Apart from knowing that Detroit was the birthplace of the modern day car and Motown, there is nothing very exciting about the city. However after watching a BBC documentary called ‘Requim for Detroit’ which focuses on the urban demise of the city I became very intrigued about the the city, and if it was a sign of things to come for more American cities.
Detroit was originally built for 2-million people but now nearly half that figure actually live there, now it roughly has a population of 800,000. Compared to its glory days in the 1960′s it now looks like a ghost town and could be compared to an abandoned war zone. Whole neighborhoods have vanished over the past four decades, all that is left in their place is the roads in which houses used to line. One third of the city has now been reclaimed back by nature, leaving its industrial past in the history books.
So you are wondering what has this got to do with product design, well quite alot really! I mean if you think about it Detroit was built on the basis of consumer spending of one product, which in this case is the automobile. Its demise is due to America’s badly managed and naive auto industry which was not interested about a sustainable future but was more interested in making a quick dollar. Detroit fell in love with the wealth made by this single industry, a seemingly inexhaustible golden goose, which determined the cities explosive growth. When Henry Ford first designed the model-T, he also took into account the way it would be manufactured, the model-T was built using an assembly line which back in the early 1900′s was a brand new concept. The assembly line is the key to mass production, the fundamental principle of it was ‘one man, one function’ along with specialist tools and hundreds of unskilled workers, which in turn helped produce a product at the lowest cost possible. The modern world in which we live could arguably been started in this one city.
One man decided to change Fords dominance of the auto market, his name was Alfred Sloane. the head of General Motors. At the beginning of the automobile era it didn’t matter what car you drove, but as more an more people began to buy cars, they wanted better and more individual cars. This was one of the first examples of designers and manufacturers creating a range, which offered a constant changing variety of cars. It was design which fueled GM’s success, it motivated consumers to keep buying new models and fill their desire to have the must have product.
However this quick explosion of wealth could not be sustained, after the great depression Detroit never really recovered and took its time to get back itself back on track. However as this was happening emerging countries such as Japan which had just got over a nasty defeat in the second world war was showing its economical power and was starting to match USA’s economy. It car manufacturers where also showing its power, with new smaller efficient cars they where in a different league to the Americans gas guzzling V8′s, along with increasing oil prices it was a match made for hell. This just shows how the design and sustainability of a product can determine is fate, and should be a crucial part of the design process.
What does the future hold for USA’s auto industry, and can they rectify the deep cut mistakes they made many years ago? and most of all, what is Detroit’s future? tell me what you think, and leave comments….
Here is one of my favorite songs from Claude Von Stroke whose video gives a glimpse of modern day life in Detroit!