The shift from a manufacturing- and transportation-based employment base to a modern, service-oriented economy has been awkward. Berlin simply hasn’t translated its undeniable cool factor into a reliable money magnet.

Sometimes, modesty isn’t a practical policy. Take Berlin, for example. Universally envied as one of the world’s “sexiest” capitals – complete with ambitious post-Cold War architecture, avant-garde art and a globally influential music culture – Berlin nevertheless hasn’t been able to attract a typical measure of international investment. Unemployment has been running in excess of 15 percent. Debt is at historically high levels. The shift from a manufacturing – and transportation-based employment base to a modern, service-oriented economy has been awkward. Berlin simply hasn’t translated its undeniable cool factor into a reliable money magnet.

This is a classic branding conundrum. But in this case, an entire metropolis of 3.4 million people, rather than a flagging consumer product or service, or even a haggard institution, is enduring it. The problem demanded an unusual solution, which is why in 2006 the Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, invited Art Center College of Design – well known for its inventive design approach to problem solving – to take it on.

Of course, large-scale re-branding is not unprecedented. Whole countries, such as Poland and Slovenia, have sought to re-introduce themselves to tourists and investors since the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Berlin, however, has always been a world capital on a par with Paris, London and New York – albeit one that spent the period from 1945 to 1989 mired in a Soviet-enforced slump, complete with an ominous and infamous wall running through the middle of town. Obviously, bringing the Berlin brand into the 21st century, in the aftermath of the wall being smashed and the country reunified – and Berlin once again positioned as the nation’s economic and political capital – required ambitious thinking.

This was where the Fresh Eyes Berlin collaboration between Art Center and The Goethe-Institut Los Angeles came into play (benefiting also from partnerships with MTV, Lufthansa, Daimler-Chrysler, and Staedtler). The 14-week undertaking, which began in September of 2006, brought together 13 Art Center students from six different countries, representing graphic design, environmental design, and illustration. The highly motivated team was dropped into the middle of a complex urban center. They would need to rely on their education, training, previous exposure to the business world, and our coaching to guide them. Immediately, they were asked to coordinate an interdisciplinary perspective on an international branding problem that could be looked at in many ways.

We implemented what we call at Art Center the “wall-less” classroom, a key component of our overall educational philosophy. Of course, we had walls, it’s just that they were thousands of miles from our home base in Southern California – and when we began, they had nothing on them. The students had to build a design agency from scratch. It was imperative that they leave their comfort zones behind and develop a true startup mentality and metabolism. For the first few weeks, they engaged in creative-business survival training, on the spot. We knew this would be a radically stimulating but also intensely disorienting experience for them, so we picked the most adventurous students to participate in the project: a cadre of true type-A design students, all of whom were accustomed to leadership roles at Art Center. Ultimately, the students were compelled to create a new comfort zone that was radically different from what they were familiar with. Some of them succeeded so thoroughly they didn’t want to leave Berlin. Many of them can’t wait to get back.

The question of why Berlin has struggled in its effort to re-brand itself since the fall of communism and re-unification was subjected to an aggressive, “720 degree” analysis. Our goal was to tackle the challenges posed by the Fresh Eyes project by making use of a wide array of research methods and design tactics. When we utilize the 720-degree approach, we are literally looking at a problem from every possible angle. Imagine an object situated at the center of a glass globe; one can study it from an infinite number of perspectives, in three-dimensional space.

This is extremely demanding intellectual work. Design students can get spoiled on their home turf, assuming that they already have all the answers about how their respective creative processes function. We decided to break that down – to show the students from the very beginning that they would not only be building a design practice and attacking a large re-branding challenge, but that they would also be immersed in a social and cultural experience where they were expected to embody professional values. At the same time, they would not abandon their status as outsiders: an “outside-in” objectivity would allow them, as the project implied, to examine Berlin with fresh eyes. “The methodology we developed was the most important thing I took away from the project,” said Amy Ralph, one of the participating students. “I think we gave Berlin a voice.”

An initial period of hard-nosed research, in which students consulted a wide range of creative types and businesspeople, led to an action stage. By this point we understood that Berlin’s “sexy but poor” image was a consequence of daunting social, economic and cultural factors. Hyperinflation in the Great Depression was followed by enormous infrastructure damage during World War II. The Cold War saw Berlin partitioned into East and West, with neither side, democratic nor totalitarian, ever attracting investment to the same degree as other German cities, such as Frankfurt. After reunification, Berlin was forced to re-absorb the economically disadvantaged former citizens of East Germany.

As students progressed from research to actual re-branding, they recognized that they would need to invent a new model investor in Berlin. Once they had conceived this model, they could craft messages, visuals, events, and overall brand strategies that would entice this investor to see Berlin in a new light. Sexy, yes. But not intractably poor. The students’ objective became the transformation of a negative impression of poverty into a positive impression of opportunity. They hoped to appeal to a multifaceted investor, one who would come to Berlin because of its substantial, untapped reserves of creative talent, but stay because of the city’s unwavering ability to stimulate.

They labeled this person a wundervestor, styling him or her as a re-invigorated embodiment of the young urban professional. This was an unexpected outcome. Very few observers would have anticipated that a band of student designers would choose to re-define the “yuppie” at the same time they were re-branding Berlin. Fresh Eyes’ wundervestor was comprehensively explored, in terms of interests, tastes, style, income, pastimes, and business practices. The students profiled their wundervestor as attracted to business opportunities that were sustainable (Germany, after all, has a long-standing history of support for Green issues in politics), that offered a chance for personal risk-taking, and that would provide outlets for networking – in other words, investments that would lead to more investments.

This wundervestor was no pushover. As one of the students, Bahia Lahoud, observed, Berliners for the most part are very brand-weary. “They seemed to mistrust or dislike slick, corporate branding,” she said. “They’re more connected to homegrown industry, so we took the route of promoting small business and showing opportunity within smaller communities. A key to understanding Berlin was to take it for what it is and not try to subject it to a generic branding model.”

Specific design elaborations took a number of forms. Several students created a motion piece – basically, an animation that could be viewed on a computer screen or projected on a wall – that summarized “Space Equals Freedom,” a concept that grew out of the initial research. The idea was that emptiness in Berlin – vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and so on – should not be seen as blight, but as opportunity.

Students also put together a photographic project that focused on the notion of the neighborhood, a vital idea for many Berliners. These landscapes of streets in Berlin attempted to communicate the breadth of the city, something that Berliners themselves sometimes forget. Residents responded very favorably to this “mirror” being held up to their metropolis. And again, seemingly empty space was shown to be ripe with opportunity for investment.

Further developing the concept, another group of students built a “table of opportunity,” a metaphorical dinner table embedded with relevant statistics about Berlin, including such information as rising education levels counterpoised with declining jobs.

By the end of the 14 weeks, we found that Fresh Eyes Berlin had actually been received not with skepticism by the ostensible clients – Berlin’s citizens – but with enthusiasm. An exhibition of the project confirmed this. Berliners are open to new ideas, so long as they do not undercut the premise that theirs is a big city of distinctive localities. The students’ recognition of this and respect for local attitudes translated into a viable plan for the future of the Berlin brand.

The project is not yet finished. Now that the students have returned from Berlin, we are preparing to move on to Phase Two, which will involve a second exhibition, at the Goethe-Institut in Los Angeles. Our continuing re-development of the Berlin brand can now, in a sense, leave Berlin and enter the larger world. It’s difficult to assess the impact of a project right away, but what we do know is that Fresh Eyes Berlin has already begun to establish a fabric of associations that are being explored outside the original context.