. The only way to try to solve them is through [collaboration] across disciplines." She explained that designers “cannot do it alone”— they must also work with the public, and other organizations, to strategize what’s best for a larger population. “We need to join our forces with other professionals.” Scandinavia’s government entities are notoriously progressive, but does design-first public policy stand a chance in the U.S.?
L.A.’s newly-appointed CDO declined to be interviewed, but we spoke with Alex Kuby, senior project designer at Hirsch Bedner Associates, one of LA’s top design firms, regarding the city’s attempts to integrate design into daily life. “What was once a blank canvas has become a hub of design and creativity,” he explained. “Creatives settled in L.A. for practical reasons–space and weather. In return, their contribution to the city has been dynamic design that touches every street corner, whether intentional or not.” He believes this boom in great design has enhanced the overall quality of life, not only serving as muse to residents but also revitalizing rundown areas. “Los Angeles commissioned artists to paint murals on utility boxes on city streets,” he cites as an example. “What was once an eyesore is now a piece of art that softens daily life. In this way, design is a means of passively taking care of each other.”
Detroit is employing a similar, if far more active, approach. While the city’s financial woes over the last decade may have dominated headlines, much attention is now being paid to its commitment to rebirth through design. One organization driving the conversation is Design Core Detroit, a non-profit that offers support to local creators and businesses, and believes design plays an integral role in the development of cities. “It's the thread that weaves through everything,” said Olga Stella, Executive Director. “Almost every kind of business needs an aspect of design in some way.”
She notes Detroit is the only U.S. city to be named a UNESCO City of Design. Through this, she hopes, it can demonstrate how design is able to drive sustainability and equitable development. “We believe by building a practice of inclusive design, design can become more accessible for all people to live independently and successfully in society.” As part of the Detroit City of Design Action Plan, spearheaded by Design Core, over 50 organizations have joined as partners, committing to 60+ projects that can help advance design in the city.
“Most designers are motivated to improve human experience and most human experience now happens in a city,” explained Mat Hunter of Design Council UK. “With urban populations continuing to rise, and the negative consequences ever more apparent in our quality of life, more designers are aware of their effect, and therefore their obligation."
"The good news,” he continued, “is that more designers than ever are being recruited by public organizations, whether local authorities, public health services, charities and voluntary groups or private sector organizations seeking to deliver on a wider mission. This allows them to have a different agency that can deliver on their obligations and motivations.”
“There’s a larger trend towards design in society in general,” stated Justin Garrett Moore of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Program (GSAPP) and Director of the New York City Public Design Commission. “There’s been a broadening of the understanding of what design is and isn’t, and what it offers to society in general—so we see this now percolating into government; the idea of design process as a way to problem solve is something that is gaining traction and weight.”
He believes more cities are seeing the value in design and its approaches to problem-solving, even pointing to former Mayor Bloomberg’s ongoing Innovations Teams. “American society is becoming more design literate, so more people understand and value design.” Moore cited the ongoing global conversations around sustainability and climate resilience, and what role design is playing. “Both of those very large policy objectives and policy tracks have a connection to design work, design expertise, and design process.”
“I’ve always felt design is a critical part of how cities and societies manifest themselves and their values,” said Tim Tompkins, President of the Times Square Alliance. “Especially with respect to public spaces, design can be a place that represents the aspirations of a society for all of its people—or can be a place that signals indifference and disrespect.”
Tompkins, also the founder and previous director of the program Partnerships For Parks, a non-profit that helps parks groups and neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods, receive resources to revitalize their public spaces, cites the lasting impact of Elizabeth “Betsy” Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy. Rogers made it her mission to restore Central Park to its original glory for the betterment of the entire city. “There was a school of thought within the Parks Department, and the city in general at the time, that there was no point in making an investment in ‘something nice’ because it’ll get destroyed by vandals," says Tompkins. "But Betsy believed if you make a commitment to design that’s aspirational, and signals respects for people, they will treat it with respect.”
Rogers used her own money and network to fund the restoration of the park's beloved Bethesda Fountain, which ultimately became a symbol that “beautiful design could be restored. And once restored, and not destroyed, that design itself could change the behaviors and the people experiencing it, as well as the public’s appreciation of design.”
Later, when Tompkins was tapped to help reimagine Times Square as part of the Times Square Alliance, he looked to Rogers for inspiration, shaking off the naysayers who said the area was irredeemable. He was convinced that it could be a place for all New Yorkers, that “if you create design it will elevate the entire city. This is part of a belief I have that design should be exceptional and aspirational. That that can profoundly change a place.”
He points to the fact that 25 years ago the city was in decay, but through smarter design choices, collaboration, and greater resources, the tide changed dramatically. “Fifty years ago, all people could hope for in New York City was a clean subway," he continued. "Now we have a robust public art program on the platforms and in stations. In general, there’s been an ever-rising set of expectations we have of urban spaces—and that’s ultimately good for cities and good for design.”
Laura Feinstein is a writer and editor, covering the intersection of art, technology, and global culture.