See How an Ultimate Outsider Became a Design Visionary - Inside Adidas, Puma and Beyond
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory, LLC and WiST Board Advisor
WIST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who embody a more diverse and inclusive workforce, setting the benchmark for their peers and future generations.
Progress Through Passion
Charles Johnson is and always has been a passionate problem solver. His passion is to solve problems through design. This journey started with a BFA in Industrial Design at Carnegie Mellon which led him to sports gear, designing and innovating footwear and apparel for performance brands including Adidas, Crocs
and Puma. During his tenure, he led brand teams to design tech driven products to access new categories like NASCAR and new users like gamers. Who knew that gamers could improve their performance with well-designed apparel, footwear and accessories that enabled them to focus on their hand-eye coordination
and forget about their environment? Charles did.
While he had a taste of how he could solve problems in the real world of sports, Charles muses, “I was never intrigued by creating something that simply looks or feels good…I was intrigued by making something work…or work better.” The concept of making something work or work better, is distilled into Charles’ calling
card, delivering simple solutions for complex problems.
From Specialist to Generalist
Charles has taken his extensive library of knowledge, experience, and validated learning from sports to address some of the most complex issues facing our world today: climate change and social inequity. His company, Driven By Charles, is a one-man think tank that helps clients—from companies to countries—consider how to shift the paradigm through simple, strategic design processes that can generate a sea change in human behavior.
21st century solutions are driven by innovation of thought, streamlining of processes and automation with technology. Best-in-class solutions and applications borne of these components can deliver optimal results, but with a cost. The ecosystem of people, places and things can be upended by the very technologies that were created to enhance them. Charles cites The Copenhagen Letter, a manifesto authored and signed by the global technology community at the Copenhagen TechFest in 2017, as a guidepost. Their motto, “Use the power of design to do good” is not wasted on him. His litmus test is to ensure that Driven By Charles projects can enable universal access to technology (everyone benefits) and eliminate racial and gender divides (no one is harmed).
“As my career evolves, it is critical to harness the superpower of design to make the world a better place. I aim to solve the problem that a global supply chain creates. To do what I can do reduce CO2 emissions. To use design to help ensure equity. Everything I do now has one, or all, of those filters.” When looking at the global supply chain, Charles focuses on processes that expand and enhance the local supply chain to eliminate waste, cost and taxing of resources. When developing models to optimize green mobility for a city, he zeroes in on electric vehicles and harnesses the power of your own two feet to drastically reduce carbon emissions. “Good design drives process and process drives progress.“
Equity through Empathy
Charles is a Black man who has successfully operated in a world run by people who do not look, think or act like him. “All of my mentors were white men. Their guidance was critical and helpful, but I took what I needed and forged my own path. I did not, and do not, believe that a mentor is a model. Rather, a mentor is a guide.” In Charles’ world, women and people of color are a bounty of opportunity. Each an individual, each a gift to a hardworking, successful team. While Charles admits he is a reluctant acceptor of accolades, many of his protégés have validated his approach with their own achievements. Good enough for him!
Q and A with Charles Johnson
WiST: You grew up in a multicultural, multi-language home: a black family in a white community. Today your home is in Nuremberg, Germany. How has this experience shaped who you are, your expectations of others and how you operate in the world?
I was born and have lived ‘outside of the box’ my entire life. While people strive to think outside the box, I was already there. I grew up with a distinct sense of ‘otherness,’ like I didn’t quite fit in. Because I was constantly judged on this, I was motivated to disprove what was expected, to do things differently, to think of things differently.
This was natural because, culturally, I was different. Growing up, I was exposed to things far beyond my immediate surroundings. I was born in Africa. My mother was German. She sewed dashikis and put candles on our Christmas tree. I heard Mozart and The Beatles at home. I knew this sense of otherness was a fantastic
experience, one to be honored and embraced. It was rich, robust, and unapologetic. This otherness halo has served me ever since.
I often come across contrarians as I traverse the world. This is not a bad thing as it keeps me on my toes. Because it is in my nature to operate differently, I keep my focus on the new, on the future. I don’t reject tradition; I respect what came before me, but where I start is never where I finish.
WiST: Which aspects of design work are your favorite and why?
I truly enjoy the research aspect. Or, more succinctly, I like uncovering information that feeds an idea of newness. Discovery can be the beginning of an idea or it can validate one that you have already reached. I am a believer in ‘trust but verify.’ Do your due diligence and identify the unmet need. If you find a pain point, an unmet need, you can generate a new solution based on smart, tactical and authentic research.
For instance, who would have thought that a footwear company (Puma) could assess unmet needs for competitive video gamers? Faced with that question, our research brought to bear that they had pain points that could be addressed with specifically designed apparel, footwear and accessories that stand to enhance their performance. And that’s how we developed the Active Gaming Sock and the Cloud 9 Pro Kit. As with competitors across all disciplines, performance outcomes are driven by a variety of tangible and intangible elements: emotions, confidence and personal preparation — all supported by good design.
I was intrigued about gaming and gamers. I had designed for every other sport and was thrilled to take on something new. It was time to do something different. That’s why I am on to new topics these days.
WiST: You are a mission driven individual who navigates life with a moral compass, a personal code. Can you share what parts of that personal code you hope impact people in your orbit?
I am pleased when people pick up on my authenticity; my drive to bring something genuine and meaningful to whatever it is that I am doing. I hope that what I do inspires them to seek the same: to set high standards for the ideas that they develop or promote. There is a lot of un-impactful sameness out there. Join the fight to bring newness and meaning. I also hope that people uncover their own ability to make a positive impact on the world in whatever way that they can. You do not have to be an innovation expert (or someone who suffers from inequity) to make change for the better.
I am a student of the past. I have learned a great deal from my mentors and
channeled their leadership through much of my career. But there was an ‘aha’
moment when I realized that I could trust my own instincts, intentions, and visions for the future and that I was in a position to set my own path for others to follow, if they wished.
I think the opportunity to set your own path is a transition into personal power. The ability to know your worth and your value — to yourself, your peers, your community — this is your personal power. With this personal power comes responsibility that requires empathy for others and the need to operate in a beneficent way.
WiST: Can you peek into the future impact of design and tell us what you see?
During this time of social division and the reckoning of the wealth gap, all laid bare by COVID-19, it is important to recognize that we already understand the root cause of these scenarios. The underlying research has long been done, the data has been collected and analyzed.
We see the unmet need, but the solution remains elusive, perhaps because the very teams tasked with the research and analytics are not the right teams to redress these systemic challenges. This solution requires a humanistic approach through a design driven process, developed by problem solvers who truly represent these constituents. In turn, the process must be deployed by a broad, diverse coalition of people and talent to drive equity and equality.
This cannot be done by one man or woman, white or of color. It needs to be done collectively.
This is what the future impact of design looks like to me.
A special thanks to Charles for sharing his journey with the WiST community. Good design drives great progress! Inspiration comes in all forms.
Join the WIST community at www.womeninsportstech.org
Check out Driven By Charles at https://www.drivenbycharles.com/