The Question.

How do you build a thriving, walkable City Center?

During the Spring of 2014 I was part of a group of students who researched, unearthed, and identified issues that we believed were holding back our city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We worked on these issues for 4 months and then reported our findings in a presentation to faculty members, local stakeholders, and city officials.

We had a respectable amount of research, concepts, and ideas. And our presentation was well received, as we anticipated. But what we didn’t expect was that our project would go on to become a viral topic of discussion, debate, and backlash for the entire city.

The Team.


Film and Project Development

Heather Seto

project Development

Adam Salois


Emily Nagy

Project Development

Luc Fewer II

Project Development

Matthew Vansweden

Project Development

Rachael Fischer

Project Development


For the start of our project we connected with 616 Development, a local urban development company, hoping to get some insight on what it would take to bring a fresh food grocery store to the City Center in response to the growing market rate housing options. At the time, the average resident was forced to drive 20 minutes outside of the city merely to obtain two to three weeks worth of groceries (subsequently sending their money elsewhere), when this city is perfectly capable of providing a fresh food culture, in the heart of the City Center, where a new housing development sprouts up practically every month.

As designers, our first instinct was to design a really amazing experience. However, we quickly realized that would be too premature. We needed to understand the problem better; we needed to raise awareness. This is not solely a development problem or an economic development problem, it is an urban planning problem, a public health problem, and a transportation problem. This means that there is no clear solution, there may not even be consensus that there is a problem to begin with.

In light of these revelations, we defined a goal.

Raise awareness of the need for essential basic services in the city center of grand rapids in order to inspire further actions within the community.



Gathering Information.

Before we could start to propose solutions, we had to fully understand the problem. And the obvious path to that understanding was to talk to the individuals that lived in and experienced the city everyday. We began a period of intense research, conversations, events, and surveys all aimed at the goal of understanding the problem more deeper and building empathy for our users.

We started this process by taking a look at the basic services offered in most towns and cities. We then mapped where they would fall on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory of psychology that attempts to explain human motivation. And then based off this map, we surveyed the available resources in the Grand Rapids City Center and graphed them alongside Maslow's.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

Grand Rapids

A comparison of the resources available in the City Center of Grand rapids compared to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

  • Grocery Stores
  • Pharmacies
  • Supermarkets
  • Police
  • Banks
  • Hospitals
  • Churches
  • Parks
  • Restaurants
  • Beauty Salons
  • Museums
  • Libraries
Student Surveys.

Even though the information we had gathered so far was valuable, we wanted to hear from the experiences and opinions of the individuals that this would directly affect. So to gather these opinions, we set up an event and surveyed the student body of KCAD, which is located directly in the city Center. We collected surveys throughout the event and used this data to inform the rest of our project.

The number of miles students are traveling to purchase groceries.

The mode of transportation students use to travel to the grocery store.

The most popular places students said they purchased their groceries.

Whether a City Center grocer would be a beneficial addition to their lives.


Making our voice heard.

We knew that facts and numbers were an important part of the project. We needed to give quantitative data that would support the project we were proposing. But, we also wanted to communicate on an emotional and human level. We wanted to showcase prominent figures, locations, and influences in the community to speak to the heart and core motives of the project.

So I proposed the best way I know to communicate on this level, film. We gathered our core values and the opinions of the key outside voices we connected with to unite in a singular message. I directed and produced a short film that was designed to accompany our presentation and live as an artifact of the project's core ideas.



Presenting our vision.

As our project came to a close, our focus shifted towards the communication of our project. We wanted to make sure that the work we accomplished landed in the right hands and would be put to good use. We scheduled a presentation of our materials and invited community stakeholders to attend. We delivered a 45 minute presentation that covered every aspect of our project and proposed the request for a basic needs assesment of the City Center.


Releasing it to the public.

We all assumed that our presentation would be the end of the project. We fulfilled our goals and handed off the information into the right hands to take it forward. We were content.

I then took the video I created and uploaded it to Vimeo, just like I would with any video that I produce. And randomly, it got picked up by journalists. And much to our surprise, articles started sprouting up in every local new source. It even jumped mediums and landed on the front page of the printed newspaper.

Because of the various publicity and shareable / clickbait nature of the headlines and video, the viewership quickly shot straight up. The video received roughly 70,000 views over the course of two weeks, meager in the scope of viral videos, but massive compared to the intended audience.

70,000 views over the course of two weeks.



At first we were estatic about the focus on our project. We were excited to see everyone sharing and enjoying the thing we worked for months on. But then the feedback started to roll in...


Mistakes & Reflection.

These were hard words to swallow from a community of individuals that I believed I was truly advocating for. At first I viewed these comments as fringe-cases. There will always be people who have a negative view of any message. I demeaned them to the "Armchair Warrior" and "Angry Facebook User". But as it became more and more apparent that this was the resounding consensus of the entire community, I began to see that these weren't just edge cases. These were instead concerned citizens, frustrated community advocates, and members of under represented groups who we didn't make feel valued.

Ultimately, these reactions didn't render our work useless or invaluable, because it helped to contribute to a broader dialogue. But, we learned a valuable lesson. Design is about context, we designed a video that served a specific purpose, and when it was re-contextualized its message was lost. We never purposely sought to exclude individuals, but it was the lack of purposeful inclusion that ultimately harmed our credibility.

In the end, this experience proved to be an invaluable learning experience about the ways in which good, or bad design, can have wide affects on culture and the broader dialogue, for better or worse.

The lesson.

Design is context.

Final Deliverables