Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bright Lights in the Second City

I’d be lying if I told you there’s a shortage of public art in Chicago, given the amount of artists continuously pushing the boundaries of design and function. Thus, it’s no surprise a marketing strategist and a filmmaker would successfully reach their Kickstarter goal for one of the brightest and most useful public art displays in Chicago history. The Wabash Lights are a long strip of colorful LED lights running the stretch of the elevated train tracks along Wabash Avenue in the Loop. The Kickstarter began in August 2015 and has since reached its $60,000 goal. The lights are not only meant to be an aesthetically pleasing addition, but the intended plan allows for Chicagoans to help program the sequence of lights for an interactive experience. The main goals of the Wabash Lights project are:
“Fostering a safer, well lit downtown, the promotion of Chicago as a global destination, beautification of the ‘L,’ broadening the profile and number of annual visitors to Chicago, attraction and retention of downtown businesses, and boosting civic pride.”

            Phase one was implemented in January 2016, and a small strip of lights were installed and would be lit for the following six months. The rest of the project is still awaiting further funding before it can be seen to fruition.

Two seemingly dissimilar creatives started this incredible project. Jack C. Newell and Seth Unger, a filmmaker and creative strategist respectively, are the masterminds behind this unique art display. Newell describes himself as a public art enthusiast in addition to his title as a filmmaker, and “uses his background in film to inform his public art projects. His ability to use light and color to tell stories and illicit emotion from the audience is at the heart of his work in both film and in the public space.” Unger is a business creative—he solves problems in the marketing world. Yet, his prior experiences in theater give him the background to understand human connection and spatial compatibility, and his “collaborations have helped facilitate, design, and implement innovative brand, workplace, and creative strategy across diverse areas of focus.”
So what makes this project so creative? Well, the originality is the first and most obvious reason—there’s nothing like this in Chicago. But aside from that, it’s the functionality and problem solving aspect that elevates this project (literally). Nighttime Chicago can be dark and scary, so a little light and community involvement can go a long way. The extra step of allowing individuals to participate in the exhibit is something all too familiar to advertisers and marketers (ahem, Unger), who understand the benefits of consumer involvement. This project showcases efforts in artistic beauty from Newell’s expertise and insights into function and garnering awareness from Unger’s field to create something amazing in a seemingly separate realm of work. The collaborative nature of this project is what seals the deal on its status as “creative.”
Then what makes these two guys so creative? Simply put, it’s their passion for doing fun things. Both men are creative by profession—a filmmaker and a strategist need to be in order to find success. Yet, because this was a side project, outside of their realm of responsibility, they needed significant amounts of intrinsic motivation to provoke such creative thought and execution. According to Collins & Amabile, “creativity is motivated by the enjoyment and satisfaction that a person derives from engaging in the creative activity.” When you like what you’re doing, the ideas flow more freely. In addition, they write that “high levels of intrinsic motivation are particularly important when the emphasis is on novelty.” New ideas are inspired by insights that are of value to the individual who came up with them. Both Newell and Unger saw a problem and an opportunity, that using their respective expertise, they could solve for the hell of it.

Collins, M. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity.New York: Cambridge University Press.


  1. I think that the idea of making Chicago more aesthetically pleasing, more than it already is, is a really great concept. I like that Newell and Unger did so in a beneficial way, using lights to make the streets feel safer as well as provide an interactive experience. I think that they exemplify the "little C" creative in the way their innovation is useful and fun to Chicagoans. As said in the post, this was a side project for both men. I wonder if they both put their entire creative force behind this project, would it have had a greater impact on Chicago? I had not heard of these lights prior to this post, and they have been around for over a year. I assume that if this was Newell and Unger's main/sole project, that we would be seeing these lights throughout the city.

  2. I love this idea! Not only does it look cool, but it also makes those areas (which can be pretty sketchy at night) a lot safer when you're just trying to get to the train. I agree that these creatives were intrinsically motivated as you pointed out since this idea was outside of their creative fields- they saw a practical need and a way to solve it. Are they planning on expanding this project at all, possibly making different installations in different areas of the city?

  3. I think the most interesting thing about this is the creators at work-- a filmmaker and a creative marketing strategist. As someone who works in Marketing, I found that it's become more prevalent that content is tailored and interactive-- and I think you can definitely see that in the intent with this project that allows Chicagoans to help program those lights.
    I admire your use of Collins and Amabile's idea of the link between creativity and motivation and the fact that this was a side project for the creators. It's cool to see this sort of passion project turn into something so tangible and visible downtown.
    Do you know how we can influence the sequence of those lights? Is there a voting process or suggestion box?

  4. This is amazing! I've seen similar endeavors in Chicago, but I had no idea about its origins. I think this is an interesting case where creativity and art are not just made public, but make up part of the city itself. They attract attention but also, serve as a means to highlight the beauty of the city. They also serve as a public utility as they help city goers find their way on dark nights-the art is both aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian for Chicagoans. I would love to see this program expanded, but I do worry about light pollution. At one point is this too much light? If we have an issue of light pollution in cities, would this contribute to that? I would like to hear how this goes in the future with Collins and Amabile.


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