In this first episode of the Agents of Innovation podcast, host David Knies reconnects with long time friend and former adidas colleague, Charles Johnson. During his 30+ year career, he has been a footwear designer and visionary creator with adidas, Hyde, Crocs, and, until very recently, the global head of innovation at Puma in Germany.

Charles’ legacy is more than just designing highly commercial products for great brands, but the empathy that design can inspire. With the global pandemic and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Charles is even more motivated to lead a new movement in what he terms “Humanistic Design” – using the power of Design to promote humanity in people, and improve the world we all live in.

Podcast Highlights

4:12 – The first product designer of adidas: “I was born into a multicultural, multilingual family. So the things that I saw in my immediate environment was very different than the average American. So that gave me a certain ability to see things differently, a certain empathy. And that was really the start, I guess, of what made me a designer, what brought me into that space.”

6:40 – Being born outside of the box: “I was an outsider pretty much always, you know? And the way I think about it is like I was born outside the box. So people strive to get to a place where you think outside the box. Well, I was born outside the box, so that again, sort of set the stage for me.”

17:46 – Importance of empathy: “I think design ought to be a selfless pursuit. It’s solving problems. It’s not about me or my name being attached to something. And so I believe it should be a selfless pursuit.”

35:56 – adidas design museum: “The shoe museum at a corporate headquarters, which had Jesse Owens track spikes from the ‘36 Olympics, it had Franz Beckenbauer’s shoes, Mohammad Ali’s boxing shoes. They had a role in history that I would go up there and just look at those shoes and sometimes could touch them and take them out. They were a real inspiration too at that time.”

39:52 – Designing to push boundaries: “The fun process was seeing how far you could push such a traditional brand, design something that pushed boundaries.”

41:48 – Designing Kobe’s shoe inspired by Audi: “Essentially the Audi designers, the car designers, let’s say ideated the product, built a model for the shoe and it was my job to translate it into a real shoe. And, yeah, I did that job. I met with Kobe, showed him designs.”

50:24 – Innovation: “I’m looking for the opportunities that actually were authentic and did bring newness and tried to mitigate or eliminate all of those barriers.”

55:13 – Humanistic design: “The idea of humanistic design is a challenge that I’m putting on myself to put, humanity and human values at the center of design. And that can be things, products. Or it can be experiences or it can be systems.”

58:57 – Systemic racism was designed: “The beginning of racism in America was actually the opposite of humanistic design which is why the country had to strip people of their humanity in order for them to accept how black people were treated in America. Once you understand that, then you can start to say, okay, how do we design for humanity to promote humanity in people?”