We’re starting off 2020 with the one and only Anthony Harrison. If you loved the streetwear ads of the 90’s from brands like Akademiks and Nikel, then you’ve seen Anthony’s work. Currently, Anthony is overseeing graphic design and identity at Adidas over in Germany, and helps makes the intangible tangible for the massive multinational sportswear company.
Our conversation started off with Anthony talking about his work at Adidas, and from there he guided me through a retrospective of his career as a designer. We also talk about moving past the romantic area of design, the top two skills a creative person really needs to know, and what success looks like for him know at this point in his career. Anthony’s longevity in the industry and the scope of his work are worthy of praise, and I think beginning the year with this interview is a great way to get those creative juices flowing!
Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Anthony Harrison: My name is Anthony Harrison and I am a creative director, mostly would describe myself as an art director, but I think that definition has expanded. So I’ll go with creative director.
Maurice Cherry: You’re currently working at Adidas, is that right?
Anthony Harrison: That’s right. I’m a senior director of graphic design and identity for Adidas. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Can you talk a little bit about sort of what kind of work you do in that capacity?
Anthony Harrison: Yeah. So in my team on the identity part, that’s the root of what we do. I’m in the brand design department and what we do is we come up with the full on graphic expression for any innovation or initiative that the brand is undertaking. So if there’s a new technology that comes out, we do the wordmark, we come up with the logo. We meet with the scientists, we look at the process, we follow how it goes. Then from there, we create a wordmark, but then the fully graphic expression. A lot of these are treatments that they’ll give to an outsole or an inner layer of a piece of footwear. So we’ll actually look at what those aesthetics are and build a graphic language from it. Also, around all of those wordmarks we create an animation.
Anthony Harrison: So it’s really building little brands inside of the brand for different technologies and innovations, which is really super interesting because our job is to make the intangible tangible, right? How do you take a sports innovation and make it something tangible for the average consumer. So that’s a big, big part of the challenge. The other side obviously is overseeing graphic design throughout the company for apparel, footwear, communication, equipment. We also do all of the brand management as well in terms of guidelines and that sort of thing. So we’re a pretty, pretty nimble team. Part of us sit here in Germany and the other half sit in our Portland, Oregon office and we bat things back and forth. We are truly a global operation.
Maurice Cherry: Wow. Adidas is such an iconic brand. I can only imagine just the amount of, I don’t know, I feel like that’s a big heavy lift for something that is so well known worldwide in terms of identity because there’s so many ways that you could take… The simple three stripe logo, there’s a lot of ways that you can interpret that. There’s a lot of ways you can play around with that.
Anthony Harrison: Exactly. Welcome to my world. That’s part of it. You know? I think that’s the big thing for me too. Just speaking frankly, the first logo I drew as a boy was the trefoil logo, the three leaves. Really not even realizing at the time that it was three leaves, but that’s one of the first logos I drew along with the Nottingham Forest kit because Adidas made the Nottingham Forest kit at the time my dad bought me. For me, it’s just a relationship with the brand like that is kind of coming home. Again, it’s a 70 year old brand, started in 1949 right here. So it’s really kind of an honor to be recruited to such a prestigious brand with a rich history and being trusted with kind of carrying that legacy forward. You know?
Maurice Cherry: How has your role changed since you first started at Adidas?
Anthony Harrison: Well, when I first got in, I was in creative direction. So the identity part wasn’t part of it. I came in under product really. So I worked with the SVP of design and the VP of design to kind of oversee a product across the brand. We’re set up a lot like other large sport brands where we’re broken up by sport, right? So each sport kind of creates its own product specialized to that sport and we oversee all of the graphic design that goes throughout those. My job is to build that graphic umbrella and we work, product wise, we work about two years out. Currently, we’re working on all winter ’21.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Anthony Harrison: Yeah. So you’ve got to be able to kind of forecast where you see the world going looking at trends, but not following them and then but at the same time, balancing that out with staying true to the culture of the actual brand. It’s really about looking out. That’s the most fun part for me was the fact that the role sits at the sweet spot of culture in between sport, music, art, film, food, travel. It’s right in the center of that and that’s where all of that art is created from. When I first came in, that was specifically my role. The role was a large role, I think for myself, but it got to be a bit… I’m very fidgety like most directors and graphic designers in general.
Anthony Harrison: So I needed more and in my spare time, I do a lot of kind of brandalism in my Instagram and my boss saw it and said, “Hey. You know you have like a passion for like logos and stuff. How do you feel about taking over this other team?” I thought, “Yeah, awesome.” Because there were some people in that other team that I really wanted to work with and it’s just been great. So I’ve been doing this role now for about a year and a half and with a really great team. My team are just the warmest group of people that I’ve probably ever worked with and we’re… Again we sit here in Germany, but we’re two Brits, two Argentines, one Portuguese, two Germans. It’s a nice diverse group and we just basically talk football, sports banter all day as we work.
Maurice Cherry: So how do you approach new projects given that one, the just sort of iconic stature of the brand and the logo and the fact that it sits at so many cultural intersections. You’re two years out. I’m just curious how you even concept for that amount of time and how you approach new projects.
Anthony Harrison: Oh man, that’s the fun part. I think for myself, it’s crazy man. I gave a presentation a couple of weeks ago and I had to kind of look back at my career and think about how I do what I do and why I do what I do and something came to light. When you talk about how do you create new projects? I think it comes from never turning off. As a graphic designer, I saw someone, I cannot remember what doc I was watching, but someone was saying that they were describing the laundromat down the street with a really bad letter spacing. Right? That’s kind of how we see the world. It’s just part of never turning off. So I think the way that I always approach new projects and if you’re thinking about two years out, how do you forecast? Naturally drawn to socio-political, the arts and how it’s all connected, those are the things that I’m naturally interested in, in my spare time, so I’d just pour all of that into the work.
Anthony Harrison: Also, we have a brilliant team of cultural trends and insights people, one of whom is my colleague Liz Callow. Upon coming into the brand, she and I got really, really close and she’s just all about insights, you know? My thing again, our job in graphic design is communication, right? Rather than decoration and embellishment. So what are we actually saying? What I get from her and from her team is, what are you saying? Right now, Muse is a 17 year old athlete, global. So what does their world look like? I love being able to look into this new world and juxtapose it against my own experience and just talk with as many people as I can and listen to as much as I can and imagine a world in the future, what tie graphic design to that? What does graphic expression look like? Just so we’re not stabbing in the dark and we’re making culturally, relevant, resonant graphic communication.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Anthony Harrison: I hope that answers the question.
Maurice Cherry: No, it does. I can only imagine how much research you have to do because it’s not just in the realm of athleticism. Like you say, you’re looking at sociopolitical issues, and art, and music and even other fashion or apparel brands. There’s a lot that you have to take in and sort of sift out what you think might be relevant. Two years from now, it just feels like that’s such a big… It’s a lot to think about.
Anthony Harrison: But you never turn off.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Anthony Harrison: You know what I mean? I think not everybody has such an easy time letting go of their heyday and understanding. I hear a lot of people my age lambaste the young and just say, ” That’s not hip hop? What do you know about hip hop,” “Well, that’s not punk. In my day, we used to…” Well, that’s irrelevant. I love to listen to what the young ones are saying because my music pissed my dad off. Right? That’s their job. So it’s our job to kind of get over this hump and just accept the new things that are happening and create for that, you know?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So before Adidas you were kind of doing your own thing as a design consultant and an art director. Tell me what that time was like because I recently… Well two years ago or so, I was doing my own thing kind of as a studio and then went into kind of a full time job. So tell me about kind of what that transition was like for you.
Anthony Harrison: Well, here’s the thing. After I left the music industry, I went into apparel and worked at a few street wear brands and hopped around here and that. That’s when I decided to do my own thing around 2006, 2007. That was great. For me, it was really about… I’m a very entrepreneurial mind, entrepreneurially minded with [inaudible 00:09:12] 10 jobs and that’s kind of the root of it. Always wants you to do my own thing and understand, before I was even had a chance to graduate, I had a job, right? I was in the industry working. Once I realized that it was a living, breathing industry and that I was part of something bigger, right? This ongoing conversation of graphic design, it gave me a little bit of companies to go out there and just do all of these, use my fidgety nature to my benefit and be able to do all of these projects, release things I was working on: movie posters, branding, product design, graphic design, tee shirts, posters and copywriting as well and caricatures and that sort of thing.
Anthony Harrison: But it was the most fun time. I’d just wake up. We lived in Harlem at the time, so I would just on Eighth Avenue, sorry, Seventh Avenue and 138th Street and I’d wake up, play with my cat and just work. I’m a bit of an early bird, so I’d be up every morning just cranking stuff out. It was great because I was in no meetings, no summits, no meetings about meetings. It was pure work. That’s when Nike came into the picture and they were my pretty much my biggest client from that point. I got the chance to do some really kind of fulfilling work with those guys at that time too. Yeah, doing my own thing. Then I went in house there, came, then I left in around 2015, moved back to New York and then again, was just bouncing around doing my own thing and freelancing here and that, which is when Adidas came calling. Within a couple of months, we were here in Southern Germany.
Maurice Cherry: Was it a big shift? Well, granted I’m sure it was a big shift just geographically from New York to Germany, but going from that sort of freewheeling, entrepreneurial kind of thing and now being part of a regimented sort of nine to five corporate structure. How did you adjust to that?
Anthony Harrison: I was ready. You know? I speak to a lot of people who do freelance and have their own little shops and after a couple of years, you can get cabin fever. You get a pain in the ass of dealing with a bunch of different creatives and marketing and meetings. You’re a bit more numb to it. You’re like, “I’ll deal with that.” Because it’s all give and take.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Anthony Harrison: Right? Because on the corporate side, you have the obvious to deal with. But then all of the solo side, your time is basically split up in three sections, right? Chasing new business, doing the work, and then chasing payment for the work that you’ve already done. So you’re never really turning off. It is a benefit that you have your destiny in your hands. However, with the corporate side where it’s a gig, it’s kind of give and take. You have your good days, you have your bad days, but then you have that security that you have there as well. So that was the big difference for me.
Maurice Cherry: It can be a trade off. I remember when I stopped doing my studio, I did my studio for nine years, and then I started at the place where I’m currently at, at Glitch and it was interesting how from… Some of it was from my peers, but I think also it was just some folks here in the Atlanta design community who thought that I sort of failed in a way. [crosstalk 00:12:17] Like, “Oh, you were doing your own thing.” Because there’s the whole culture around you, “We sleep, they grind, hustle hard.” If you’re doing your own thing, you’re your own boss and now you’re back at the plantation. That sort of thing. [crosstalk 00:12:31]
Anthony Harrison: I know where that comes from, but that’s romanticism, man. There’s something to be said for being part of something. You know what I mean? It’s all give and take. It’s the same thing at the end of the day. Whatever you’re doing is going towards something. Being your own boss is great, but it’s not as easy as one would like. I think about New York, the amount of tax that you pay, you’re really discouraged from doing that. You know what I mean? You really can’t get a foothold. I know someone, I met someone the other day who’s moving to Ghent to start his studio because he loves it, right? He’s from London, but he’s just like, “Hey, listen man. Belgium’s got a nice little city and it’s a bit remote, but like I can do what I do and they have a creative community. I’m going there,” you know?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. You’ve already touched on a few things that I want to dive more into. You briefly mentioned music career. You briefly mentioned Nike. So I want to talk about those things. But first I want to just kind of go back because I… Of course, we said this before you recorded. I’m picking up on the British accent. You’ve mentioned sort of bouncing around. Talk to me about where you grew up.
Anthony Harrison: I was born in ’71 in a place called Edmondson about 40 minutes outside of the city and it’s North London. It’s just up from Tottenham, in ’71 and yeah. My dad was an engineer, my mom’s a clerk. My younger sister and older brother just grew up playing football. Football was like my life. I was telling people the other day that I had three loves. It was drawing, football and drawing football. So if I wasn’t playing it, I was watching it. If I wasn’t watching it, I was drawing it. It was my religion and that’s wall kind of took up all my time. It was a really progressive time for kids; late seventies, early eighties was a really progressive time for kids in England and there were just countless television series that were saying that, “You can do anything you want with a little bit of effort. You can be whoever you want to be.” That was what they told us as kids.
Anthony Harrison: At that time, there were a lot of people in their late twenties who were punks that were writing all these books for children and making all these television series for children. There was one in particular called, “Fungus the Bogeyman .” They’ve since then made a live action version of it, but the original one was about this fictional family of ghouls that lived under the city in grime and they would eat disgusting things and things rhymed. It was completely disgusting and I discovered this around the age of like eight and nine and me and my friends absolutely loved it. That was the thing that really taught me about form and content because this world that they lived in, the way that it was illustrated was messy and dirty and grimy. I was like, “Wow, okay. This is how they’d get that world across, is it looks like what it is.” So very subtly, it was kind of teaching me those things.
Maurice Cherry: So it sounds like you sort of got exposed to design kind of early on in that way.
Anthony Harrison: Very early on. I like to say my career started at age six because my parents, I think with my dad particularly. I was just always in front of the television, but with my dad, I just really bonded around words. If I’d say, “Hey dad, why? What does this word mean?” He’d say, “Well, look it up and you come and tell me.” So from then, even to this day, we still call each other with, “Hey, I heard this word the other day,” that kind of thing. So that’s what kind of introduced me to the language that we use. I was always watching television commercials. I loved the supermarket. It was my favorite place to go just to look at all of the packaging and like, again, before you even know what logos or packaging or branding is or are, you’re just immersed in it.
Anthony Harrison: So it’s just naturally where I went, but I think the thing that really drove it home for me was football because around that time, like 1980, 1981 is when, not only names on the back of the jersey… Names weren’t on the back of jerseys yet. There was only a number, but on the front there were sponsors and in Britain, there was a natural reticence to brand things, right? So there was a real big push back to sponsors on jerseys. But in 1981, ’82 was when it just kind of exploded and that’s when you started seeing logos, not just on the sideboard of the pitch, but on the jerseys across the stomach. They were these really like super intricate logos and Panasonic, Candy, JVC, and I think that’s what thought that was it for me.
Maurice Cherry: When did you first know that, I guess, design was something that you could do for a living?
Anthony Harrison: Oh man. Let me think about that because in high school… I went to high school in Yonkers, Yonkers, New York, which is where like the Locks and Mary J. Blige and DMX are from. I went to high school with both of those guys.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Anthony Harrison: But around that time, I had a guidance counselor when I was in the art program at school, again around that time, 1988, 1987 everything else that happened in the US in the sixties and seventies happened in Yonkers in the eighties. So the government kind of stepped in and said, “Look, your school system is completely segregated and we’re going to have to mix it up.” So they basically created magnet schools. Same thing they’ve done around the country where each school would have a different vocation and you would get college credits for attending each school and this is how they were able to integrate the schools. However, that first year was pretty, pretty tough. The signs with, “Go home,” and all the rest of it, we had to kind of endure. But by 12th grade, that had all kind of calmed down.
Anthony Harrison: I had a guidance counselor who basically said… Again, that magnet school was around fine arts, so I’m taking fine art AP classes all through. My guidance counselor said, “Hey, there’s no money in art, so you want to go into architecture.” I’m like, “All right, fine.” So my first year in university, I’m in architecture and I just absolutely despised it. It was the worst. I was like I don’t care about foundations and sedimentary rock. I don’t care. I want to draw. So I transferred over to the graphic design department, which at the time was called commercial art. I thought [inaudible 00:18:24] just made me cringe, you know? It gradually it became graphic design, but that was it.
Anthony Harrison: As soon as I moved into that department, it just opened up a completely new world and I started learning about Paul Rand, Paula Scher, George Lois, and other little luminaries in the field following a young Stefan Sagmeister and really understanding what an art movement was and the importance of graphic design and art to society. That’s when I really found that out. But I think the graphic design bug really hit me during my first internship. I was interning at Jive Records at the time that they were doing, “Midnight Marauders, ” A Tribe Called Quest [crosstalk 00:19:00] the art direct there was a guy named Nick Gamut and just watching him wo-
Anthony Harrison: [inaudible 00:19:00] There was a guy named Nick Gamma. And just watching him work in Photoshop… I think it was Photoshop Two. No layers.
Maurice Cherry: No layers?
Anthony Harrison: Yeah, no layers and one undo.
Maurice Cherry: Woo.
Anthony Harrison: Right. Do you want to save some copies? You better save 10 versions of the file on your desktop.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, man.
Anthony Harrison: Those were the days. Those were the days. Yeah. When I saw this dude working in Photoshop and Illustrator, I was like, “Oh, my God.” That was it. That was it for me. And that’s when I knew, I was like, okay, this is what I want to do all day, every day, you know? And then my second internship right after that was at the Source Magazine. And working with Chi Modu… And Chris, the art director there was just another, just massive learning. Just sitting in the office and Tupac walks by, and it’s just one of those experiences.
Maurice Cherry: Wow. So you really got to be there at this, really, you’re at this like, really pivotal point of design and music and culture. Wow. I can’t imagine just how dope that must’ve been.
Anthony Harrison: Yeah, it was great. Man. I mean, there was another guy who was ahead of me. He’s like, again, iconic, Cey Adams. He worked at the drawing board.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Anthony Harrison: And just again, being a black dude, you want to see yourself represented. And he was an Elder. Him and another guy, [Ebon Ese 00:01:19] was the art director at Triple Five Soul. These dudes were just insane graphic designers and it just pushed me to do the best that I could, you know?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I remember being exposed to those brands and things really through magazines. I mean, I grew up in rural Alabama, so we had nothing. Like, no mall, no movie theater.
Anthony Harrison: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: I mean, we had television but didn’t have cable. So like, the things that we were exposed to were extremely limited. And I just remember kind of living out my fantasies through magazines. There were so many magazines. I mean, The Source, Vibe… I mean, there were like, kids’ magazines, like Zillions, Sports Illustrated stuff… But there were even like black magazines like Y S B, Emerge, Ebony, of course… Jet. And like, these were things that kind of expanded my horizons as to like, there are all of these possibilities out there. And there are people that look like this, that don’t look like the people in my town. And to be at a place where you’re really documenting and controlling that, and portraying it. Wow. I just, that’s just seems like such a pivotal time to really be a designer.
Anthony Harrison: It really was, man. And you know, what’s the crazy part about it, the thing that it taught me, and looking back, because again, I think we’re past the romantic era, right? Where people of my generation and the people a little bit older than me, are telling the youngers like, “Yeah, we did this,” and kind of making myths about themselves. Because we didn’t know what we were doing. Right? Like, we were just doing it because it was cool, and we enjoyed it. Then it became something, it was like, gained like, a larger cultural footprint. But I do feel really fortunate to have been there at a time when you could basically take your portfolio, and just go knock on the door of a brand and talk to a creative person. And you don’t get routed through HR. You know what I mean?
Anthony Harrison: It was a really, really fortunate time. And I remember it was super pivotal, because when I got hired as a junior designer at Arista Records, within a year, our entire mechanical room was gone. We had a full staff of mechanical artists who basically put albums together the old way, with the acetate and the burners type, Xerox machine and the non-repro blue pencil, and the stack machine. Like, I use all of that stuff very early on, and I feel fortunate to have learned it the analog way. And then within a year everyone had a Mac. And even though we had one undo in Illustrator, it was still Illustrator.
Maurice Cherry: So, talk more about that time at Arista records. Because you were there for like, about seven years, right? What do you remember from last time?
Anthony Harrison: Oh, man. It was great. It was so mad. It was bugged out. So, just in how I got the job. Again man, it was such a time. And I find design now is quite tribal and kind of insular in the big places. And it’s just kind of groups of people who know each other and networks of, it can be that way. And I think the young ones are opening that up a little bit. But back then when, I was looking for my first full-time job, after having two internships in my school and not really having that many connections after work. I am going to do this myself. So I gathered all of my albums and went to the back of it.
Anthony Harrison: You know on the back. Usually there was like, the copyright line would give you the address. And sometimes it had the phone number, but if not then I would have to go to this thing called the phone book and look up the phone numbers and stuff. So I remember I had a list of like, maybe 28 companies, and I remember getting all the way to the bottom, calling each one and saying, “My name’s Anthony Harrison. I’m a graphic design student. I just want some experience. Paying or not paying, fine. I just want the experience.” Most people were really encouraging and polite. I remember getting to the bottom, and there were three left, and Arista was one of the three. I thought, “All right. Well, I may as well continue.” And I called Arista, and basically, the art director there at the time, this woman Susan Mendola said, “Hey, you know we’re looking for a junior designer because we just signed a bunch of subsidiary labels. Why don’t you come in?”
Anthony Harrison: Now, at the time when she said that and I was walking into the office, I didn’t know that those labels were Bad Boy, Rowdy and LaFace. So when I got there, I was like, “Oh, okay. Cool.” And it was really funny because I got the usual thing that I get at job interviews, where you call over the phone… This happens when I’m looking for apartments sometimes as well… Like, you call people over the phone, and you open the door, and they’re like, “Oh, Mr. Harrison.” And I was like, “Yeah, is the job still open?” But the great thing about that experience was that that wasn’t the case. You know, she was basically like, “Yeah.”, One of the things that I said was like, “Look, I know you’ve signed these labels. But I don’t want to get pigeonholed into doing all the R and B and hip-hop. I want to do everything, because I’m into everything.”
Anthony Harrison: And they were like, “All right, cool.” So as a junior designer, man, it was just like, it was like the Karate Kid. I got to learn in the trenches under like some really great designers. I had a boss named [Angela Scluris 00:06:02], and she was an art director formerly from Rolling Stone. She’s done just, iconic work. I learned so much from her about typography and composition. And [Mop Bodet 00:06:13] was another one of my bosses. He came over from Sony. Those times when you’re stuck on something and you go to your boss and you say, “Hey, I’m stuck here.” And they don’t give you the answer, they show you the path to the answer. You get what I mean? It’s that kind of, give a man a fishing rod, give him a fish, whatever the analogy is… Teach him how to fish, or give him a fish kind of thing.
Anthony Harrison: So being there as a junior designer, I’ve got to work on Annie Lennox, Kenny G, really kind of high profile. Patti Smith, stuff like that. And then when I became an art director, I was able to work on Whitney Houston, Waiting to Exhale, Monica, and Brandy, some of Monica’s solo stuff, Goodie Mob. My colleague in the office next to me did all the Outkast stuff. So we were working on Goodie Mob and Outkast at the same time.
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Anthony Harrison: We also did a lot of the TLC stuff. So all this stuff. Basically, for the seven years that I was there, Arista was the top-grossing label in the industry. And it was just this building on West 57th street, like right around the corner from Trump Tower. So it was 7 West 57th street, right on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th street. So I would drive into the city every day down the Westside Park by the river, and walk through this mass of people every morning just to get to work.
Anthony Harrison: But it was seven like, fantastic years of really learning. Back in those days when you were an art director, you were a proper art director. You did everything. And I was really fortunate to be there at that time. And I was 23, and I thought, “I’m a junior designer. And by the time I’m 29, I want to be an art director. So I’m going to work my ass off to get there.” And then the next year, they promoted me to art director. So it was one of those “All right. Now what?” situations.
Maurice Cherry: You were so young, working for such iconic artists like that.
Anthony Harrison: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, you were in the elevator and like Freddie Smith, Freddie Jackson gets in. And you’re like, okay [inaudible 00:26:58] just walked by. Yeah, at an early age.
Maurice Cherry: Wow, wow. And like, I know that was like, early nineties then when this went on, right?
Anthony Harrison: Yep. ’93. ’93 I got hired.
Maurice Cherry: So this was after like, the big Milli Vanilli scandal with Arista.
Anthony Harrison: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, the record industry was still reeling from that, but you know, there was, they’d been getting away with murder for years, so they got over that really quickly.
Maurice Cherry: Now, aside from just being a designer in the music industry, you are also a recording artist.
Anthony Harrison: Yes, yes. So again, as a football was my religion as a boy. Track and field. I loved track and fields, and sports was my life. And moving to New York, it just wasn’t available. It was… The last thing on my mind was sports. It was really kind of adapting to this new place and fighting every day because, I think there was a myth. People who’d watched a lot of Benny Hill, and they thought “Oh, we’re going to pick on the English boy.” Because they’d watched a lot of like, Oliver Twist. They had no idea that we used to fight in London more than them. So you kind of set the record straight.
Anthony Harrison: Part of my survival tactic was to really immerse myself in music. And around that time, I hated rap because I was just like, at the time it was like, Sugarhill Gang and Furious Five and all that stuff. And the first time I’d heard that was when all these like, English pop groups were kind of taking it off. So Adam and the Ants was one of my favorite bands, and they did like, Ant Rap. And that’s what I associated with. But by 1985, I heard Sucker MC’s by Run-DMC. And then, a little bit after that “Slow and Low by the Beastie Boys. And they were both produced by Rick Ruben. And that for me was like, the future. And that’s when I started kind of writing. When I heard Slick Rick, it was just like, “Okay, this is future music.”
Anthony Harrison: So that’s when I started writing. So it was just always a hobby from that time. And then when I was an art director at Arista, I still performing at the time. At night, just on the underground circuit with Shabaam Sahdeeq, Modal Technique, [inaudible 00:09:57]. Like, I’m going to forget all the names. It was like, the New York city underground rap scene, the Juggernauts, the Company Flow guys, all those guys who were all part of the, of the New York City underground. And I ended up getting a deal from that. So during the day I would work for Arista, and at night I would record my album for MCA. So I did that for about two years. You know, worked on the album. And it was a lot of fun, but it came to a point where I had to really decide what do I want to do, do I want design or do I want music?
Anthony Harrison: And again, when you work at a record label, you understand how the sausage is made. So this whole thing about being a star and being famous and making hits to me was just like womp, womp, womp. I couldn’t care less. I wanted to create art. And when I got signed… The first thing they do when they sign you is like, “We think you’re great,” and immediately they want to turn you into something else. So at that time, it just happened that everyone was a hard rock and hip-hop. And they were like, “Yeah, we want you to make some harder stuff.” And I was like, “That’s not what I do. I make funny stuff. I make political stuff like. And that’s just not what I’m going to do.” So the choice was really easy and I decided to just go into art and graphic design full time.
Anthony Harrison: I’m really happy as a fan these days, of music.
Maurice Cherry: So I’m curious, is your album like, on streaming services? Can people listen to it?
Anthony Harrison: It’s funny. There’s a lot of it on YouTube. Just like, the live radio shows. So there was an iconic radio show out of New York City, out of the NYU by Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito. And they’ve actually got a documentary about it on Netflix. But I was a guest on there several times with my friends Breezly Bruin and Juggernauts, and with Organized Confusion. We were on there together. So on there with my MC partner at the time, [inaudible 00:11:37]. But those videos are all over YouTube. They’re just audio. But yeah, I held my own.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. All right. So after your time at Arista, you worked for Mecca, which is a streetwear brand. And I mean, I’m not going to lie, I rocked Mecca hard around that time. Like, mostly thanks to Vibe magazine and… God, where do I get my Mecca stuff from? We had a store called On Time Fashions, and I honestly, I believe some of it was probably bootleg, but I wore anyway because it was the only place you could get it. But you’re like, you’d see it in the ad and then it’s in the store. And it’s like, why would they be shipping to rural Alabama? It doesn’t make any sense.
Anthony Harrison: You’d be surprised. They ship everywhere. Like, when we talked to our sales team, our sales team knows about all of the spots across the country. You’d be really surprised, man. They go everywhere.
Maurice Cherry: What was it like shifting from music to apparel that way? Was that kind of your first time working in that industry?
Anthony Harrison: It was. It was. So a friend of mine, Alioscha, he ran a brand called Alphanumeric, and the sister brand was Mecca. So the sister brand Alphanumeric was all skate and snow. It was like, super cutting-edge, and they were based in San Diego. And Mecca was based in New York and he’s like, “Hey, I need an art director. So come on in.” So this is where, as I mentioned before, as an art director for a record label, you could take care of your artist from soup to nuts. So you meet with them. You go to the studio. You develop their logo. You speak with their management. You talk about them about their lyrics and then work with them. So you’re really building them along the way. And all the way down to TV spots, video shoots, and the rest of it.
Anthony Harrison: So I found being in the apparel industry, I found making myself useful pretty easy. So I worked on graphic design for Mecca when I first got in, but then I just started doing all of the ads and a lot of the packaging. And then T-shirt graphics, and then kind of copywriting and that sort of thing. So, it was fun at the time. And that’s actually where I met my wife. So, she was an intern at the time, in the women’s department. And then she would assist me on photo shoots. And we just celebrated our 19th anniversary the other day.
Maurice Cherry: Congratulations.
Anthony Harrison: Yeah, yeah. I like to say I took her on full time.
Maurice Cherry: That’s an interesting way to put it. Okay.
Anthony Harrison: Her fingerprints are all over pretty much everything I do.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Anthony Harrison: We have that kind of a creative relationship where anything I’m doing, I’m always kind of getting input. And she knows me like a book, so kind of serves as a mirror.
Maurice Cherry: And now, after Mecca you went and did work for Akademiks. Was it a big shift?
Anthony Harrison: It wasn’t actually. I’ll tell you what was cool about that, was that Mecca was, this was the great thing, like back in those days, and my wife actually tells the story. She was at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology. And when you would go to… See, and I’ll backtrack a little bit. During my high school years, rap music, you have to understand, those same circumstances around busing. Right? Think about it. This is where rap music came from. You know, we as people of color was shut out of mainstream art and mainstream culture. We weren’t wanted at Studio 54, right? So we went and created our own thing. So by my high school time, we were still being told as kids like, “What you’re doing isn’t music,” right? Like, “Your fashion is not real fashion.” So when my wife was at school, she was told by fashion teachers that, “This urban thing you’re doing isn’t real. You guys basically wear what we make for the mainstream. So it was not really real.”
Anthony Harrison: By the time Akademiks came around, everyone knew it was something. And you know, it was euphemistically called urban, when it was actually streetwear in its prime. But it was really funny to see brands that kind of separated themselves and said, “We’re not urban. We’re streetwear.” It was just this silly, silly mind-
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. That’s an interesting distinction.
Anthony Harrison: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. It’s using one euphemism to cover another. But by the time Akademiks came around, my boss… It was owned two-thirds by the boss, right? Who’s a Black man, Don Juan Harrell from Virginia Beach. And when I came in, I came in as senior art director, and then was promoted to design manager. But I always had my hands in the work, and I have to say my time in Akademiks is probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
Anthony Harrison: We were given complete creative control because our boss knew that we knew who we were making things for. Like, if we wanted to see who was buying our clothes, we could just go right out front and look at them. And you could see them. You take the train with them in the morning. Like, we live amongst who are consumer is. And they’re like, the next generation. They were younger people than us. So we knew what they wanted. And I think one thing that we were able to do with all of our themes, play these double entendres. So we were able to play Mainstream Americana, which is the stuff that we came up on. We came up on Nautica, Polo, and all those kinds of Eastern seaboard brands and like, along with like, Head and Prince. All these super preppy brands that weren’t made for us, that we would wear just because they weren’t made for us. All this like, super preppy [inaudible 00:16:37], like those kinds of brands.
Anthony Harrison: We were able to juxtapose all of that imagery against street culture. So for example, we would do, we were all into like, Americana, right? We all loved plaids and denim and work boots. So we did a whole theme around lumberjacks, right? But if you’re doing a lumberjack theme for the hood, we called it Big Papermakers, right? And we did these caricatures and that. So it was always like, a little chipmunk that says like, “Stack your chips for a rainy day.” Stuff like that. [inaudible 00:36:07] speak in these two different languages, which just, it was so much fun. And you know, our boss basically would protect us as a design team. So we basically had about three meetings with sales a year, where sales would give us their input. “Here’s what sold. Here’s what didn’t. And here’s why we think this was the case.”
Anthony Harrison: And then for us, we were basically just designing all the time. Putting the work up on the board, collaborating, working in different teams. We’d have music going all day and it was like death metal, reggae, salsa, Afrobeat, comedy albums, podcasts, like yeah… Fun, fun stuff. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: So, speaking of this double entendre, I’m going to show you a photo. And for people listening, I’ll put this photo in the show notes as well so you all can see it. But I’m going to show you this photo. First, I want you to describe the photo to the audience, and then second, I want you to tell me the story behind this campaign and the feedback. So I want you to look at this photo now. I’m showing it to you.
Anthony Harrison: Ah, yes. All right. I remember this. So this is an attractive young lady with a lot of like, specialized like, ripped-up denim and some like, some short-cut denim shorts, sitting very neatly with her legs crossed, kind of in a fifties pose. Looking straight at the viewer, and she’s sitting on the lap of a man reading a book who’s paying no attention to her. And he’s sitting on a pile of about maybe 80 books. Says “Akademiks, genius level products, read books, get [inaudible 00:37:37].” So this was a campaign, and I cannot remember what year this was. I think it was 2003. So one of the things that we were always trying to play with Akademiks was subversion. And we understood that the audience that we were talking to understands and appreciates the coded language that we use, right? So like for example, “Stack your chips.” Like, “big paper makers.” We got another one that’s like “classic material,” and we spelled classic-
Anthony Harrison: Yeah, we have another one that’s like classic material and we spelled classic with a C K at the end, like that stuff to play on [inaudible 00:00:06]. They understood that, right? So we thought we’re about academics and at the end of the day academics was about learning. That’s what the brand was about. So we thought wouldn’t it be great because when you look at so many of these acts, they’re shamelessly selling sex. And when we were looking at culture at the time, at this time, Jay Z was the biggest hero of all of those young people. And the first thing that you would … If you just grab a kid off the street and you’d be like, “Why is [inaudible 00:38:34] the greatest MC ever?” And they’d be like, “Because he’s smart.” And it was the first time that we were looking at modern hip hop culture and saying like, “Isn’t it cool that it’s cooler and more desirable to be smart than it is to be hard?”
Anthony Harrison: And that we’ve really actually progressed and that the idea of the nerd doesn’t really exist anymore. Not like it used to. So that’s kind of where this idea came from. Read books, get brain. If you read, you get smarter, but also plays on the sexual term of it. And we knew that those kids would understand that was a joke. If you read books, you get smarter. And again, it’s just coded language for those who know, get it. So what happened was, this was really funny, when this came out, this was on billboards, it was in ads and it was everywhere. Now you know that before these things go out to the general public, they have to go through your own attorneys. They have to go through your own marketing department. So we presented this, I presented this to the team and to the brand broader and everyone knew about it.
Anthony Harrison: Towards the end of the run, some reporter from I think it was the Daily News had seen a train ad and someone on her staff had actually told her what get brain meant as a term that’s been used in all these songs. So then they come out with this ad and it says like, “Street Wear company is selling sex to kids.” And I was like, “These kids are hyper-sexualized. I don’t know what world you live in.” That’s what this is about. It’s about reading. So again, it’s cheeky, but we knew what it was. So it was really funny because I got to work that morning and my boss hadn’t gotten there yet. My boss didn’t usually get in until around 10:00 AM but all of the office shoots were there just like hand wringing about it.
Anthony Harrison: “Anthony, did you talk to them about this?” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I did.” “We’re going to have to have a meeting when [inaudible 00:40:23] gets in because you don’t talk to the press.” And I was like, “No. I told him exactly what it was. You guys saw it.” So then we start getting calls from channel two, channel four, channel seven, New York Times, USA Today. They all want to come by for interviews. When my boss got in and my boss was like, “What’s the problem? This is great. Anthony put on a shirt because you’re going to do some interviews.”
Anthony Harrison: It was great because I got to meet Carlos [inaudible 00:40:48] who is like a New York legend journalist and he was working for the New York Times at the time. I think he was a former Latin King. He may have been. I may be off about that, but anyway, he was a big community activist and journalist, and I met him that day and it was such an honor. But for that all to come through this ad was actually really, really funny and I got so many phone calls for this. I also got a few death threats for this, as well. Someone called me on my office phone and shared that I’d set black people back and I was just like, “Are you out of your mind?”
Maurice Cherry: What? From a clothing ad?
Anthony Harrison: Again, you think about what year this was. Think about where we are now. This whole fury around being knee jerk reactions and having something to be offended by was just starting. But yeah, it turned out to be a lovely piece of subversion for me. Now would I do this today? Probably not because this is not the climate for it. But yeah, but at the time it was good.
Maurice Cherry: Wow, that is wild. I mean I think one thing it speaks to just the power of design. The fact that something that was so kind of cheeky and clearly spoke to the audience of the brand ends up getting misconstrued in some way. And I think we see that a lot anyway with advertising, although it’s not as clever as this. It’d be much more … I guess I’d use the term hamfisted in a way.
Anthony Harrison: Absolutely.
Maurice Cherry: I remember specifically seeing this, it was an ad. This may have been several years ago, it was the ad for pop chips with Ashton Kutcher and Brown Face. And it’s like the dumbest thing. It’s not clever in any sort of way. It’s just a really ugly, bad stereotype slash caricature.
Anthony Harrison: [inaudible 00:42:30] because again, it can quickly go cheap. And the funny thing is that you’ll hear from really poor marketing people sometimes is sex sells. The fact that people still say that, I’m just like, “Okay and more sex sells. So why don’t we put breasts in an ad if that’s the case and just put a logo on it.” It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. You know, I’ll say, too, to that point, there’s a lot … I hear this, this debate all the time about art and commerce and between design and marketing and how there’s this natural friction between the two. I don’t think many of those conflicts don’t come from the natural conflict. They really come from just poor ideas, cheap ideas. They come from laziness and apathy.
Maurice Cherry: So to that end, what do you think is … If you could distill this down to a few things, what do you think are the most important skills that a designer or a creative person really needs to have in this current climate?
Anthony Harrison: Oh, man. I think number one is objectivity. Well, before that even a hunger. You can’t force someone to want to know. You’ve got to have a hunger to know what’s current and to join the conversation. Understand that the graphic design and creativity in general, you’re not just making something new, you’re joining a conversation of something has probably been approached before. So if you want it to be relevant and to mean something and to actually match it, you’ve got to know about that conversation.
Anthony Harrison: But then secondly after just kind of curiosity and wanting to do, you’ve got to understand objectivity. And really I feel like design, graphic designers, is an anonymous job. If you’ve really done your job, no one knows you’re there. You are able to kind of compose this thing that communicates something. A lot of it is manipulation, visual manipulation, but you’ve got to be objective, and I’ve found a lot of people just lost their jobs or lost sight of what their job is and I’ll share this. At work for instance, this happened at a few different jobs I’ve had. You’ll find people who are more interested in the rules than creating something new. And I think this is the ultimate lazy thing that people do is revert to the rules.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, my God. Yeah, I’ve definitely been there where things get so stuck in process and rules that it’s like you don’t even get a chance to make anything.
Anthony Harrison: [inaudible 00:44:50] starts at no. And if you think about your viewing public, they have a wide choice today. So they would just go elsewhere. But yeah, I think the most important thing for you to have right now is objectivity. Complete objectivity, especially in such a changing world and a changing climate. Everything is completely new. So you can’t apply your old rules to whatever is kind of emerging now and becoming the new.
Maurice Cherry: What inspires you these days?
Anthony Harrison: Oh, man. Everything. Everything. Honestly, those who came before me and those were coming after me. I’m able to look back at old stuff. I was watching that Shane [inaudible 00:45:27] documentary the other day, the Rick Ruben documentary and someone in there picked up an old album cover and they said that it was an album of his from, I believe it may have been as late as 68, but he was the first person to use the term hip hop and it’s right there on the cover. Stuff like that just blows me away. When I think about, I went the other day to see the Kubrick exhibit at the design museum in London. I could’ve just hid in the corner and just kind of tried to sleep over. It was one of those, I just felt like a six year old. That stuff just inspires me.
Anthony Harrison: Seeing that some of these sets that I’ve seen, like Full Metal Jacket, that Vietnam scene was actually London. Yeah. They bombed the barracks and flew in Palm trees. But then, virtually, a lot of the stuff that the young ones are doing now, so like Tomboy, that series. So HBO. Euphoria is another one. Just the way it’s written because for me graphic design is about people. That’s it, right? It’s about who’s on the other end. It’s not about the rules, it’s not about the corporate slogan. It’s about connecting with people and making something for people. So I find myself watching a lot of television and film and reading a lot. I read a lot of crime novels, as well. Yeah. People is it.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So when you look at your career, you’ve worked at Street Wear Brands, you worked in the music industry, you’re currently still working with apparel, footwear, and stuff like that. How would you compare being one of the few black designers in a place like say Nike in the US? Portland is a very non black city. With like being one of the few at Adidas where you’re at in Germany.
Anthony Harrison: Yeah. It’s weird. It’s really weird. You know what’s funny? The move from New York City to Nuremberg, Germany felt closer than the move from New York City to Portland, Oregon.
Maurice Cherry: In what way?
Anthony Harrison: I feel more welcome in Germany than I do in Portland, Oregon. I’ll tell you that much. When you walk down the center of the city on a Saturday afternoon and people cross the street. It’s real. It’s very real. I mean, [inaudible 00:47:41] likens it to the boogeyman, being the boogeyman. You go places and people are scared of you. They think you’re going to harm them. So carrying that around, I don’t feel any of that here. You know what I mean? I go into stores, people don’t bother you. They don’t follow you. Police don’t mess with me. It’s very, very different. Now that’s the city. But in terms of inside the organizations, it’s the same thing.
Anthony Harrison: It’s the exact same thing. It’s the same thing that you come up against, which is again, which I think to myself where objectivity helps me is I like to kind of look at my experience through the lens of being a woman. What my own biases might be, the things that I grew up with, and how to handle it, and objectivity helps me every time. I put it this way. There was an England Bulgaria match the other day and England beat Bulgaria six nil at their own stadium. And there were monkey chants all the way through to the point where they had to stop the match a couple of times. They had to stop the match because England in the start in 11 I think England had six black players and two biracial. Something like that. And that’s just the way it is.
Anthony Harrison: So when I was a kid and my dad used to take me to matches, the home fans would boo our black players. And then pat me on the head and say to my dad, “Oh, you got a lovely little kid there. Isn’t he great? How you doing, little man? You all right?” And be super friendly. So having that understanding of it allows me to work in these environments and just you’ve got to bob and weave and I put myself out there. I’m an individual who speaks up and I’m not sensational about it, but I just feel like I have a duty for those who come after me to speak up when I see things no matter what it cost me and I’ve done it, so I don’t intend to stop no matter what it costs me.
Maurice Cherry: Now as I was doing my research, I saw that this was an interview you did with the hundreds almost 10 years ago actually. And you talk about that you sort of wanted to try your hand at doing food packaging or writing or illustrating a children’s book. Are you still interested in those kinds of projects or is there another dream project you’d like to do?
Anthony Harrison: Yeah, absolutely. I think the children’s book thing is just something I’ve always wanted to do. Actually my first internship before [inaudible 00:49:54] records was a children’s book illustrator on the Upper West side named Barbara Roman. So I used to assist her, but that was when I still had a life. I was like, “Wow, this is the life. I get to draw and then go see your publisher and again advance. I can do this.” But just in terms of what it means to children, that’s the thing for me to. It’s still a dream of mine I haven’t done yet. In terms of writing, I’ve been doing a little bit of writing. I’ve been practicing. Design is a little bit different. So writing fiction is good. I’m dabbling in it here and there, but I think my biggest dream project right now that I’m actually working on is brandilism.
Anthony Harrison: So on my Instagram I do a lot of that. So I like to say that during the day I create logos and in the evening I destroy them. So sometimes they’re jokes, sometimes they’re politically motivated. Sometimes they’re just an opinion on something. But I like to … Sometimes it’s just don’t make myself laugh or make my friends laugh. But every day I post something because I have to make something that isn’t briefed. I come home and I make something every night and I posted this thing. So what I’m doing is making a book of all of it with a couple of interviews with kind of luminaries from the field to people who I admire or have worked with over the years. And I’m hoping to put that out by the new year.
Maurice Cherry: At this stage in your, in your career, in your life really, what does success look like for you?
Anthony Harrison: It’s funny, it’s actually a big question. At my age now you start looking back and you think like … So I got introduced the other day when they introduced me, they were talking about my work and it was a bit embarrassing. If you’re British, pretty much everything is an opportunity to be embarrassed, but it was a bit cringe-worthy. But then I thought about it and I thought, for me, I have an old boss of mine, Katie Tish, really told me a lot. I owe her a debt of gratitude all through my career. I just had people who looked out, people were like … Once they knew that you were hungry, they were like, “Hey, come here, let me show you this.” So what she said was I feel like I haven’t done my best work yet and that’s exactly how I feel.
Anthony Harrison: Success for me feels like giving something back, which I’m able to do now. Nothing is more rewarding for me than to sit with my team and one of them come to me and go, “Anthony, look, I’ve got this thing here that I’m working on, but look at the S. God. I can’t get in the middle of that S right. What would you do?” Being able to just help someone with something as simple as that for me is just the most rewarding thing ever. And managing teams I never thought it would be as rewarding as it is, but it’s like driving without your hands on the wheel and it’s problem solving and success for me looks like just enjoying my everyday. I do what I love for a living, you know what I mean? If I could go back and talk to my seven year old self and explain my job right now, even on the worst of days, if I could explain that to that kid, it’d be, “Yeah, you’ve done all right.”
Maurice Cherry: So you are our first interview of 2020. We’re starting a new year. We’re starting a new decade. When you look to the next five years, what kind of work would you like to be doing?
Anthony Harrison: Wow. I think work, no matter what it is, relevant work, number one that matters to this changing world. Something that addresses everything that we’re talking about. Something that’s aesthetically pleasing obviously, and something that fits into the function. It needs to be functional. It needs to be purposeful. That’s my new criteria for what I want to do next because as I see design changing, as I see the nature of work changing, I want to put what I do towards some good. I’d love to work with inner city kids, rural kids who never thought they had a chance to be in graphic design and just kind of give them everything I can to just infiltrate our really kind of monotone industry with some character.
Maurice Cherry: Well Anthony, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and everything online?
Anthony Harrison: I would go to my Instagram, which is Anthony Bones Harrison. That’s my at Anthony Bones Harrison. That’s my Instagram and at AnthonyHarrison.solutions. That’s my website, hasn’t been updated in some time and it’s probably about a 32nd of my work. So that’s kind of my website but I’m in the midst of rebuilding that so I can put everything on there and making it a little bit more editorial. But where you really want to go is my Instagram, which is at Anthony Bones Harrison.
Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well, Anthony Harrison, I have to thank you so much for being on the show. Of course, as you know, this has been a long time coming. I really love that this is the interview that we’re starting off this year with because something that has sort of stuck with me from last year has been the notion of what are we as designers doing to kind of build a more equitable future? And the skills that we have are often put towards things which are fairly ephemeral, especially if we’re talking about digital design. We put all this work into these things that in a few years are just, they’re gone.
Maurice Cherry: And so I think what you’ve been able to do throughout your career is take the skills that you have and you’ve been able to morph and move them in so many different ways, in so many different aspects of design that I think that’s something which is just really inspiring. And hopefully for people that are listening, they can see that you don’t have to pigeonhole your creativity into one specific type of industry, that you can take that and really use it in a lot of places. So thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I really appreciate it.
Anthony Harrison: All right, well, thank you for having me. This was great.
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