(re)Vision Cincinnati: Transforming Cities through Civic Engagement

Joell Angel-Chumbley, MFA
David Eyman
University of Cincinnati, School of D.A.A.P.


This paper presents the framework and outcomes of two transformative projects aimed at developing strategies for re-envisioning Cincinnati’s urban and historic core. Through a unique collaboration between University of Cincinnati’s DAAP students, adjunct faculty, the community, and key civic stakeholders, the projects brought to light the possibilities for creating a best-in-class visitor experience and transforming a derelict urban district once celebrated as the center for Brewing in Cincinnati.

The projects titled “(re)Vision Cincinnati,” (Summer 2014) and “New Visions for the OTR Brewery District,” (Summer 2015) explore the value of environmental graphic design as a mechanism for elevating the civic brand experience within the urban landscape and serving as a change agent for urban renewal. The student design solutions utilize EGD strategies and principles as a method for bridging the gap between civic brand identity, economic development, and urban planning.

Students utilized proven research methodologies to understand and discover the unique historic and cultural assets of the city, identify real or implicit problems, and develop a strategy to solve a problem by using design as a change agent.  The student’s final deliverables are conceptual design, yet documented in professional form such that the deliverables can be used for other purposes.

“These students have been around the world a few times, looking at design.  What a great opportunity to have them envision what’s possible here.”
— Design Faculty

“All of these ideas have practical application, and some of the ideas easy implementation.  These [projects] solve issues that we deal with on a regular basis.” 
— David Ginsburg, DCI President


Design Systems II is an interdisciplinary Junior/Senior studio designed as part of the Design Communications curricula. This is an experiential project-based course with projects stemming from regional opportunities.

The course and projects were designed to be an integrated experience that married traditional research methodologies with professional practice processes and team building strategies. DAAP has a world-renowned global co-op program that is furthered by working with students in this outreach-oriented course. By creating this holistic class experience, coupled with the global co-op model, our students will develop the core competencies necessary for a successful career in the EGD field.

In Design Systems II, the University of Cincinnati school of DAAP employs adjunct faculty/practitioners with expertise in the fields of Wayfinding, Placemaking, Environmental Branding, and Districtification to bring top-line problem solving strategies to the students.  The course is designed to stress design research (observation, survey, & ethnography), theory, and practice to solve complex systems problems.  In addition, this course aims to develop the core EGD competencies in preparation for professional practice and design innovation in the field.


Primary Objectives of this course include:

• Applying EGD principles and methodologies to derive strategies for solving problems in physical or virtual information spaces.
• Collect and assess data: document existing conditions, user centric concerns, and information-seeking behaviors.
• Use wayfinding design process to derive: orientation, route decision, route monitoring, and destination recognition.
• Design spatial systems and positive user experiences that are communicative and intuitive.

Secondary objectives of this course include:

• Apply introduced design methods for analysis, planning, scoping, defining the problem parameters, and building success criteria. This is followed by exploration, synthesis, concept, and strategy development.
• Understand how to effectively work in a project design team: defining roles/tasks, sharing and evaluating ideas, working in, and contributing toward an open minded environment.
• Gain management awareness of coordinated communication media channels (print, time-based, interaction, and EGD), their development process, brand benefits, and determine appropriate usage.
• Recognize how each communication channel is experienced by the user.
• Thoroughly record and archive research, the working process, findings, and design propositions in a well-organized and comprehensive document.
• Design dynamic information spaces (ecosystems), whether printed, time-based, interactive, environment, or experiences that are engaging, comprehensible, and valued for the intended audience/user (people).


With four adjunct professors, this class of 80+ students was separated into 16 interdisciplinary teams (architecture, design communications, interaction design, and motion design) that worked through the process phases of discovery, benchmarking, strategy, and design. The physical project limits encompassed downtown Cincinnati’s urban core and historic brewery district. Although the project boundaries limited the students to this central area of the city, they were encouraged to work without the limitations posed by political and economic realities, thus opening up the possibilities for outside-the-box thinking and innovative solutions.

Through their own personal co-op travel experiences, and an intensive research/benchmarking process, the students identified a cross-section of international civic brands, urban wayfinding systems, urban planning strategies, and smart city initiatives. In addition to benchmarking international cities, the students researched Cincinnati’s history, and engaged in a variety of self-discovery and user-centric exercises that required walking, biking, vehicular and public transit tours of the city. Students interviewed downtown stakeholders and citizens with diverse demographic, cultural, and socioeconomic status as a part of their ethnographic research. By engaging with the local culture, this research provided a strong foundation for building their concepts and creating strategies for implementing ideas unique
to Cincinnati.

Although there is a diverse range of solutions from the interdisciplinary teams, the projects addressed similar issues plaguing cities today: the need for infrastructure improvements (lighting, streetscape enhancements, data connectivity), lack of civic identity, disconnected wayfinding, limited access to information, and underutilized cultural and historical assets.


One unique programming method for the present course involves how students are assigned projects.  More specifically, how students are not assigned projects, but given a geographical area to explore and discover the unique assets and problems that the area has to offer.  Upon completion of the initial research, teams conduct exploratory trips with intentions of sensing gaps in a physical environment.  Most teams conduct a variety of interviews, discussions, and experiential visits.  Some teams have furthered this process through conversations with police officers, teachers, businesspeople, homeless, or other creative methods for gathering personalized ethnographic data.  Discovery presentations disclose both problems and opportunities to the degree that the students become aware that problems and opportunities are the same conditions viewed through different lenses.  Teams are then invited to present a synthesis of reasoning for the development of the problem they aspire to solve through wayfinding, placemaking, or district branding.


During the strategizing phase, student teams established five common conclusions:
• Cincinnati has thriving destinations and civic assets with an opportunity to connect gaps.
• Opportunity exists to make the city more walkable and accessible.
• The city’s history is unique but under-celebrated.
• There are an array of things to do, but a lack of knowledge about where to find them and how to participate.
• Opportunity exists for utilization of parks and greenspace.  Fourteen percent of Cincinnati’s land area is dedicated to parks, compared to a median of 4.3% from the largest 100 cities in the U.S.

These conclusions became the strategic framework for yielding project solutions that are executable and achievable, thus providing Cincinnati stakeholders with the vision and planning infrastructure for positioning Cincinnati as a best-in-class city with a memorable visitor experience.

Below is a brief summary of the unique design solutions that resulted from two semesters of intensive research, discovery, benchmarking, strategy, and design.  Note that projects are abridged.


PROJECT #1: (re)Vision Cincinnati. 
In this project, students were asked to create and design idealized urban experiences from a visitor’s perspective.  In so, the design solutions enable Cincinnati to reach and maintain “Best in Class City” status.

(Narratives from individual student teams)

1. SCOUT CINCY – Cincinnati is a city with a rich and unique history. Emphasizing these gems throughout downtown will encourage locals and tourists to explore Cincinnati’s past and present. We created a wayfinding system with bold, eye- catching typography that emphasizes Cincinnati’s past while bringing it into the present. Utilizing sidewalk typography as placemaking, users will be encouraged to explore the city in an organic way.

2. WEAVE – is system of pedestrian pathways designed to facilitate movement between major downtown destinations. Use of fractal patterns, vertical gardens, implicit messaging, and integrated lighting create a friendly atmosphere and engaging walking experience through the downtown core.

3. HOPSCOTCH – is a community driven organization committed to activating Downtown Cincinnati. Visitors will HOP from city-park to city-park to discover more about our urban core.

4. BLOCK by BLOCK – Employ design to tell the stories of Cincinnati’s many intriguing neighborhoods. Using EGD and experiential design to discover Cincinnati, block by block.

5. CINCINNATI PARKLETS  – Utilizing our city’s creative talent to design a system of parklets unique to Cincinnati.

6. EXPLORE CINCINNATI – aims at connecting the community with downtown public spaces through physical and digital interactions. Interactive kiosks in public spaces and static wayfinding along primary routes promote exploration, while an interactive app and event mailers keep Cincinnati residents up-to-date with what’s going on downtown.

7. CONSTELLATIONS – Starring Cincinnati’s nightlife events, attractions, and YP group and keeping the needs of young professionals and Downtown Cincinnati businesses in mind, we developed a solution with seamlessly integrated components across web, mobile, environmental, and print mediums. This integrated branded system invites young professionals to experience the unique nightlife that Downtown Cincinnati has to offer.

8. CONNECTING OUR CORE – to create a sense of place and connection in the gap areas by employing creative placemaking, wayfinding, and programming for the growing community cores that lie in between.

9. CINCINNATI – Currently people experience Cincinnati within the limits of their location, class, and immediate social circle. This project solution aims to break down these barriers and unite Cincinnatians based on the interests that connect them instead of the factors that divide them. Our user-driven wayfinding system is based on events instead of locations utilizing a system of interactive kiosks, digital intermediary signage, and trails of lanterns throughout the city. We are focusing on dynamic elements that integrate with Cincinnati today and can adapt to the city as it changes. Our system serves as a guide that encourages exploration discovery and community engagement.

PROJECT #2: New Visions for the OTR Brewery District
In this project, students were invited to participate in a strategic rebranding and districtification project in neglected area of downtown Cincinnati.  The district is flanked with revitalized urban communities that house a thriving day and nightlife.  This district is home to a rich yet abandoned history of brewing and the “largest collection of Pre-Prohibition breweries in the country” (http://www.otrbrewerydistrict.org/).

(Projects from individual student teams)

1. THE CROWN BREWERY “HUB” – This solution solidifies “The Brewery District” through the development of a central HUB that serves as a base station, beer garden, and information distribution point.

2. CINCINNATI’S BREWERY COLLECTIVE: Build it in the Brewery – Our solution establishes the neighborhood as a collection of makers and those who aspire to find their passion, grow their ideas, craft their products, and build small             businesses continuing the history of the neighborhood.

3. CINCINNATI’S NEXT DISTRICT – By creating a space for local makers and artisans, this district will create a pleasant daytime environment to complement the adjoining community’s already successful nighttime scene, while honoring and             continuing Cincinnati’s legacy as a center for culture and creation.

4. DIGGING THROUGH THE LAYERS OF HISTORY – Creating an immersive experience that brings the history of the Brewery District to life through   placemaking, technology, and experiential design solutions.                            

5. BIER GARTENS IN THE BREWERY DISTRICT – A district encourages the growth and celebrates the culture and history of the community around it. This visual system is authentic to the district’s history yet contemporary and will utilize technology to enhance district experiences.

6. THE SOUL OF THE BREWERY DISTRICT – Our goal is to help define the boundaries, personality, and identity of the Brewery District by creating a unique and localized sense of place that will engage and inform the local communities          and the greater Cincinnati area.

7. REINVENTING GEMUTLICHKEIT – Rebuild the cultural identity of the brewing district by bringing back the sense of warmth and good feeling that was present in German beer gardens.

8. OTR: A BRANDED DESTINATION – Our solution makes the area into a unique, yet connected destination point for locals, neighboring regions, and tourists. 



At the onset of this course, students are arranged into teams of five.  The task of choosing or appointing any innovation team members is critical to the outcome of projects in both academic and professional settings.  To maximize potential and to share professional innovation team strategies, we utilize a preference survey tool called Foursight.  Foursight helps people identify which stages of the creative process they prefer and at which they are most likely to excel (Foursight, n.d.).  Students are sorted by preference such that each team contains a person who will excel at each stage of the creative process.  Advantages of using this process include the opportunity to enrich the student experience through self-analysis and reflection on performance.  In team-oriented, project-based courses, there are often students who do not contribute to the best of their ability and students who hold the tendency to seize control. 
The present faculty team offers several short teamwork lectures in an effort to thwart such tendencies (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Adapted from Foursight (2003 -2016). Thinking Profile, Innovation Tools for Teams.

One such lecture includes a full description of the Foursight process for building effective teams in concert with a description of the Creative Leadership model as authored by Gerard Puccio (Puccio, Mance, Murdock, 2011).  The intention of bringing a leadership model into a design course is to create awareness that efficiently designed and managed innovation teams are capable of a production yield far greater than without such training.  For the duration of the course, students are reminded that all members of a team must be involved in significant decisions, in design ideation, development, and production.  Should a team revert to autocratic or democratic leadership models, the resulting production could suffer in both quality and quantity of work.  An implicit invitation is clear to the students that they must be vigilant in
self-observation to insure the quality and quantity of deliverables (Figure 2).

“Leadership is about what people do, not the title they hold” (Puccio, Mance, & Murdock, 7).

Figure 2.  Faculty encourages a leadership model based on Creative collaboration of all team members.

Systemic team – systemic design        

Another teaching offers students insight into how our team orientation can directly affect the design of a system of interrelated components.  Since wayfinding and placemaking solutions comprise a cumulative experience of disparate parts, a team of designers follows suit.  For example, if each member of a team designs one sign, one architectural component, or one digital communication, the resulting designs will be disparate since we all approach problems from our own frame of reference (Figure 3).

Figure 3.  Team members design items from their own frame of reference or understanding of the problem.

When a sophisticated and structured design team completes an empathy building process and reaches agreement of the problem statement, the resulting designs will organically become systemic.  The systemic nature of design in wayfinding and placemaking exceeds boundaries of the kit-of-parts in typography and color; systemic design must include functionality or usage (Figure 4).

Figure 4.  When we design toward a shared problem definition, the items become organically systemic.

To further the dialogue regarding leadership and the importance of contributing ideas, the Faculty stresses a need for true collaborative efforts in co-creating a design system. 

Faculty is clear that student work will not be assessed on coexistence, but that efforts in
co-creation become evident in the final deliverables (Figure 5).

Figure 5.  Efforts in co-creating will be evident in the final deliverables.  Adapted from Grant, G. A. (2004).
Tirian 4-CO Team Development Model.

Students are given peer-grading forms after each significant deliverable, and prompted for honesty.  The primary intentions of this effort are twofold: to collect peer grades and to force self-observation skills with regard to collaborative co-creating.  The faculty team is in agreement that the students are more likely to put in additional efforts through peer assessments and self-observation.

In the present course, the students act as consultants, a role that differs from both co-operative education employment and from the role of student.  A consultant role allows students to more fully embrace the reach of their own work and create a deeper personal relationship to the design solutions.  Creating relationships between student teams and the environment, between the student teams and civic leaders, and between team members themselves supports both commitment to learning and ample space to implement the learnings of the course.  In The accelerated learning handbook, Dave Meier adds, “Learning is subverted when people are not given sufficient time to integrate new knowledge and skill into their current structure of self, into their internal organization of meaning, beliefs, and skills” (54).  The present course structure is designed to provoke deeply personal conversations regarding ethics and the morality of urban revitalization.  Such structure holds the potential for students to reach a level of personal attachment and pride in the solutions they propose.  A notable sense of confidence arises at final presentations where students recall conversations about how they came to agreement on what should or should not be altered in a built environment that some denizens call home, denizens for whom the students have gained an authentic sense of empathy.

“The amount of talent in the class is evident through the quality and variety of work. We were able to strive through the passion of the faculty, Daktronics, and Brewery District members. As students, we appreciated the opportunity to identify a specific problem within our community and solve it on our own. We were all very inspired and driven because we were able to use our creativity to help make our city a more vibrant place to visit.”

— Jordan Sowecke, Student (Summer Class 2015)


Our senior level students differ from younger students in that they frequently have different motivations towards exceptional performance.  Grades are no longer the primary source of reward after having been through a diverse range of professional experiences.  We often hear students suggest that comprehensive portfolio pieces and business connections are valued above all else.  To responsibly deliver value to the students, we may take advantage of this key insight to help them innovate and design to the best of their own abilities.  In the Design Thinking Pocket Guide, Robert Curedale adds, “Innovation occurs when participants understand rewards from their participation.  There needs to be methods of motivating innovation.  Connect innovation performance to career opportunities or rewards so that employees are rewarded for being creative” (60).  Our motivational carrots then are both business connections and a portfolio piece with much to discuss.

Awareness of collaborative process.  Including teamwork as a tenet of this course places our students in a position where they can credibly describe the act of collaborative design. Speaking truth to power, these students have experienced the ups and downs of working in a collaborative setting, and have the vocabulary to describe it to an interviewer.  Students see this as a reward, which increases both the innovative quality and quantity of work produced.  Accordingly, professionals can recognize the benefit of these experiences in welcoming new hires to their organizations.

Comprehensive projects. Students take from this course a project with far greater scope than they could create on their own.  Including multidisciplinary teams results in projects that span planning, architecture, digital content, and graphic design fields with portfolio-ready presentations of signage, varied wayfinding elements, digital content, architectural features, maps, and a host of other pieces.

Final critiques offsite.  Final presentations are done off-campus in interesting professional venues, and attended by esteemed figures in the EGD community alongside local community and business leaders.  Giving the students this caliber of an audience serves as motivation and holds the promise of professional reward.  Students work hard to create memorable presentations and impress judges with quality design.

Press and publication.  The scale and breadth of projects allows us to involve local press.  Sharing past articles with students, and informing them that the press will be invited to final presentations serves as a reward structure.  See appendix for links to articles regarding the present projects.


These project experiences provided the University and the students with the opportunity to engage with leading edge fabricators, civic leaders, design professionals, local business owners, and the local community. These engagements strengthened connections and broadened awareness of how design can become a change agent and mechanism for revitalization.

In part, the success of this course is reliant on community involvement, empathy for community members, and input from community leaders.  The process involves creating opportunities for students to both garner input from leaders and to evangelize how design makes the difference in any comprehensive districtification or placemaking strategy.  Though supervised, students are encouraged to create their own network of local leaders and to develop those relationships by offering real solutions for real problems or opportunities.  The result, in part, furthers our outreach by disclosing how design can significantly improve life for residents or visitors of any community. 

Daktronics in partnership with the University, awarded a $5000 scholarship to the top three projects selected by a jury of professional designers and former DAAP alumni. This partnership is evidence of the commitment to innovation and advancement of the EGD field.  Although veteran providers such as Daktronics have seen the reality of unusual applications of their product, student involvement provides a venue for breakthrough ideas that may lead to innovations in the field.  In this particular course, students designed several interesting applications such as wall and ground embedded digital displays, new formats for LED screens, and LED animated sculptural elements that created an unprecedented environmental experience.  Multidisciplinary teams provide a venue for more than the design of animated fields, but the development of digital content to complete the branded experiences.  Design cohesion among all primary elements of wayfinding and placemaking gave Daktronics an inspiring and inclusive view of how their products contribute to the built environment.

Real world outcomes

Connecting and teaching this course through a practicing firm has enabled students to gain from up-to-date practices and real-world connections.  As non-profits, some of these connections have been used as active and participative clients.  Though this is often challenging to coordinate, the benefits are rewarding for clients and students alike.  Student design solutions are often rendered with precision and professionalism that clients have utilized for a multitude of purposes: some for fundraising, for generating enthusiasm toward future projects, for community building, and several for real-world application.  Examples include summer of 2015 where one student was retained as a freelance architect to complete the design of a building extension that he proposed; summer of 2015 where a student submission was shown to possible donors to retain a significant donation; and summer of 2016 where a grant application has been completed with intentions to realize some of the students’ work.  The presence of this legacy persists and serves to further engage students in the possibility of their work having real impact on real people.


By integrating research, discovery, strategy, design, and implementation methodologies into the academic experience, we are building a model that enhances what our students are experiencing through the co-operative education program.  Our intention is not to replicate, but augment the experiential learning process through the distinctions of “co-op employee” and “ad-hoc consultant.”  The former is one who executes instructions to solve design problems and the latter is one who identifies, defines, communicates, and solves real-world problems.  Experiencing this distinction first-hand is instrumental to the type of learning that we aspire to consistently deliver to the students. 

In delivering this learning venue to the students, our organization also gains valuable skills over and above design practices.  Our personal strengths are stretched in enhanced skills such as self-observation, self-assessment, and team practices.  Outside of the university, we have intentionally created a learning organization that aspires to continuously bring new thinking into our firm.  Teaching this specific studio course serves to expedite and simplify the process for us.

In addition, we believe that by using traditional design theory and methodologies as a foundation, coupled with “real life” experiences and best-in-class practices, this program will continue to build a strong foundation for advancing the EGD industry as a leading global profession.

Articles below reference the success of these featured projects as well as two abridged project samples from each of the 2014 and 2015 courses shown as (Appendix A) and (Appendix B):




Course: Design System II (2015)  “New Visions for the OTR Brewery District”
Student Project (abridged):  “OTR: A BRANDED DESTINATION”
Team members: Gigi Garcia, Derek Gerken, Kaitlin Kinney, Caitlin McGinn, Jordan Sowecke


Course: Design System II (2014)  “(re)Vision Cincinnati”
Student Project (abridged):  “Constellations”
Team members: Logan Carr, Lori Jackson, Irene Musgrove, David Rosmarin, Rachel Thieman, Alex Wheeler, Patrick Williams, Michael Zalla

Works Cited

Curedale, Robert. Design Thinking: Pocket Guide. Los Angeles: Design Community College, 2013. Print.
Grant, Andrew, and Gaia Grant. Who Killed Creativity?: –and How Can We Get It Back? Milton, Qld.: Jossey-Bass, 2012. Print.
Meier, Dave. The Accelerated Learning Handbook: A Creative Guide to Designing and Delivering Faster, More Effective Training Programs. New York: McGraw Hill, 2000. Print.
“OTR Brewery District | Cincinnati, OH.” OTR Brewery District | Cincinnati, OH. Web. 21 May 2016.
Puccio, Gerard J., Marie Mance, and Mary C. Murdock. Creative Leadership: Skills That Drive Change. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2011. Print.
Thurber, S.  About foursight. Available from: URL: http://foursightonline.com/pages/about-foursight . [Accessed May 19, 2016].