Detroit's Shinola: Where Design Hustles Harder
As a city steeped in American manufacturing lore, Detroit is very distinctly linked with the automobile industry. These days, however, watchmaker Shinola is leading the charge to write a new chapter in Detroit's manufacturing history. Founded in 2011, Shinola, a brand of Bedrock Manufacturing, aims to restore the prestige of American manufacturing, starting with the Motor City.
After opening a flagship watch factory in Detroit, Shinola moved beyond the classic timepiece and now manufactures bicycles, leather goods, and journals from predominately American-made materials. As Shinola continues to grow, there's one man tasked with keeping Shinola's classically American vision in check: creative director Daniel Caudill. Caudill joined the company after working for more than 25 years in design and styling, for brands such as Adidas and L.A. Gear.
I recently spoke with Caudill by phone to get an insight into the role design has played in Shinola's goals and growth. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
What does a Creative Director at Shinola do?
Daniel Caudill: I really just started putting together a few different ideas on what an American-made watch would look like. What the aesthetics of the store would look like; what fixtures we would have, etc. My role today is to work with every part of the brand to make sure that it’s one cohesive vision.
Where do you get your design inspiration from?
DC: Design inspiration comes from everything we're exposed to--past, present, future. Detroit itself is an inspiration...the amazing archictecture, the amazing art. There’s a lot of creativity here.
Speaking of Detroit, not only has it filed for bankruptcy protection, many residents have fled. Why start up there?
DC: Manufacturing is a part of the culture here, and has been for generations and generations. This city and the people did everything possible to try to help us with the building of this brand. They opened their arms with nothing but the desire to help us succeed. It’s infectious, when you come here and see what’s happening. You want to come back and experience what’s going on. And you know, once we started building this factory here, everything here made sense. It was really a clear answer. The talent is here, the ease of business is here.
How have you incorporated design into Shinola's mission?
DC: The design philosophy of the brand is that we really have to make products that are quality. You’ll be able to make this watch last for years, and the design goal is to create a product that you’ll want to wear for years. It’s really about making a product that’s classic. Quality is the very first benchmark, and then the next thing is about making really simple, clean, classic design.
Was it always part of Shinola's plan to expand its product line?
DC: It was always part of the plan. Still, watches are probably one of the most complex things to manufacture. We thought: If we can make a quality watch in the U.S. and be successful, we can make absolutely anything. There’s so much talent in the United States and so much opportunity. There’s room for everyone in this space. It’s exciting to show what we can do here and be a part of that.
How has your design philosophy changed as the company has grown?
DC: The goal is to really create a high benchmark that everything has to live up to, and with the watch and the bikes, we’ve created products where there’s form and there’s function. That’s the standard that we’ve built. The design philosophy is in the same place. Everything has to be held up to it, which is not an easy task.
When you’re stuck in a creative rut, what do you do?
DC: Take a day off. I think that regardless of a job, creative or not, if you’re in a rut, you need to take a day off. It’s a hard thing to do, but I think you get more work done when you do.
Why do you think design should matter to businesses?
DC: I think it’s a balance. In regard to stores and products, if you have pure design without business you have something really creative, but you can’t manage it. And if you have something truly run by business, you don’t have something creative or exciting. Through that collaboration you can create something that’s really powerful. Design, creativity, emotion and gut instinct, paired with business, spreadsheets and specifics. You can’t have one without the other. You can, but it’s never as compelling or as exciting.
What design advice would you give to people about to start a new business?
DC: It’s about collaboration. That’s what I think is the most wonderful thing about this company, that I’m really truly grateful for, is the amount of collaboration that happens here. There’s technicians that work on products, designers that work on products, and business owners. Everyone has a voice.
Anna Hensel is an editorial intern at Inc. Previously, she worked as a freelance writer for Omaha Magazine.