Jason Brown is the head of Design at Fahrenheit 212, the innovation firm known for creations like the Coca Cola Freestyle machine and Samsung ID. He has always been the most stylish man in any room, he has been thoughtful in connecting design to business. Also, few people know he used to be in a boy band and was discovered by Montell Jordan (more below).
How did you get started with design?
As a kid, I was constantly designing in my leisure time – from reinterpreting logos by hand to building model homes out of foam core to painting full size portraits of my sports idols. But in my household it wasn’t seen as much more than a hobby, and I had little to no idea I could build a career out of my skills. So I ended up studying Political Science and Economics in University.
I eventually found my way to design college—thanks to my girlfriend at the time—and when I got there felt as though I’d literally found home. In my interview I showed a portfolio of my “hobby work” and was told it was 4th year student quality, so I was admitted into the second year of the program.
I’ve always been a form-follows-function guy – I enjoyed the Fine Arts but loved Communication Arts and Product Design. I was always more interested in the relationship between design and business, and the commercialization of ideas.
Why do you do it and how do you think you've gained the success that you have?
A few things:
First, I’d say it’s what I’ve already mentioned—my love for design as a business. Being aware early on that the work I do isn’t about self expression meant I took less ownership of it and became less subjective about it. So good work wasn’t a question of like or dislike but rather strategically right or wrong. I think it allowed me to be more flexible, take direction and input, stay on task and still create beautiful things.
Secondly I’d say it’s been my willingness to be wrong. It’s allowed me to be more proactive, take the initiative and not wait to be asked to participate. I was always okay not having the answer as long as I could ask a smart question, which meant speaking up and not worrying about seeming unintelligent. 9 times out of 10, the rest of the room had the same question.
Lastly I’d say is my awareness of self and accepting that there may be perceptions of me that have to be managed, manipulated or overcome. I’m hyper aware that for 90% of my 20+ year career, I’ve been the only black professional in the office. Growing as a professional and staying positive when there is such an imbalance demands a measure of being “bilingual”, and being okay with the pressures of representing an entire race of people—being okay with times when you have to be better, or more polite. It’s an unfortunate reality but I love what I do and I love competing at this level, so opting out or doing only “culturally specific” work has never been an option.
How did you end up at Fahrenheit 212?
After seven years in the brand strategy & identity world, I got to a point where as much as I loved identity work, I became increasingly frustrated with conversations where brand didn’t extend beyond communications.
As a strategic designer, I subscribe to the idea that Brand should sit at the center of a business and inform everything it does. So I wanted to get closer to an exercise that drove product & service innovation—strategies that impacted the business, not just communications. So I started looking at the innovation space.
I was most attracted to Fahrenheit because of its methodology, shorthanded "Money and Magic.” The team is part refugees from the finance world like ex-ibankers and management consultants, and part consumer-focused creatives like journalists, designers and brand strategists. When you overlap these groups you get the right tension of what’s right for the client’s business and what’s right for their consumer.
Fahrenheit first brought me on to essentially build a world-class design capability—to elevate the fidelity of the work and the awareness of its discipline. We were recently acquired by Capgemini and with that, the ambition has grown to creating a global design capability across both organizations.
What's the highlight of your career?
Well there's really nothing like seeing your work in the real world. I’d say the first was driving the Brand Identity work for the Thomson Reuters' acquisition. The creation of the brand was a big exercise with plenty of late nights, but to see the work in the real world on launch day made it all worth while. From the takeover of the 42nd Street subway station to the domination of Times Square. It was a big moment in my career, to know I could have that kind of impact and reach. I went through an identical exercise with the New York Stock Exchange rebrand and had the pleasure of ringing the closing bell on the trading floor.
What do you do for fun?
I recently discovered a couple things.
I did my first triathlon this year - the New York City Olympic length one. I thought it was a bucket list thing, but I fell in love with the process and the event. For better or worse, I may become a triathlete.
I also recently started riding a motorcycle. Another thing that may become a passion.
What are your favorite places to hang in New York?
Prospect Park, without question. I feel lucky to live close to it. Whether you're going for a run or riding a bike, it's nice to feel like you’re not in the city when you’re in there.
I also love Jacob Riis beach. A 20min drive away, during the summer months I would be there every weekend if I could. My office is in NoHo.
I love Tacombi. It's a taco joint in SOHO. Low key, no frills, and great tacos.
What’s something people who only know you through your work would be surprised to know?
In my mid-twenties, I was in a boy band. Me and 4 high school buddies started a group that was eventually discovered by Montell Jordan. We lived with him for a year as we recorded the background vocals for his 2nd album, but it was a short run since the album tanked. I did the music thing for a few years after with another group but ultimately decided the design thing was going to more directly reward me for my efforts. Much less of a “who you know” type industry.