Designs on the Creative Class

Can we galvanize a troubled Las Vegas by making it look cooler?

Luke Heffron, a marketing manager of the photo-printing website Shutterfly, describes the problem of design this way:

Everyone is attracted to bright, shiny objects. But the world is filled with bright shiny objects—so many are in competition that all but the very brightest cancel each other out. To matter, design needs to be more carefully considered; we need to think not only about the sheen of a thing, but its place in the greater whole of the culture.

Heffron spoke Nov. 18 at the Return on Design symposium at downtown’s Historic Fifth Street School. The two-day event, put on by the Las Vegas chapter of the American Institute of Graphics Arts, featured lectures by prominent designers and business leaders. The conference gave Las Vegas designers and photographers a chance to network with potential clients and each other. But, more importantly from a civic perspective, it also reaffirmed the way good design can mean good business—particularly in the development and dissemination of brand identity.

So, how does this work on the broad scope—the business of redeveloping cities? How does design help cities lure creative professionals—the so-called “creative class” that communities from coast to coast have been trying to attract? Good design, from architecture to signage, is pleasing to the senses, but can it really help Las Vegas stimulate a richer, livelier urban fabric?

The short answer is yes: Good design entices people to use your product. Just ask anyone who can spot an Eames chair or appreciate a MacBook Air. And when your product is the city itself, good design can convince people not only to visit, but to move in: Well-designed cities provide a kind of life-affirming pleasure.

Las Vegas has deep roots in the good-design business: We all know that, as a tourist destination, Las Vegas doesn’t need to be re-branded. The greatest success of this city is not its casinos or even the taming of the Colorado River. It’s the complete mastery of the mechanics of building a brand. That is a necessity in a post-industrial, information-oriented economy, where perceptions and sensations are among the chief commodities. We nailed that from the start—or at least since Betty Willis finished her “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign in 1959.

That brand has even helped foster a uniquely creative class. Maybe not the usual suspects—writers and musicians, artists and architects—but, instead, a list of other talented creative professionals who have come to Las Vegas, and not New York or L.A., because of opportunities they could only find here. We have chefs. We have circus performers and acrobats. We have models. Nightclub impresarios. Neon benders. We have experts in buzz and spectacle and wish fulfillment.

Still, the identity we have designed for ourselves, and that these professionals build upon, is chiefly about attraction rather than retention. What happens here stays here—but the people it happens to are expected to leave. We need to broaden our creative class, to import the bearers of new ideas and inspire them to make this their home. We also need to ensure that the brightest of our own born-and-raised kids decide to stick around.

Design can help us do this. It can help us refashion a more vibrant central city, and create a more vibrant Las Vegas culture—but only if we’re clear about what it is we want. Do we go in for more top-down projects, large institutional showpieces such as The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which will open in March? Or do we try to nurture small bars or studios or stores downtown? Or do we do nothing and wait for pawnshops to become the setting for hit TV shows? What is the Las Vegas culture beyond the Strip?

For all the money poured into downtown, for all the Zappos headlines and Fremont East bars, it is still a largely uninspired landscape, replete with ghoulish architecture, empty streetscapes and, on all but a handful of streets, a lack of human energy and purpose. If the kind of design energy we’ve seen on Fremont East expands outward, it can help Las Vegans and outsiders alike cultivate a more thoughtful built environment and a more profound emotional relationship with the city. Design, as both Steve Jobs and Frank Lloyd Wright understood, can produce strong feelings, lasting connections, fresh identities and new conceptions of the possible.

But too often design is thought of as a slick superficial appendage, like glossy spray paint applied to an otherwise mundane surface. We need to think of design as more fundamental, as being not about objects but about the relationship between people and the world they inhabit. Our designs need to be more than merely cool looking. We want them to reflect back to us our best sense of who we are.

In other words, slick designs have to do more than advertise their own slickness. They must convey a narrative, and a deep one at that, or else we need to find other designs that do. The last five years have shown up the limitations of our current ideas about what Las Vegas is. It’s time for new ones. “People have very nuanced bullshit detectors,” designer and author Debbie Millman told me during the conference. “Everyone knows when they’re being lied to. If you’re not telling an authentic story, then people aren’t even going to pay attention.”