Banners along Market Street mark the innovation district in downtown Chattanooga. (Photo: Staff)

Bright blue pavement markers clad the intersections that flank the innovation district. White banners, soon to be streaked with gray (because all white banners soil quickly), hang in the heart of downtown. These are the signs of something new-a place is being made.

And yet-that trademark. It looks like it’s been done before. A capital D made of nine ordinary boxes clumsily paired with too-tightly-spaced typography in an unremarkable font. This logo is saying, “In the innovation district, we don’t think inside the box-we think inside nine of them!”

“Where did this come from?” I thought. “Who designed it?”

As a professor of graphic design in this tightknit community, I was surprised to see the innovation district brand emerge from thin air. It’s unusual for me not to know who designed something here. Chattanooga is small enough that creative professionals all know each other. Every new restaurant, shop and event in town has a person behind its brand. Those people often live here and make Chattanooga what it is. As creatives, we are aware of what one another makes, and we are great at celebrating each others’ contributions to this community.

I didn’t know who designed the innovation district brand because it wasn’t designed by a Chattanoogan. It was outsourced via DesignCrowd, a website where businesses pay as little as $150 for a logo. The site works like this: The business submits a call, designers (often less experienced and eager for work) submit fully built ideas (sometimes in the hundreds), and the business selects one. Only the winner is paid. 

The American Institute of Graphic Arts, the nation’s largest and oldest professional association for design, discourages speculative work, which is any work that a designer does for free in the hopes of getting paid. AIGA provides a sample letter to help practicing designers defend themselves against the pressure of accepting spec work. It reads: “Successful design work results from a collaborative process between a client and the designer with the intention of developing a clear sense of the client’s objectives, competitive situation and needs. Speculative design competitions or processes result in a superficial assessment of the project at hand that is not grounded in a client’s business dynamics.”

My hunch is that most designers in town would agree that the innovation district logo lacks imagination. But that’s not the worst part. The message being sent here is that the innovation district does not value design. How can there be an innovation district worthy of its name that misses this point?

Designers add value to businesses and organizations in several ways. Here are a few of them:

-First, we are trained to understand human behavior, including the perceptions and actions of target consumers. Designers can help businesses reach the people they want to serve by shaping strategic communication and experiences. IDEO, an internationally renowned design firm, calls this process “human-centered design,” a “practical and repeatable approach to arriving at innovative solutions.” Ideas come from understanding people. You get buy-in when you work with the people you serve. Chattanooga’s innovation district serves many kinds of people, and among them are designers.

-Secondly, designers help businesses by exemplifying their value propositions through the skillful manipulation of visual form, including a logotype, typography, color palette and other graphics. The most exciting and effective solutions emerge from the collaboration between a client and a designer. Effective solutions do not come from a faceless, superficial encounter through an uncaring crowdsource site. Paul Rustand of Chattanooga’s award-winning Widgets & Stone has said numerous times, “Design is all about relationships.” To carry that further, so is the creation of an innovation district.

-Thirdly, a designer is part of shaping ideas, not simply dressing them. There is no such thing as innovation without a designer’s involvement. The essence of design is evaluating a situation to develop criteria and, from that criteria, finding inventive ways to exploit limitations to arrive at unforeseen solutions. To design is to imagine what could be. It isn’t just what something looks like. As Steve Jobs famously said, “Design is how it works.”

There is another message being sent, and this one tells a cautionary tale-that the innovation district does not value local designers. By crowdsourcing its logo, the innovation district undermines design and designers. How can designers expect any business in the district to do differently? Local creatives, including architects, artists, interactive designers, graphic designers and product designers, have been instrumental in building the buzz around the innovation district. Is it somehow innovative to ignore the very people whose work is part of making the project a success? Is it innovative to cheat the local economy?

The decision to crowdsource the innovation district logo may have emerged from the need to have something in place for Startup Week (Oct. 12-16), when the district officially opens. If this is the case, the new brand may be temporary. A Twitter exchange I had with Lacie Stone, communications director for the city of Chattanooga, confirmed that the crowdsourced logo is not meant to be long term. But there has been no public discussion of this. The point still stands: There are more inventive ways to communicate a work in progress than to crowdsource a trademark, paint the pavement and put up official banners. All these signs make it seem like the innovation district brand is a permanent decision.

If Chattanooga’s innovation district wants to be known as truly innovative instead of only seeming to be, those with the power to do so should rethink their brand’s relationship to design and the local community of professional designers. They should take down those banners, repaint the pavement and call a local team of professionals to redo the job. It’s not too late to start again. Learning from failure is part of innovative business.

A place is being made. If design isn’t part of the making of the innovation district, we should call it something else-perhaps the business district. Innovation without design is not innovation at all. It’s business as usual.

Aggie Toppins is a graphic design professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. You can follow her on Twitter @aggietoppins or email her directly at augusta-toppins@utc.edu. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.