Cowboy e-bike Earning Your Stripes. Humanistic Design Takes Pole Position.

Interview: Cort Cunningham
Photos: Brix & Maas Jan 18, 2021

Stories

Designer, maker, and idealist Charles Johnson grew up between U.S. and German cultures, which instilled a sense of openness at an early age. Following 10 years at Puma, the last five as Global Director of Innovation, he’s transitioned his professional life to realize a lasting impact in his career with a focus on sustainability, zero emissions, and equality in the tech startup realm. Charles calls Nuremberg, Germany home, frequently calling upon its heritage of design and mobility to fuel his work and his love for building and racing motorcycles. We meet him at his studio, then take a spin on his Cowboy bike around the track. Along the way, he shares what those who have come before can teach us and how design can change the world. “The answers are there,” he shares. “You just have to want to find them.”

"I'm an idealist. I believe in the power of design and then I act on it."

What brought you to Nuremberg?

I come from a multicultural family. My mother was German, my father American. I had grown up in America exposed to German culture and had traveled here, so living here was always on my radar. When I was in Colorado working at Crocs as the creative director there, I got a call from a headhunter who talked about an opportunity in Europe for a company involved in motorsports. And I'm very much into motorcycles, so that was a draw.

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And sports in general, right?

Yeah. I've been in the sports industry for quite some time, but the idea of working within motorsports was kind of a dream. And being in a leadership position at Puma in that space was very attractive. So that's what brought me here 10 years ago.

Did it live up to your expectations?

Absolutely, yeah. I've been at Puma now for 10 years, or had been. I left there recently. In those 10 years, it drew upon every competency that I'd built up until that point, and then some. And so it was really a sort of intense 10 years. And it got me to a new level in my career.

Is there anything about motorsports in particular that really drives you?

I simply dreamed about motorcycles when I was a child. For no good reason. Nobody in my family had motorcycles. I didn't know anybody who did. And so the moment when I had enough expendable income I invested in a motorcycle. And from then on, I just built on it. For me, motorcycling is this holistic experience. I design motorcycles, I build them, and I race them. When you race motorcycles, you can’t think of much else. There are few things in life that require that kind of focus.

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Having been in the design field in the U.S. and in Europe, how do you contrast the two?

Professionally, not so much because I’ve stayed in this industry. And the way you design and develop products is more or less the same. But there is a different culture. In Germany, there’s an emphasis on what they call Ausbildung, which is a proven education and practice that qualifies you for certain roles. In America there is more emphasis on talent and potential than on credentials. There are pros and cons to both "systems".

I’ve heard you speak about calling upon past influences in your work. Like the Bauhaus for example. Do you see the design community honoring those influences or do you feel like you’re kind of…

...A dinosaur. [laughter]

One of the few, huh. What’s your take on where the design world sits now?

The truth is, I may be an outlier in that regard because I do find there is less appreciation for those kinds of things. Anecdotally, I visited the Bauhaus early when I came to Europe and I happened to be talking to one of my designers while I was there, a young designer. I said, “Hey, I’m at the Bauhaus.” And he just didn’t really respond. I’m like, “Do you know what the Bauhaus is?” And he didn’t. That’s sort of the sad truth.

Why do you think that is?

What I've discovered is that corporate design is not really asking for a certain depth in creativity, especially when you get into industries like consumer industries. Like sports, they're part fashion, part function. They are pulled into this cyclical seasonal newness all the time. Sure, technology and innovation have longer cycles. But the day-in-day-out business is less about depth and more about surface. So designers aren’t digging for those skills. Production is also often far away; little is made locally anymore. So if you’re removed from the actual making you don’t really need that skill. However, I think young designers are good at using digital tools and technologies so there is a healthy exchange.

How were you able to achieve depth in your design work at Puma since surely you had to answer to the cyclical nature of the business there too?

Part of it is a passion and a belief that design can change the world. Holding myself, and then my team, to certain standards. It's about taking the higher road, not the easy road, that’s what I've stood for. My desire and my interest is to make things beautiful and better, not making things that are okay or just fit a brief. And that takes a certain mindset. And then fortunately, being in a leadership position, to be able to establish and nurture that approach.

"Design is a thinking activity, not purely an aesthetic one."

When did this belief that design can change the world begin to take hold?

Early on the seeds were planted when I was at Carnegie Mellon studying design, where I had some really excellent mentors and teachers. Design was seen as a serious activity, not individual whimsy. You're moving lots of people, for example, in a transit system or you're creating medical equipment. You're shaping that industry in a certain way. And then computer technology came along. And so I was impacted early to understand that design is a thinking activity, not purely an aesthetic one.

There is an impact sports can have though, universally across cultures.

Yes. It's a positive impact pursuit. It can be, very much so. And it's pure. There's a certain science to it. That's what really kept me engaged and bringing in some of those let's say “traditional” product design approaches to sports. When we're talking footwear in particular, it’s a very craft-based industry. Injecting it with design, product design, research, manufacturing to really evolve it is what product designers brought to the industry. And then it's part soft goods, part hard goods, which is an interesting mashup.

Just so I’m clear, when you say soft and hard…

Like a shoe has molded parts of plastic and foam, and then soft flexible textiles.

footwear design

Right, okay.

Of course now, footwear also has digital technologies. That’s a whole other dimension, right?

Yes, that’s offering new depth to design for sure.

In your world, Cowboy, that’s more serious in my thinking.

Sure. Some days it’s a daily churn. You’ve gotta sell more bikes, you know? But it always comes back to the mission, thinking about the material impact we can have for people in cities.

Well, that’s another part of my answer to your question. I'm an idealist. I believe in the power of design and then I act on it. I’m the kind of person who has to have that sort of idealism and imagination to shape a vision. I get people into this mindset of, “Hey, we want to go here. Do you see it? It’s not going to be easy and we only have some parts, but let’s go here.” That’s the part that draws me. Then of course we have to deliver to the bottom line, right? So both ideals and results have to come together.

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From what I’ve read, your idealism comes a lot from your upbringing. Your parents let you be who you wanted to be. Was that a conscious decision on their part or did it just happen more organically?

That's a very good question. I think my short answer is it was organic. There were certain principles, let's say, that existed. Education was one. Being a good human was another. And being cultured, not in the sense of material ways, but in experiential ways. That was the DNA within the family. Layer on top of that different cultures coming together. For a Black man who grew up in a ghetto in the South Side of Chicago to make his way through college and then the military and to Europe to study for his doctorate where he met a white German woman whose father was a civil servant and whose mother was creative. My mother's very creative, actually. For those two people to come together and then create this family, you have to be quite open. And, the experience of race. Being Black in America for example. And the challenges you're faced with. You've got to work hard.

You’ve got to keep fighting.

Even as my parents eventually got divorced and my mother found herself a single mother, she was like, “We’re going to get through it. You know we’ll make it. So maybe that’s where it comes from.

You recently made the move from Puma to start your own biz. What made you make the shift?

Let's say I've left Puma and I'm open to doing different things. It was kind of the culmination of something that started several years ago. I came across something called The Copenhagen Letter, which was kind of a call to arms for designers to use our powers to make the world a better place. And that was in 2017. And it really spoke to me because I have, again, part of that thinking – I love my career and we're doing fun stuff. I'm creating things that athletes, celebrities, and consumers wear. It's great when you see a famous athlete performing in something you designed or you step out of the subway in New York and see someone wearing your shoes. That's all fun. But on a bad day it feels like I'm not contributing as I could to making the world a better place. So I started to have that longing to do something else. But what I did at Puma, was I started just to shift some of the focus of my professional work. By then I was director of innovation, and so, I started to bring some of that thinking into our agenda. Devoting more to sustainable efforts and more into health and wellness. Some ways that I could make an impact for the brand.

Were there key aspects of sustainability that you focused on? It’s such a broad term.

Mostly sustainable materials, new ways of using materials and making things. And then more recently, bio design, which uses bacteria to shape the product. We put nature to work for us.

Oh, do you know of the Biofabricate Conference?

Yes, and that's where bio design fits in. Puma was on the forefront. Nobody was really doing that. So, that was part of my drive too, to do something that nobody else was doing. I wanted to do something beyond adhering to certain standards, ethical standards, sustainability standards. I'm a product maker, so I think, "How is it that the things we make are different and less harmful to the environment at the same time?" 

So was there a particular moment that made you take the leap and venture on your own?

I stopped physically going into the office at Puma in February pre-corona so I was already experiencing home office. When corona came in there was something about the solitude, the limitations that caused many people, myself included, to rethink what we're doing and what's really important. And then Black Lives Matter on top of this. It's been a really terrible time for a lot of people, but for me, it's been on some level energizing and creative. So a number of things are coming together to shape where I am right now. The need to get some exercise and this draw to zero emissions and how technology can advance us, that's how I discovered Cowboy. I was not in the market for a bike. I didn't really know much about the e-bike industry let's say. But it caught my eye and attention. And then I sort of followed my nose and discovered the bike.

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"Being a designer, I'm drawn to beautiful things. Then you layer in digital technology and immediately, Cowboy rose to the surface."

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What in particular caught your attention?

Being a designer, I'm drawn to beautiful things. Then you layer in digital technology, and not just technology for the sake of it but to create a great experience, and immediately, Cowboy rose to the surface. I used to have fun riding a bike as a child. But when I test rode the Cowboy it brought something new to the experience. I thought, "Whoa, cycling is fun again." The Cowboy bike was a rediscovery of how fun cycling can be. And I think, the extra velocity that you can achieve tapped into my motorcycle-ness.

I was going to say, that must be part of the draw for you.

No question. I was like, "Of course I'm going to get one." The bike is beautiful hands down. To me, there's no competition. I know there's competition out there, but I don't appreciate it. And then Cowboy really followed through on the experience that a connected product should deliver.

When in your life have you felt the most cowboy?

There was another time in my life when I was in New York City. I was hired by Converse as a satellite designer. I took that job and it lasted two years. It ended when they closed the studio in New York, so I converted that into starting my own design consultancy. So that was definitely a moment where I didn't decide, "Hey, I've got to get a job at another sneaker company." Rather I said, "I'm going to start my own shop in New York City." I would say that was a cowboy moment for sure to break out on my own in a city that was highly competitive. I mean, you know New York. If you're not doing it, somebody else is. So you better get on it. That was definitely a cowboy moment.

Ah, so then the independent route isn’t your first rodeo.

Right, this is the second one.

Now that you’re doing your own thing again, is there a certain sphere where you want to have the most impact?

The conversation I'm having out there is about humanistic design and humanistic values so really anything that I do needs to fit into that meaning again of making the world a better place. I like the idea of sustainability but now more focused on zero emissions. And that can be a number of different things. Imagine within the context of a Cowboy or other brands who are focused on getting to zero emissions. I also like shaping product with a sustainable angle to it, either in the product itself or the making of it.

Black Lives Matter

The other aspect is, and this is a pretty involved and deep conversation, but I mentioned the Black Lives Matter Movement surfacing. Being a Black person in this world I have experienced challenges and inequity that has shaped a certain empathy in me. And so, I ask myself, can I do more to counter inequity? Not just racial inequity but also gender inequity. It’s not easy, because there are so many ways to dive in. So I’m trying to understand what I can do in that space, to use my voice and my experience to improve the situation for others.

"The answers are there. You just have to want to find them."

Or even with different organizations, there are so many who need amplification of their work.

So two things. In America for sure, all the answers are there. The research has been done. The case studies have been activated. So I'm engaged in the conversation but sometimes I find myself saying, "You don't need me. The answers are there. You have to want to find them.” That's part one. So then if that's true, what impact can I have that's new and different? And I think there can be, there ought to be, there needs to be, more investment and I actually mean literal investment. So for example, I'm in the tech industry and startup world and the climate is very white.

True.

So, that doesn't mean that technology and startups and entrepreneurs can't be Black. It just means maybe they don't have the same tailwinds behind them. Right? And so what can I do to counter that? I have conversations with investors, with incubators and accelerators, and so on. That's an impact I can imagine having. Can I have an impact that's like, “Look guys, what is the climate? What are you investing in?” I can't quote the data, but the idea for example is a company that has more women at the board level do better. So if that's true, we then investing in more of that kind of leadership is good business.

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That’s definitely a focus at Cowboy, too.

Europe has an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and to learn lessons, shameful lessons from the U.S. Just by nature of having had that experience America but being here in Europe, I can impart that wisdom, or that experience, to help.

Like you said, the answers are there.

Say what you’re going to do, give yourself some metrics, and then do it. You have to challenge yourself as to why are you saying something and do you believe in it? And then, what are you really going to do? That’s the harder part.