Invoking the Spirit: Detroit’s Historic Black Bottom

Blending good design, technology and community engagement can elevate connections to past and present — and bring people together in meaningful ways

In spring 2021, Design Core Detroit held an RFP Design Salon for a History X Design project that involved The Detroit Historical Society (DHS) and Design Core Detroit. DHS was looking for a studio that could create a set of street markers as part of a walking tour celebrating Detroit’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood.

During the RFP process, we noticed a lack of Black designers participating in the bidding. Understanding the need for representation and the importance of telling the Black Bottom story, we felt compelled to bid on the work. Thanks to our past work on “One Nation Under a Groove — Detroit’s Tribute to the Funk,” a resolute recommendation to include Black designers on the project and our connection with Detroit advocate and artist Mike Ellison, we got the job.

Through 2022, Detroit Lafayette Plaisance Park will be sprinkled with six marked stops that use a combination of text, photos and QR codes to tell this once-vibrant neighborhood’s story.

Art Direction Concept Development

Challenge: Respecting the story, yet telling it with creativity

Black Bottom was a predominately Black neighborhood in Detroit that was demolished for redevelopment in the late 1950s. For the Detroit Historical Society’s team Malika Pryor and Dean Nesreddine, the goal was to draw people back to this place, and to honor and provide context for the area’s history. We helped them create an outdoor exhibit of sorts, something that was multilayered, interactive and community-lead and -approved. The resulting Invoking the Spirit: Detroit’s Historic Black Bottom is a self-guided walking tour through Lafayette Plaisance Park. Anchored by six easily identifiable markers with interactive elements, the tour tells the story of Detroit’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood through the lens of former residents and their descendants.

Strategy: Listen to the voices all around you

We knew from the get-go that we wanted to reach out to other designers, artists and visionaries living, working and playing in the city — those that had a vested interest in learning the story of Black Bottom and sharing it in a visually engaging and respectful format. We partnered with Shayla Johnson of Scarlet Crane and Andrea Williams of Paisley Paper Co. — female entrepreneurs familiar and entwined with the city landscape. We also participated in community outreach hosted by Malika Pryor of the DHS, listening to what the people living in the area, as well as the descendants of Black Bottom residents, wanted from an effort recognizing their neighborhood. With knowledge gathered, we presented a set of three unique concepts for the markers. The final product is a mashup of concepts presented by Octane, Johnson and Williams and executed by Octane. The collaboration between everyone contributed to the success of the final designs and embodied a spirit of inclusion that shines a ray of hope for a bright future.

Each marker on the tour showcases content curated by the DHS, historical photos from respected Detroit institutions such as the Burton Historical Collection and the Walter P. Reuther Library. The logo and design for the markers were inspired by the strong musical roots of the neighborhood and incorporated typography and colors from late 1950’s album covers of artists such as John Lee Hooker. Champion boxer Joe Louis lived in Black Bottom and therefore we used fist imagery in the graphic, adding piano keys to the knuckles to tie back to Detroit’s rich music heritage. The signs themselves are reminiscent of the typical roof shape of the neighborhood and incorporate typography and inspired design from the ’50s and ’60s. Our goal: create something the people of the community would embrace. We even considered height and color contrast to ensure accessibility to as many people as possible. QR codes can also be scanned with a mobile device so tourgoers can continue their experience with oral histories, images, video and other narratives.

Result: Keeping the conversation going

Invoking the Spirit: Detroit’s Black Bottom walking tour and marker stops opened in September 2021 as part of the 2021 Detroit Month of Design programming. We’re proud to be a part of this effort to enlighten people about Black Bottom without whitewashing. It’s important for all of us, as painful as it may be, to understand our true history so that we can move forward together.

Invoking the Spirit will be on display in Detroit’s Lafayette Plaisance Park through 2022, reviving the spirit of Black Bottom and allowing visitors to experience this piece of lost history in a compelling, reciprocal format.

NOTE: The text for each marker was written and provided by Malika Pryor and Dean Nesreddine of DHS. The interactive pieces were produced by Guide by Cell ( and DG-3D fabricated the signs.

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