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99U Conference 2018

Jason Mayden: Designing for the Next Generation of Superheroes


About this talk

Whether working as the CEO behind Super Heroic, a mission-driven business focused on providing quality play-performance for children, or in his former life as Senior Global Design Director at Nike, Jason Mayden believes the mindset of playfulness can make heroes of us all. From the joy of Haribo gummy bears to Batman, Mayden’s true purpose is play and designing products that make the most vulnerable among us—children—embrace their inner hero. In this lively talk, Mayden shares:

  • How his incredible design career started with a 1-800 phone call
  • How he finds design motivation and inspiration in fatherhood
  • How design solutions can equip kids with empathy and kindness

Full Transcript

How’s everyone doing? All right. That’s what I like to hear. So, I heard a few chuckles when you read that title. That is your fundamental right as a parent to lie to your children. If anyone tells you anything different that is a lie. The most joyous experience ever is telling my child, “No, you can’t go outside because there are asteroids that are actually gonna hit the earth.” And then my son has Google and tells me the weather report, there’s no sign of asteroids. So, you have to be careful that your children do not have their own cellphone when you lie to them.

So, some of the thing that I’ll talk about in this appeal are really centered around the fact that sometimes a lie helps a person find their own truth. As Paulo Coelho talks about in Alchemist, your personal legend. So, what I’m gonna go through is several lies that most parents tell their children, the lies that were told to me in order to protect my personal truth. Cool?

All right, I’m from Chicago so everything is call and response. So, I’m gonna try this again. Cool? All right. Thank you.

So, the first lie that my father told me when I was young is if you sit too close to the television you will go blind. That is not true. It’s actually a sign of nearsightedness, not the fact that it’s gonna cause me to go blind. This is so funny because my father was in the military. And you would think a man that jumped out of planes for a living would not be risk adverse. Everything I did from walking down the stairs, to coughing and sneezing, was a sign of my mortality to my father. “Don’t ride your bike too fast. You might break your spleen.” I’m like, “Where’s my spleen located, Pop? How’s that connected to bipedal motion? I don’t get it.”

The next thing that was interesting is my mom was a pseudo-chemist, I guess. She said, “If you pee in the pool there’s a magic that will turn red.” To my chemistry fans in the audience, you know that this is not true. There’s no chemical that can distinguish one bodily fluid from another bodily fluid. Because I actually tried. My experimentation. I proved that nothing happened when you pee in the pool. But I can tell you right now, don’t open your mouth if you ever went swimming after any of my children in the pool, because they also like to experiment.

But one thing that was a lie that my parents told me that helped my release my truth was, “If you put your mind to it, you can become anything you desire.” They didn’t tell me that in Chicago one out of every three black males would be dead or in jail before the age of 25. They didn’t tell me that as a child falsely labeled with a learning difference that I was not supposed to be brilliant and artist, charismatic and creative.

I was supposed to be subjugated to a lesser than scenario. I was supposed to be addicted to drugs. I was supposed to be an absent fathered. I was supposed to be afraid to wear a black hoodie in an audience full of people that may or may not look like me. But because of that lie, they released my truth. Because I tell you one thing that society loves to tell children in the inner city, or children who do not have the accoutrements of success, who do not have access to quality education, who do not have the resources to display their voice on the grandness stage of the world, the Lincoln Center.

They tell them that, “Kids like you, end up dead or in jail.” That is a false narrative. That’s a false narrative that limits the geniuses that we need to archetype the future before it happens. So, my parents chose to lie to me to preserve my truth. And along that journey, everything people would tell me from, “Jason, you’re different,” to, “Jason, you’re broken,” to, “Jason, no, Haribo gummy bears are not better than Black Forrest gummy bears.” I’ll tell you unequivocally, Haribo gummy bears are the best gummy bears ever. There it is. There it is. I’m telling you, if you don’t rock with Haribo, you can’t think like me. Okay?

Because Haribo gummy bears and Batman were the things that I thought about the most when I was seven years old, laying in a hospital, diagnosed with septicemia, which is a blood infection. So, imagine being seven and someone discussing your mortality saying, “If you make it out of here…” “If you wake up tomorrow…” “If you survive…” My fleeting thoughts all were surrounded around my desire to play and eat gummy bears. And so I knew that something about play was my purpose. Something about play will preserve my truth. Because in a city as vast and as beautiful as Chicago, the world’s only open air architectural museum in my opinion, I wasn’t allowed to dream beyond the confines of the South Side. I was told, “This is where you’re gonna be. This is where you’re gonna die.” But I had a different narrative because I preserved my truth constantly in everything that I did.

Now, this image that you see behind me is a picture of my brother. I drew this at the age of 11. Something that you’ll have noticed is that I wrote a caption saying that he’s studying, but clearly the books are not open. My brother was extremely popular, he looked exactly like ’90’s R&B singers, and so he … everything H-Town, Drew Hill, my brother. And I’m like, “Man. Me? I’m a sickly mixed kid with straight hair that like Japanese robots and ate gummy bears.” I clearly was not the popular choice to hang out with.

But it’s okay. Because of my brother’s popularity he allowed me to display my truth in my sketches. So, I put this swoosh and I put the number 23 everywhere because you cannot achieve something if you do not give it a deadline. So, I gave myself a deadline. I said, “You know what? My dream will turn into a goal because by the age of 19 I will be an intern at Nike.” And I started to call them. They put this 1-800 number out, which gave me permission. And I don’t know about you, if you give me a number I’m calling it. Repeatedly. And what was fascinating is it was a pre-recorded message, and it was the voice of a person describing this product. But once again, this was permission for me to dream.

So, I flipped over the shoebox and there was a 503 area code. That was the worst mistake Nike could have made. I figured out what state they were in. I saw the address One Bowerman Drive. And I was like, “I’m gonna be at that place.” So, I called the number on the back of the box. And I realized that was customer service, so I asked questions. “I want to work at Nike.” They said, “Listen, little girl.” I said, “Wait. I’m an 11-year-old boy.” Literally the person thought I was a little because I had a really high-pitched voice, so I understand the mistake. But I still was like, “Really fam? That’s what we doing today? I just want to draw shoes. That’s it.”

But I heard about this gentleman named Tinker Hatfield. And if you grew up in the inner city or around black culture, names like Tinker typically are what you call your cousin as a nickname. I didn’t realize that was his first name. So, I said, “I’m Tinker’s nephew.” I didn’t realize I didn’t look anything like Tinker Hatfield. I just figured, “I need to project to the world that this is where I wanted to be.”

And so as I started to reach out and I continued to stay in touch, and I let them know who I was, and I let them know that my truth, my true north, my personal legend was leading me towards Beaverton, Oregon. I decided to take a trip. I took pictures of Nike’s campus, obviously without their permission. This isn’t the actual photo. And I put it on my ceiling in my dorm room my freshman year in college. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up. It was the last thing I saw when I went to sleep. Because of the lie my parents told me, it allowed me to not believe that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I felt welcomed. I felt that my existence and my dream was permissible. And I had the good fortune of actually becoming Nike’s first African American designer intern from art school, at the age of 19, which is a magical experience. Thank you.

What’s funny about it. It is not a prerequisite for you to be bald when you work for MJ. Just want to dispel any rumors. It just happens that genetically I became bald. But you saw evidence of my having hair, so we’re good. All right? But what I learned from Michael was something that was very special that has carried me forward throughout my entire career. He told us something. He said, “You know what, Jason? I can accept you failing. But I can’t accept you not trying.” So many of us are afraid to try because we are thinking about the ridicule we may receive from being our own selves, in public, on purpose, all the time. But you have to be comfortable in the skin that you’re in. Because by you being comfortable with your dream, you’ll allow someone else to have their dream. So, it’s less about what I receive from standing on the stage, but what I give back to you is permission for you to say who you want to become and then pursue it.

While I was at Nike, it was very interesting. I did everything you would expect someone at the company to do. From getting free shoes, to hanging out with athletes, to getting more free shoes. But it was fascinating because it was not about the product. It was about the purpose. It was the way it made me feel. I was allowed to walk around the planet and meet people that were different than me because I loved their shoes.

How many of you here have met someone over a pair of footwear? Besides me, obviously. A couple people? It’s a unique experience, right? “I love your shoes.” It gave me this sense of purposeness. It gave me this sense of connectivity through an object. The artifacts of our existence carry the memories that we want to leave behind. And footwear carry my memories. They carry my joy, my passion, and my hope.

But something changed. My son. When I got to the top of the ladder, when you get to that magical room that you pursue as an executive, “I want to be at the table.” I got to the table and there was dust and it had a vacancy sign. It was like, “Man, this crazy. I thought this was what I wanted.” But what I ended up receiving was the golden handcuff. I started to focus more on my title instead of my impact. I started to get caught up in the daily politics, the gamesmanship, forgetting that I was there representing every single child who could never be there.

And so, when my son had got sick, I decided to take flight. I took flight and I wanted to pursue a new passion. Based on my faith, based on my purpose, based on the fact that that little seven-year-old Jason still loved Haribo gummy bears, and still wanted to just play. Because what I saw in my son, he needed to find his truth. Because he had developed a sickness. Something that made him gain weight rapidly. And when you’re a young child and you can’t explain why you’ve gained weight, most kids think you eat terribly and you don’t move. He was conflicted. Here he is, a little child, that can’t tell people, “I’m different. I’m not like those kids who you claim to be broken. I actually have been fighting an invisible enemy that I did not ask for.”

As a father, you have to decide what do you wanna do? Do I wanna collect a check and fix broken adults? Or do I want to switch to a new purpose and build stronger children? So, yes I did quote myself. So, I just want to point that out. It’s okay sometimes. Just like the person who shouted it out themselves for volunteers. Shout out to the volunteers. Sometimes you gotta just quote yourself.

But what’s interesting about building stronger children instead of fixing broken adults is that the industry that I come from, health and wellness, it’s all about that. We started with sports performance, the measurement of the body in motion. We were fascinated by building stronger, faster athletes. And then we went into technology and we broke out quantified self. Let’s measure it more effectively and efficiently. Let’s get data. And then we became inundated with technology. Now we’re like, “Mindfulness? I just wanna breath.” But when you think about that natural evolution, it’s moving towards play.

Play is something that’s important. As we go towards an autonomous culture, machine learning and AI, people will have more recreational time. People will want to be with their children. They’ll slow down. They’ll be more present. They’ll be engaged. And what’s interesting about that is we’re able to create new archetypes. New images for children to become. Because where I come from, if you don’t have jump shot, you most likely won’t make it. But creativity became my jump shot.

And I also quoted myself twice, so it’s okay. ‘Cause I just felt it was appropriate, the rhythm was there, and it just flowed. People can only become what they see. This is a well-known phenomenon that has been studied by Dr. Carol Dweck, one of my colleagues at Stanford. This notion of possible selves. If you present an image of someone that’s aspirational, a child will bias towards that outcome. So, when we show more diverse images, more inclusive images of heroism: girls that are strong, boys of color that are not villains, boys that come together and show emotional intelligence, not just brutality and strength, but inclusivity through love and acceptance, and that’s what you get on the playground. It’s magical.

And what’s interesting enough, I am a huge Batman fan. Growing up I wanted to be Lucius Fox. I didn’t see any designers that looked like me. So, I read Batman. I heard about this tall, bald black dude that wore glasses, and made stuff for Batman. I’m like, “I think I can check at least two of those boxes. I might be tall. And I see that I might be bald. I don’t know about Batman, but I’m good there.” But what was interesting, because I had an image of someone who created that looked like me, I believed that it was possible. And so, at Super Heroic, what’s so fascinating is we’ve used this research to create product that give children permission to be their heroes themselves.

What you see behind you is called a utility kit. It’s a cylinder that’s intended to be a two handed experience. Because children typically hold what they love. And if you have kids, you know they hold on to blankets and teddy bears, sometimes the younger sibling’s feet or neck when they’re fighting on the ground, depending on your children. My children wrestle a lot. But what’s fascinating is when they hold it, and they remove the interior, which is called the shuttle, it’s symbolic of removing the sword from the stone. And there’s a sound that plays that you will hear at the end of this presentation, that signifies to them that they are the hero. They’ve made this transformation from their regular self to their exemplar self.

This is what the Batman effect concluded. Children who dress up as heroes tend to hold themselves to the ethics, and values, and morals of that character. So, when your children are make believing, and they say, “I can fly. I’m a hero.” Play with them! Dream with them. Because you just may be actually raising a superhero. So, when they put on the footwear, they put on the cape, they hear that sound, it’s a shared experience. For that five seconds, the parent can see sheer joy. For that five seconds, the little boy that doesn’t get picked on the playground is the hero. That little girl that’s told she can’t play because she’s a girl, she’s the strongest in the room. We release them into the wild with confidence and certainty that they are indeed the most important, precious resource that we have.

And so the footwear we created solves one specific problem. The products that are made for our children are typically shrunken down adult proportions. I don’t know about you, but as a creative, doesn’t it behoove us to do our best work for the youngest of us? Because they’re gonna solve the problems that we leave behind. So, if we do not equip them with empathy, with love, and the tools to create, we’ll have a generation of people with answers to questions that no one are asking. We need to breed question askers. People are who are seeking discovery, who are driven through exploration, who actually give a damn. That’s important. And what we see when we put our images out, children tend to become more confident. The cape is always present.

Any child can be a hero. One thing that I like to tell people is it does not matter what you look like. Heroism is acceptable to all, right? You have heroes that are in wheelchairs. Heroes that are blind. Heroes that are overweight. Heroes that change the density of their body type. Heroes that become different forms of matter. It’s amazing. It’s not an exclusive club. The only thing that they share in common is this notion of servant leadership and self-sacrifice. But this also extends to young women.

One thing that I often tell my daughter, because she has a crew of friends. Let me explain this. I’m a good parent. Just want to give that disclaimer first. There’s evidence online, you can Google it. My kids are all alive, they’re safe. But what’s fascinating is she has a crew of friends called Playground Parkour. Her and her buddies they run around the playground structure and they think they’re playing American Ninja Warrior. It’s the most amazing thing ever. Here she is with pigtails, loving puppies, loving cupcakes. But she’s doing one arm pull-ups and doing back flips. It’s an anomaly on the playground. Because traditionally, we tell little girls, “Go over there and do what girls do. You can’t play with the boys. You’re not like them. You’re not strong enough.” She comes home and she cries to me, “Dad, they won’t let me play because I’m a girl.” And I tell her, “No, baby. Because you’re a girl, you’re strong. And it’s not that they don’t want you to play because you’re a girl. They don’t want you to play because you’re better. It’s just that simple.”

And when you start to teach them about the confidence that they should possess in their own femininity. And then you do research and realize that there’s no different in terms of gender in terms of how boys and girls play. There’s no different in ethnicity. The only difference is in socio-economics. It’s an investment in infrastructure. It’s the resources they have access to.

Some of us in this room can afford to send our kids to camp, can afford to send our kids to private training, play on traveling teams. But there are some of us who can’t. Who are going to every single free program possible to give our children the advantages that we didn’t have. But what we know, is that if you can play together, you can live together. And that’s a fundamental right of every child.

It’s a beautiful thing when you drop a ball on the ground and you don’t speak a language. That interconnectedness between two different children from two different cultures is the most beautiful thing. And it’s what Super Heroic stands for. It’s what we’re advocating for. It’s what we’re protecting. So, when we put our advertisements out and we talk to children, and we show examples of what it means to be a hero, we want every single child to see themselves as a tribe, with different family members around the world.

The products we create are less about the actual object. It’s about the mindset of playfulness. It’s about the preservation of counter factualism, which is a principal that children possess, right? So, this is the Stanford moment for a sec. Counter factualism is this thing that we call make believe. It’s the ability to see the world for what it could be versus what it is. Once we take that from children, which is typically around the age of seven because of our education system, because we forced them into mastery of a skillset instead of discovery of a new method, we limit their truth.

We suppress their ability to save us before we need them to. We kill aspirations before they ever actually take root. And that’s important. We can’t keep telling our kid what they can’t do. We can’t keep telling our kids that the world is a messed up place. Because if they believe that, they’ll never go out and try to improve it. We have to tell them, “Yes, you can fly. Yes, you can dream. Yes, you can become anything you want through the power of play.”

And so, what we’ve done is develop this system, a pedagogy per se, of play. It breaks down various disciplines from cognition, to strategy, to creativity, agility. And what we want to do is show children that there is no proper way to play. There’s no good or bad way. There’s no number one, and you’re last. Everyone will be good at something. Everyone will be a little bit bad at something. But it’s the community around you that supports you, that propels you forward, that gives you the courage and confidence to persist. Because persistence is the number one thing that separates good from great.

The smartest people do not always win. It’s the one who don’t quit. So, we teach our children it’s okay to quit without ever trying because of the risk factors of their dreams. “Don’t do that! That’s hard. I’ve never seen no one do that before. Don’t try that! That’s not good. You might not be able to do that. Look at you.” So many of us tear down our own aspirations internally, and we project that pain onto the littlest ones around us.

Protect their dreams by preserving your own. Look in the mirror when you wake up. Tell yourself that you are valid, you are possible. Self-affirmations are critical. Because as you reflect and exude this attitude of positivity, you extend that to your children. They watch us. They study us. Their mannerisms, their tolerance, their angst, it all comes from us. They’re mirroring us. So, when we talk about the problems in society, I think of them as opportunities for critical discourse and rhetoric, an exchange of ideals. This ability to simply bring us together and what it looks like in our world is like this. So, what’s so fun is that sound you heard at the end, that’s the exact sound the packaging makes when you open it. It’s really cool. So, if you’re a nerd or a geek like me, it’s actually paying homage to the original Play Station boot up screen. It’s look, “Choo, choo choo, Play Station.” So, it’s one of those little Easter eggs, those moments of joy. It’s magical. In the moment where you see the parent smiling, and posting that image in a social network, and a child putting on the cape and believing he or she is faster than they were before they wore our product, that’s the moment of transformation. So, when we talk about where we are today, this is what I mean when I say, “If you can play together, you can live together.” Because this is the America I hope to see. Peace.

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