Justin Brown (BFA ’09) is making waves in the design world. A graduate of The University of Tulsa’s graphic design program in the School of Art, Design and Art History, Brown today is the owner of Houston-based firm The Brown Crayon, where he is also the creative director and motion designer. The companies Brown has assisted with his skills and talent include major names such as Lyft, BP and Nike.
Now that he has been running the Brown Crayon for eight years, Brown understands firsthand the importance of calling attention to brands in ways that let people tell their stories in unexpected ways. As he puts it, “the brown crayon itself is often used to color things like dirt or tree bark, but it can be used for so much more.”
Illuminating Black history
A prime example of that sort of “so much more” is Brown’s recent work for Nickelodeon. This year, Nickelodeon is seeking to highlight major monthly observances, including Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, and Pride in June. Brown was the designer Nickelodeon called on for its Black History Month project.
According to Brown, Nickelodeon’s campaign is intended to say that while there is still work to be done to achieve equality, positive change is happening. Brown noted that Nickelodeon’s team for this project was very diverse, and that it was important for them to find a Black voice to create the Black History Month piece, which is titled Shine a Light. “Nickelodeon wanted to get the right messages across,” he said, “and having many different voices is important to them.”
Informing Brown’s work on Shine a Light was his belief that Black History Month “is about bringing public awareness that Black people are a group to be considered and their impact needs to be recognized. Bringing their stories to light makes these impacts seem real for generations of people.”
Working with Nickelodeon was a great experience for Brown. He says was given complete creative control of his portion of the project, which can be seen on Nickelodeon’s Twitter account. Brown remarked that Shine a Light was a special project for many reasons, including the fact it is fully animated: “They usually like to blend graphics with live footage, but this time they wanted to fully rely on animation.”
Client relations and engaging designs
As someone who has been in the design business for nearly a decade, Brown notes that graphic design is increasingly in demand, and therefore having a robust artist’s portfolio is very important when seeking new business. “Whatever clients ask you to do, you’ve probably already done before,” he noted.
While attending TU, Brown says that the most important skill that he picked up throughout his studies was the ability to facilitate client relations. The graphic design program enabled him to interact with real clients and deal with real deadlines. “This makes for a great experience that prepares you for the workload of a graphic designer post-graduation,” he said.
“Animation is an under-recognized part of our daily lives,” Brown went on to observe. “Yet, as internet users, we are presented with tons of different types of advertisements and clips through social media each day.” As a result, Brown believes that presentation and engaging design are more important than ever before. “Even something as tiny as the loading icon on a website lends itself to a brand’s image.”
“If a picture says a thousand words, it’s more important now than ever to develop better ways to get messages across to people.” — Justin Brown
Be kind, lean into your voice
Thinking back on his TU student days, Brown cites Teresa Valero, a now-retired TU professor, as one of the people who most inspired him to focus his career on graphic design. “I’m really grateful to Professor Valero. I don’t think I’d be doing this now if it hadn’t been for her. It’s amazing what she’s done for not only me, but for every designer that’s gone through TU.” For her part, Valero regards Brown as “one of the brightest stars from TU’s graphic design program.”
Brown offers students wanting to follow a graphic design path a few words of advice. First, he advised, be kind: “Kindness is very important in the industry and companies will want to work with people they like.”
Brown’s second piece of advice is directed at Black students in particular: “Lean into your voice. These environments are changing for the better and it’s easier to be your authentic self. You have support, you have many allies, you are not alone. Be unapologetic, work hard, and it will pay off.”
As he envisions the future of his own practice, Brown takes heart from the fact that, across the nation, there are many groups and organizations dedicated to community outreach and education about Black contributions to the world. Indeed, Brown hopes to work to sharpen the Brown Crayon into one of these and, to do so, he envisions expanding his business: “Long term, I think the Brown Crayon is going to turn into something bigger than I’d imagined. In the future, I’d like to hire out a full-time creative staff. People have helped me along the way, so I’m very passionate about bringing other people up and providing opportunities to work.”
The University of Tulsa’s School of Art, Design and Art History offers programs in a wide variety of subjects, including graphic design, placing students in intimate environments to practice, understand and advance the visual arts. Learn more today!