Alumni Profile: Charles Johnson

The EvoPower Football Boot by Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson

For nearly three decades Charles Johnson has worked at the intersection of human performance, design, technology and manufacturing creating both analog and digital products for the sports, fashion, active lifestyle and esport sectors.

This year, Johnson, an industrial design alumnus from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design (BA ’87) and the IDSA Merit Award winner for his graduating class, joined the CMU Entertainment Technology Center as an Assistant Professor of Leadership Innovation.

Johnson was the first industrial designer at Adidas’ global headquarters in Germany working in the Advanced Product Group where he focused on converting biomechanics research into performance technologies for athletes producing some of the products that helped reestablish Adidas as an industry leader. He went on to found New York City based, Sports Creative Group, Inc., a design consultancy and brand incubator focused on the sports industry. Notable accomplishments included the creation of the Black Fives™ apparel brand, and designs for Ralph Lauren RLX and Prince Tennis footwear collections. Pursuant to SCG he migrated back to the corporate sector holding Design and Strategy leadership positions at Adidas North America in Portland, Oregon and the Global Creative Director position at Crocs in Boulder, CO.

The adidas Tubular Running Shoe by Charles Johnson
adidas Tubular Running Shoe, 1992

Before arriving back at CMU and the ETC, Johnson worked at Puma SE global headquarters in Germany for 10 years first as Head of Footwear Design and then Head of Innovation Design. He was appointed Global Director of Innovation in 2015, where he led a team of researchers, designers, material engineers and a host of industry specialists to create new performance enhancing technologies and experiences for athletes and consumers. Johnson also runs his consulting business, DrivenByCharles, which serves a range of industries in the sports, healthcare, sustainability, personal mobility and social impact sectors.

The Puma BMW CSL Hommage Suit by Charles Johnson
Puma BMW CSL Hommage Suit, 2015

Professor Johnson is invested in deploying his professional experience to further the cause of "humanistic design," using the power of design to do good.

“All that is new in the world emerges from the minds and hands of designers,” said Johnson. “With that power comes responsibility because what we bring either serves or goes against humanity. I choose to use the power of design to do good which is what I consider humanistic design.”

A prime example of Johnson’s commitment to humanistic design is the World Shoe, a simple injection molded foot covering that offers basic protection against the elements

“For some, footwear is a matter of life and death,” said Johnson. “The ability to simply ambulate their surroundings and avoiding life threatening disease is not possible in many parts of the world. Without foot covering children are seven times more likely to be infected with a Neglected Tropical Disease.

“I am very proud of the design of the World Shoe. After decades solving highly technical problems around human performance and converting those into commercially successful business opportunities, designing a product that solves the simple problem of basic foot protection designed to fight disease and alter the trajectory of a life is extremely satisfying.”

Charles Johnson's World Shoe
School of Design postcard featuring Charles Johnson's World Shoe.  Postcard designed by Brett Yasko.

Johnson fondly remembers his time at the School of Design.  "I have Steve Stadelmeier to blame for becoming an industrial designer," said Johnson. "I came to campus with graphic design on my brain. It was his course that inspired my shift to industrial design."

Johnson most appreciates the interdisciplinary projects he was able to experience. The theme of his education revolved around “connecting unassociated dots to solve problems in a meaningful and authentic way.”

“In my senior year we engaged in a project collaboration with the Robotics Institute,” said Johnson. “The objective was to bring robotics to healthcare. I designed a robotic therapy device that focused on ankle rehabilitation. The exposure to complex technology used to solve a simple problem had long-lasting impact. And perhaps it is what set me up to start as a footwear designer.

“At the School of Design, you learn not only how to shape things but how to think about the world and how you can develop the skills and mindset to affect it in a positive way,” added Johnson.

“On that journey you will be surrounded by the best of the best helping you to understand the world beyond you.”

“Though our school has evolved over the years, Charles reminds us that our humanistic values and goals to nurture the curiosities of students, enable them to explore their interests, and expose them to new ways of connecting and contributing to the world have remained consistent,” said Eric Anderson, Professor and Interim Head of the School of Design. “Charles’ journeys are inspiring and we hope to find ways to engage with his incredible knowledge and life experiences while he is back on campus.”

Later this month, School of Design alumni should keep an eye on their mailboxes for our latest postcard featuring Charles Johnson’s World Shoe.  This postcard is the second in a series of cards celebrating the work of our incredible network of alumni.

See more of Charles Johnson's work.

Are you an alumnus of the School of Design?  Find more resources here.