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.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Caitlin Crews

Adobe is a company that is synonymous with the creative industry, so I was really excited to finally talk with someone from the company for Revision Path! Meet Caitlin Crews: a creative outreach and design specialist on the Adobe Stock team.

We started off talking about Caitlin’s day-to-day work, which includes a lot of writing, interviewing, and discovering new designers from all over the world. Caitlin also talked about her photography background, her work with Lord and Taylor, and she shared how she’s helping use her current work to create a more equitable future. After listening to Caitlin’s story, I hope you’ll become inspired to contribute more to the world as well!

Links

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Caitlin Crews: Hi, my name is Caitlin Crews and I am a creative outreach and design specialist at Adobe.

Maurice Cherry: Now what does a creative outreach and design specialist do? I’m curious. Tell me a little bit about that.

Caitlin Crews: I actually worked on the Adobe Stock team. So a lot of people think of Stock photography, but we have what we call kind of complex or extended assets, meaning we have motion graphic templates, design templates, 3D models and such. So a lot of people just think of, this the tick vocal stock photography, but I actually work on the templates team. So my day to day with that is I’m working with graphic designers globally to bring their work into a marketplace.

Maurice Cherry: Now I’ve seen it inside of Photoshop where you can link to Adobe Stock and different libraries. I’ll be honest, I’ve never really used it. I feel like it was one of those things at Adobe because Adobe tends to just roll out updates come so fast and furious and there’s so many things in it. I’d never get a chance to really experience everything that the Adobe products can do.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah. So within the applications for illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign, we offer free templates. So we’re working with designers to do very specialized content. When Photoshop is rolling out something new or InDesigns rolling out a new feature, those templates that you find in the application are actually designed and best practice with the application to feature something new depending on what that new tool is. Also, it’s a way for us to kind of work individually with artists or small design studios to kind of bring their work a little bit more into the forefront. Also we have a subscription paid situation through our website and there are of course 10 more, a lot more templates there. But what you find in command in and the new dialog box for those apps are we’re refreshing them a couple times a year. So it’s a great way for people who really aren’t sure how to use InDesign, or people who are maybe familiar with illustrator but not Photoshop to kind of explore and see how files are set up properly. So it’s a lot of like design thinking and a lot of best practices being put into those templates.

Maurice Cherry: I see. I didn’t even think about it that way that you could really see how someone else’s file structure and things are. I’ve seen those sort of templates and designs before and I’m like I can’t do that. Well the candidate thing, it’s like a tutorial or something. I’m not going to do that. I just need to like resize this photo or something. That’s interesting to know that people are kind of using it in that way.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, let people we have strong download numbers I think week to week in that and those are free. Like if you’re a trial user and you want to kind of test and see what that’s like, it’s great. If you’re someone who needs a new resume and you want to do it InDesign those are just kind of like great places. I always tell people to start there. And then also people who are creating new work for the marketplace of Adobe Stock just as nice way to see like this is how it should be done and this is probably like maybe the best way for another user or your end user to be able to use this template. So yeah, it was a whole new world for me coming in this role. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: It’s like instructive as well as sort of a showcase in a way.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah. And I learned a lot. Like I’m adverse to Illustrator completely. I’m like, oh, I don’t want to touch it, no thank you. But being able to kind of see how it works and working with these designers on it, like day to day basis, I learned a lot very quickly.

Maurice Cherry: So in a normal day, you say you’re helping designers get on the market place. Can you talk about like what that process is like for designers that are listening now? How would they work with you say to get their work on the marketplace?

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, so what we do is our process right now is kind of like an invite only. So a lot of my job is researching and finding people online or through conversation that would be interested in doing this type of work. So it’s usually a pretty interesting conversation of like this is what you do, this is how it gets done. And we actually have like our specs, our requirements for everyone per application to kind of follow. There’s a contract that needs to be signed and then we kind of work. It’s mostly like, okay, I see somebody’s work online. I like it. I think it may be interesting to see it as a template and then we kind of go from there. Through that process I’m also kind of guiding them a little bit through creative direction I’m looking at what’s selling, what’s not doing so well.

Caitlin Crews: Actually asking people to switch apps. So if someone’s making a lot of work in Illustrator and I’m like, ah, this is actually better InDesign, can I give you the tools to revamp your work and InDesign because it may sell a little bit better or it may perform a little bit better. So it’s this multifaceted like mind switch. And working with people globally is been a really interesting thing as well. Like I sadly don’t speak a second language, but being able to decipher and be able to communicate with people that are in Spain or Italy or I think I have someone in like there’s people in like Ireland. You know what I mean? So it’s just kind of like this being able to communicate broadly. It can be a little difficult, a little bit hard, but it’s just really interesting to see like what you get back through those conversations.

Maurice Cherry: And so because it’s a market place, some things are free, some things are paid. So these designers are also earning revenue from being in the market too.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, earning revenue and kind of explaining how that works. A lot of the free content, like that’s a completely different contract. So it’s like you’re getting paid for your work, we’re not taking your work and just trying to sell it for free. But it’s a whole process when it comes to making sure that artists get paid and make a living. A lot of it for a lot of people is passive income and you can make a group of templates and we can get them online and you can just kind of like, okay, let’s see how it goes and test the waters and see. But a lot of it it’s kind of like a passive income. We’ve had a few people, a few Adobe Stock artists that were doing this in their spare time and we’re able to like open small studios and do it as their full time job is making design templates for marketplaces.

Maurice Cherry: Oh nice.

Caitlin Crews: Yes. It’s fun to see that happen.

Maurice Cherry: So when you’re doing this outreach, like I’m curious like what’s a normal day like for you or are you just like scouring the web and just reaching out to people?

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, scouring the web, reaching out to people. Also finding really good resources. I loved meeting people in person. I never really go in being like, hey can I sell you on this thing. It’s more like I really want to get to know the people, the artists that we’re working with. I really want to get to know like things that they want to try but they’re not really sure how to.

Caitlin Crews: So even meeting people in person has been, if you go to a talk or you go to a panel or what have you, just kind of meeting designers out in the real world I think is the most important and constantly keeping your eyes like on Instagram. I think predominantly everyone I follow now is like some sort of designer or illustrator. Just kind of like being able to see what’s happening right now InDesign and thinking about what it’s going to do in the future. Like, especially from an aesthetic standpoint, just what does it look like and how does it function? So it’s a lot of research and it’s a lot of just like kicking around ideas most of the day. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Now Adobe, I don’t know, it kind of has a contentious relationship I feel like with designers because it’s the tool that many of us started with. Like it’s the tool that many of us just sort of cut our teeth with whether we paid for it or pirated it as I or whatever. But like it’s the tool that we use to kind of not only sort of get our feet wet with what we could do digitally, but also to learn about like different terms and things like before design I had never heard of like cropping or rasterize. Because I didn’t go to design school so I didn’t know any of that stuff. But I knew I really liked graphics. I had a copy of Photoshop and I learned really kind of like a second vocabulary through the tools and learning about like different blend modes and what does that mean?

Maurice Cherry: And that got me more interested in learning about design. So for a lot of designers, Adobe’s like an education to them, like learning the tool, learning things from that. However, Adobe also gets a lot of flack because, well I think it’s probably most people know about the pricing. Adobe went from, well I think at one point in time they just had, you could buy the downloaded actual software and that was pretty expensive. So now going to this sort of monthly model, monthly subscription model of subscribing to all of the apps or any number of apps you wanted to, which a lot of designers in necessarily feel like was something they could do, like they can afford. And I feel like there was like an inflection point when that happened because then you started seeing a lot of these difference, almost anti Adobe design tools come out because they’re like, oh, I can’t pay for Photoshop, so I need to make something else that can do the same things or similar things.

Maurice Cherry: And a lot of that is borrowed from Photoshop, like the terminology, the things it can do, et cetera. A lot of that, I mean Photoshop like the OG in that respect. So that in like is it challenging talking to designers when you let them know like I’m from Adobe because of that kind of stigma?

Caitlin Crews: I think so. A lot of people, when I do approach them, I do talk to them. It’s like, no, you’re not. Like I’m not a real person. Like I was actually trying to assign a contributor artist onto stock and she was like, can you send me your LinkedIn page? I don’t believe you are who you are. And I was like, well, there are real people. There are a lot of us at this company and I think that when you have a product, like the products that Adobe has put out and I think has been around for a very long… It’s like some application had been around for 35 years and in the world of technology, that’s a long time. I think that what’s interesting is like, yeah, I mean as someone who also don’t tell anyone, but we’re going to tell everybody I also would pirate, you know what I mean Photoshop because I had to do something.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, I think that it’s just you know what I mean? It’s kind of like this barrier of entry and I think what Adobe is trying to do is to price things at a way that’s still competitive but also like it’s a company you have to realize they need to make their money too. But I think that with every step of the way and the new applications that are coming out and the new software that’s coming out, I think that just makes it healthy. I think that Adobe has always been kind of in the forefront of that technology, but it wouldn’t be a true world if there wasn’t someone out there to kind of push at that a little bit.

Caitlin Crews: And I think that’s the role of creatives always to question and also reinvent. So is that a good or bad thing for Adobe? I’m not exactly sure. I think as long as the wheel keeps spinning and we keep innovating, I think that no matter how you get the work done, you’re going to get it done. So that’s kind of my take on it. I don’t have any official word from my company, but-

Maurice Cherry: Oh no, no, no. Yeah, I completely understand that. I mean, and Adobe continues to innovate. I mean, with the subscription price, like so for example, I have mine through my company I work for, for Glitch and so we’re able to all of the Adobe apps, of course Photoshop, Illustrator InDesign, I use Premiere, I use Audition. There’s a number of different ones and then that also extends to the mobile apps as well. And I’m always finding something new aside from just new features that Adobe rolls out, I’m always finding something new I can do with Photoshop that I didn’t know that I could do before. I think probably one of the biggest game changes for me was two of them. The first one was how you could straighten images using the ruler tool. I had no clue about that. Like, I think I lucked up on that one day and was like galaxy brain, like I can’t believe I can’t do this now.

Maurice Cherry: I can straighten crooked images with the ruler tool. And then the second thing was the content aware fill how Adobe’s using like machine learning and AI to fill in parts of an image magically that don’t exist. I mean just it’s like magic. It’s like, oh this makes my job so much easier. I don’t have to like clone stamp and blur, clone stamp and blur to try to get the texture right or whatever. I mean, I don’t know. I see what you’re saying about, I kind of be in that healthy competition. I mean I do have Adobe apps, but I’ve also got the full affinity suite of apps. I’ve got designer and following publisher and I’ve used those as well on times where I couldn’t use Photoshop because it didn’t work for a certain thing that I needed to do, but affinity did. So I can see where that could be healthy competition.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah. I think it’s also just always important to know what tools are out there, no matter if it’s with an Adobe product or not. Just kind of like what can I do to get this done? And I think that’s just super important as well. There are tools in Photoshop I took a, we’ll probably get into it, but I took a break for a little while in the creative space to kind of stopped and coming back into using Photoshop I was like, where did this come from? Why didn’t I know about this? This would have saved me so many tears about three years ago. What happened?

Caitlin Crews: But it’s interesting to watch these products continue to develop because there’s a reason to why there is content aware fill now. You know what I mean? They’re realizing, oh okay, if we can do this through machine learning and AI, why not make it slightly easier for somebody? So I do find that to be really interesting and also like a big thank you when you’re doing design work.

Maurice Cherry: And speaking of content, I mean Adobe has been really like not so suddenly flexing in the content creation department. For the past few years, like there’s been live streams, of course there’s conferences like Adobe MAX. Of course there’s all the articles and things on the Adobe blog. How does that factor into your work, if any? Like that’s stuff that you have to work with as well?

Caitlin Crews: For sure. Outside of doing the day to day finding new contributors and finding new artists to work with. There’s also like we’re a pretty small team and Adobe Stock is rather new compared to other departments within Adobe. And so a lot of that the blog writing, doing contributor interviews and spotlights, writing about new features that we’re finding within templates or marketing that also comes from my team. So also on top of the day to day, and there’s also I’m writing blog post, I’m working with marketing teams, I’m also building collections. That’s another big part of my job right now is to build highlighting the best of the templates collection and making sure that that gets out to the marketing team. So on Twitter or on through internal communication, just so people know, kind of like what we’re doing and what we’re producing.

Caitlin Crews: And that’s something else that I work on. So it’s actually in ground very deeply into my role. So it’s like it’s not just one thing. You’re always wearing different hats and it’s always like, I call it the brain switch constantly. One moment you’re focused on, okay, getting someone’s contract done and processed and ready and the next thing you’re like, oh, okay, cool. I get to switch gears and write about an interview another designer. Have those like really awesome conversations about their process and how they thought of this concept or why did they choose this route.

Caitlin Crews: So yeah, it’s a multiple fold kind of job and it’s something that I think I like and I excel in, even with Adobe MAX getting prepared for that this year. There’s always something. It’s either you’re trying to find content to feature during MAX or this year the template scene, we don’t have too many features coming, but like a couple of years ago we announced Adobe Stock.

Caitlin Crews: So that was like really interesting. And I was there a couple of years ago working in the booth, meaning people. You get the craziest questions sometimes I don’t tell people I worked for Adobe because it’s like I was at a conference, I was actually at the Black is Tech Conference on a panel this was early spring and Adobe has their like booth up because it was also like a recruiting event for us. And I’m there and this kid comes up to me and call me kid, but he’s a grown man comes up to me and was like, can you help me with my Photoshop? And I was like, actually I can, so sure. But like every single time you mentioned you worked for Adobe, it’s like my account won’t think or like it’s just you get the craziest stuff and I’m just like, whoa, that’s so out of my lane. I don’t know, but let me try to find someone that can help you. That’s like the biggest thing is just like I may not be able to do it but like give me your information and I’ll try to help you out.

Maurice Cherry: You are like tech support basically.

Caitlin Crews: All of the time. All of the time. I was somewhere, someone was like, “Oh, where do you work?” And I go, “I work at Adobe.” And he was like immediately wait, let me open my laptop. Can I show you something? And I’m like, “Ah.”

Maurice Cherry: Oh boy.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Maurice Cherry: So we met in a slack room. We met in the Black is design slack room. And I know that your job has to do with, of course finding designers. I would imagine diversity plays a big part in that. And when you booked, you said the first thing that you said was, I really would love to chat about where to find diverse black designers. You are in the perfect place to have the conversation, so let’s chop it up.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: What questions do you have? I’m curious.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah. I think for me it was like I’ve spent my time in different fields, right? So getting kind of back into design was like a shift for me. And then realizing, I don’t know if you’ve felt this, but I’m sure you have. It’s like, okay, you’re the only one in the room. And for me it didn’t matter what industry is and if it was in the museums or art or if it was in fashion and photography. I was usually only the only one. So I was like, hold on, I’m in this position now to actually help and elevate designers at a company that is for designers.

Caitlin Crews: So my thing is just like, where do I find everybody? And then I found that Slack group and I was like, Oh, okay. I found it. This is great. It was just one of those things where it’s just like, well, where do I begin? And being in New York too, it’s I feel like things are so specialized and so niche sometimes where I’m just like, who am I to walk into this space? And the thing about also being in that Slack group, it’s like I didn’t come into that Slack group being like, hey guys, who wants to sign up to be an Adobe stock contributor? I haven’t done that at all. It’s more so I just want to get to know people where they’re…

Caitlin Crews: … to know people, where their struggles are in this space and what kind of person can I be in that moment as either an aid or someone who helps or mentors in this space. I think finding those pockets and those areas is super, super important. I also think that having those connections means a lot to a lot of people. Looking at the Slack groups and looking at different boards, I think there’s another group called African-American Graphic Designers and being in that space has been eye opening as well. I think I’ve found a few spaces since I put that question out there, but yeah, I’m always curious to be like, “Where is everybody?” All of the time. It’s interesting, like even my brother, he’s a sales dude in telecommunications, he’s a VP of sales for a company and we have this conversation all the time of like, “Where is everybody?”

Caitlin Crews: How is it this the age and this year and I’m still sometimes the only one in the room, it doesn’t make sense. So when you go to find that and you’re like, okay, and it has to be done in a meaningful way, where do you begin, where do you start? Actually finding that Slack group was, just for me, myself, my own personal career journey, a huge thank you. Because always and often in the world I can walk into art shows and be like, “Okay cool, how am I in New York and I’m the only black person in this room?” That’s insane to me. That’s the thing that I want to break down, but also preserve space, I think that’s super important as well.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. I’ve mostly just found people online. People always ask me like, “How are you able to find so many designers for Revision Path?” And I’m like, “On LinkedIn.” That’s usually how I do find people. I’ll search LinkedIn, I’ll go through their connections, I see who their connections know. Sometimes I’ll just pull up a company and just look through who their employees are and try to find the one or two black people that might be in there that might be in design. But then even just from people who I’ve had on the show, there’s been a lot of referrals.

Maurice Cherry: I’ll interview someone and I’ll say, “Oh well if you know some people who you think might be good to have on the show, let me know.” From there I’ve been able to build up not just the network for the show, but we’ve got a running list of about, I don’t know, maybe about 2,000 or so people that could be on the show. They’re not just in the US they’re worldwide. Which, even if you think about it is a small number just when you think about the size of the design industry, but they’re out there. It’s harder to find I think for one because of networking and two, because the overall design community has not placed any level of prioritization around spotlighting voices unless it happens to be that diverse voice’s affinity month. You’ll hear about us during February, that ain’t no problem. They’ll find black designers in February, they’ll find Hispanic designers between September and October for Hispanic Heritage Month. They’ll find Asian designers in, I think May is when Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month is.

Maurice Cherry: But it’s like you’ll find them during that time, but then other times of the year it’s non-existent because they haven’t made an attempt to really diversify really who they showcase. A lot of this is perpetuated unfortunately by design media, this is a big reason that I started Revision Path is that I didn’t see other designers I knew who were doing really great work ever being recognized or ever being showcased and I’m like, well, there needs to be a platform to showcase this work they’re doing, so I guess I have to be the one to make the platform.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, I think it’s a great platform. I’ve listened to this podcast, so it’s exciting for me to actually be here, but also part of my other role at Adobe is I am one of the co-leads for the Black Employee Network in New York for Adobe. So that has been an awesome experience as well, is to be connected with other black employees in New York. And the gamut, right? You have people in marketing and people in sales, you have people in design and people who are engineers and getting together with people and being able to talk about what those struggles are in our day to day. Then also having connections with other black employee networks in other offices for Adobe has been this amazing place and being able to elevate certain voices. So my job, my day to day is finding these designers, but I have literally baked it into my KPIs with my manager to make sure that I am elevating certain voices.

Caitlin Crews: I also set personal goals for myself every year to sign… I was like, I definitely want to sign on at least three black designers by the end of the year. I also want to be able to make sure that I am working with a lot of women designers as well because I was like, okay, we have this platform, we have this space, let’s make sure we’re using it to the best of our ability for those people who usually are looked over or are not recognized. I mean that might not be everybody’s goal, but it’s definitely one of mine in my day to day.

Maurice Cherry: For designers that are listening, how can they become an Adobe Stock Contributor? Is there a process or a form they have to fill out or anything?

Caitlin Crews: There’s a process and a form. I’m trying to think of the best way to go about it. But usually if you navigate through the helpx section of Adobe, you will find the templates page there and there is a form that you can fill out and that will come to my team and we’ll review portfolios and contact you. Our bandwidth isn’t the biggest compared to think what people may think it may be, but it’s a very small, small team going through the process. But yeah, through the helpx page and you can look for templates, there’s a form there and you’ll be able to find us.

Maurice Cherry: And that’s just helpx.adobe.com?

Caitlin Crews: Yes.

Maurice Cherry: Gotcha. Okay. Yeah, I’ll try to find it and put a link to it in the show notes because I’m sure people that are listening will want to be able to get in contact with the team and submit their work so we can help you meet those KPIs, we’ve got to look out for you. I want to go more into your career, but let’s learn more about you. I started doing my research, I saw you’re from a small town called Uniontown, in Pennsylvania?

Caitlin Crews: Yes.

Maurice Cherry: Talk to me about growing up there.

Caitlin Crews: Oh wow. Okay. I just talked to my parents today, so I’m feeling very nostalgic and excited to actually go back for Thanksgiving. If you would have asked me that a couple of years ago, I’d be like, I’m never going back. But it’s a really small town, about an hour and 15 minutes south of Pittsburgh, basically on the West Virginia border. If you can take a sense of what that’s like, it’s exactly what you think it is. It’s a small town of like 14,000 people. I think when I was growing up, it was maybe 16,000 so the population has definitely dropped off. When I was younger I wanted to get out as quickly as possible, but it’s a beautiful place to grow up. You’re near the mountains and there’s lakes and it’s very beautiful for nature. But growing up there was a little rough.

Caitlin Crews: My parents worked extremely hard to get us through Catholic school, my brother and I both. My mom was this public school teacher, so she was like, “I will figure out how to pay for this, but you’re going to Catholic school,” and I kind of hated every moment of it. I was also raised Catholic, so I was in Catholic school from kindergarten all the way all the way through high school and graduated with 76 people in my high school class. I dealt with a lot of racism, that’s just how it is there and it’s interesting because it is a mixture of people in that town. It’s just, when you’re dealing with people who aren’t from your life, it can be a really difficult kind of place to be, but I don’t think I would be the person I am if I wasn’t from there.

Caitlin Crews: You had to fight a lot. Not physically, but just making sure that you’re always on point with whatever it is you’re doing because the goal was to leave. That was also my parents’ goal, was to get us out. “You have to go, you cannot go to school around here. You have to go.” So, I’ve got that push from them mostly to get out and don’t look back. I mean I joke around all the time because I’m like, “Wow, it’s really cheap to live there, maybe I should just move back.” And my mom was like, “Absolutely not. Heck no, you’re not doing it. You can come back and visit but you’re not staying.” So yeah, I enjoy going back now and of course to see my family and some of my friends who still live there, cousins, but it was an interesting place to grow up for sure.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. I really grew up in a small town. I grew up in Selma, Alabama. A little bit bigger than Uniontown, I think we maybe had about like 25,000 people, but everything that you’re saying about small high school class, growing up with racism, all of that, we are here. I understand that 100%. Were you exposed to any art and design or anything when you were growing up?

Caitlin Crews: Yeah. My mom grew up in the city of Pittsburgh and my dad is from Uniontown. They met in college and got married and my mom moved away from the big city to this small town and she made it a point, we were in Pittsburgh almost every weekend. We were either going to like Phipps Conservatory to see the flower show, I was encouraged to take photos at a young age, going to the Carnegie Museum, going to the Andy Warhol Museum, taking a trip to DC, going to the Sicilian there. I was always exposed to stuff like that, and even in art class, even though we were just probably with crayons on like Manila paper coloring, we still had art. Then in high school, that’s when I started taking photo classes, photography. Black and white photography in dark room, my little 35 millimeter Vivitar camera, I still have it.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, I was always encouraged to do stuff, I was always painting at home or my mom always made sure that we were going to go see the symphony, we were going to the ballet at least once or twice a year. Those were things that my parents made sure that my brother and I both experienced. I think even for herself growing up in the city of Pittsburgh and a pretty large family, her mother made sure that she did that. It was just a natural thing, it wasn’t weird. Because then when I got to high school, I had friends that have never set foot in Pittsburgh before. It’s an hour drive. You have your license, what do you mean? “Oh no, I’ve never.” There are people who literally at 17, 18-years-old have never made the hour drive into Pittsburgh and that blew my mind. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: I joined marching band when I was in high school and that was really my first foray out of Selma. Selma, I guess similar to Uniontown was like an hour away from the nearest big city. The nearest big city was Montgomery. Montgomery was to us, that was our New York City. They had a movie theater, they had a mall, they had a McDonald’s. All the things that I didn’t have growing up, I didn’t see any of that stuff until I was like 18 but anyway. I get that that sort of… it’s almost provincial in a way. I definitely grew with people who had never stepped foot outside of Selma or even never really stepped foot outside of the part of Selma they were in to another part of the city. Because Selma was very much a sundown town, there’s certain parts you just don’t do it.

Maurice Cherry: But yeah, I feel like if I wouldn’t have joined marching band and gotten to at least go to other cities in the state and I think eventually we ended up doing some out-of-state stuff, I don’t think I would’ve left until I left for college. I would’ve been one of those people that wouldn’t have left the city because it wasn’t even so much that I didn’t have the want to leave. I wanted to leave, I really wanted to leave, but I couldn’t see a vehicle and not like a physical vehicle, I couldn’t see a vehicle to get me out of it until I got to high school really until like junior, senior year. Once college and things came, I was like, “Oh I could do that.” I could go to college somewhere and my mom was like, “You are not going to college out of state. If you go somewhere, you’re going somewhere close.”

Maurice Cherry: If I told my mom I was moving back home right now, she would roll out the red carpet. She’s like, “Come back.” I don’t understand why, that’s a whole other podcast. There’s a, and you can probably attest to this, being in a small town like that, there’s this weirdly safe and insular feeling from the rest of the world and it’s like ignorance is bliss kind of thing. If you don’t know that it exists outside of the city limits, then it doesn’t matter to you.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, it’s been interesting going back now, when I go back for the holidays or something like that. The town itself is changing again and it’s really interesting. There’s yoga studios popping up, there’s art galleries popping up and I’m like, “Okay, this is really cool.” So people are either coming from other places or people are leaving, seeing something and coming back. So that’s been really interesting to see. I played sports a lot growing up and so in high school when I got into this photo thing, we took a trip to New York and I came back home and I told my parents that I’m moving to New York when I’m done with college. My mom was like, “Okay.” I was a very shy kid, like you wouldn’t know I was in the house. I am the person who was somewhere in a corner reading.

Caitlin Crews: I was very, very, very shy until about high school. Then making this declarative statement that I am moving to New York and then I did, but it was like this, even when I come home now and I seem them they’re like, “Oh, are you back now or are you moving back?” I go, “No, I’m literally here for the week.” It’s an interesting time and place, but it’s also really cool to see cities change, that urban sprawl almost again happening where people are finding these smaller towns to raise families in and to live in and to grow a business, I think it’s really interesting.

Maurice Cherry: That’s true because now, I mean at least you know for us in the tech and design industry, a lot of the work we do can be done remotely. I’m very fortunate that the company that I work for, they’re based in New York, but I live here in Atlanta and I can still do my job and excel in my job, not being at a physical location, which is great, which is probably a big reason why my mom wants me to move home because she’s like, “You don’t have to live in Atlanta to do this job.” And I’m like, “I know, I know that.”

Caitlin Crews: “But I want to.”

Maurice Cherry: Right. I totally understand that. Yeah. Before you moved to New York though, you went to Kent State and you studied photography. What was your time like there?

Caitlin Crews: It was a weird time, again from a really small town and then I go to Kent State, which is probably triple the size of the town that I grew up in. It was a culture shock for me to be around so many diverse people and to be on my own. It’s about three hours from Uniontown and it was out of state. It was almost a safe distance from my parents. There were times where they would come hang out and come visit for the day or a couple of days and so I did have a connection. One of my roommates actually in my freshman year, we went to high school together. It was a really close comfort in a way, but also this time to just explore everything. It’s a big school, people don’t realize it’s like the second largest school in the state of Ohio.

Maurice Cherry: Oh, wow.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah. A lot of people don’t know that. The reasoning for going there was, I actually started out as a pre law major. I was going to be a lawyer. That’s what someone said I should do and I was like, “Sure, great, let’s do this.” I got into some of the coursework, especially around criminal justice and realized that I can’t do this. Actually, we were sitting in the Rodney King case, in that frame by frame and I went to Kent in 2003? Studying the Rodney King case frame by frame and then getting to the point that like you would have to maybe defend someone that you don’t believe is guilty or innocent and I just was like, I can’t do this. I couldn’t sleep. I was having trouble sleeping after reading case law and diving even more into politics.

Caitlin Crews: I was like, this is too crazy for me. I don’t know how I can do this for the rest of my life. In a split decision moment in a call home, my parents were like both of them on the phone with me in probably two separate rooms in the house telling me that I need to do what I want to do and that you’re good at photography, why don’t you do it? You love art, you love history. I was like, “Oh yeah, art history is a thing too.” That’s what I did. That moment walked over to, I think I was housed actually in the journalism school and walked over and changed my major that day.

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: How did that help prepare you for your early career? You mentioned moving to NYC, that was after college? How did it help prep you?

Caitlin Crews: Yeah. I took an internship with a celebrity portrait photographer. His name is Chris Buck. I actually saw his work in GQ because I was a big magazine… like I love layout, I loved the way things looked on paper. I love physically holding magazines and I knew that I wanted to be a photo editor, but I took this internship with Chris Buck and my first week was like four shoots. The first one was the New York Times. The next one was like Business Insider Magazine. Spin and I think Psychology Today. It was all within the first week of me starting in New York and just being like, “Wow, this is nuts.” It’s another level.

Caitlin Crews: I don’t think I would have had that experience anywhere else to work, to meet that photo editor of GQ or to walk into W Magazine or whatever, and just be like, “Oh, hey I’m here to drop off some proofs.” It was this really interesting couple of months for me. I was thrown in the deep end in New York in the middle of the summer. So yeah, kind of how I got here. Then from there, the economy took a nice dive in 2007-2008, so the recession hit and it was really hard to find a job. And when the recession hit-

Caitlin Crews: And so the recession hit and it was really hard to find a job. When the recession hit for sure you remember all those magazines were closing left and right and a lot of people got a job. So it was very hard to find a job. Actually didn’t move back home for 4 months. Then my parents came home one day from work and they’re like, you got to get out of here. Here’s pack your bag here’s a plane ticket go find a job in New York you’re depressing.

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Caitlin Crews: And so I did and that’s kind of how I ended up at trunk archive actually. There was a few other jobs before that within retouching and color correction and production and printing. Then I landed at trunk archive.

Maurice Cherry: The work you’re doing at trunk archive was retouching like you were mentioning.

Caitlin Crews: It was more so like image research and keywording. It was more like, cause you’re getting images in and you’d have to keyword them and by site and then also researching like is this person the famous artist you know this is all before like AI being able to tech faces and you had to know like okay I think this is a model. Okay let me search through all the model agency websites and let me find this person so you could properly tag everything so everything could be searchable. Which is interesting cause it now comes into my job now like keywording and having metadata and all of that is so important. It’s just interesting that that now has kind of come part of my job as well. I kind of like was in this very fancy office in Soho at like 21,22 years old and kind of like just kind of thrown in it like you’re in the office with like famous photographers and you’re in the office with like models walking through.

Caitlin Crews: So it just was like this really interesting like those early, like early mid 2000 like years of just exposure to every creative field possible. So it was really cool.

Maurice Cherry: It sounds really glamorous.

Caitlin Crews: It was and I’m not a glamorous person so it kind of felt like a fish out of water. Like I’m the girl with jeans and like glasses and the flannel shirt on. You know what I mean? And so it has been like, it was really interesting to like kind of be in that world and have it not really affect what you’re doing. Cause I was like I’m just done I’m making enough money so let’s figure this out.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And now after that you held down positions at Lord and Taylor. You were at VF corporation for a while. We were doing the same kind of work there too.

Caitlin Crews: Yeah it was doing a lot of like at Lord and Taylor I was doing a lot of like image coordinating and like pre production work. It was like retouching working with retouchers also that’s kind of where I started getting more into like design work. I was basically like QC the quality control person for a lot of stuff went to print. So like looking to make sure that files were in black and not registration in Design. Making sure that like what I’m looking at as a final proof is what I’m seeing on screen. So when all those I was responsible for packaging up all of those materials and sending them off to a printer that’s kind of cut little bit into like design work and production work there. Then after that I went to VF Corp and worked mostly on Nautica and Kipling and that’s where I was like a full on retoucher.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Caitlin Crews: So I’ve like jumped a lot. But yeah, retouching in E-Commerce in the photo studio. So again, surrounded with like hair and makeup people who are still to this day friends with some of them. Some of the models are also really lovely too and just having like a really small young all female staff in the photo studio was also super exciting for me.

Maurice Cherry: What made you decide to go to grad school?

Caitlin Crews: Oh boy. I didn’t really see a future in what I was doing. I thought my choices were to somehow creep into creative direction but I didn’t see a movement there at all. I didn’t see an opening our clearing for me to move that way or it was to leave Nautica and go to another company just like it and do retouching there and do the same thing.

Caitlin Crews: And I was like i don’t get to be part of the decision making or the thought process behind a lot of things in that role. I was like okay, I’ve always wanted to work with nonprofits. I have always wanted to work a little bit more closely with artists. I decided to go to Pratt and get my master’s in arts and cultural management and with that thought process it was more so along the lines of i want to run or become like an assistant director or director of a nonprofit. That’s where my head was at the moment but the great thing about the program i will say it was really diverse in terms of curriculum. It’s like you’re learning how to budget, you’re learning IP law, you’re learning just how to communicate with different people in terms of leadership.

Caitlin Crews: It was at this really interesting kind of combination of things that really had me kind of entranced then completely into this idea of working for a nonprofit.

Maurice Cherry: Well you ended up in Adobe right after that. You worked for a museum actually for a while.

Caitlin Crews: I worked in the museum for a year. In the future a [inaudible 00:05:05] , okay, let me see if this kind of structure of nonprofits and kind of like an academic art world situation would be right for me and quickly decided that it wasn’t. I knew that I always wanted to be in touch with the artist community and just community building in general so in between all those jobs I also was always like working with friends and we started a collective. Where we were doing kind of like nonprofit artwork meaning we were throwing parties in Brooklyn art shows so I would find artists all over Brooklyn or friends of friends and kind of we would curate these shows and have bands play and all the money that we would collect would go to a local nonprofit in the neighborhood we were having a show.

Caitlin Crews: So that’s kind of what set me on the path of being really excited about art and how art in the community works because at the time it’s like bushwick was new in a thing and starting and you had these local nonprofits who had no connection with the community or you had community and artists who were living there but didn’t know anything about the neighborhood. So it was kind of like our duty almost to kind of go in and make those connections. Yeah so I was always doing that in between different jobs and different roles and then just found that kind of all come together within my master’s program.

Maurice Cherry: So with a lot of the work that you’re doing, I mean design and is clearly part of the conversation. I mean it’s interesting cause you’re working for essentially a software company that also sort of intersects a lot with the creative world and it feels like especially when we’re talking about tech that design tends to be really designed and art in general tend to be left out of the conversation. There’s been places where I’ve worked that it’s been like pulling teeth to try to get a design hire or something because they figured out what we can and demonetize it so they figured out we can just get a freelancer and doing it and it’s not super important to our brands as long as we just get like the thing that we need done. What do you think art and design tends to be left out of the conversation when it comes to tech?

Caitlin Crews: I think a lot of people will put this very high mark on like engineering and the skill set that’s needed for that and yes I understand computer science is not maybe the easiest thing in the world to study. If it was I think everyone would be a computer scientist and I know some people who have left the creative world to do that. I think that the thing that kind of needs to shift in thinking is the creative people that have to also implement their part of the deal. Like I don’t know a lot of designers that are paid like engineers and I’m really kind of curious to kind of explore a little bit further like to why that is. Why is a creative person almost less valuable than someone who knows code? And I think that also I work a lot with some students that are in high school at the high school level and every time you talk to a new group of students like I’m going to be an engineer, I want to be computer scientist, I want to do this.

Caitlin Crews: Like that’s cool but I think there are other things that you can do and learn and just as and be just as happy. Like if you are a creative person and you are an artist at heart, why do we have to make such a delineation? And a mark between the two. So I think that the conversation you were trying to push, especially young black kids into STEM and we’re completely leaving out. I think that for some people, and I definitely was one of those kids that I needed that creative outlet throughout my life and still do to be able to like I have a place somewhere. I think it’s something that people have left out because it’s easy to put I think like you said, a price tag on this certain skill. It’s still very hard to measure someone’s creativity and if they’re good or bad at it. You totally measure someone that if they’re not hitting something exactly it’s just I think that mindset completely has to change what is important in work.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah cause I mean the thing is that creativity is not an untapped resource like that. Like say for example, if you’re hiring someone to do like a custom image for you or do branding or something like that and instead of you coming to them with a discreet concept that you’re kind of coming with just the general thoughts. They have to do the research to try to find what you’re looking for. They have to do sketches there’s a lot of back and forth to kind of determine whether or not this is the right thing and it’s oftentimes when I’ve worked with big companies they always will just try to boil it down to a number of hours like Oh well how many hours will that take as if you can just click the stopwatch and then just automatically get to it. You know it’s not that simple of a process.

Maurice Cherry: I wonder if the commodification of it comes from the fact that it’s maybe just not seen as valuable especially in the tech industry. I mean I’ve had several designers here on the show and several developers also and it just seems to be this running thing of design not getting a seat at the table. It’s not I guess understood in a way that people realize that design influences people. Design is something that we’ve all had interactions with since birth.

Maurice Cherry: We all come into the world especially now as adults with a very rich design language. We may not be able to tap into it as readily as a designer could but that’s why they’re designers. They’re specialists in that way. Like we all know if something like if we get a shirt and it doesn’t like fit right or if we sit in a chair and it’s not comfortable or we use a pen and like the ink is leaking out over here, I’m like, those are poorly designed experiences and we all have these touch points or I’ve had these touch points throughout our lives with design so we know what we like and what we don’t like.

Maurice Cherry: I think designers have the keen sense to be able to tap into that more easily and then turn that into something that can serve a business’s goals and that’s a skill that translation, transmutation if you want to really get fancy with it. That’s a skill that a lot of people do not have to be able to make something out of nothing and I think with tech, what happens is like a lot of the executives that you see sort of propped up they’re not as funny. Not only are they engineers but they also didn’t go to college or they dropped out of college or something like that. So it’s not even so much the whole I want to be an engineer but also like not to say that college is the way because you certainly don’t have to go to college to be a designer but there’s a lot of interesting overlapping narratives that go into it and you know, of course capitalism is a big part of it because you hear about starving artists you don’t hear about a starving engineer.

Caitlin Crews: Exactly and I that’s kind of like my whole, like when I speak about designer and my path into it. It has to be I want people to know that It’s not like you said the starving artist. I know starving artists I know well but a lot of them have taken on other skills and I think that’s another thing too. I talk to a really good friend of mine recently about this idea of like do you specialize in something or do you become a generalist? And I feel like I’m a generalist I think I have like there’s something that has to be said for people who can pick up things learn them and execute them well and then also you mentioned something about like being able to design and that’s the one thing like with my current role is like looking at designers.

Caitlin Crews: You can design whatever but when you design a template you have the thing about your end user. How many people are thinking about that process like from conception to the end and it sometimes that design and that art doesn’t end with you. It’s picked up by someone who’s purchasing it or enjoying it so I think sometimes in the realm of like understanding I think all of them just don’t even understand what designers do. I’ve come across that a lot they’re being very specific words for what people are doing and what people are doing on their daily life of the job. I don’t think a lot of people deep down I don’t think completely understand what a designer’s role is and what the expansiveness of it can be.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah and to that end I have a question and this is sort of a thing that I’m trying to run with this throughout the year. Which is how are you using your skills as a designer or as someone who works with designers and creativity?. How are you using your skills to help create a more equitable future?

Caitlin Crews: Yeah, I mean I think for myself I am lucky enough to work for a company that is allowing for that space to happen within the walls of Adobe and being able to just connect with people in general and being almost like an ear or a support to them I think is has been not only great for me as someone who’s always looking to connect with people but also just for anyone else involved. Like I have younger coworkers that are like “I’m going through this” or “I don’t know what to do” and I’m like “Well I’m glad that you came to me to talk about it, let’s talk about it”. I think that being really open to the idea of helping other people and being maybe a little bit of a support system or building a support system I think is super important in your space.

Caitlin Crews: Either if you’re a lot of people work remote and I think that sounds has to be I think semi hard for people too is like where do you find people to connect with? I always tell people like extra time like for networking and networking doesn’t have to be like okay, I’m dropping you my business card and networking can be like, Hey I have this question or I’m going through this experience. What has your life been like during this? And if I can tell anyone listen I’ve been in some situations and jobs with people that as being a woman of color and as being a black woman has not been favorable. It has not been an easy road by any means but I’ve always been able to ask questions and kind of seek out that you know information that I’m needing and for me it’s like if I can reduce the worry and the pain and the tears that I have had in my life.

Caitlin Crews: Being a black woman in art, design, creativity or tech it’s also something that I have to put on myself is to make sure that other people aren’t going through the same thing.

Maurice Cherry: Now it’s the year 2025 where do you see yourself? Like what kind of work do you see yourself doing in the future?

Caitlin Crews: It’s so interesting. I never as you can see, I jump a lot. In the future I kind of want to have my own thing going. I don’t know exactly what it looks like. I feel like every year I’m building on this idea of like what kind of creative agency I can have or what creative output I can have in the world. I’ve always kind of worked in bigger corporations. I would like to kind of see what it’s like to work for something smaller or to work for myself. I don’t know what capacity that would be yet but I still hope to be in New York or if I win the lottery have an Island somewhere who knows?. I always see myself, I feel like this in the past year I’ve kind of come into my own a little bit in terms of my career and what I excel at and what I don’t excel at.

Caitlin Crews: Like I know what I don’t want to do. I can see that but when it comes to wanting knowing exactly what I want to do I can’t pinpoint that. I’m always an open book to like it’s just like Oh that looks cool. How does that person do that? How do I incorporate that into my world?. I just think it’s like, I want to say open to the idea and the prospect but 2025 I would like to be working for myself only cause I want to have my own hours and do my own thing but I also love being connected to other people. I like coming into the office working with my team which is also a very diverse team as well so I kind of battle like I can do anything. That’s what I have to say.

Maurice Cherry: Okay, well just to kind of wrap things up here where can our audience find out more about you or your work or even the work you’re doing with Adobe where can they find that online?

Caitlin Crews: Sure. You can first start off by going to the Adobe stock website and checking out all our templates online. I’m also on LinkedIn. Find me on LinkedIn, it’s Caitlin Cruz and I will definitely connect with you and I love chatting. I’m kind of off social media. I don’t really do Twitter and I don’t have a Facebook anymore. I’m on Instagram It’s just Caitlin Cruz first and last name you can find me there.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well, Caitlin Cruz I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think first I want to thank you for really just giving us a little peek behind the curtain of Adobe. I mean just for someone who has used Adobe products for so long and it’s been such, I think an integral part of my development, early development really as a designer. It’s interesting to see how things work there and I think it’s really dope that the work that you’re doing really helps to showcase others. Like you were mentioning at some point when we were talking about how to use your skills for more equitable future and you’re saying that you kind of want to make those opportunities for other people and I feel like this work that you’re doing is that’s a prime example of making that happen. You’re giving people not just a space to be celebrated but also an opportunity to advance themselves through this and it’s really just as simple as a connection to make that happen. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Caitlin Crews: Thank you for having this. Awesome to speak with you.

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“WeShouldDoItAll isn’t just a name — it’s a way of life.” And let me tell you, Jonathan Jackson was not kidding when he said that. As creative director and partner of the award-winning, Brooklyn-based studio, he and his team have done all kinds of work from websites to fashion to large scale exhibitions. And there’s even more!

Jonathan talked to me about his early days at Kent State University, and how his love for architecture planted the seed for what would become WSDIA. We also spent a good bit of time going over how he runs the studio, covering everything from dealing with clients to balancing incoming projects. Jonathan has a lot of great advice for everyone from studio owners to up and coming designers, so this is an interview where you’ll definitely want to take notes!

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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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Diversity in design for Black people is an important issue, but a lot of its focus tends to go towards employment rather than education. Design researcher Omari Souza has approached the topic from a different angle, and his thesis reveals some startling insights.

Omari shared how he first got into design and how his education at Cleveland Institute of Art and Kent State University inspired his push into design research. Omari is also a new full-time professor at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, so we talked about the importance of representation in design education and even about the design community’s silence around political issues concerning Black Americans. We do cover a lot in this interview, and I’m glad we have design researchers like Omari to examine and document this kind of work!

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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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Get ready for a great conversation this week as I talk to Anne H. Berry, assistant professor of graphic design at Cleveland State University. I’ve been familiar with Anne’s work for years; her writing at Goshen Commons about diversity and design gave me a lot to think about in the early days of Revision Path. And when she reached out to me to talk about what I was doing, I knew I had to have her on the show!

We start off by talking about her current work teaching at CSU (including a concentration on typography), and from there we discuss the proliferation of Black caricatures throughout the ages and how those inform our current day perceptions and stereotypes. Anne also shares her thoughts on the role that designers should play now, and gives some of her hopes for 2017. I think you’re going to get a lot out of 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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Revision Path is also sponsored by Hover. Visit hover.com/revisionpath and save 10% off your first purchase! Big thanks to Hover!
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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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