From Nike to Adidas (and a number of clients in between) Designer/Art Director Justin Morris has proven brilliance on paper and sneakers alike. But his greatest contribution lies in the way he brings his art to the people, and people to his art.
As the son of of a careered Time Magazine designer and grandson of a renowned Jamaican painter, Justin Morris has art, in its purist form, deep in his DNA. His creative journey started at a young age in Jamaica, Queens New York City, studying art at Bayside High School, which hosts a multidisciplinary art program that familiarizes students with skills in art, design, and photography. But as the cost of living in New York continued to rise, Justin’s parents eventually moved he and his three siblings to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania before he could finish the program.
“It was a completely different environment. There was no focus on art or anything other than academics really. Most of the kids that went there just did really good, then went to Penn State. It didn’t seem as though creative careers were as encouraged.” During his transition, Justin decided to stay behind in New York and live in his grandfather’s studio, where he continued to work on his art. Justin eventually finished high school in the Poconos and went on to attend Tyler School of Art at Temple University post graduation.
“You go from being this kid who can draw in high school, then you go to art school, and you realize that this is everybody’s thing. You’re no longer the special kid,” says Justin. “It was a big struggle.”
Most Tyler freshmen were in the same boat, and the displacement created a sense of community among the young artists. During his junior year, Justin’s class was divided further, and he started the search for a way to work alongside his cohorts again. It was around this time that Justin stumbled upon a local thrift shop that was just off campus to see if it could serve as a canvas for some “IRL” projects.
“I walked in there one day just to see what it was about. The lady didn’t have her shit together. She had clothes everywhere and no inventory…no nothing. And I was like, ‘this is perfect.’” Justin began to develop his first art show, which focused on a variety of disciplines with the goal of bringing all of his peers, regardless of their craft, together.
“At that point in school, you start to get into your own major and you section yourself off from everyone else you’ve been learning with. It was unfortunate. They all were super knowledgable of these cool processes that informed a lot of the work I was doing, and I wanted to keep the conversation going. So I had screen printers with painters and designers all working together.” As the rest of his college career came to a close, Justin continued to bring talent together, creating experiences for his peers to show their work, and for others to enjoy.
By the time Justin was finished with school, he moved back to New York to take a job at Fly, a small creative agency in the heart of Chelsea, where he worked on projects for the New York Jets, Wild Turkey Bourbon, and Scholastic. “I was the new kid and had to get through the grunt work — put in some time in hopes of making some great work — and then keep it moving. I figured that was the process that I was supposed to follow.” Until one day, Justin received an email from famed creative agency, Wieden & Kennedy.
Wieden’s casual-email to Justin was a request to join their team as a paid intern, put up in corporate housing during his stay. Initially, he said no, but they didn’t let up. “I finally ended up going to Wieden right after Christmas. It was the first time I had ever been to the west coast. It was one of those things that was like ‘Is this real?’ It wasn’t until the plane took off that I realized ‘Oh snap, this is real.’ It could have been a joke… like someone could have just sent me that email. It didn’t seem that legit.” Luckily, it was. Justin had landed in a sweet spot where opportunity met preparation, and something that he thought would be a long road ended up just being a 6 hour flight. However, two weeks after his arrival, Wieden lost the account that they had brought him over for. “When they lost the account I was on, I was still meeting people at the company. Overnight, a chunk of people were gone. Not the best way to ease into a place. So they just put me on a pitch team for new business.”
It was on this account that Justin started to find his footing. He wasn’t just designing pretty things and calling the problem solved. Rather, the impetus of his role was to be smarter than the client and understand their problems better than they did. It was their job to set the stage for how this client could come back in a big way. “The account was kind of stressful overall. It was a new business for us, a Japanese client, and they didn’t really understand a lot of our references. I remember we pitched some Muppets concept to them and they were just like ‘What the f*%! is this?’” he says with a laugh. “The team just wanted it to be provocative and somewhat ridiculous. They didn’t get it.” But while the client may have not ‘gotten it’, the pitch team landed the work, and Justin had earned a full time seat at the table.
Some months later, Mr. Morris was requested to join the Nike Basketball design group, where he would live out the next two and half years. “That was the team that you were just like ‘damn, hopefully I can work hard enough to get on that team’. When I got there I just thought ‘yes, I’m here, bitch.”
Amongst numerous Nike projects, Justin’s first was to design the logo for the launch of the Kobe 9 Foot Locker campaign. “The team had previously created the ‘Now Show Us Again’ ad for Kobe’s injury, and were now tasked with creating a spot that spoke to Kobe’s level of craftsmanship” says Justin. “The interesting thing about working on Nike was that whatever happened to the athlete affected the creative. If the athlete suffers a serious injury, you’re not going to have images of him dunking in the ads. The campaign aimed to remind the world why we love Kobe and then celebrating his return with the Kobe comeback ad.”
“That was the first thing I worked on and was like ‘Tight, I made this.’ I’d go online and I’d see my work on all of the websites that I was into. I felt like I was making work for a community that I belonged to.” Justin now had a collection of these projects under his belt. But while the process and the results were fulfilling, Justin started to feel an itch he needed to scratch.
“I wanted to make real things, interact with people not just through the computer screen, curate experiences, throw events. It was all about making tangible things. No real focus on selling anything, just facilitating an environment for conversation and experimentation.” So, just like during his junior year of college, that’s exactly what he did.
“When I first got to Portland in 2012, I met Brandon, Matt, Tina, and Matt. We were all just friends at an art show, and we realized that there weren’t too many events or happenings that spoke to our personal interests”. So their response was to create their own. That year, the group put together a show that was far different than Portland had seen prior, and they called it Adventures in Milk. Commissioning 60 artists from across the states (and London), the crew sent out a template for the artists to design a cereal box inspired by their childhood Saturday mornings. “We decked out the whole space as if it was your living room as a kid. We had all of these huge vinyl milk spills and built these huge fruit loops. All 60 cereal boxes were displayed on the walls, and we served breakfast cereal at a photobooth that was this shrunken table. We had performances, and a DJ, and even a TV where you could sit down and play Nintendo. We were kids again, it was fun.” Close to 1500 people attended the event, confirming to Justin and his friends that they had created something special.
“The next year we did Mad Science, which was like Adventures in Milk on crack.” Inspired by a scenario in the year 2045 in which the entire world had, for lack of a better phrase, “gone to shit”, the same team once again took their infantry of artistic styles and designed a space (complete with a fleet of Deloreans out front) where seven designated artists solved the world’s problems through whatever medium they chose. “We realized that when you create these things, people really rally around it. They want it to happen. There are a lot people who complain about what Portland is not, but don’t put any effort into creating what it can be.” Justin has always started his craft with the question of what he wants to see, with the hope that others will do the same.
In August 2015, Justin left Wieden & Kennedy to continue his pursuit. “I realized that I never planned to solely work in advertising, so I didn’t feel like it was the end of the road for me, there was still a lot that I still wanted to explore.”
As a result, Justin landed at Portland-based Kamp Grizzly as an Art Director for Adidas. “Kamp does so many activations and experiences. Before starting the job, Kamp invited me down to LA for Pharrell’s superstar event where he addressed a group of young designers prompting them to customize the Adidas Supershell at a workshop style event. I thought it was cool. Not only are you putting out your own product, but you’re also encouraging creativity and imagination to a younger generation. Maybe they’ll become the next Pharrell because of that experience.”
Justin is hopeful that his journey will allow him to work on projects with young, aspiring artists who lack the support to pursue creative fields. “The more you think that kids know exactly what’s going on right now and how to make anything, they all actually don’t. I just want to be the guy that says ‘this is all you need to make something dope…these are the right tools.’”
Justin’s story is unique and inspired. In many ways, his story revolves around a simple concept: to stop and think about what will make others stop and think. And he hopes his story will remain an experimental journey. A journey of bringing together art and people. A journey of exploring what can be, and helping others to realize what can be for themselves.
Keep tabs on Justin’s design projects and more on Instagram at @justmorris