CCS Honorary Doctorate Degree recipient sits down with CCS's President Rick Rogers for a one-on-one interview


Steven Heller
Last month, Steven Heller (pictured left) traveled to Detroit for the first time to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from CCS. After receiving the doctorate, Heller sat down with CCS's President, Rick Rogers, for a one-on-one interview which was used for Heller's article on Detroit in The Atlantic. Read the interview below.

How long have you been President of CCS, and what was your mandate for joining?

I became President of CCS in 1994, after serving as a vice president at The New School in New York City.  The mandate was pretty simple: fix the problems.  Enrollment had been dropping for quite some time; the place was running substantial annual deficits; there was a lot of deferred maintenance; and the faculty were factionalized.  The institution had already started addressing the issues, but there was a lot of work to do.


Detroit was the epitome of the dead and dying inner city when you arrived.  How did you see design playing a role in Detroit’s return?

I would differ with that characterization.  Detroit had, and still has, huge problems; but I arrived here at a hopeful moment.  A new mayor, Dennis Archer, had just been elected; and many people had confidence in the leadership he was providing.  He got the business community more engaged in the city and reduced the old tensions between the city and the suburbs.  A wave of downtown development began that led to the building of two new sports stadiums and expansion of many cultural and educational institutions, including the first expansion we did at CCS after I got here. 

I thought that getting CCS back on track and developing it into a more robust institution would contribute to the city’s renewal.  In a city of Detroit’s size, an institution of CCS’s size can really have an impact.  I believed that getting more artists and designers to live and work in the city would make a real difference because creative people have had such a positive impact in other places, rebuilding neighborhoods, increasing the vibrancy of cultural life, being entrepreneurs, and making cities work better.  I say that artists and designers make the world more beautiful, more understandable, and more manageable.  I certainly thought that could apply to Detroit and that CCS could help in getting artists and designers more engaged in addressing the city’s challenges.


CCS began as an arts and crafts school, and today considerable focus is on the auto industry.  There were some harrowing times with American auto manufacturers.  Do you believe design has played a role in the industry’s revival?

CCS began in 1906 as the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts.  Its founding purpose was “to encourage good and beautiful work as applied to useful service.”  It originally exhibited and sold the work of artists and craftspeople.  That notion of “useful service” was pretty important to its identity, and it soon founded a school that embraced not only the fine arts but what they then called the “industrial arts.”  As the school evolved into a degree-granting college, the fine arts and crafts always went hand-in-hand with the industrial arts, or what we call “design” today.  The first degrees the college conferred were in industrial design.

There’s no question that design has played a major role in the recent revival of the auto industry and in many previous rebounds after cyclical downturns.  I’m quite conscious of the influence of design on the fortunes of the auto industry historically because CCS now owns the building in which the discipline of auto design as we know it today was developed by Harley Earl at General Motors.  Earl and GM president Alfred Sloan developed the concept of the “model year,” which essentially used design changes to create demand for new vehicles.  Today, across the auto industry, quality has become so uniform and engineering so advanced at most of the auto companies that those factors don’t give brands a competitive edge.  The differentiator is in the design of both the exteriors and interiors, including the design of the ways the driver interacts with the vehicle.  It seems to me that the auto companies have been giving more and more responsibility to designers, so that vehicle development is now a collaboration between engineers and designers, and design isn’t just about styling anymore.  They appreciate the power of design more than ever before.  It’s interesting how one or two well-designed products can turn around the fortunes of an auto company. 


At present, Detroit has an eerie yet beautiful aura.  There does not seem to be any retail in downtown, and many amazing buildings are still abandoned and decaying.  But there is real hope in the redevelopment programs arising.  How has CCS geared up to not just meet the demands of economic prosperity, but help lead the way towards this goal?

You’re right that there is hope about the future here, despite the city’s dire financial situation.  There’s a new wave of development occurring downtown, led by Dan Gilbert, who founded Quicken Loans, and many of those beautiful old buildings are being restored.  A lot of tech and creative companies are moving in, and retail is already coming.  The Midtown area where the College is located is also experiencing an upswing with a lot of residential developments and small businesses as well as expansion by the two major medical centers and Wayne State University.  A new light rail system is about to start construction on Woodward Avenue, our main artery.  The Kresge Foundation funded a major planning effort that just resulted in a report called Detroit Future City that provides a strategic framework for fostering economic growth and improving neighborhoods throughout Detroit. 

The College for Creative Studies (which, by the way, is an independent, not-for-profit institution) is playing its part too.  About six years ago, we decided to expand the College’s mission to encompass roles in economic development and in offering more educational opportunity to inner-city kids, as well as to increase our capacity to provide talent to the creative industries.  We have a vested interest in the city’s future, and we thought we needed to do more to secure that future.  That led to our redeveloping the Argonaut Building, GM’s original engineering and design facility, a mile from our main campus, into what I would say is a new model for school/college/business collaboration.  The building is 760,000 square feet and was dark for ten years after GM moved to the Renaissance Center.  GM donated it to the College in 2008.  It’s now called the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, and it houses our undergraduate and graduate design programs, 300 beds of student housing, a 6th-12th grade art and design charter school that the College operates along with the Henry Ford Learning Institute, an economic development agency that we run along with Business Leaders for Michigan called the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, a conference center, galleries, retail space, a big dining hall, a gymnasium, and a start-up company called Shinola. Moving many of our educational activities to the Taubman Center also enabled us to reconfigure our original campus, now called the Walter and Josephine Ford Campus to provide expanded space for all the programs that remained there.

The Argonaut Project itself was a major economic development effort because it rescued a great, historic building, brought it back to useful life and created about 200 jobs at the start.  The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) is our vehicle for continuing to promote economic growth.  Its mission is to advance Detroit’s creative economy through business attraction and acceleration and talent development.  The idea is to help small creative businesses grow into bigger businesses and to attract creative professionals to live and work along the “creative corridor,” which is basically Woodward Avenue between Downtown and Midtown.  DC3 has already had 24 early stage businesses in its accelerator program, and another 28 are about to join.  Many of them are based right in the Taubman Center.  It also started the Detroit Design Festival, and it hosts numerous opportunities for the creative community to come together for business networking and socializing.  Right now, we’re exploring how to expand DC3’s footprint within the building to allow for more office space for these small businesses.  The demand for the Center’s services is very strong, and funders continue to be interested in increasing its capacity.


Your campus has grown exponentially in the face of Detroit’s hardships.  What accounts for this success?  And are your graduates staying in Detroit specifically and Michigan in general as contributors?

Growth is always the result of a combination of factors.  The first thing I’d say is that the stories of Detroit’s hardships mask the fact that there is a lot of opportunity here; and when you want to do something useful, there are always people who step forward to help.  That’s what drew me here in the first place, and that’s what’s kept me here.  So what really accounts for our success is the value the community places on the College’s mission and the hard work and generosity of a lot of people who believe in what we’re doing to fulfill the mission.  It starts with our Board of Trustees which includes many important business and civic leaders.  We have a world-class faculty and great administrative support staff.  The corporate and philanthropic communities have been extremely supportive.  It helps too to have a big idea that gets people excited, and the Taubman Center is certainly big.  The concept of a single place that would house art and design programs from sixth grade through graduate school plus creative businesses, with lots of possibilities for synergies, plus a conference center that could bring in outside groups, was intriguing to many people; and it was seen as a way to jumpstart creative economic development in the city.  Despite the bad timing – we went forward with the project just before the economy crashed in 2008 – we were able to fund the $145,000,000 cost, which included a goal of $55,000,000 in philanthropic gifts; and we actually exceeded the goal by nearly $3,000,000 in the worst economy since the Great Depression.  That shows how the community embraced the project.

Our graduates are another important part of the story.  Many do stay in Detroit.  The auto industry and the industries that support it have an insatiable need for creative people, and not just auto designers.  The economy is becoming more diverse (that’s part of what the DC3 is all about), and so other kinds of industries need creative people too.  CCS is part of the supply chain of human capital, and industry is invested in what we do and contributes in many ways to our educational programs.  Detroit is very hospitable to artists these days as well, so many of our fine arts and crafts graduates are also staying to pursue careers here.  That’s not to say we don’t also have a lot of graduates leaving for other places around the country and beyond because we do.


One of the innovations of your tenure is partnering with viable start-up businesses.  Shinola, makers of watches, bikes and more, actually have their factory in one of your buildings.  How is this working?  And do you see this as a model for CCS and design schools in general?

I should provide some context before answering your question directly.  The College has partnered with business for many years.  We regard CCS as a professional school, preparing students for careers in creative fields.  Most of our graduates will work in the corporate world or in design studios or establish their own businesses.  Business engagement in our programs enhances the educational experience for our students and opens opportunities for internships and jobs for them.  Our students work on numerous research projects sponsored by a wide range of corporations and institutions, and our relationships with corporations take on other forms too.  So it was a natural progression to think about having businesses in the Taubman Center that would resonate with the educational activities in the building.

We were very lucky that Shinola came along, and the relationship is working really well.  Their arrival represented the fulfillment of the entire vision for the Taubman Center.  Shinola sees the College as a strategic partner in the development of their business, and CCS sees Shinola as a strategic partner in the development of our educational programs.  The company has already sponsored several class projects, including ones on branding, the design of their space, bicycle design, watch design, and fashion accessory design; and next semester we’ll do a marketing project with them.  Their physical proximity in our building makes these collaborations very easy, and the students have a lot of exposure to Shinola’s creative thinkers.  Moreover, Shinola has been very considerate in including its relationship with the College in its marketing efforts; and that’s giving CCS a lot of valuable exposure.  Two of our recent graduates, who did internships with them, have been hired full-time by Shinola and are now working in our building.  Both the company and the College think we’re just beginning to explore the benefits of working together.  It’s quite exciting, not to mention educational, watching Shinola develop and even playing a small part in it.

I definitely think this is a model for other design schools to emulate.  Corporate partners can help colleges develop their facilities, and they can enrich a college’s educational programs.  Working together, companies and colleges can promote economic development; so the benefits can ripple out to the larger community.


Detroit is an artists’ colony waiting to happen.  How are the industrialists, business people and city officials addressing art and design as an engine of progress?

Many cities see art and design, arts and design festivals, arts and design districts as ways to generate economic development; and Detroit is among them.  Detroit is an artists’ colony that’s already happening.  We have a vibrant arts community; and it’s growing with artists moving here from other places because of inexpensive real estate, a welcoming attitude, and a sense that artists can be meaningfully engaged in helping to move the city forward.

The business and philanthropic communities have strongly embraced art and design as instruments of economic and community development.  The Downtown development plan that Dan Gilbert is working on in conjunction with the City integrates art and design organizations and activities into just about every aspect.  CCS is part of it.  One of the Detroit Future City plan’s four key economic growth pillars is digital and creative jobs, which includes art and design.  CCS manages the Kresge Arts in Detroit program, funded by the Kresge Foundation, which awards 18 $25,000 fellowships a year to visual, literary and performing artists and one annual $50,000 grant to an eminent artist, to support the arts community and its contributions to the life of the city.   Every other year there’s a wonderful festival called ArtX to present the work of the fellowship recipients.  CCS has also received substantial funding from several foundations to develop public art in a number of Detroit neighborhoods as part of larger initiatives in community development.

Probably the best example of how corporations, foundations and government see art and design as engines of progress is the Detroit Creative Corridor Center.  It emerged from a larger economic transformation strategy commissioned by our partner, Business Leaders for Michigan, called “Road to Renaissance.”   BLM is an organization of the CEOs of the top companies in Michigan.  The approach was to focus on existing assets that could be developed to promote diversification of the regional economy, and the initiative included starting venture capital funds, establishing an aerotropolis, and creating a logistics and mobility hub.  As the planners scanned the economic landscape, they discovered that Detroit already had significant design and creative resources and they decided to make the expansion of Detroit’s creative economy one of their strategies.  I was part of the whole planning process; and when it was done, BLM and CCS decided to partner in founding DC3.  It’s received major financial support from the Small Business Administration, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a consortium of local foundations called the New Economy Initiative, and others.


The CCS endowment is rather substantial and derives from the automobile industry.  You even opened a new campus in an old GM building.  How does this connection impact your students?

The endowment actually derives from the College’s connection to the Ford family which goes way back, at least to the 1930s when Eleanor Clay (Mrs. Edsel) Ford was on the board of the Society of Arts and Crafts.  It continued with her daughter Josephine and son-in-law Walter B. Ford II (who was from a different Ford family).  Walter led the board for over 30 years.  Josephine left us a major endowment bequest.  Several members of the family sit on the board today.  Walter and Josephine sustained the school through many financial ups and downs; so the greatest impact on the students has been keeping the institution in business so they could actually attend, and it could grow into what it is today.  Fortunately, those fragile times are in the past. 

More recently, GM not only donated the Argonaut Building to CCS, but they helped us through the due diligence process and contributed substantial funds to make it possible for us to do the project.  Ford also donated to the campaign to fund the project.

The auto industry connections today are quite extensive.  We work with most of the big auto companies; and Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan are important partners.  There are multiple impacts on the students because the companies help us to enhance our curriculum through sponsored projects and other inputs, contribute scholarship funds, provide internships, and hire graduates.  Ford and GM have also been valuable partners in our community outreach efforts.  I should point out that our Transportation Design department represents only about 15% of all our degree students, and the automotive design program within Transportation Design is even smaller.  The companies hire graduates from many of our departments; and all our students are benefiting, in a sense, because the companies’ support has helped us build a more robust institution in general.


It is fascinating and innovative that CCS sponsors and houses a charter school from 6 – 12.  Whose idea was this?  How does it work within the purview of CCS?  Who are the students?  Might it be considered a “trade” school?  While this year will be your first graduating class, do you believe it will have a positive impact on the city?

A good idea has many parents.  I had wanted to start an art and design high school since arriving in Detroit.  The opportunity finally presented itself when my friend Steve Hamp, who was then president of The Henry Ford and had started a charter high school within Henry Ford Museum, approached me about collaborating on a school in Detroit.  Steve had founded the Henry Ford Learning Institute (HFLI), with support from Ford Motor Company, to start additional charter schools in collaboration with educational and cultural institutions.  He also had a relationship with the Thompson Educational Foundation, which was founded by Bob and Ellen Thompson and supports the development of charter schools in Detroit.  The three organizations – CCS, HFLI, and the Thompson Foundation – decided to work together to develop an art and design-focused middle and high school.  We wanted to co-locate the school’s activities with some segment of the College’s activities to take advantage of shared facilities, mentoring of the younger students by college students, and other kinds of collaborations.  The GM Argonaut Building, which became our Taubman Center, gave us the possibility of doing that.  The Thompson Foundation paid for the build-out of the school’s space within the Taubman Center.  CCS and HFLI manage the school – which is called Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies – together, with HFLI being responsible for day-to-day operations; and we are subject to performance criteria that Thompson has established.  CCS college faculty are quite involved in the school’s art curriculum and work with the art teachers on a regular basis.  Several of those teachers are graduates of our Art Education program, which works closely with the school.

Over 90% of the students are from Detroit, and about 75% of the families qualify for the federal free and reduced-cost lunch program.  So it’s largely a low-income population.  We started the school to address the declining presence of art education in the public schools and to provide inner-city kids a pathway to careers in the creative fields that CCS graduates enter, also hoping to bring greater diversity to those fields.  If we’re successful in meeting those goals, I think the school will have a very positive impact on the city; and I think we’re on the way to achieving them. 

I wouldn’t call it a “trade school.”  It has a full academic curriculum and meets Michigan’s standards for a college prep curriculum.  What distinguishes the school is that the students have art class every day, and we also try to integrate design thinking into the other academic subjects.  Getting kids thinking about going to college from the day they arrive in sixth grade is a key part of the school’s approach.  Over 90% of the first high school graduating class (of about 70 students) has been accepted to college, and ten have been admitted to CCS.  Not all the graduates will go to art and design colleges or programs now or in the future, but we hope a high percentage will; and those who don’t will still have had an education that nurtures their creativity.


Do you have a grand plan for how to build Detroit as a big “D” design city?

Well, this won’t surprise you:  I think it’s already a big “D” design city but not adequately recognized as such.  Detroit has a great heritage of designing and making things – iron stoves, bicycles, carriages, railroad cars and engines, automobiles, military equipment in World War II, household appliances, medical equipment, and more.  Harley Earl was one of the pioneers of modern industrial design.  So Detroit has a tremendous design legacy on which to build.  We have two renowned design schools, CCS in the city and Cranbrook just to the north.  We have a high concentration of designers in the region.  We have industry that needs all kinds of designers.  We have design-driven businesses like Shinola opening.  There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in the city that’s attracting designers; and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center is helping design businesses grow.  The development plans in Downtown, Midtown and the neighborhoods have all been shaped by designers and will require more design input for their realization.  Detroit is one of the few places in the world where you can design, prototype, mass produce, mass market and mass distribute products of value.  It’s a laboratory for how design can contribute to the revitalization and continuing vitality of the urban core.

I guess the grand plan is to keep graduating top-notch designers, keep incentivizing designers and design-driven businesses to locate in Detroit, keep incubating small design businesses and helping them grow, keep integrating design into all our development plans.  And we need to build a narrative about what’s happening creatively in Detroit to counter the persistently negative image that the city has.  We have to do a better job of telling our story.  We’re realists here.  We know the problems.  But we also know that there’s a lot of positive action in the city now, and designers are playing an important role.


What has been the most satisfying of your accomplishments at CCS?

It’s hard to pick out just one thing.  I remember when I was being recruited for the job, the Board chair, Keith Crain, said to me, “If you come here, you’ll really be able to move the needle.”  We sure have moved the needle, and we’re still moving it.  We’ve transformed the institution in quality and scale so that we can truly say it’s a world-class art and design college that provides a first-rate educational experience to its students and is making a real difference in the city.  Doing a better job of serving our students and the community – that’s what satisfies me the most.