Columns / Insights

Not Just a Digital Designer

Anthony Crawford
How did you discover you wanted to be a designer and get started in the field? Growing up, I was always drawn toward art. I went from being a sketch artist to trying graffiti to finally stumbling upon Photoshop my sophomore year of high school. Manipulating images in Photoshop was popular at the time, and I found that I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t know what to do with my skill as a trade. During my last year of high school, my teachers introduced me to the world of graphic design, and I instantly knew that design was the way to go. Once I arrived at Middle Tennessee State University, I dug deep into design as a career path and began to understand the role designers play—not only in the workplace, but also in influencing culture.

You used to work as an art director at the Marcus Graham Project (MGP), a training program for aspiring marketing professionals from diverse ethnicities. What led you to join MGP? A random but lucky Google search. At the time, I was balancing a part-time job as a junior web developer at a small start-up with my senior year of college. I hated my job. My mentor, professor David Walker, was pushing me to seek another opportunity where my design skills could improve and flourish. After one tense day at work, I spent my entire weekend scouring the web, looking for my next opportunity. Then—boom—MGP popped up in my browser. I was extremely hesitant to apply because the program required me to relocate from out of state, and the chances of me returning home were pretty slim given the success rate of the program. But once I thought about it, the opportunity to be part of the Marcus Graham Project family was way better than any opportunities in the Tennessee area. So I applied, quit my job and luckily, I was accepted into the program.

We should be embracing this new type of transcreative talent.


What’s a favorite campaign you oversaw while at MGP? We worked on a slew of campaigns for MGP. Among my favorites was the Beats by Dre project. The task was simple: come up with three big ideas for the company. But that simple task turned into the most challenging brief I’ve ever worked on because we didn’t have any restrictions. The best creative work comes from constraints and limitations, but when you don’t have any, you can do anything.

We spent days and nights ideating on what the solutions could be. Though the company wanted three ideas, we developed tons that we thought could push the needle in culture.

The Beats by Dre project was truly a passion project for everyone. It was intense, but it was an ideal challenge for developing a variety of skillsets: how to create your metrics of success, how to develop a creative strategy and how to collaborate effectively. When we pitched to Jason White and Jeramie Hopson from the Beats team, they loved the work. After that call, we had the biggest celebration because we knew that our efforts had not only paid off, but also, we’d proven to ourselves that we were ready for the next challenge.

Does the advertising industry need more training programs like MGP? Absolutely. Lack of diversity in advertising is a major topic, and there will always be a need for more people to take action and foster incoming talent. Even outside the conversation of diversity, the advertising industry should embrace a new way of thinking about how we work. Everyone in 15Hz, the name of my class at MGP, was a hybrid talent. We were all from diverse backgrounds ranging from slam poetry artist to fashion enthusiast to data researcher. These skills allowed us to be more fluid in how we approached projects.

The crazy thing about it all is that the industry values talent with diverse skills, but we never get to use those skills in real time. We’re pigeonholed and placed in a box. Marcus Graham Project doesn’t operate like that. Lincoln Stephens and Larry Yarrell, the cofounders of MGP, allowed us to form a personal agency structure. It didn’t force us to be just art directors. It encouraged us to make use of all our skills and knowledge beyond official titles. It taught us that you are more than just a title, and you can always add value somewhere in the process.

Do you think there is a new type of creative entering the industry? Writer and director Tim Roper said it best: it’s “The Art of the Hyphen,” the ability at a high level to do more than one thing in an age where we are pushed to learn more than just one skillset. The typical designer probably knows how to write a few lines of code or shoot a short film. We should be embracing this new type of transcreative talent.

If you look at culture outside the ad world, you see creative talents in the world of fashion, music, film and entertainment who are intermingling—musicians are creating short films; fashion designers are collaborating with music artists and filmmakers to help bring their works to life. These makers are learning and immersing themselves in a variety of artforms, creating more authentic touchpoints for their audiences.

You recently redesigned Zambezi’s logo after joining the Culver City, California–based ad agency as a digital designer. What gave you the inspiration for this redesign? The logotype for Zambezi was inspired by the bull shark, an animal that’s been a part of the company’s history. I worked closely alongside Josie Brown, Zambezi’s executive director of business development and marketing, to come up with three metrics of success for the logo: it had to be bold, risky and compelling enough to pull the viewer in to seek more. In a sense, that describes a shark. The body of the shark is edgy, yet refined. With help from creative director Kevin Buth, we crafted a wordmark that reflected the body of a shark and pioneered a new aesthetic for the agency. 

What has working in the advertising industry taught you about branding? Branding is strategy. You’re creating a visual language. You’re creating a system. There are so many moving pieces that it needs a robust framework to live. You start by asking the right questions and finding the main keywords that will ultimately inform you on how to approach the project. The fun part happens when you start designing the look and feel. The biggest takeaway every designer in the ad world should learn is how to strategize for the brand—then execute the design work.

What are some of the unique opportunities of working as a designer in the advertising industry? What are the challenges? If you’re at the right agency, you learn skills that essentially train your eye to design for multiple types of people, like new business directors or CEOs. As a young designer, we get into the habit of creating for the “cool” and not designing with a purpose. That can be the challenge. That’s not to say you can’t design cool things, but you have to make sure the messaging doesn’t get lost. Being around intelligent people in the ad industry who look for different things in design has allowed me to ask more questions upfront to make sure I cover the branding process.

What excites you about design and advertising right now? The big push for experiential in design and advertising. It is so smart and provides a lot of opportunities for designers. It’s a mix between interior design, motion design, experience design and more. It also makes sense for brands because consumers want to experience new things every day. We want something that we can remember; we want brands to create memories. The brands and agencies of tomorrow that can create experiences for consumers will be the most prosperous. For designers, this gives us more opportunity to experiment with our skills and try new mediums.

What inspires you lately? Sneaker culture. So much art direction and design goes into producing a shoe. Sneaker culture and the design process behind it are compelling; the way sneaker designers can take so many different elements—from patterns to texture to color—to create a shoe is interesting. The music scene—especially music that is accompanied by great art—also inspires me. So many of my favorite artists—Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper—are creating audiovisual experiences that are not to be missed.

Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Anthony Crawford attended Middle Tennessee State University, graduating with a BFA in graphic design. He subsequently became the lead art director at the Marcus Graham Project, a training program in Texas for aspiring marketing professionals from diverse ethnicities. Crawford oversaw a group of fifteen millennials working on various brand accounts including Beats by Dre, PepsiCo and nonprofit Usher’s New Look. He later worked as a freelance digital designer at ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky Los Angeles before moving on to the full-time position of digital designer at Culver City, California–based ad agency Zambezi, where he works today on Fortune 500 brands ranging from Autotrader to the Coca-Cola Company to the TaylorMade-adidas Golf Company, among others.

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