Kyra Wells

I’ve been a huge proponent of the Cleveland creative community since starting this podcast — seriously, go back to the early early episodes — and Kyra Wells is continuing the legacy of hard work, perseverance, and great design that only comes from the 216. Kyra is a true creative professional, whether it’s through her own studio Seven Pillars Design Co., teaching at Cuyahoga Community College, leading campaigns as a creative marketing designer at American Greetings, or through her community efforts as co-president of AIGA Cleveland.

We talked about both her day job and her freelance work, and she shared how both experiences have shaped her voice and find her calling as a designer. She also told her story of growing up in Cleveland, attending Tri-C before then going to Cleveland State University, and even spoke a bit about the role of AIGA for the modern designer.

Kyra’s enthusiasm and passion for supporting young designers and helping them overcome self-doubt is truly inspiring, so if you’re looking for a little pep talk at the start of the year, then you’re in the right place. Thanks to Anne H. Berry for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

The BFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts consistently produces innovative and acclaimed work that is rooted in a strong foundational understanding of visual communication. It encourages creativity through cutting-edge tools, visionary design techniques, and offers burgeoning creatives a space to find their voice.

Students in BFA Advertising are prepared for success in the dynamic advertising industry in a program led by faculty from New York’s top ad agencies. Situated at the center of the advertising capital of the world, the program inspires the next generation of creative thinkers and elite professionals to design the future.

School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for over seven decades. Comprising 7,000 students at its Manhattan campus and more than 41,000 alumni from 128 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.

Dr. Jacinda Walker

This week’s interview is truly special, because I got the chance to sit down with the one and only Dr. Jacinda Walker. I have been privileged to watch Jacinda’s glow up over the years, and now she’s reaping the benefits of her hard work, perseverance, and dedication to making the design community better for the next generation.

I got to speak with her fresh off her receiving an honorary doctorate from Ringling College of Art and Design, and she talked with me about the experience. She also shared news about the new space for her business, DesignExplorr, and the curriculum and workshop programs that she created based on her graduate research. We even chatted a bit about her work with AIGA’s D&I Task Force, what keeps her inspired, and how she measures success now at this stage of her life and career. Jacinda’s research and advocacy work deserve our recognition and support, and I’m glad to be able to share her story here!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Hi, my name is Jacinda Walker. I am founder and creative director of DesignExplorr, located in Cleveland, Ohio.

Maurice Cherry:
I should say congratulations, Dr. Jacinda Walker. That is such an amazing honor. I’m not going to get over that. That is so amazing. Please talk to me about how that all came about.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I agree with you, Maurice. I’m still absorbing it. To be quite honest, I don’t know how long it will take me to fully absorb the magnitude of achieving such an honor. I have no idea. When Ringling College of Art and Design reached out to me originally, they said, “Hey, listen, we’d love for you to do a commencement talk. We’ve been following your work. We want to build a relationship with you to come down and meet more of our students,” and I’m like, “Oh, bet I can do it.”

And then they talked to me about what the honorarium was and how long I was going to be in Florida. I’m like, “So y’all guys are going to put me up for four days in Florida to go to this commencement, give a 20-minute talk, and hang out with you and your students afterward? Oh yeah, I’m in. Call me. Keep me posted.” About two days before the event, they notified me that they wanted to present me with this honorary doctorate, and they wanted to know if I was going to accept it, which was kind of crazy because you’re like, “Is there anybody who turns this down?”

Is there anybody who says, “Oh no, dog. I’m good with them letters. Don’t worry about that advancement on my career, advancement on my salary, that advancement on my hourly rate now. No, I’m going to pass.” I don’t even know who does that. But I went down there. Florida was amazing. Sarasota was beautiful. I hadn’t been to Sarasota before. So to see it on top of everything else that was happening, it was just a huge, huge experience.

Maurice, I really thought I was going to be good because I was like, “I got this.” At this commencement, I saw all the paper degrees that they were going to be passing out, and I just assumed that mine was over in that pile. I felt like I could handle this. They read the bio, which I didn’t know they was going to read all 750 words of it. And then they have you stand because there’s a hooding ceremony that happens.

They put this cap over you. And then there’s this neck … It’s a velvet, a sash, so to speak, but it goes around your neck, and it attaches to your graduation gown. I turned around, Maurice, and they took the cover off of the degree and I totally fell out because I thought I was going to get one of the small degrees that was on the table. It was framed. It had my name on it huge. It’s got this silver plate statement on it. It’s got the school.

If you watch the video, I think I spent maybe the first three minutes of my speech sniffing because I was still trying to just pull it together and get into the words that I had prepared. Even my father was like, “You’ve got to start taking Kleenex with you. You’ve just got to.” I was like, “I had no idea.” I had no idea. I’m still absorbing it.

One of the young people that I work with here at DesignExplorr, she said, “You should put them all on the wall like they do at the doctor’s office because you got a full set now.” So I have an associate’s. I have a bachelor’s. I have a master’s. I have the doctorate, and I have two undergraduate minors and a graduate minor.

Maurice Cherry:
Whew. Degreed up.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Degreed up. I share this often when I go into classrooms with young people. This is coming from a person who almost failed the fourth, sixth, and the eighth grade. By the eighth grade, my momma had had enough. I don’t know if you’re ever been in a place with your mom where you knew she had had enough. Well, Renee had had enough, and she told me flat out, “I don’t care what is going on at that school. I don’t care what you think is going on at that school, but it stops today.”

She enrolled me in tutoring. She made my brother walk me to school because I had to go to tutoring before school started. So school usually started about 8:30. I had to be there at 7:30, 3 days a week, for the rest of the eighth grade so I could pass. I didn’t even know if college would even be in my future. I was just trying to get out of middle school. I was just struggling to do that. So to be at this place now, Maurice, is a lot to absorb.

Maurice Cherry:
It is well-deserved for-

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
… the advocacy work and the volunteer work and everything that you’re doing not just in your local community, which we’ll talk about, but just nationwide, worldwide. It’s amazing. I’m just saying this from with Revision Path. You can put stuff out there in the world and you never know where it’s going to land, who it’s going to reach, how it’s going to affect them.
So just kudos to you for always fighting the good fight. I’m immensely proud of you. I heard that, I was just like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. That is so amazing.”

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Thank you so much. I just appreciate everybody, like yourself, reaching back and just keeping me encouraged even in those moments when I was fighting just to stay focused and what I was fighting for and that it would come to fruition, and it really, really has. So I’m eternally grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about another one of your recent accomplishments from this year, which is a dedicated space for DesignExplorr. First of all, where did the idea to create DesignExplorr come from? Because when I had you back on the show back in 2014, I don’t think DesignExplorr was even a thing yet, was it?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
No, Maurice. In fact, I was painfully writing it. I was in grad school when we first spoke. I was in Columbus at the Ohio State University. I had received a full ride scholarship to research the lack of diversity in design disciplines. I presented the idea to the university about a year and a half before I was actually in school because when you apply, you have to say, “Hey, what are you going to research? What’s your topic going to be?”

I submitted this out of the challenges that I had been experiencing in Cleveland. I submitted that topic out of everything that I had learned with the mentees that I had. I submitted that topic as a way to solve it because I was just tired of it. I was just tired of it always being the only, even in this day and age. In 2000, I just couldn’t believe there were still people who were the onlies.

By time my niece announced that she wanted to be a designer, Maurice, I was in overdrive. I was like, “Oh God, I’ve got to fix this, not eventually, not …” I knew I had to fix it, and I felt like I had four to six years to figure it out because she was going to go to college and study design. It pained me to even think about her experiencing some of the challenges and the microaggressions and the discriminatory acts that I experienced. It highly motivated me to figure it out and to put something in place so she wouldn’t have to go through those types of things.

Maurice Cherry:
Now with this dedicated space, what does that do now for the mission and the vision of DesignExplorr? What does that do now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Absolutely. First, I have to share that I have moved DesignExplorr physically every year for four and a half years, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Maurice, every year. Remember I told you I started writing about DesignExplorr in Columbus. So when I graduated, I moved back to Cleveland. So the first year, I want to say year and a half, I was in my home literally upstairs because I had moved the desk that I wrote my thesis in because that desk has become sacred now. I ain’t never giving up that desk. That desk is never going in the trash.

So I had moved that to my upstairs loft area, which my father just ridiculously laughed at me all the time because he was like, “You going to put your desk right next to the bed? Are you sleeping?” That’s what I did, Maurice. I would literally go to sleep. I would wake up and work. I would fall asleep watching TV, go to bed, wake up, roll out my bed, go to the desk. That’s probably what I did every day for about a year, year and a half, until I got DesignExplorr launched off the ground.

So having this space, when you talk about what is it going to do for the mission, it’s going to allow myself and now team members, Maurice, there are probably about eight young people in this space right now who come in and out, who do tasks, who do design projects, who do photography things, who write. I have a young lady who’s also writing right now. Here in Cleveland, I’m surrounded by three major colleges. There’s Cleveland State University, Cleveland Institute of the Art, and then we also have Cuyahoga Community College, which is a two-year college.

All of these schools are probably within five minutes of where the space is going to be at. So that’s why I wanted the space because we were just growing out. When I left my house, I moved into a space that was probably about 375 square feet, which at the time, Maurice, I loved it. I was like, “We legit, y’all.” I got a door. I had a parking spot, and I had a key. You know how you can come into the co-working building?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I just thought we was doing it. I was like, “We’re doing it.” One day I looked up and there was myself and three other young designers in 375 square feet, literally. I was sitting at my little desk. It was one across from me, and I had a little round table, Maurice. They were coming. None of them was like, “You know what? It’s small. I’m quitting. I’m leaving.” Nope. They was like, “I’m staying. I’ll just work in the hallway until So-and-so leaves.”

After the 375, I moved into 680 square feet. Now, the 680 square feet was nicer. It was on the fifth floor. We called it the penthouse. From there, I started getting other organizations who helped to create pilot programs to have interns trained in design to work for their organizations. So that’s how I got a couple more interns. At the end of that summer, I was like, “We’re not going to fit here.”

I already had two desks. Maurice, I think at the time I only owned four chairs. People, they were still coming. I was like, “I’m not going to be able to do this work in this confinement.” It just wasn’t going to happen. I had an opportunity to talk with a commercial real estate agent here in Cleveland, and she explained the game to me.

I was like, “Okay. I know what I have to do, and I’m going to find a space on my own. I’m going to find it without a real estate agent because that process isn’t working for me and I need this to really, really be what I want. I already have a vision, so I’m going to do this on my own.” I found a space. I found a space here in Cleveland. We’re on 3800 Euclid Avenue downtown, right across from the Children’s Museum and adjacent to the American Red Cross.

It’s awesome, Maurice. It’s 1,821 square feet. There’s a huge front-facing window. We have this huge area that we’re going to have for open space. So I’ll be able to fit eight to 10 young people there. And then we’re going to have a huge great room in the back where I’ll be able to have a multipurpose room where it might be a classroom and a little conference area. We’re going to have a kitchen, a private bath, reception area, and I’ll even have my own office.

I can’t begin to describe it. What’s super awesome is that right now at the time of this interview, we’re in the interim space upstairs. So for the last month, I’ve been peeking downstairs, talking to all the construction people. They have plumbing in, Maurice. We have plumbing. So to see this space being built exactly how I envisioned it and exactly doing the work that it needs to do is insane just to be able to be at this place.

So that center will allow me, once it’s complete … They’re telling me eight to 10 weeks. Once it’s complete, we will open up the experiential learning portions of DesignExplorr. See, in the past, I’ve mostly been doing youth workshops that expose young people to design. I’ve been doing a lot of local summer camps, afterschool programs, in-classroom assignments where I was teaching design to a K-12 audience.

But the center will allow me to provide opportunities for designers, 18 to 26-year-olds, who are interested in working in the profession. So I already have a host of clients here who are allowing us to work on their design projects, their web projects, their photography work, some writing assignments. We have a couple social media clients that we’ve been working for.

It will allow me to expand that part of it so that when young people who are from Cleveland who are interested in this expanded learning to fulfill that gap space between high school and college and between college and workforce, they can come here and ask questions. They can come here and fellowship with other Black and brown designers. The best part is they’ll have opportunity to do real world work so that when they go into these workforce positions, it won’t be a mystery to them.

They’ll have a really good expectation as to what it could be and what it should be. So I’m hopeful that’ll help to increase the profession, increase diversity in design, and just to continue my work, being able to not have any more only designers anymore, any more only women or any more only Black designers or just no more onlies, no more. So that’s what I’m really hopeful that the center will be doing for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean all of that is amazing. I can’t wait to get a chance to actually see it all in person once you get it all together. Hopefully, if there are some design companies or some furniture companies listening, they can help you really swag out the space, really make it something nice.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes. I would love that, Maurice. In fact, that is what is needed because I have exhausted everything in getting the space. They say that entrepreneurship is about risk, and I understand that this is a risk doing it this way. But what I know is that I won’t be able to flourish if I’m not in a space where I can grow, and having the 1800 square feet is that space. It’s like me moving out of a small pot into a bigger pot so I can bloom.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about some of the young designers that you’re mentoring. I know when we were initially trying to book this, we thought about having the possibility of actually having them on the show, which I think maybe we can do that in the future. But tell me about some of these young designers that are coming through the program.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
There are about eight right now. Five are here. Well, four are here in-person. They’re here regularly, two or three days a week. I have another two or three that, hey, they call in. They’re already in the workforce, so they’re doing some things. I have two designers from Kent State University that I’m working with. I have about three students that I’m working with from Cleveland State University.

I have a young lady who’s in urban planning. I have another young woman that I’m working with. She is in industrial design. The majority of them are in graphic design and web design. I have another young lady who’s highly passionate about getting into UX and UI design. So they’re all doing some truly, truly awesome things. Maurice, you’ll love this. I even have a young writer who’s on team. She is interested in writing in a creative space.

So we’re like, “Well, you found your people. Welcome. Enjoy. Come on in.” So it’s been great having various amounts. I have male and female, mostly all Black right now. I have two young people who are in our neighborhood association who are Puerto Rican, and they’re also interested in coming onboard when the new space is open. So even just having the space here, the young people are already coming and staying, trying to stay. So I’m excited. I’m very excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Now also along with this mentorship, you’ve created resources for educators, right?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve created something called the TakeOver curriculum.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes, absolutely. That’s one of our favorite ones. I had an opportunity to work with an educational consultant. She is a consultant who helps educators become better educators. So you imagine when you’re in a K-8 school or a K-12 school, there are lots of challenges and curriculum changes and all those types of things. Well, Dr. Kelly is who we work with to help us transcribe all of my slides, all of the things that are in my brain into an educational curriculum that is in alignment with Ohio-based state standards.

We also have developed along with that nine-week program, we call it the TakeOver. We also have a six-hour training component for educators to be able to work in this design-thinking methodology and helping to be able to utilize these tools to creatively expose and use them to help young people absorb challenges and topics that might be a little difficult, how they can maybe bring some different insight into getting young people to think about recycling or finances, even science and history.

I believe that design has the power to achieve and to help connect all of those things. So having that educator’s curriculum will be able to allow them to also learn how to apply that creativity in some of those difficult topics that young people have.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are there other programs that you have through DesignExplorr? We talked about the curriculum, but I noticed, I’m looking at this PDF you have on your site. There’s things like design learning, Think Like A Designer Workshops, et cetera. Tell me more about these different programs.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
So our Think Like A Designer Workshop is a workshop that we actually originated out of COVID. When I first learned about COVID, I was actually in a classroom and I had not known that the governor had just closed all the schools. So the teacher was trying to hurry them up. I’m like, “No, no. They got to do this part. They got to do this part. I didn’t give them their worksheets yet.” She’s like, “They got to get on the bus.”

I’m like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “The governor just closed schools.” I’m like, “So what happens if you are from an underserved area and you don’t have a computer at home during COVID? How are you going to continue your learning? What if the art class was the thing that you loved to go to and now it’s over?” Because, remember, when it first happened, we didn’t know how long this was going to be.

So I started thinking about how could I develop materials. During COVID, I had two of my young designers that I worked with, Elena and Kennedy, who were in the office at that time. I had this whiteboard, Maurice, of all these things I wanted to accomplish and all these things I was trying to do. Kennedy was like, “You could do that one now.” And I’m like, “The schools are closed. Nobody’s going to buy anything. What are you talking about?”

She was like, “Yeah, you should just find a bag for it. We could sell markers, and they could have kind of school supplies. We could put design activities in it.” I was like, “Kennedy, this is not the time to do this.” I shut her down like, “This is not the time.” Maybe about a couple days later, Elena came up like, “I know where we can find those supplies at.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with any young people, but they have the tenacity that is sometimes even a little annoying. You’re like, “What? I don’t want to talk about that anymore. I don’t want to talk about that.” They just kept being on me, Maurice. They were like, “You got to figure something out. You got to figure it out. What if I could find the supplies?” I was like, “You know what? Here’s $20 for gas and another 20 for the supplies. Be gone. Go ahead and do what you need. Let me know how it turns out.”

When she came back, Maurice, she had $5.56 change. I said, “What?” That was the day we started the Think Like A Designer kits. During COVID, Maurice, what was crazy, we gave out 56 kits that year. 56 kits. We went outdoors. We went to Staples outdoor back-to-school sales. We went to churches. We were in basements. We were at YMCAs. Young people just really, really gravitated.

We put educational curriculum. We put an empathy map, a user discovery sheet. We made these cards where you could think about, and they’ve just been selling. We’re just now finishing the detailed instructions for that, so we’ve been selling those. The design learning challenges, we’ve always done those in some shape or form in whatever activity we’ve put on.

When the libraries kind of peeked open a little bit, they were looking for content. We used our digital design workshop series. We taught Adobe Express. We taught Adobe InDesign. We taught Adobe Illustrator. We were in the maker space at our public library. Kids could Zoom in, and they could also come in person. The library had a certain amount. You couldn’t go past six people in a room or something like that. Those programs all did so super, super, super well.

So now that we’re a little bit past COVID, not done with it, but now that we’re a little bit past it, I’ve been able to create online materials as well as in-person materials and then curriculum. Because, ultimately, what I really want is a line of stationery items for kids to be able to draw and to sketch and to be able to access that are very economically reasonable. Those are the kind of things that we’ve been putting in the kits and into the swag bags and stuff like that. But it’s been exciting to see their response to them.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s just so amazing to hear how much you’re doing in the community. When we first met, it was because I heard about the work you were doing back there in Cleveland with this design company called GoMedia. GoMedia used to have an event conference roughly every year called … I’m blanking on the name. Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, That’s what it’s called.

So you have really been going hard for design in Cleveland for a long time. You even have on your IG profile, the phrase, “A believer in Cleveland.” Why is making an impact in Cleveland so important for you?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work in many places. Maurice. I’ve been one of the consultants for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I traveled with the museum for three and a half years doing programs in other cities. After the second or third time we were in San Francisco, I actually had one of the educators like, “Oh yeah, we did one of your workshops in my classroom, and it went so great.”

I was like, “So my stuff is working here in San Francisco. My stuff is working in Detroit. My stuff is working in Oakland. My stuff is working in DC. My stuff’s working in Baltimore. My stuff’s working in Philly.” I was just like, “You know what? I need to rectify that. I need to be able to go home and do the work where I know the need is and be able to do it for young people who look just like me, who come from places where I came from, and who probably went to some of the same schools I went to.”

So it became very important to me quickly to be able to make that kind of impact here in Cleveland. I’m regularly asked, why am I doing DesignExplorr in Cleveland? I’m regularly asked that. But I don’t see it not happening in Cleveland. I feel like if I can make it work in Cleveland, I can make it work anywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Well said. Well said. What’s next for DesignExplorr? How can people out there listening support your work?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Oh gosh, there’s so many ways. Well, first of all, you can support the work by supporting the young people. A lot of times, they’re looking for opportunities, whether they be full-time work experiences, whether they be entry-level positions, internships, externships, remote intensives. All of these things are necessary for designers of color, particularly those who are transitioning into the workforce.

So when you have a position and you call me and you’re like, “Hey, Jacinda, can you just pass this out to your network?” Well, that’s great, but for those positions who are already for experienced designers, but what about passing me positions that young designers, designers who are looking between one to three years or one to five years for, what about giving me those kind of opportunities?

The second thing that people can support me with is being able to furnish and bring the center to fruition. Right now, I just bought chairs, which were incredibly expensive, but we didn’t have any chairs before. So I had to buy chairs. I was only able to buy six desks. So that’s kind of what I have to house 10 to 20 students working on right now. We definitely need assistance for that.

Right now, I’m paying the internet bill. It’s challenging because I don’t have the regular package. I got the package for when young people come in, they can use that because they’re in this space now. So that is super helpful. Maurice, it’s so serious right now. I have promoted my father to chief logistics officer. His responsibility is keeping snacks in here so we don’t fall out from hunger and from thirst. So that is what he has been doing. That’s what his contribution has been to DesignExplorr.

I also think another thing that the profession, designers who are currently working, organizations, they can help me to fund the work that the young people are doing. That’s a very, very important one because it’s easy to say, “Oh, I want to help you, Jacinda.” But when you say you want to help me, what I really need to know is, are you willing to help them? Because that’s what I want. Some people think, “Oh, I only want to help you. I don’t want to help them.” I don’t see us not being together in this movement.

Maurice Cherry:
I get that about Revision Path, too. People will say they want to support the show, but not me, or maybe the other way around. That’s so weird.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Maurice, I’ve literally had people like, “Well, I know you have a lot of young people that you’re mentoring, Jacinda, but what do you need?” What I need is for them to be successful. That is what I need. Right now, they say I’m doing a lot of strange stuff for a hunk of change to make it happen. So what I need is for people who are interested in not just helping me do something, to help me help them do something. That’s what I want, because they are coming out of the woodwork.

Every time I think one is gone or they’ve got a position somewhere, then another one up here is like, “Hey, can you help me write my resumé? Can you help me with my LinkedIn page?” Just being able to provide the resources to get them that kind of help, even in getting their taxes done, all of these things that you did when you were a young professional, those are all the same types of things that I need right now.

Maurice Cherry:
So I want to touch on your time with AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. You were the chair from 2016 to 2018. Now that I think back on it, I recommended you to join the task force, I think, maybe sometime around 2015 or so. So the fact that you moved up to a leadership spot that quickly really says a lot. But when you look back at that time, what comes to mind? Do you have any feelings in particular?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes, Maurice. I have a lot of feelings. It was hard. For an organization who kept saying they wanted diversity, every time I pitched something, every time I proposed something, every time I suggested something, every time I identified an opportunity, it was just always a fight to get them to want to do it. I understand that there were people there who were in direct opposition of that goal, of that mission. I know that now. But in the moment, Maurice, it was hard.

It was two years. Because, remember, I sat on the task force for two years and then I chaired for another two years. I also served as emeritus for another year, year and a half. When you asked me about that, it was just hard and, dare I say it, unnecessarily hard. So I regularly think about those times and those activities and those relationships. But it was just super, super hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That task force stuff was … I mean I remember my time. I was there from, I think, 2014 to 2017. We had a change in guard. And then it just kind of felt like some things were being hamstrung in terms of how we tried to get certain things done. We couldn’t really operate as a group. It was more of a reactionary sort of thing.

I don’t know. I look back at that time because I got to meet y’all. I got to meet you. I got to meet Dian, some of the other great folks. But I look back and I’m like, “Did we really do anything?”

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I mean, Maurice, that was one of the reasons why I fought so hard for the archiving because we talk about the task force that I chaired through the research and through the deep dives. I found out that there had been three before us. There had been three task force before us. To learn that that happened made it even more surreal because you’re like, “Wait a minute. What?”

So the first thing I did was I went and I found many of the old task force members. Many of them were done like, “You’re with who? Oh no.” Click. I got hung up on a lot. I was able to get a couple of people to still talk with me, to still participate. I was even able to get one young man to join, Andrew Bass. I was able to get him to come back and share his knowledge and to ask AIGA to archive his things because he had material from his task force that he also was saving.

So that part, I don’t even know if they even really, really archived it because it’s not public. So I can’t go anywhere. I don’t see anywhere on the website where I can access the archives. And then they’ve recently done a website update. So that meant all the stuff that I archived during the task force that I was over, I don’t even know where that materials went.

So it’s hard because they’re saying that they want people who are interested in moving forward. They don’t want to talk about the past. They don’t want people to keep bringing it up. We wouldn’t feel this strain if it was just public because it’s supposed to be about the profession. It’s supposed to be about the profession. It’s supposed to be about the organization. So why not put the things that need to be and that can be out, out?

So that archiving piece was super … That was a big thing for me while I was there. So when you talk about what resulted out of it, I probably am sitting on a plethora of digital assets, all of the impact reports because we did two impact reports the years that I was there, archiving the photography, even photographing the things that were happening whenever we were in different places.

We also had two meetups during the time period where I was chair. It was super awesome because we even got an opportunity to have a task force retreat as well. Those are the things that I fought for, and I use the word, fought, I fought for during those times. It was challenging internally and externally. So when you asked, I’m like, “It was hard.” It was really, really hard and really unnecessarily hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean I would say, given the way that the website is now, I don’t think they archived anything because … Well, let me walk that back. Do I think there are archives? Yes. Are there archives that will ever be available publicly on the website? Probably not, because Heather still works there. This is a different Heather, not GoMedia Heather. This is Heather Strelecki, I think is her name. She’s the keeper of the guard with the archive.

So I think some of that stuff is still archived there. I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day on the website. I mean I don’t even know if the website is even that up-to-date because the folks that they have listed for the task force aren’t affiliated with the task force anymore.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. I noticed that as well. I think that my time at AIGA made me a lot more interested in if the challenges that I was having were just in one organization. So what I did was I joined many other organizations. Anybody knows I’m an organizational junkie. I probably am in far too many organizations. I’m intrigued because I know the power of what can happen when you get a group of people together who all want the same thing and who are all willing to do the work required. I know what that’s like.

But finding it within some of these organizations and finding that they’re interested in this racial diversity and these seven levels of diversity, that’s what I’m always looking for. So I participate on IDSA’s council. They have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. There’s a great, great Facebook NOMA group out, and I love being in that group. I’m also heavily involved in many of the student chapters. I love being able to support them online.

We do a huge proponent of student spotlights. Actually, I was working on a project with Prairie Review in Texas, and I also had a great opportunity to visit Jennifer’s class at Bowie State. That’s actually where the idea for the student spotlights came from because each of them had these … I would go down there and look at their work. Jennifer would let me in her classes and talk with the students, and they had tons of questions. Everybody got questions.

I’m like, “I need to do something about that.” I knew I was already, quote, unquote, “My bandwidth had been exhausted.” But I’m like, “These students are just truly, truly talented.” Who knows? What happens when Black and brown designers graduate? What happens? Nothing that I knew of. It didn’t happen for me. So I’m like, “What if I could create a platform where they could have a little recognition?” Where they could be acknowledged for their accomplishments and where we as professionals could acknowledge, “Hey, young designer, congratulations. I’d love to look at your portfolio.”

So we’ve been carrying that for a few years now. But being able to see what’s going on in these organizations, it always gives me great ideas of what else we need to do. When I worked with IDSA, I actually wrote and developed a map that charts all of the youth design organizations that I had been charting for the last five years. So if you go to the IDSA innovation page, you’ll see the map that I developed there. Our hope is to be able to update that with them one year.

But I love joining these organizations to see is the promise achievable? Is the promise feasible? How realistic is it? Is it realistic in this organization? Why keep joining? I’m looking forward to seeing it one day. There are lots of challenges, but I believe that it’s possible. It just might take some time, and you just got to have the right group of people involved. So that’s why I keep joining. That’s why I keep looking.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One last thing with AIGA and we’ll move on from it. Any thoughts on its current state, with Bennie being the new executive director? They’re bringing the conference back in-person. They’re doing a gala this year in October, actually, this month, the month we’re recording. They’re doing it in Seattle.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I have heard about that. I’m kind of challenged in a couple of ways. My first thought is, Maurice, I’m tired of the pontification that happens amongst elite designers. So when I learned of all the stuff that AIGA was doing, I quickly went to see what are you doing for young designers? What are you doing for Black young designers? What are you doing? Maurice, I don’t see much.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think you saw anything, probably. Let’s keep it a buck. You probably didn’t see anything.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I don’t see much because, again, remember I told you I’m all about trying to refer and I’m all about trying to share resources with the young designers that I have right now. I’m looking for things for them to get involved in. I’m looking for things for them to say, “Hey, Jacinda, I love that. Can you share more of that with me?” Even though I had a difficult situation with AIGA, I remain hopeful, and I just haven’t seen it yet. I haven’t seen it yet.

That’s another reason why now I’m in a place where I’ve done the national groups. I’m looking at local chapters now. So I stay active in my local chapter because at least I can see the impact here. Because when I go to the national site, I don’t see it. IDSA recently had an awesome conference. They had women industrial designers all convene. Maurice, I was like, “Wow.” There was a component of young industrial designers who came.

I met many of the students who were there in the young designers. For me, the importance and the significance of professional design organizations, to me, it’s only about the impact that they are giving to young designers. It’s that servitude leadership. It’s that serving. How are you serving? It can’t only be to a bunch of rich elite designers. It’s got to be to all of designers. I don’t see much. I’m looking. I’m looking. I’m always looking.

I’m on the email list twice because they double emailing me. So I haven’t seen quite the thing yet. When I do share their resources with the young designers that I have, they’re disconnected because the young designers that I have are trying to get into the workforce, and so those materials seem out of touch.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair assessment. That’s a fair assessment.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. When you ask about the new leadership, I have called. I have sat in meetings with … The meetings are challenging and frustrating because they have a lot to achieve, and they have a lot that they are working for. And again, I don’t see the how and the where and the when with Black and brown designers. So when you ask, it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ll leave it there. We’ll leave it there with AIGA. Whose work are you inspired by now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It’s really weird, Maurice. It’s not that I don’t love designers still. It’s not that I don’t love designers, but I really feel like I’m in this evolution of a design career. So I’m in a place now where I can look at other aspects. I really look to educators now. I look to how educators are creating curriculum and impact. I look to how there are many design educators who are writing textbooks now. I would love to get into that.

There are a group of educators right now who are working to create a documentary. So it’s those kind of things. Honorable mention, I’m always inspired by young designers. So right now, the one young man I was working with, Aaron Mann, he just produced his book, Equal by Design. It’s actually online. I already bought my copy. I suggest y’all buy yours. So I’m inspired by books and materials written for and by young designers.

There’s a young man in New York. I cannot think of his name off the top of my head, but he has a game about being a designer, also.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Deon Mixon.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Deon. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
We had a great conversation. That’s inspiring because they see it. Whereas as young designers, they see the challenges and they’re just going after them. As opposing to where I find senior designers, we’re trying to figure it out. We’re trying to do fundraising. We’re trying to talk. Young designers, they’re like, “We should do this. Let’s make it. Let’s put it out there.” So I’m like, “You need me to support that? Let me help you help yours.”

There’s another design organization here in Cleveland. It’s called Battle of the Teal, and they have a performing arts and a visual arts competition, and being able to work with them. Actually, one of the young ladies that I’m mentoring right now, she was a winner in this competition about two years ago. So she’s just needed resources. So every year, I refer like, “Hey, here’s a great summer program to get into.”

She reached out to me when she was trying to understand, Maurice, how to coordinate her Google calendar with her art classes. So we’re looking through this. I’m like, “Honey, you supposed to let some of these calendars go.” She’s like, “Oh.” So it’s these aha moments that I look for resources and that I remain inspired by. She wants to draw, and she’s just trying to figure out how to get her homework done so she can finish her animation project.

So these are the kind of things I’m inspired by. It’s not that I’m not inspired by any of the big designers. It’s not that at all. I’m still in love with the work that Gail Anderson is doing. I love what Eddie Opara’s doing. I love what the Hue Design Summit team of young designers is doing. I need things to meet mission and meet impact now. It’s even more important than ever for us to be able to accomplish these things together.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you still want to do?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It’s still a really long list. I still have a lot of things I want to do. Where I’m at right now is when I see something that’s already on my list that I want to do and somebody else is doing it, “Hey, how can I help you do that?” Because truth be told, Maurice, I don’t have the bandwidth. That’s another reason why I need the center because I don’t have the space or the calendar time. Y’all going to have to come here.

What are some things that I still want to do? I really, really want to have a precollege residency program. I saw the one that they had at Ringling and, Maurice, it was awesome. It was awesome. To be able to have something like that in the Black community would be stellar. It could be a chart-making, data-increasing, design profession-changing aspect. This program was a mixture of the Young Scholars program. It was a mixture of the Urban League’s Young Professionals curriculum and creativity all round up in one.

I was like, “How can I make a DesignExplorr one?” I don’t have the resources to do it how they’re doing it. But the way that they are engaging with the students every summer, the way that they provide practical experience, the nurturing, because that’s a huge thing. That’s definitely high up on my list. That’s very, very high up on my list of next things for DesignExplorr.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of your career, how do you measure success? What does it look like for you now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It looks like legacy. It looks like legacy, and it looks like impact. If those two things aren’t involved, I don’t know why I’m here. So I want to be able to know that the young people that I have mentored, that I have had conversations with, who I’ve been working with on their careers, that they’re successful. So every time I see one of them and they’re doing something crazy big, I’m like, “Maybe. Maybe I’ve made an impact. Maybe.”

Last weekend I was at an expo here in Cleveland and, Maurice, you would have loved this. Three of the young people that I had mentored, they were having their own booths selling their own businesses and products. They came down and visited me, and we just talked. They talked to some of the young designers that were at the table volunteering for me. It was like full cycle. You know what I’m saying? Full cycle going on.

So that was thrilling. That was thrilling to be able to see and witness that part of it. I don’t know, Maurice. It’s got to be a legacy because I want to be able to know that all of this went and worked for something and someones, a whole bunch of someones.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Have you thought out what you want this next chapter of the legacy to be, especially now that you’ve got the center?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. Everything is going to be about the center, and it’s going to be about that residency program. When I analyze and I look at the profession, and you know I’m a huge data nerd, so I’m always looking at the numbers. I’m always reading the BLS numbers. I’m always looking at the NASAD numbers. I’m always looking at these things. If we don’t create a better pathway and not just better, I’m talking more access, more inclusion, more resources, more everything, I don’t know if our numbers will ever really, really go up.

So when you say five years, Five years for me is this lifting off this residency program. Five years for me is getting more of the TakeOver programs in schools. Five years for me is getting the young designers that I work with more actual real experience with actual clients, not just pet project kind of things, but real things. To me that’s five years. But I signed a five-year lease, Maurice. So five years is not long for me. It’s not long.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll be here before you know it. I’m telling you.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I agree. I agree. So the planning and the implementation of it is always strategic. It’s always strategic. But the most important thing about it is staying focused on it. So now that I have the space, I will be able to focus on that residency program. I feel like that could catch a lot. That can really, really, really help close the gap and, ultimately, that’s really all I want.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and your work and the center? Where can they find all this online?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
You can find me at DesignExplorr, and it’s D-E-S-I-G-N-E-X-P-L-O-R-R. And yes, that’s two R’s. We spell it real gangsta here. You can find me there on all the channels, so Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, all of the above.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Dr. Jacinda Walker, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean I had you on the show years and years ago. You and I, of course, have worked side by side together, have gone through this whole crazy design industry in different ways. You were the last designer that I saw at an in-person event back in 2020 when you were out in LA when we did our live show.

I mean it never ceases to amaze me how tireless your efforts are and your work is towards making sure that you are setting the stage for the next generation of designers. I don’t know anybody that’s operating at the level that you are when it comes to doing this. I’m just so glad not just to have you on the show, but to call you a friend as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
You are super welcome, and I appreciate you always reaching back to keep me involved and keep me engaged. So kudos to you and the success of the show as well.

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John B. Johnson

If you were a part of last week’s State of Black Design conference, then you’ve already been introduced to this week’s guest — John B. Johnson. As the principal of A Small Studio in Seattle, he leads a team of creative professionals that specialize in authentic digital design.

We spoke about how his business has changed through the pandemic, as well as his process with new projects (such as DOSE). He also talked about growing up in Cleveland, studying architecture, and how these experiences led him to start his studio and his moves until settling in Seattle. This is a really thoughtful and deep interview, and I hope John’s story resonates with you all!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

John B. Johnson:
Hey, my name is John Johnson. I am a identity architect and principal of A Small Studio, where we use our gifts of design to bring peace to people’s lives.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year going for you so far?

John B. Johnson:
Maurice, the year is going well.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounded like a loaded question. The way you sighed made it sound like that was going to be a heavy answer.

John B. Johnson:
Every time somebody asked me that question, it’s always heavy because you can reflect on yesterday or you can reflect on the last 10 years that have brought you to this moment to even be ready for this year or ready for last year. And I take that deep breath because it’s an opportunity for me to really intentionally answer that question. For me, man, this year has been incredible because we’ve grown as a company, I’ve grown as a man, I’ve grown as a husband. We’ve grown to six people now. This time last year, we had three so we’ve doubled in size in a year. If anybody knows about growing an agency, every person you add, it adds another layer of complexity.

John B. Johnson:
We’ve already exceeded our revenue that we made last year, this year, which is incredible. We’re in three-and-a-half years in terms of our growth. But more specifically, and I’m turning 33 this year, I’ve been approaching this year very intentionally, because 33 is just a really incredible number for a number of reasons. Me and my wife are also planning on moving back to Cleveland, where I was born and raised, and actually building a home there, and really starting to put in some roots after being a nomad for the last nine years.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s your Jesus Year as the old folks would say.

John B. Johnson:
It’s my Jesus Year. That’s it. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
So growing from three people to six people, as folks know, for me, that I’ve done this podcast, I had a studio for nine years called Lunch. You’re absolutely right, every person that you bring on, it’s a different layer of complexity, it changes the culture, it just adds more to the business. Of course, you want to bring people on to help out with tasks. But it’s amazing how even just bringing on one more person can really change the dynamic of everything. What inspired you to create your own studio?

John B. Johnson:
Simple answer, I realized that I had a gift for branding and I realized that the people that needed branding the most, organizations that needed branding the most had very little access to it because of how inaccessible it was through the agencies. As you know, the cost goes up really high the more people you add. I actually set out with a friend of mine, Troy Thomas, who’s our creative director, and the co-founder of A Small Studio to create a agency that really made branding accessible to individuals and organizations that really were attempting to make an impact in the world. So you can say that I saw how ridiculous agency costs were to impact organizations and how inaccessible they were. And I decided that I was going to build an agency that made that work as accessible as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, given the name of the business, A Small Studio, is the goal to keep it pretty small?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. In the typical sense of the word, small, we want to make sure that we stay smaller in size as far as the team, specifically. However, we know that through technology and through our skill set of design, that we can actually reach many people with our work with products, with services, with education, so on and so forth. So we want to stay small in the physical sense of the word. We don’t want that large overhead, we want to get rid of middle people, account managers, project managers, things like that. And we want to only have people in our team that are intentional about the work, and how they can use their gift to bring peace to our clients and to communities that we interact with. I can dive into that more, but we want to stay small physically so that we can make more impact externally with the resources that we will have and the resources that we can gain through that small nature.

Maurice Cherry:
You said earlier that revenues already exceeded what you’ve made from last year. So it sounds like business has really kind of, I guess, changed and improved over the past year or so given the state of the world.

John B. Johnson:
I don’t think it’s any shocker to people that technology is booming, especially when it comes to digital design. So that’s what we specialize in, is authentic digital design, I want to say. With these organizations and these technology companies, startups, money is still flowing through the tech space. A lot of money, if not more money, than before. And these organizations, they need designers, they need people that can not only help them get started but also help them grow to the next level. As we built our reputation over the last three years, we’re getting more and more referrals from people that we’ve served in the past and it’s been spectacular.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your process look like when you start out with a new project?

John B. Johnson:
We always say everything starts with identity. So when I start working with a organization, first off, we want to make sure that they are a good fit to work with us and we’re a good fit for them, and then we dive into who they are. I actually have started to make it a requirement for my clients to go through the Identity Architecture Workshop, which is a individual workshop to help people reflect on who they are as individuals. Say, “What makes you one in 7.8 billion?” I created this workshop to really help people reflect so they can live life on purpose or live more authentically, and align who they are with their passions and their motivations. I found that through agency, and you may be able to relate to this, Maurice, I really have no desire to work with people that are just doing their work for money or doing their work for things that really aren’t eternal or aren’t connected to their experiences as individuals.

John B. Johnson:
I’ve started to create these workshops to really start to filter out the nonsense or I like to say the clutter of the industry of the world and start to get to the core of who someone is. And that happens through the Individual Identity Architecture Workshop. And then we take the whole team through a Corporate Identity Architecture Workshop. And what that does is that gives me and my design team a authentic foundation to build off of and start designing the brand identity and everything that goes into a brand identity. And then now distributing that brand identity into the products and/or experiences that we will be designing for them.

John B. Johnson:
As of right now, one of our clients is ShearShare with Dr. Tye Caldwell and Courtney Caldwell out of Texas. They’re actually in Dallas and they are building a marketplace for the beauty industry. Actually, they call themselves the HAIRbnb. They actually help stylists and barbers to find seats or chairs across the country but also help the salon owners sell their chairs and make sure that they’re getting revenue from them. That is something that’s unique and core to who they are as people. Well, Dr. Tye is a master barber and they want to build a community around that. So we have taken them through that exact process that I shared with you and been able to apply their authentic identity to their mobile application in the marketplace that they’re building.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really interesting way of … Because I guess, in a way, you’re sort of also onboarding the client by kind of letting them see how you work and what your values are and why they’re important to how you do business. I can see that being a big clarifying step. Because sometimes you’ll get clients and they just want the work. They don’t necessarily care about the why behind it. They just sort of need a set of hands to do the work. And it sounds like those are not the best kinds of clients for you to work with. Which makes sense, because you’re spending the time to really sort of get to know them, have them get to know you and build something together.

John B. Johnson:
Exactly. That’s what makes this so fulfilling for me. I’m not going to burn out by getting to know people. That’s for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from working with clients, are there sort of projects that you initiate on your own through the studio?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. Many, actually. There’s been projects that have come to me, most of our business has been built through relationships that I either already had or developed as I was building the business. So we’re very relational in the way that we’ve done business. We’ve actually have had maybe one client that wasn’t a referral from someone. So as I mentioned before, how do we make this work more accessible? There’s been many people that have come to me seeking support, thinking that they need a logo or thinking that they need a website. And I’ve been able to help people get through those early stages of their company or their startup or their idea because I’ve been able to do that myself.

John B. Johnson:
And I’ve gone through that process of building a startup, building a brand from scratch, building a mobile application from scratch. I not only helped them really assess what is their next step, simplify their approach, that MVP or lean startup model. But then I actually am able to spend that time coaching them, supporting them, and then use my team to maybe help them get started. Whether that’s a brand identity, whether that’s a website, whether that’s some mock ups of a mobile application to help them get some investments. And these are typically people that have nothing but a desire to help make the world a better place. Or like I said, bring peace to people’s lives.

John B. Johnson:
I’ve done this in the past when one of my buddies came to me saying, “Hey, I have this idea and I want to do it, I need to do it.” He’s actually building a marketplace to make the world more generous. And he was building a marketplace that would help people like millennials, maybe people our age, give more. And the way he thought that would happen is if he can actually allow millennials who have a lot of their money locked up in stocks, [inaudible 00:14:42] use with their corporations. I know that I’m like that with me and my wife. My wife works at Amazon so we have a lot of our wealth locked up in stocks. What if you can actually give one stock to a nonprofit that you loved, and what if you give one stock, that stock will continue to get gain value but that you don’t have cash. So give that stock.

John B. Johnson:
He was changing the way that people would give. I loved the idea and I believed in him as the leader. So me and my team helped him create a brand identity for his company, and we created some mock ups. He got launched. The next year, he was already doing, I think, $30,000 a month in reoccurring revenue. He had closed his seed round. And then he came back to us for some help to build out his platform further. We did that all completely for free just because we believed in him.

John B. Johnson:
And there’s been other projects that have come and gone. But we just do the work because we believe in the people not because they can pay or not pay. That’s the business but we have a responsibility as designers to help these products come to life and these people launched their products to the world, especially impact driven leaders. That’s something that keeps me on fire every day because what we’re doing is we’re building a creative studio that we can create anything with this team. Why would we ever say no when we know it’s going to make a huge impact in the world?

Maurice Cherry:
One of the projects that I saw that you created was this website called Dose. And I heard that you and your team built that in four days. Can you tell me the story behind that?

John B. Johnson:
Dose is one of those projects, I don’t know if you’ve ever had that moment, Maurice, where you just do something because it feels right. And the next thing you know, you’re like, “Man, that’s what we should be doing forever moving forward.” That was Dose. So Dose happened I want to say beginning of June, it was shortly after George Floyd was murdered, and was publicized all over the interwebs. I actually didn’t hear about George Floyd until a friend of mine called me and told me about it. He was really, really torn up about it. So I was able to be there with him in that moment because I had not seen the video yet. But then after he called me, I had to go and see the video.

John B. Johnson:
I’m sure many of us, I was nauseated. I felt a feeling in me that I don’t think I ever felt before, and I had no idea what to do. So I went back to work in my bedroom, as all of us were, in June. Protests were taking place, Seattle was on fire in many ways because me and my wife live right downtown. There were people that were storming the Patagonia that is literally right across the street from my bedroom. There are people shooting guns off to break into the stores, there are people peacefully protesting, and I had no idea what to do. I wanted to go out and protest, my wife did not feel safe or comfortable so I wanted to support her and make sure she was okay. Then I also have my team to deal with on a regular basis, talking through with them.

John B. Johnson:
But there was a moment when I was on a client call and while I was on it, I lost interest completely. I want to say I’m a pretty present person, and I could not stay present. I was like, “Why am I on this call and all of this is taking place right outside my doors?” I felt so inauthentic to myself. I remember getting off that call, and I laid on my bedroom floor, which is my office, and I curled up in a ball and I started crying. I called my mom. And I’m like, “Ma, I don’t know what to do.” Bless her soul, she sang me a song. That’s all I needed to hear at that moment. Then I went for a run, which running, for me, is my way of not only meditating but also releasing. I went for a run, and while I was on a run, I want to say I heard God tell me that, “John, you are acting inauthentic. I’ve given you this team to do something so use the team and do something. That’s what the team is here for, is to bring peace to people’s lives. Do it.”

John B. Johnson:
Through, I guess my nature, I literally stopped and I called my clients and I told them, “Hey, we got to do something about this. We’re shutting down the business for two weeks. If you have a problem with that, I understand. We’ll do our best to accommodate. And if you don’t have a problem with that, we really appreciate it because I need to do something and move this needle forward.” Every one of my clients was completely understanding about it. I called my partner and told him like, “Hey, this is what we’re doing.” I called the team, told them, and next thing you know, we had, I think, 12 people on a call that night to figure out what we were going to do to move this needle forward. How are we going to use our gifts to bring peace to people’s live. Dose came out of that.

John B. Johnson:
And one of the woman on the call, her name was Dr. Julia Garcia [inaudible 00:19:58] and she is a psychologist, she specializes in mental health. And she had a framework that really, she used with a lot of youth to help them work through how they were feeling. She calls these Doses. When we thought about that, we were like, “How do we create contents that can help people use their voice and share their perspective, share their Black perspective, and also help others listen to that perspective in an intentional way that’s not just absorbing content on social media?” We worked through that whole problem that evening. And then over the next four days, we had a team of, say, 10 people, all of the small studio and then others who were there to support. It was one intern and there was actually one of our employees who was planning to join us that next week or so, and he joined us early to work on this project with us.

John B. Johnson:
Over those four days, we built out this whole platform. We built out the brand identity, just like I told you, in our process. We built out the web application, utilizing Webflow in no-code. In four days, we were launched and shared it with our community. Over that time, we got so many stories of people sharing about a time when they got pulled over by the cops and how they fear for their life. A time when they went running after Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in the street on a jog and how that felt afterwards. We saw this change in this shift of people being able to hear the story in a new way, but also share their story in a new way.

John B. Johnson:
Now this day, Julia Garcia, who we built it for, it’s her product. It’s not ours, it’s hers. We built it with her, we built it for her. She now uses that in all of her presentations that she does the youth, that she does with corporate workshops. She still uses this platform to not only gather information to serve those people better, but also to allow them a space to deal with their emotions, just like I did.

Maurice Cherry:
The project is still up and running today, right?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah, the website’s still live. We built it for Dr. J and she is still crafting her life’s work to figure out how to use it in the best ways. So she’s using it, it’s still on there, giveadose.co. If you want to go on there, you can share your story or even participate in some of the activities that are on there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing how many things have arose out of last summer, really. You’re in Seattle, off the top of my head, I think about the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, and how much that was in the news in terms of the protests and people sort of creating this sort of, I guess, you could call it a safe space. I’m trying to remember from what it was during the summer, but creating this space of no police intervention and things of that nature. There’s a number of different initiatives and events and things. I mean, that time, I think really woke a lot of people up. Or at the very least, I think it just exposed them to long standing issues and things, which of course, you and I, as Black men know, have always been there. But because there’s no travel, there’s no sports, there’s no entertainment, now so many more people are forced to really confront it at face value at times when probably before they never did.

John B. Johnson:
And on top of that, I mean, I gave you a very vivid response to how I reacted to that moment. But I also did not just go and engaged in the way that everybody was doing it. I had to find and take a moment to figure out what was the way that I was going to get involved uniquely me, with my experience, with my guests, with my resources that I have in my family. And I think that that’s something that everybody I hope took some time to do during that time when we didn’t have all the distractions that we normally would have is say, “How can I show up uniquely in this moment?” Not to just run with the herd, but also like, “Hey, is this what I’m called to do?” If I am to protest peacefully or to go out and talk to a police officer that we know or to build them a website.

John B. Johnson:
Whatever it is, it’s just that space that you talked about, it created space for me to reflect on who I was. And it brought up some really, I want to say, deep-seated things that I never dealt with because I am mixed race. My mom is Italian, my dad is Black. I never met my father. But some of the things that I shared during that time with the team that was helping me build the Dose platform was that I was a product of racial tension. And I never actually thought about that until I started to see the nation and my family and my friends and the city that I was living in start to be torn apart physically right in front of me. Because I, like many other people, may have not had to deal with it in that way.

John B. Johnson:
So I started to reflect on who I was and my story and my unique perspective. And my unique perspective was the fact that I am a product of racial tension. And how do I use that to help others start to bridge the gap between races, whether it’s Black and white or mixed race and Black or whatever it is, I just use that as an opportunity. And I’m so glad that I had that opportunity because I don’t know if I would have ever taken that time to reflect on that moment, not only let alone use it, to start to project me forward in a more authentic and intentional way.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit, because you’ve brought up your family, your mom, your dad. Tell me about where you grew up.

John B. Johnson:
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, actually. Right on Lake Erie.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like growing up there?

John B. Johnson:
I was born in ’88. So I grew up, most of my childhood was spent during the ’90s, early 2000s. Cleveland, in that time, I want to say was pretty poor. Do you know of Bone Thugs and Harmony? Which I hope you do. That was their heyday, during the ’90s. Cleveland was pretty rough, I would say, especially where we grew up. We grew up on the west side of Cleveland, on West 69th in Detroit. So we were just right outside of the city. To give you some context, I actually grew up in a, I want to say, a pretty much Italian neighborhood. Actually, there was a time people there were Puerto Ricans, there were a lot of different types of cultures in Cleveland, which is why I love the city so much. But they all didn’t really want to be with each other, so another part of that racial tension.

John B. Johnson:
Let alone my mom, being a single white mother. I have two older sisters and an older brother who are all mixed race also. When I was 10 years old, my brother ended up … Was involved in a gang, ended up shooting someone, and die the next day. So my brother ended up turning himself in. And he’s been in prison since then. That was in 1999. He was 17 years old. That, I want to say, was a big part of my childhood. 10 years old, the only guy in my life ended up going to prison in that way. It was one of those experiences that really helped me stay away from those things, the system, the temptations, the opportunities to get into that type of trouble.

John B. Johnson:
I like to say that my brother was somewhat of a sacrifice for me to stay out of becoming a statistic in that way. One in three Black men in America will end up in prison in their lifetime. My brother ended up there and I made sure, my sisters also made sure that I didn’t follow in his footsteps. So that was a big part of my childhood. And that was, I think, a good representation of Cleveland in the ’90s. And I want to say that it was a great place for me to grow up outside of some of those events. I think it’s a really Midwest, kind of small, big city to grow up in Cleveland. A lot of culture, a lot of experiences. But it also was a very poor and hostile environment during the ’90s and early 2000s. And I’m just grateful that I was able to have a supportive family like my sisters to help me end up going to a private high school. And ultimately, one of the reasons why I got into architecture school.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you grow up in Little Italy?

John B. Johnson:
We were the little Little Italy. So we were in Little Italy that typically people know of. We were just outside of there, but they had a strong Italian hold and they would paint the fire hydrants the Italian flag and the flag poles and all of that. They had a strong culture there.

Maurice Cherry:
I know a little about Cleveland. My dad’s side of the family is from Cleveland and Youngstown, in the sort of Cleveland-ish area. I’ve only been … How many times I’ve been to Cleveland? Once or twice. I want to say at least twice. I know I’ve been once as an adult, which was back in 2014, 2015 for an event there. Cleveland’s a great city. Cleveland’s a great city. I really enjoyed my time there. I like how scrappy the city is. There’s a certain grit to Cleveland that … I mean, coming from Atlanta, I sort of see that same type of grit, that same type of hustle. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe because it’s Midwest, it’s sort of buttressed by the railroad industry, steam industry, coal. All of that, I guess. It’s more industrious, I should say. I had a great time when I visited Cleveland. It’s interesting, you also mentioned that about your brother. I’m curious with your brother, I don’t mean to go too far into this or anything, but you mentioned that he was sort of this influence on you, even though he wasn’t really around. Did you feel like a lot of pressure being the only man in the house?

John B. Johnson:
I want to follow up with a question with you for asking that, because I feel like you would have to understand that to really even ask that question. Yes, 100%. I felt an immense amount of pressure to not only be a man, but also to be a support to my sisters and my mother, who also had struggled with men in their life. They are all single mothers, even to this day. So not only was I watching them go through relationship after relationship, man after man, that I had to observe and watch how they would respond because I was the youngest by seven years below my brother. So that made me nine years younger than my youngest sister, and 11 years younger than my oldest sister. So I felt that a lot of pressure, 100%, to attempt to be a man.

John B. Johnson:
Which actually, ultimately, after leaving Cleveland, which I want to say that pressure was the reason why I left, was I started to find out that that pressure even existed. Because before that, I didn’t know that that pressure existed on me. And I set out to only make them proud, make my sisters proud for taking care of me and being able to send me to school. Make my mom proud because I know she had a son that ended up going to prison. Even though my brother is my best friend, and I talk to him every single day, even today I talk to him every single day, because he’s a big part of my life, back then, I didn’t talk to him at all. I don’t even know him.

John B. Johnson:
I was just the kid, the boy that had all the opportunities and talent. I was smart, I was athletic, so on and so forth. And I want to say that that was a lot of pressure but I used it, thank God, I use it in the right way. Because that’s what got me through architecture school and ending up being the only Black person in my graduating class to get my master’s of architecture, to get my MBA. Also, at the same time to be able to actually move out of Cleveland. Because I’m the only one in my family to ever leave Cleveland.

John B. Johnson:
That pressure is exactly what I needed I think, in that time in order to grow into the man that I am. And now I’ve been able to release that pressure because it was all made on me. I made it up. And now over these last nine years after being away from Cleveland, I’m now returning to Cleveland with my wife and I’m ready to be there, and to be there for that city, and to be in that city and be there for my family because now I know what it means to be a man. I had no idea what that meant back when I was 10 years old, because I had no men in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I empathize with that largely because my older brother also … It happened when I was 14, I think, he went to prison. I guess the relationship is different from what you’re mentioning with your brother in that you all are still friends. Actually, that time has completely estranged us. We are strangers to each other. He’s out now. He’s four years older than me. He’s out now. But we are complete strangers to each other. And the reason that I asked about that pressure is because I empathize with that not just the pressure of you now being the only man in the house that has to sort of provide, in a way, but then you’re also the baby, which I’m also the baby in my family, you can’t be the breadwinner and the baby. You can’t be both in that respect.

Maurice Cherry:
But then also going to school and being really smart and being really recognized for that … There are very few people I think, that really understand that sort of weird push-pull tension of being in school and achieving and doing really well and being recognized for that. And then you come back to this home life that is not that. You know what I mean? I don’t know if I’m really articulating it properly. I think you get where I’m coming from in a nonverbal way even though we can’t see each other.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s a weird particular kind of tension, because certainly, you’re achieving and you’re doing well but yet, you also have this societal pressure, this familial pressure to do well. It’s almost in a way, like you’re under a microscope. Every kind of decision that you do is scrutinized and looked over. When you said, “The pressure is why I left,” I felt that I felt 100%. “The pressure is why I left.” Because you want to break out from that crucible. You want to see what’s out there in the world past Cook County. Cleveland’s in Cook County, right?

John B. Johnson:
Cuyahoga.

Maurice Cherry:
Cuyahoga County, sorry about that. You want to break out past the county and sort of see what’s out there in the world, see if the person that that society has sort of formed you to be can exist outside of that. Because I think it’s one thing when you’re like a kid, and you’re being recognized for all your talents and things like that, but you’re like, “Can you cut it outside of this sort of environment where you’re being praised and lifted up? Can you really do well outside of that structure?” If that makes any sense.

John B. Johnson:
I think that you articulated well, Maurice. There’s not only the pressure of the family and being the baby and knowing that you should do better than those that come before you because you should be able to learn from their mistakes. But the fact is, is that as a man, being raised by all women, I felt very alone in the way that I felt, in the way that I operate and the things that I was thinking and doing and so on and so forth. Nobody could relate to me because I was the only man in my life. The only role models that I had were all attempting to court, for lack of a better word, my sisters and my mother, and I couldn’t trust them. I wanted to, but I didn’t know them. I didn’t know my father, I didn’t know anything. So I had to find out who I was almost on my own because I had no other men in my life.

John B. Johnson:
And I think that that’s a common thread in America. Especially Black America, you find our generation, the millennial generation, is one of the most … We don’t have a lot of father figures and male role models that can teach us what it means to be a man. And the generation that come before us also. That’s something I’ve had to realize, I had to get away to realize those things. I was able to use the pressure in a way of helping me accomplish and overcome a lot of barriers, which would be getting my master’s degree and leaving and so on and so forth, which aren’t easy things for anyone to do and I know that.

John B. Johnson:
But the biggest thing is, what do you do after you overcome and release the pressure? What do you do with that? That’s where I think my journey started, was when I left Cleveland and started to actually understand who I was as John B. Johnson, and not who I was as the brother and the son and the uncle and all the other things that came with that responsibility, because I had no idea what all of that was. I didn’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, man, I feel you. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s funny, I did an interview last year and someone asked me this very, kind of the same thing I’m asking you. They were sort of like, “How did you deal with it?” And it’s sort of like that, I guess, it’s like a parable or a tale about the frog in boiling water. And how the frog is sitting in the water and then you continually crank the heat up, and the water gets to the point where it’s boiling, the frog doesn’t know that the water is boiling, they’re just in the water. That’s what that experience is like.

Maurice Cherry:
You know that there are all of these psychosocial factors that are affecting you at the time but you’re not thinking of it in this sort of outside way, like, “I have to strive to do better and get through this.” You’re just getting through it. You’re just having to go through life. It’s something that you can look back on, I think, with reflection and introspection and hindsight. You look back and you’re like, “Damn, I really went through some shit and I came out on the other side.” But when you’re in it, you don’t really know that you’re in it.

John B. Johnson:
And that’s why I think it’s so important for people to leave their environments, at least for a little bit, to start to see it from a different angle and a different perspective, if possible.

Maurice Cherry:
So you ended up going to Kent State, you study architecture. What was your time like there?

John B. Johnson:
Well, Kent State was the first time I was able to go and be on my own even though I was only 45 minutes away from home. I went to all boys …

Maurice Cherry:
That’s far enough.

John B. Johnson:
That’s far enough, exactly. It’s far enough for my mom to come in and grab my laundry for me. So it was perfect. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, Benedictine High School in Cleveland. After that, I think I wanted to rebel a little bit so when I left high school, I kind of rebranded myself, which actually is a interesting point of … I call these filtering moments throughout my life. High school and college was a filtering moment where I not only filtered the people and friends that I had, but I also filtered who I was and tried on some new John Johnson. One of those ways was just obviously being away from home. Another one was just filtering out the people that I hung out with. This was also a new phase, because I had no idea what architecture was all about when I went into it.

John B. Johnson:
I knew I was good at math, I knew that I wanted to do something in engineering and mechanical. Architecture was that balance of art and science that I found to be fascinating but I had no idea what it was truly. So when I enrolled and got accepted, I took it. I had to filter a lot of my habits because architecture, if you know, is one of the hardest Bachelors of Science degrees that you can get. It was not easy. So I filtered a lot of my habits of hanging out with friends and partying and drinking and all of these other things that attempt to be the good students and to get through the schooling, which was excruciating.

John B. Johnson:
Going from high school, which is pretty easy to me, to college was a huge shift, especially in this focus of architecture. So my first semester, I almost fell out, I got a 1.9 GPA. Thank God, I did not get kicked out but I was able to … that was a wake up call that I needed, “Hey, John, this is an opportunity that you squander,” which I think happens a lot to people, especially kids going into college for the first time. So I took that as a kick in the butt and I got my GPA up to 3.5 by the time I graduated, but it was an uphill climb from there. And my whole time there was all about architecture, because that was the only way I was going to survive.

John B. Johnson:
Studying, I was in a studio, I pulled many all-nighters to do the work there. I don’t think I had a very similar experience as many people might have at Kent State, which is known as being a party school in many ways. But Kent State has an incredible architecture program that is accredited and nationally ranked. So I was blessed with the opportunity to be a part of that program. And it gave me a lot of opportunities like studying abroad in Italy for my junior year. I actually got to study abroad in Florence, Italy, and that changed my whole perspective of the world. One of the reasons why I couldn’t stay in Cleveland after I graduated, I knew there was so much more out there.

John B. Johnson:
I got to go to the UAE, United Arab Emirates, and actually present a project there. I go to Amsterdam. I got to see the world. And that perspective really changed my life, it changed my perspective. And it’s no wonder that I’m the first one in my family to leave Cleveland, still one of the first people in my friends group to leave Cleveland because I got those incredible opportunities that I think are a privilege. I actually gave a talk about this, Maurice, before. I say that design thinking is a privileged way of thinking. And I want to say that, again, that idea of design thinking during architecture school, by going and studying in Italy, by going to UAE and seeing these different cultures and meeting with different designers across the world. And not many people get those opportunities.

John B. Johnson:
So you want to talk about pressure, I’m just thankful that I had those opportunities but I also know in my heart that my family didn’t get those opportunities. My brother didn’t get that opportunity. My mother, my sisters, even my nieces and nephew haven’t gotten those opportunities. But I did so what am I going to do with them? That was the question I kept on asking myself after I graduated when I decided to get my master’s in architecture and my MBA at the same time. Like, “What am I going to do with them?” I have a responsibility to do something special with these gifts. And I think that that’s really what Kent State really set me on the path to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I almost failed out my first semester of college, too.

John B. Johnson:
We got to hang out more, man. We got to hang out more.

Maurice Cherry:
I got to Morehouse and I lost my mind. It was so different from everything that I had known and had grown up around. It was a big city. This was right after the Olympics, and Freaknik was sort of dying out. It was right after the Olympics and Atlanta, I mean, Atlanta still has a reputation of being a party city. But back then, man, I tell you, the clubs would actually send charter buses to the college, they would pick you up, take you out to the club, you’d go to the club, do whatever, and they’d bring you back to the dorm.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m surprised I got through my first semester the way I did. I mean, it was wild. So I know exactly where you got it from. But you get to college, you want to try something, try a new identity, kind of see what else is out there. Because now you’re not who you are back home. For me, this is totally different state, totally different city. “I’m going to be somebody different. I’m not going to be the kid that they thought I was back in Selma. No, I’m going to be somebody different.” I know exactly what that’s like.

John B. Johnson:
I don’t know if I would have made it at Morehouse with those stories, man. Kent State, that’s all that was there. It was the university. Ma, way to get through it.

Maurice Cherry:
So you got your master’s degree from Kent State, you graduated. Is the experience of Kent State and studying abroad what caused you to move out of Cleveland?

John B. Johnson:
I want to say it had a big influence on there. Also, my wife now, we went to school together at Kent State. She was a big influence on me, and I’ll admit it. She ended up getting her master’s degree at ASU, Arizona State University, while I was getting my master’s degree at Kent. She, I want to say, was the biggest influence for me to move to Phoenix, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
So you get to Phoenix, and you create what is essentially your first startup called Feel Free. What drove you to create your own tech startup after spending so much time working and studying architecture?

John B. Johnson:
While I was working in architecture in Phoenix, I worked there for two years at a firm called Architekton. I had this desire to be an entrepreneur. I don’t know what it was, it was just like this gut feeling of I am not good at being an employee. I had this desire to start to do my own thing. I actually got my real estate license while I was working at the architecture firm and started to use that as a way of allowing me to leave my job. I also realized that I didn’t want to be an architect, in the typical sense of the word. I started to see up close the partners at my firm, and I didn’t see myself as them. So I had to make a big decision to say, “Hey, architecture is not for me.”

John B. Johnson:
When I realized that, I gave them 30 days notice and I left architecture. Right after I did that, my friend of mine talked to me about a project that he wanted me to design a building. And that building, long story short, ended up translating into this mobile app called Feel Free, which was a mobile app that when you walked into any built environments, you were automatically checked into that space and you will see a list of all the other people that were in that space also. And the idea was to create more organic face-to-face connections outside of the typical norm during that time, I think it was 2014, of connecting with people all over the world.

John B. Johnson:
It was taking people out of the space versus making them present to the space. Which the reason why I loved architecture so much was this ability to build the built environment, and to create the human experience within spaces. So when this idea came to life, it was like, “Wow, I could use this as a tool to enhance the experience of any built environment across the world. So it was that aspiration of using technology as a way to enhance, and I want to say multiply the impact that I could have on spaces across the world versus one building at a time. That’s the typical sense of architecture. That’s what inspired me to go down that path of building a tech startup.

Maurice Cherry:
So you started Feel Free, it’s out there, you’re helping people out. What happens?

John B. Johnson:
Well, me and my co-founder gained a lot of traction. I mean, we built a brand that expanded all the way to the UK of people that wanted Feel Free in their space for that specific reason I was just sharing with you. And me and my co-founder, this was our first time ever building a startup. We had no idea what we’re doing. We were learning every day. And after a while, a number of things happened. We didn’t make any money, we did not figure out how to generate cash flow for the app. We were in the process of raising capital for the mobile application. At that time, I was struggling. Remember, I left home.

John B. Johnson:
I was about to go bankrupt. I was back on my car payments, my mortgage. I was back on everything, and I needed cash. My business partner didn’t need cash as much as I needed it, and it caused some friction. It honestly caused a lot of hostility in me, because I was attempting to build this company and make this influence and close the round of capital. Didn’t seem like he was as eager as I was. And honestly, I would say that my ego got in the way, his ego got in the way, and we clashed. Next thing you know, we split up and everything failed. Just literally stopped right there. So that was about a year-and-a-half in. That was my first, I want to say, big failure as an entrepreneur.

Maurice Cherry:
What did that teach you?

John B. Johnson:
I learned a lot both from the failure but also from the successes of that venture. Specifically, with my co-founder, taught me the value of communication with other human being that’s in the business with you, the value of, I want to say, trust. But also the value of not leaving any room for gray area. We get into trouble in business when you leave room, gray area, because it doesn’t make it as black and white as it needs to be. Because the gray area is the fact that we’re human beings, the business is black and white. That’s just something I learned tremendously from that experience. And I will never enter into a business relationship again without a signed operating agreement, without very clear understanding of how things will happen if things happen. Things that we did not have in place when we broke up and when all that friction hit the fan. That was huge for me and it helped me have healthier business relationships moving forward from there.

John B. Johnson:
And on the flip side of that, we built an incredible brand of just a well-known brand across Phoenix. And it started building traction across the world. We built a beautiful mobile application experience. I found my passion for building those communities. Feel Free was when I realized that I had a passion for community building, and I was living that out. Even after we failed, that feedback from people saying that, “Hey, you live that community building piece that Feel Free represented.” That was just a really good piece of encouragement I needed after failing in my first startup but that’s what I used to drive me in all of my other endeavors. Even including A Small Studio now.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s a good thing to still be able to kind of draw something from what could be, for a lot of business owners, a really bad situation. You start your own business and it doesn’t work out. And you have to cash out or you have to sell it or you have to shut it down and you have to move on to what the next thing is. I know a lot of times in entrepreneurial culture, and I feel like this is probably specific or maybe endemic of Black entrepreneurs, this whole thing about having to hustle hard and grind and there’s so much emphasis put on making the business work.

Maurice Cherry:
That when it doesn’t work, it can really sort of cast a shadow over you and make you feel like you failed. But you drew something from that experience of the fact that, one, it showed that you know how to build a brand, which is what you’ve been able to use as the catalyst for A Small Studio. But then two, now you know what not to do next time, and that’s a lesson that you really, unfortunately, you have to learn the hard way of what not to do.

John B. Johnson:
I mean, failure is one of those ways of learning so much. I don’t even think failure is a bad thing. I think it’s a really good thing. We’re all going to fail at something. And I hope we do because that helps us learn just, like you just said. It just helps us learn what not to do, it helps us learn what we should do. Those opportunities to reflect are important. I want to comment on the hustle culture that you just shared, because I think it’s just a culture in general, hustle, grind. And that’s one of the main reasons why I want to say I failed at the beginning was I was constantly trying to get to the yes versus getting to the no.

John B. Johnson:
And that was one of the biggest things that I learned on my journey is that as I understand myself better, and I understand what I’m being called to do and what my mission is and vision and focus is, I don’t have to deal with trying to work with everybody and trying to get money from everybody, to try and get everybody to download my app or whatever it is. Now, it filters a lot of the nonsense and a lot of the distractions the more intentional and the more reflective you become on your identity. And that’s, obviously, a big part of my work now.

John B. Johnson:
But the more I understand myself, the less I hustle. Because I worked harder and now I work smarter, not harder. The more I understand who I am and what I’m being called to do, the less I try to get yeses from everybody. And I think what you were referencing in Black culture, what I’ve seen is that scarcity mindset of, “I’m not good enough so I need to show up in a way that people would think that I’m good enough and will give me the help that I need or the support I need or the money that I need.” Versus, “Hey, I’m good enough. I’m everything that I need to be. Here’s what I’m doing. Do you want to be a part of it with me?”

John B. Johnson:
That’s what I learned, is I was trying to get help from everybody because I needed help. And honestly, I probably, now that we’ve talked about it, it relates back to my lack of a father, lack of a male role model. So I was trying to get help from everybody, when actually, I needed to take time to understand what was I being called to, who am I and then present that to people authentically and to see if they align with that or not. It would have saved me a lot of pain, it will save me a lot of money, would’ve saved me a lot of time.

Maurice Cherry:
After what happened with Feel Free, how long did you stay in Phoenix before you ended up moving to Seattle?

John B. Johnson:
We were there for about a year-and-a-half. Feel Free ended, I want to say, early 2016, and we left at the end of 2017 so about a year-and-a-half.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. And you mentioned your wife works at Amazon. So that’s sort of what prompted the move also?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. Jeff Bezos came with his checkbook and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She was working at PetSmart and then got the opportunity with Amazon. We actually had just bought a home and settled into our townhome, furnished it, and everything. And six months later, we were in Seattle. So we kind of uprooted everything and moved there.

Maurice Cherry:
How has Seattle been different from Phoenix?

John B. Johnson:
Seattle is much less diverse than Phoenix, even though Phoenix is much less diverse than Cleveland. Downtown Seattle is a very, very unique place. I would say that I’m one of a handful of Black people that live in downtown Seattle because of how expensive it is to live here. The property values and the way Amazon has blown up the city has been uncanny. I mean, for the longest time, Seattle had the most number of cranes out of anywhere in the world. It’s blown up. Phoenix was not like that at all. Phoenix was actually the exact opposite from a density standpoint. Phoenix was much more spread out. We had Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, all these cities, but Phoenix was, I mean, Phoenix is one of the longest, I guess, largest cities per square miles out of any other city. It’s massive so it’s spread out. There’s a lot less of, I want to say, resources in Phoenix, especially from a startup perspective. So much slower pace than Seattle.

John B. Johnson:
Seattle is a big city. I mean, it’s one of the biggest cities in the country. And for me, going from Cleveland to Phoenix to Seattle, I had to change my way of showing up. To the point of like, “Hey, I’m in a much more affluent city. These people really are doing things that are on a larger level than in Phoenix.” Phoenix felt like a early stage city. They want to be big but they’re still trying to figure out who they are. And Seattle was a little later stage. They’re a little more mature. And the dichotomy of the two was Phoenix had that welcoming, warm community feel of like, “We’re all figuring it out together.” Especially in the startup world.

John B. Johnson:
And then Seattle had none of that. It was like you either know people or you don’t. And if you don’t, good luck. There was no warm welcome. There was no place where you can go to get connected into the city, into the communities. None of that existed, which actually prompted me to build a 1 Million Cups Community here in Seattle and get into other things. Because I learned a lot from Phoenix where there they had this grassroots ecosystem of entrepreneurship and the startup experience. Seattle, there was no grassroots. It was all big players. You had Amazon, you had Costco, you have Microsoft, you have all of these huge players.

John B. Johnson:
I like to think about it from a conceptual standpoint, these are big trees. The monkeys hang out in the trees up above the ground. Phoenix was more on the ground level. They didn’t have big trees down there. They didn’t have any big players in Phoenix. So when I got there, I’m like, “Hey, where’s everybody at? What are we doing here on the ground level? What seeds are we planting?” I mean, coming in very optimistic and also naïve, I’m like, “Let’s try to plant some seeds.” And I just decided to start building things. I didn’t wait for people to tell me what to do or how to do it.

John B. Johnson:
I was meeting people. I’ve met 40 people in the first two weeks that I was there from all over the city. I learned a lot of what I learned attempting to find myself and build my career in Phoenix. I used all of that to move the momentum into Seattle and show up in a different way. I want to say that operating in Seattle has definitely matured me as a business leader. It’s also matured me, I want to say, as a man, as a husband living in, in a big city, downtown Seattle like this.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard about the infamous Seattle freeze. Sounds like that’s kind of a little bit of what you experienced when you started out there.

John B. Johnson:
Unfortunately, that is something that’s very relevant here. I think it’s just a lack of belonging, a lack of culture, a lack of community. It’s either you’re in or you’re out. Thank God, he gifted me with a gift of charisma and fearlessness because I broke that Seattle freeze real quick. [crosstalk 01:01:42]

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I swear, Atlanta is the exact opposite of that. Everyone that comes here is welcomed, almost profusely, in some way. It’s interesting that Seattle still carries that connotation.

John B. Johnson:
You can’t even make eye contact on the streets when you walk down the street.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

John B. Johnson:
When I go home to Cleveland, I’m like, “Hey.” It’s nice to make eye contact with strangers on the street because Seattle, people don’t do that. It’s wild.

Maurice Cherry:
You wouldn’t get away with that in Atlanta. You try walking by somebody and not speaking and see what happens. Don’t do that. As I’m talking to you, as I’m getting a sense of your body of work, identity is a key factor in pretty much everything that you’ve done, pretty much in who you are. Why is that so important? Why is it such an important facet in your work?

John B. Johnson:
Identity is something that is core to each individual as a person. It’s only something that you can find as a human being. I think we all can agree that each and every one of us is unique in one way. We’re all one in 7.8 billion. Identity is one of those things that I found to be very overlooked and I want to say written off as not that important. Specifically, in my generation, I found people attempting to go after the hustle culture, the money or the success or the fame or the girl or the guy or whatever it is, before they even think about who they are. As you so beautifully walked me through my story, Maurice, you see there’s a lot of dynamic experiences in my life that have made me uniquely equipped to approach this work and help other people reflect on those experiences.

John B. Johnson:
Just like the ones I just shared with you, in order to realize, “Hey, you can use those experiences as motivation, instead of being motivated by money, instead of being motivated by success or climbing the ladder, or whatever it is.” So my brother is one of my biggest motivators because he is somebody that went to prison at 17 and has inspired me in ways that I can’t even comprehend. He’s been in prison for 24 years. What better motivator can I find than that? That’s a unique experience only I have lived through my eyes, along with my mother and my sisters, and my Cleveland experience and Italy and Feel Free and architecture and all of those things. All of those experiences give me a unique ability that no one else has in the world to show up and to impact people’s lives in a powerful way.

John B. Johnson:
And I started to realize how powerful it is for people to find that little bit of light that lives inside of them or what I like to call identity. Because they can use that as a candle that will never go out, as a flame that will never go out, and motivation that’s unlimited. And to use those experiences to help others, I believe that that’s the purpose for our life. Identity is something that I started to realize do my work of branding. That I was helping them brand their company. But what I realized was that that who they were as people was the exact thing that they needed to focus on to stand out in the marketplace, to find the motivation to grow the company from $1 to a million, to lead authentically and powerfully their people or to be innovative.

John B. Johnson:
Whatever it is, all of that came from within them. It didn’t come from outside, it never does. It always comes from within, I started to realize that. So identity architecture was a term that I came up with to utilize my $80,000 degree that I didn’t make $80,000 on, but I had to put it to use somehow. I started to realize how important it was to empower individuals with this. And by empowering individuals to understand who they are, it actually starts to strengthen the communities in which they belong to and ultimately starts to reshape cultural outcomes. So for me as a Black man in America, I’m one of the few that are agency leader. I’m one of the only one in my family to ever get married, I’m the only one in my family ever leave Cleveland.

John B. Johnson:
And as I move back to Cleveland, I know that I’ve overcome and changed cultural outcomes just by understanding who I was better and not attempting to identify or attach myself to cultural stigmas or stereotypes or stats that would actually put me in prison. You know what I mean? Specifically for Black America, our identity has been dismantled and raped and just crumbled for a reason. I feel like identity and helping people understand and check in with themself in ways that only they can to make them one in 7.8 billion would actually be the key to us creating a better society and a better world together.

Maurice Cherry:
I wanted to kind of dive into sort of that title of identity architect. But you did a great job there of kind of just explaining it. Like other Black agency owners, I mean, I don’t know sort of how it looks in Seattle in terms of other just Black businesses that you’ve encountered. But have you met any other Black agency owners, whether it’s through networking or anything like that?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah, I’ve met a few. Gus Granger, he’s actually down in Dallas. He works at VSA Partners now. He’s an incredible guy. I met a couple others that are a little smaller agencies but it’s been very, very few and far between. I didn’t set out to build an agency. When I started A Small Studio, it was just something that I felt like I could do. Next thing you know, I’m building a movement in the way that I’ve just shared with you. So I haven’t really tempted to follow the model of what an agency is, I’ve actually started to press into who I am uniquely as an agency leader and how I can help influence designers and creatives in a powerful way.

John B. Johnson:
It’s been few and far between, honestly, Maurice. And that’s actually a big part of why I found you and how I found you, how I found your work and the work that you’re doing. Also, it’s been a big motivator for me this year to make sure that I’m getting out there to not only find others that are just like me, that have gone through similar things, but also to make sure that others know that I exist, and that it is possible to build a million dollar agency to succeed in Seattle if you’re the only one there, to be the only one in your graduating class. Only this has been a common denominator throughout my life and I want to say it’s for a reason. I know that it’s still being fleshed out.

Maurice Cherry:
Given where you are now in your career with the challenges that you face, with the goals that you’ve accomplished, et cetera, how do you navigate expectations that others might have about you?

John B. Johnson:
The only expectations that I make myself navigate are God’s expectations that I hear as I continue to build my relationship with God, my wife’s expectations, and I want to say my brother’s. Outside of that, I think our expectations of others is something that’s really hard to navigate, period, for anyone. I’ve learned that over the years as I shared my story with you. I’m doing my best not to have expectations of others but to only have expectations of myself and I do my best to share that with other people that perspective. I’d say that as I’ve grown, I’m 33 this year, as I’ve grown as a man, as a leader, as a husband, as a brother, as a son, all of those things, I’ve started to, I want to say, release those expectations from myself, and release not even, I want to say, as Jay Z’s like, “I’m just dusting my shoulders off.” I’m not going to carry those expectations because those expectations create that pressure.

John B. Johnson:
Now, that I’m moving back to Cleveland, we touched on this in this interview, I’m moving back to Cleveland with that lightness that I don’t think I had when I left in the first place because I’ve released myself of those expectations. Not only were on me from my mom, my sisters, my brother, my wife’s family, my friends. And I’m going back there with one intention and that’s for me to have an incredible relationship with God, be a husband to my wife, and to be a citizen that cares for the city. But those expectations have come from something that are not from just people, those expectations have come from within myself as I’ve done a lot of reflection, a lot of growth.

Maurice Cherry:
When are you expecting to move back to Cleveland?

John B. Johnson:
May. Right after my birthday, May 5th.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So not that far away. Given that and we’re kind of wrapping up the interview here, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, besides in Cleveland, where do you see yourself? Or what kind of work would you like to be doing?

John B. Johnson:
Identity architecture is something that I feel is my calling, is the way that I live life on purpose. Actually, I see myself sharing this methodology and this philosophy with the world. In the next five years, I hope to actually be building a creative community of impact-driven designers, that specifically use identity architecture, and use this methodology in a way of being more authentic with the way that they design. Just like IDEO really coined the term design thinking, I really want to move identity architecture to the next level to be a tool that people can use to authentically represent themselves out in the world, but also I authentically represent others and serve others. In five years, A Small Studio will be thriving. I feel like we can be a community of 20,000, maybe even 50,000 creatives who focus on impact-driven design and want to use their gifts to bring peace to people’s lives.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

John B. Johnson:
Our website is asmallstudio.com. I have been very, very intentional on Instagram @johnbcreating. So you can check me out there, listen, follow along with the things that I’m doing, engage with me there. That’s really the best ways of finding me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, John B. Johnson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, your story, I think, is one that hopefully will inspire a lot of people not just in terms of the adversity that you’ve had to go through, but the lessons that you’ve been able to pull from those situations, and how you’ve been able to turn that into really doing something for the greater community. I mean, even as we were talking, I’m noticing these parallels to myself in a lot of ways. So I know that identity is something that is super important to you, and I really get the sense that like this is a calling for you. It’s not just, “I just stumbled into it and I’m good at it.” This is what you kind of were put here to do. So I’m excited to see what comes next for you in the next few years. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

John B. Johnson:
Thank you, Maurice. It’s a pleasure and an honor, brother.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

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As a creative, Delanie West contains multitudes. She has over 20 years of experience in the design industry across product development, packaging, experience design, and creative global sourcing. She’s lead creative teams, served on executive committees, and has been influential in mentoring designers and developers from all over.

Delanie is also the brains behind BeSuperCreative, a consultancy that helps people and organizations bring their creative ideas to life. We talked about how she got her start in design from an ad in The New York Times, what she looks for when hiring for creative teams, her time at Hampton University, and a lot more. Delanie’s goal is to help designers evolve their career past just delivering on a creative brief, so make sure you pay attention to her advice in this week’s episode!

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Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
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If there’s anything I learned from talking with Thomas Dang, it’s that he really puts a lot of effort into not just making sure his work is seen, but that it’s felt as well. That can be a difficult thing for a graphic designer to do, but Thomas’ unique mix of skills gives him a perspective many others don’t have.

Thomas is currently pursuing his MBA while freelancing, so we talked about how what he’s studying factors into his life as a designer. From there, Thomas shared the early days of his career, gave his thoughts on the Cleveland design community, and he talked about his dream project of reaching out and teaching design to his local community. I appreciate Thomas for being so candid and open about his life, and thanks to Alex Binder for the introduction!

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Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
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Revision Path is also sponsored by Glitch. Glitch is the friendly community where you can build the app of your dreams. Stuck on something? Get help! You got this!
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Revision Path is also brought to you by Google Design! Google Design is committed to sharing the best design thinking from Google and beyond. Sign up for their newsletter!
Revision Path is brought to you by MailChimp. Huge thanks to them for their support of the show! Visit them today and say thanks!
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