Quinnton Harris is a designer, photographer, creative director and entrepreneur. He recently co-founded Retrospect, a Black-owned studio that works with companies to bring culture and perspective to their product and consumer experiences.
Growing up in a small town on the outskirts of Chicago, Quinnton’s tight-knit family was immersed in music and the arts. Yet the possibility of pursuing his love for creativity as anything more than a hobby never seemed like a viable option to him at the time. “My family was working class,” he explains, “and it never really occurred to me that it could be a career.”
Instead, he invested himself in science and math studies. With the help of his chemistry teacher, Quinnton got into MITES, a science and engineering program for high schoolers at MIT. From there, he went back to MIT for college to major in mechanical engineering, but dabbled in graphic design in addition to his many academic duties — and quickly fell in love with the field. By the time he took on his first internship, which actually pivoted at the last minute to focus on design, it was getting clear that he had found his calling.
From that point on, Quinnton started taking on new projects and roles in design, going from a Junior Art Director at marketing agency Digitas to Lead Designer at health and beauty brand Walker & Company, to Creative Director at digital media company Blavity Inc. Then, remarkably, world-renowned design leader and MIT alumnus John Maeda popped up on his Twitter DMs with a job offer.
“As soon as I had my first conversation with John, I knew that I wanted to be his apprentice,” says Quinnton. “He’s an incredible design thinker and a wonderful storyteller.” Quinnton joined Maeda at digital consulting company Publicis Sapient, and found true mentorship in their work together. “It was an amazing opportunity. John helped me cultivate my voice and find my place in the larger design world.”
“I find that my point-of-view for design becomes clearer when I understand who I am. My very existence is political, and the more I get in tune with my identity, the better designer I can be.”
Design activism that celebrates Black liberation and joy
As part of refining his creative voice, Quinnton’s own identity was shifting more into focus in his work. “I started to care deeply about how my work can help shape communities of color, or serve them in beautiful and interesting ways,” he says. “I find that my point-of-view for design becomes clearer when I understand who I am. My very existence is political, and the more I get in tune with my identity, the better designer I can be.”
Quinnton describes these gradual insights as a lifting of a veil, which allowed him to see more clearly. “I had a moment where I really called into question the purpose of my work. I started to ask myself: what did I ultimately want to achieve with it?”
He mentions Eric Garner's death in 2014 and last year’s Black Lives Matter protests as formative events for him. He recalls being at work during a demonstration, leading him to question the distinction between design and the outside world. “I was at the office on the 11th floor, looking down, and there was this physical separation between myself and the people on the ground fighting. I remember asking myself, should I be down there protesting with them, or should I protest through the work that I create here? Where is my fight?”
After the death of George Floyd in 2020 and amidst a global pandemic, these same thoughts were buzzing through his mind. Quinnton started an independent collective of Black creatives called Hella Creative. Together, the group initiated the Hella Juneteenth campaign.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, in which the last enslaved people in the United States were freed. The campaign launched by the collective lobbied for companies to make Juneteenth an official holiday and day off in their workplaces in celebration of Black liberation.
Hella Juneteenth quickly went viral, with over 800 companies taking the pledge. This June, President Biden announced the day would become a federal holiday. “We did the whole project in less than two weeks,” Quinnton looks back, “and it really blew up.” Following its overwhelming success, and with the encouragement and support of Maeda, Quinnton felt it was time to pave his own creative path.
“How do we honor the past and the stories of our lives, to build the better futures we imagine?”