Midtown News Center

Business of Creativity: Q&A with Heather Alhadeff, founder of Center Forward

At our event this Thursday, July 25th, we will discuss the business of creativity. While it’s become a hot topic among notably big businesses such as Google and Apple, the concept is spreading. Organizations of all kinds, big and small, are beginning to realize the value of operationalizing creativity. Through our event, we’re hoping to take a little of the mystery out of it, and to create a conversation that gives our members a sense of what it means to be creative in their own businesses. 

Heather, you’re the founder of Center Forward, an Atlanta-based business focused on resolving complex land use and multi-modal transportation challenges. Your company tackles these challenges through effective community involvement. To successfully integrate a collaborative process in the complex projects you tackle means that you do things a little bit differently. We would love to get your take on what role you think creativity has played in your business.

Let’s start with a little background on Center Forward. What made you decide to launch your company?

Through both my public and private sector work I am often asked to help with unique issues or complex projects that aren’t being resolved or implemented with traditional methods. The economic downturn has really changed the nature of the Planning, Architecture and Engineering world. The more urban and entailed projects now require a team of different individuals rather than just one large firm. Creative and inter-discipline thinking is more important than ever. Starting my own business means I can focus on providing those niche services at a lower cost, and I get to work on more Atlanta projects. The variety of work and the people I get to work with is phenomenal!

You have said that you see creativity in many, less visible aspects of your business — including communication. Can you speak a little to this? 

People think of city building as a process of just thinking and implementing efficient systems. However, the business of creating successful and vibrant places today has to do with providing an efficient thing (a building, street, etc.) and creating a better experience.

The process of designing solutions requires one to be an incredible listener of many different styles of communication and interaction. Accents, backgrounds, levels of education, experiences — they all shape the dialogue.  Different disciplines talk and think in opposing ways. Talking with an engineer, elected official, and citizen in the same room requires lots of communication dexterity.

Creative visuals are the fundamental way to overcome these varied mindsets and backgrounds. The Planning and Engineering industry, in my opinion, has done a dis-service to our cities and places by providing overly technical, un-readable visuals to the public. The confusion and frustration to the client, decision maker, or the public is often unnecessarily high.

I truly enjoy thinking of creative ways to display, communicate and ask questions. The experience is positive and you can get to resolution much faster. For the projects I work with, it is personally and professionally pleasing to see people’s faces understand and light up about improving the places they move around or live in.

What role do you think creativity has in innovation?

Innovation is absolutely only possible with creativity, which is the ability to see familiar things in a new way.

For fun, I took a left brain, right brain test. I wasn’t surprised at all to find that I have a 56-44% split. I see physical objects (buildings, streets, parks, etc.) and think about their purpose and effectiveness as well as the relationship and emotions generated between those things and the observer. People get frustrated with systems (transit, roads, shopping areas, buildings, restaurants, etc.) if maneuvering through it is frustrating. On the other hand, if the experience is efficient but mind numbing, humans react negatively as well. Everything is about ease and pleasantness.

Detroit solved congestion and made an efficient and huge highway and street system. But the design they chose had a huge cost over a long period of time. It sucked out the life or experience of the City, so everyone that could move. That highway system funded the growth of their suburbs at the cost of their beautiful city. Now they are bankrupt and that costs the whole nation.

Fundamental to people are the efficiency and experience. Creativity is ALL about the experience aspect. The cities that are doing well are focused on the experience just as much as providing the service.