Come to the table: Black design pros diversify Cincinnati's creative class

Anyone who’s been in Cincinnati awhile has seen an unassuming guy wearing a hat made of signs on his head. Avtar Gill, aka, “The Hat Man,” turns heads with his signature poster hats that make him look like a walking ad agency. His eccentric hats inspire silk-screen designer, Stacey Smith, owner of Soapbox Tees, because much like his hard-to-miss headdresses, the messages on Smith’s socially conscious T-shirts, like one that reads, “Do I Look Illegal,” create awareness and give voice. Native to the city, the visionary says she plans to use her company to help Gill leverage his “wearable art.”

Smith regularly participates in Second Sunday on Main, a street festival in Over-the-Rhine which she describes as “a community of artisans” who are open to bartering goods.

“That’s a very healthy environment for me to be in; it’s a grassroots feel,” Smith says.

Smith is one of several black design professionals who have adapted and want to give back to the collective experience. A common opinion is that the more Cincinnati increases awareness of what’s here, the more it appears welcoming and attractive to design professionals of all backgrounds.

When David Johnson got a call from a headhunter telling him about an opportunity at LPK in 2003, he remembers being hesitant about the interview. The first thing that came to mind for him was the NAACP boycott and the riots in 2001. But he and his wife ended up liking Cincinnati, and Johnson worked as a senior designer at LPK until he was laid off in 2011.

Being downsized inspired him to cash in his severance package and partner with his wife, Estelle, the “McNair” in their downtown brand agency, Johnson-McNair. Together, they are a one-stop for consumer product concepts and their clients are both corporations and non-profits. Having lived in Indiana doing long-term freelance work for clients in Chicago before coming to the city, Johnson is glad he took a chance on Cincinnati, and even happier that he stayed.

“You can work for some of the biggest of the biggest brands down to the small super small, which not a lot of cities in the country can say that,” says Johnson, who is now a downtown resident. “The cost of living here is so much relatively lower than the other major areas on the map that offer similar work as a creative, so Cincinnati is a great place to live.”

One drawback Johnson sees is a lack of visible minority leadership among the giant design collectives.

P&G Associate Design Director Tysonn Betts remembers that when he came to the company 16 years ago, creative types fled to other cities because they felt Cincinnati offered them very little other than a place to work. At the time, he says the best thing he could find to do on a Tuesday night was go to BW3s. Betts discovered networks outside of P&G by participating in Urban League of Greater Cincinnati’s African American Leadership Development Program and through volunteerism.

Today, the Birmingham native finds that the design community still lacks diversity compared to Cincinnati at large, which he attributes to fewer minorities seeking design majors and young people being unaware of the career possibilities.

“I think that we have an obligation to reach out within the community to help expose and educate folks with an interest to recognize the contributions the creative class makes on the community as a whole," Betts says. “If we would simply do more, give back a little and figure out how to voice all the things we have in common, it will go exponentially far to help attract other people who are like minded to the city.”
His colleague, Brian Rice, who is also a P&G associate design director, grew up surrounded by diversity in Orlando. When Rice first came to Cincinnati in 1992 after being recruited from Florida A&M University, his initial experiences of Cincinnati culture left him longing for diversity, even though he made some connections through FAMU’s Cincinnati Alumni Chapter and through philanthropic work. Rice became disenchanted with the city and moved to Atlanta in 1996, then moved back in 2005.

“I think from ’92 -‘96 it was certainly very few African-Americans that I can recall seeing at that time, even on an agency standpoint, so it was rare to come in and see someone that looked like me,” says Rice. “Not so much that the city was not inclusive, but I would argue that it never did the thing that would bite. ‘It’s not that the city said, ‘Stay out!’ But it never said, ‘Come!’"

His second time around, he came back to the city as a family man with a renewed perspective and can appreciate what’s changed over 20 years.

“I was told that we probably are one of the second or third biggest hotbeds of agency talent in the US,” Rice says. “It’s been probably one of the quiet secrets in the Midwest in terms of having the kind of talent that P&G tries to leverage.”

In recent years, Betts says he’s noticed it’s easier for people to engage outside of work, and he sees more diversity in city leadership. He now feels comfortable hanging out for food and drinks in Northside.

Betts points to business development and infrastructure and arts organizations that have helped the city begin to overcome the city’s laggard reputation and says the attitude must be “move forward or move.”

“I think the progress you see now is because folks stayed, stood and said, ‘I want to make it better.’ Folks have created the kind of environments and outlets and venues that really help people sustain themselves and help keep the creative class here. And that’s really why I’m still here.”

All photos by Scott Beseler.

Photos: Stacey Smith of Soapbox Tees, David Johnson of Johnson-McNair, Tysonn Betts and Brian Rice of Procter & Gamble.
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