What do you think have been some influential or defining moments in your career path?
Looking into my past, I grew up obsessed with everything design, media, and film. I didn’t have the vocabulary or exposure to design-related pathways, so my family and I just thought I was weird. Two pivotal experiences in high school set me on a trajectory that changed my life forever. The first was the 2005 Chicago Auto show. I’d never seen such a spectacle in my life. Everything from the Mercedes-Benz V-12 AMG engine demo to the debut of the Cadillac DTS simply amazed me. I said to myself, “I can do this.” I didn’t know if that meant a career in industrial design, event planning, production, or merchandising. It didn’t matter. I just knew something magical was in the air, and I wanted to harness its power. A little boy from the West side of Chicago now had a glimpse into his future, and it was very motivating!
The second pivotal experience was getting accepted to MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES). This 6-week rigorous program invites promising high school students to learn about STEM education and careers, meet people in the field, and sharpen academic prowess with an intensive curriculum. I attended the summer of 2006 and met so many people that not only looked like me but shared my story. I would go on to attend MIT. I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, adding two Minors in Architecture and Visual Arts.
During my time, I slowly distanced myself from engineering, ultimately finding a fulfilling path in media and the arts. The two disciplines aren’t mutually exclusive—but I found a greater curiosity for design, branding and digital user experience. I loved thinking with shapes, forms, colors and text. I learned to express my ideas through graphics, logos, and renderings. I also picked up photography.
I landed a full-time role at DigitasLBi post graduation in 2011. I worked there for four years as an art director and digital experience designer. Now, I am working as design lead at Walker and Company Brands, a company focused on making health and beauty simple for people of color. With an incredible team, I design, develop and test products & services specifically tailored to the needs of people of color.
Edited by Alicia DeWitt
When Quinnton Harris isn’t thinking about right now, he’s thinking about tomorrow. In this Q+A, margins takes a look at the way inclusivity is shaping the future of design with Quinnton, an MIT mechanical engineering graduate turned designer/photographer.
Starting with Chicago’s annual Auto Show, and then delving into new trends in content creation and marketing, Quinnton demonstrates a thoughtful focus on the next phase of storytelling and sensitivity in design. He shares with margins the way an ever present love for art and design developed into the forward thinking perspective that drives his work as design lead at Walker and Company Brands—a company focused on making health and beauty simple for people of color.
What have been some of your biggest strengths in your career so far?
One of my greatest strengths has been emotional intelligence, particularly when it comes navigating workplace environments. I innately understand people, and I love learning about people’s stories, motivations and ultimately their challenges. I think understanding the people around me plays an important role in how I develop empathy for not only the audience I design for, but also the folks I need to work with who help the design come to life (i.e. marketers, business leaders, software developers, etc). My philosophy is that I can only do good work when I work with good people. I’ve been fortunate to be continuously surrounded by very good, talented people that I can develop solid relationships.
I also understand the power of relationships. I learn best from apprenticeship-type environments that push me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to be scrappy, determined, and focused. At the center of these relationships, I can humbly admit the focus has been service, or in other words “how I can help you and your mission”. I’ve come across many growth opportunities and learning resources through building genuine connections with the people around me. Whether it was forging strong bonds with my high school teachers, or collaborating with fellow creators on social media, I am always looking to help make the lives of others easier and more fulfilled. And in return, my life is enriched, my perspective is challenged, and I ultimately learn something new about myself.
What are some trends in your field that you wish you could bring back, and which ones would you rather forget?
This is a tough question because I tend to think a bit more forward about design and storytelling.
One thing that has been on my mind recently is how some brands a few years ago invested more in editorial, eye-level original content for its audiences. For instance, I loved how VSCO published (and continues to publish) interesting editorial content about creators that use their products. I also loved how Instagram, Tumblr and few other social platforms featured rich, poignant storytelling. I don’t think this trend has necessarily gone away, but content for me feels a bit rushed, saturated, shallow and a even a bit disconnected from the core brand experience. I am inspired by the brands that feature rich written and film content, like VSCO, Red Bull and Bevel that celebrate and elevate culture while serving customer needs with enterprise solutions. I think design plays a huge role in creating and curating these really deep connections between brands and audiences, and I hope to inspire this trend to make a comeback if it has lost its way.
Trends I’d rather forget: Flash websites. Please never come back.
“My philosophy is that I can only do good work when I work with good people.”
Who are some designers or artists that you feel have impacted your own practice? What about outside the fields of design and art?
I draw a ton of inspiration within the industry, both folks I’ve had the fortune to be around as well as innovators I admire from afar. To name a few, I’ve been greatly influenced by my former boss and current mentor Mari Sheibley, a product design guru that was the creative force behind brands like Bevel and Foursquare. She always reminds me to be vigilant in the details and clear in my goals. Among others being Andrew Carlson and Kevin Lockwood, creative directors from DigitasLBI. They encouraged me to always bring my unique skills and perspective to table with our clients. They and a few other folks at the company pushed me to be the most “authentic form of me” whether it was designing apps or executing in-house photoshoots.
Outside of work, the big homie Jason Mayden helps me stay focused on the things that matter most, like family and community. His journey from shoe designer for Jordan, to global design director for Nike, to now founder of his own brand not only gives an me extraordinary example to follow but gives me hope that anything is possible with a strong spiritual core, family-like environments, and a solid support system. Another shoe designer, Yurri Mial, who designs for Under Armour. He keeps me honest about work ethic. He is one of the hardest working designers I know and he has taught me great strategies I continue to use in my design process.
Inspirational designers and storytellers I admire from afar include Tobias Van Schneider, Eddie Opara, Jamel Shabbazz, Scott Belsky, Brandon Stanton, Craig Hackney and Aundre Larrow. The list is so diverse and can go on forever.
Outside of design and art (is there really anything that doesn’t have design and art in it?), I am super inspired by fashion culture, comic books and music. These all intersect for me and play a huge role in how I curate my life. I loved Batman growing up, and now I’m obsessed with Black Panther. I love Olivier Rousteing and Wairare Boswell. I love my hometown hero Chance the Rapper and Ty Dolla $ign. I am fan of soulful, imaginative and culturally grounded creation, and my greatest hope in life to provide a similar inspiration to others in and outside the design world.
Tell us about your thought process working through a project.
I typically approach my work in various phases. (1) Understand the whys. On any project, I take time to ensure the concept and motivation are clear, even with the most implicit assumptions. This is especially helpful when working with big teams. Everyone needs to be on the same page to move in the same direction. Any debate and/or compromise should happen in this phase. (2) Validate assumptions. This phase has been become increasingly important to me to ensure that I don't create in a silo. It's important for me to measure effectiveness throughout any design exercise because I want my solutions to always be relevant and contextual. (3) Strategize for the win. Organization, prioritization and communication are huge for me. It’s the only way to win. (4) Execute as best as I can. An old saying I love is "take what you got and make what you want”. I look to execute as efficiently as possible with the given resources and constraints of any project.
Since we’re on work-flow. You define yourself as a “Griot in training” on your website, why did you start identifying yourself in this way, and how does it impact your process?
I began referring to myself as a Griot a few years ago because of my best friend Dorian Dargan. He eloquently described to me the traditions of the West African storyteller and historian, dubbing as me a “cultural archivist” based on some the projects I’d been working on at the time. From there I became obsessed with learning more about the history of the griots from countries like Senegal, Guinea, and Nigeria. I was deeply moved that Dorian recognized me as such, and I strongly identity with a Griot’s position within the community. In addition, I say “I am in training” to remind myself of the never-ending journey I’m on everyday to become a better designer, storyteller, and leader.
What do you wish the general public knew about graphic designers?
I wish folks would truly understand the rigorous, very intentional process we take to produce work. Sometimes I hear “work your magic” as if I practice an ancient mystical. I think that more people should be educated about design and collaboration with design-related teams within the workplace.