What does creativity mean to you? Does it simply mean “artistic”, or does it mean something more; something that consumes your entire being to transform the life you lead, whether in your career, personally, or both? Indy native and published author Donald Burlock believes it’s something more—and he’s written a book about it to help others unlock their full potential, or what he calls their “superhuman” nature. From a laidback Midwestern life to fashion photographer to experience designer, Donald has quite a story to tell and we were lucky enough to sit down with him for an exclusive interview.
Follow along as we chat with Donald about his career journey, the inspiration behind his book, and how he thinks experience design can elevate fashion to new heights.
Thanks for chatting with us, Donald! For those who aren’t familiar with your story, tell us a little bit about yourself!
Growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana, my early years were similar to most Midwest kids. My weekends were filled with lots of activities; sports, yardwork, and putting in hours at my first local grocery store job. I even spent Saturdays for about two years volunteering and eventually working at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in different galleries.
But when it came time to finish high school and start another step in my educational process, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do or where to go. I absolutely loved art, drawing, and sketching. It had been a way for me to express my thoughts and I often spent time doodling and painting in the evenings. I had no clue how to make a long-term career out of my passion for art. I also seemed to do well as a student in certain subjects, especially in math and physics.
So, after investigating different schools, I decided to attend Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. At the time, I did not really know much about engineering other than it seemed to be a professional career path that combined the sciences with problem-solving. I was into building things and understanding how stuff worked, so I thought that this might be a good path for me. Kettering University has a structured co-op program that allows students to work in between semesters and earn money to put towards school. I thought it was a great deal, so I went.
Later on, after engineering school, I came to see that it wasn’t so much the problem-solving of mechanics and electronics that interest me, it was the ability to bring to life products that people loved. Over the course of three years after undergrad, I became more and more fascinated with why consumers bought certain products over others. I also started getting more into the aesthetics of products, buildings, and apparel. The rooms in my house started looking more and more like a studio; paintings everywhere, architecture renderings, exploded views of Apple products, and lots of athletic fashion images. I did not know it then – but the design ‘bug’ had bitten me and I kept pursuing that curiosity.
Sounds like you were lucky enough to know your passion from an early age! What interested you the most?
Photography and portraiture was the first creative field that took me by surprise when I was in my early twenties. I discovered how wonderful cameras could be and I was catching onto the art around the time that digital photography and new editing programs were taking off. I was into every aspect of photography; the process of making a shot in frame all the way to delivering a print or a gallery of digital images to a client. Back then, I was interested in pushing my photography sessions to the level of talented photographers in larger markets. I had the goal of being published online via famous blogs or in a magazine.
I was deeply inspired by another Indiana native, Scott Schuman, who for many years ran a blog called The Satorialist. I could not get enough of that blog. He would post images of fashionable celebs and everyday people he would meet on the streets of NYC, Paris, and Milan. I was into his style of photography; it felt natural, organic, and the lighting on every subject was divine. After discovering his blog, there was no looking back. I bought thousands of dollars of equipment and I began shooting every weekend with aspiring models around Indy! Of course, by way of shooting, I became exposed to more creative fields: visual design, fashion, and architecture.
Before your days as a published author, you used to shoot for Midwest Fashion Week as a photographer — what was that experience like?
Incredible. To be honest, I don’t exact remember when or how I met Berny Martin. I was really young at the time, perhaps 23. I remember learning about Midwest Fashion Week through a friend who was starting up her own modeling agency. But, what I do remember is that meeting Berny changed my life. His passion and talent for designing clothes and bringing textiles to life on models was unlike anything I had ever seen up close in Indy. I was inspired and I became more driven to explore my craft.
At that time, Berny was building a big audience across the Midwest and was connected to many other photographers and people in the fashion industry. For the first time, I felt the rush of ‘stepping up my game’ and being more creative with how I marketed myself and my work. I decided that I needed a ‘brand’ for my creative ventures. Now, up until this stage, no one had taught me about branding, per se. I did not have anyone in PR or marketing or advertising in my world. I was just a kid who had went to engineering school and came back to Indy to take a job. But the fashion experience in Indy opened my eyes to the potential of a career in a creative field. My photography skills led to high-profile shoots with Berny and I also was invited to many events. Eventually, I even started shooting models who went on to be on America’s Top Model. It was all a huge rush back then and I will always be grateful for the exposure that Midwest Fashion Week gave to a curious kid.
Experience design and fashion—is there a connection there?
Experience design can make the world of fashion more equitable in the future. It is already doing so. Since experience design is omnichannel, meaning, that teams are creating multi-sensory experiences that go beyond one point of access, this emerging practice is already fused with the future of fashion. When you look at Virgil Abloh, or even Pharrell Williams – as examples – these are some of the most creative entrepreneurs in the world of fashion who already elevate experience design.
Whether through the physical space of their boutiques and design houses or online, the experiences they create bridge fashion to film, art, digital, and brand. As a customer, you experience their vision of the world through multiple touchpoints, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes individually. Experience design helps people in fashion become more “conscious” about the consumers they are designing for and helps them better serve that audience by producing interactions that delight people. For decades, fashion—especially global fashion—served an elite audience of people who had money and influence. Though the global fashion scene is still a multi-billion-dollar industry, I am inspired to see more brands and names that have taken their experimental street designs to the runway. The list is long these days and I think more than ever, we are going to see fashion fusing with experience designers.
Wow, from engineering, to photographer, to experience designer! How did you get there?
Long story! In short, I decided to go back to school. I could have left my engineering job and signed up to intern at a design studio. I explored that path too. I went to architecture studios in Indy and became friends with a number of talented architects. However, I decided that I wanted a more formal, traditional education. So, I applied to different schools around the country and eventually landed in the Industrial Design program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The years that followed in Atlanta absolutely transformed my life in ways that would take too long to explain in a short blog post. That’s why I wrote a book about it.
About that book— tell us a little bit about it! What was the inspiration behind it?
I’ve been in the Bay Area since 2013. I have worked in many different companies over the years, including at some epic tech start-ups. As I reflected on my life and career in San Francisco, I realized that my story could be beneficial for many others. In 2020, I witnessed, along with much of the world, some tragic history revealing itself in our country through the deaths of African-Americans, specifically Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I had already been writing unpublished blog posts about my experience in the Bay Area as a Black designer. So, I began to leverage the quarantine time we had to put my emotional energy into finishing the book. I noticed some of my friends had asked me to respond during the Black Lives Matter protests by publishing my thoughts online. The book became my way of deciding how I wanted to respond to the world.
Superhuman by Design: Keys to Unlocking Your Creativity for Life-Changing Results is actually an invitation to the world to think about the value of our creative core differently. All of us have innate creativity — recognizable talents, strengths and abilities that we notice through our journey in life.
But often, I have found that people miss the opportunity to leverage their innate creativity. In other words, these “superpowers” are often wasted in a life built around the status quo. The creative core provides the fuel for living a superhuman life, which is all about living to your fullest potential, about doing more and being more — not simply for success, though that will come too, but in order to make life better for those around you. In order to make a difference in the world. This book invites the reader to revisit their creative core and learn how to use it to begin the journey of living superhuman-by-design.
To keep things inspirational and fun, I often reference fictional superheroes and point to how they can serve as a source of inspiration for how we look at our own progress. At the beginning of the book, I establish what I mean by superhuman and explain why we can only embark on the journey of doing more and being more by design. As a professional designer and accomplished creative professional, I share with the reader how they can strengthen their create core by following a tried-and-true design process.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
My plan is to quickly move from print to digital and prepare an e-book in early 2021. I also have plans for a Superhuman-by-Design podcast! The podcast will give me an opportunity to not only share my story, but hopefully create episodes where I interview other superhumans. I plan to build out a store that invites readers to subscribe to receive monthly Superhuman by Design swag as well. So, in the next couple of months, I will be doubling down on my marketing efforts to increase the followership on all social media channels. I also plan to begin writing a follow-up book to Superhuman by Design; perhaps a book that is more of a daily journal with more infographics and exercises for readers to interact with during the week.
Last question! Where can our readers find your book?
People can just click-through my website to Amazon to buy the book. The book is also on Goodreads and Barnes and Nobles. Of course, Amazon will ship the book to you the fastest, but there are other online distributors too, so you have options. But, I am asking everyone who reads the book and enjoys it to leave a glowing review on Amazon. Books are hard to sell, even when you have a big celeb name, so imagine me – a designer emerging out of nowhere – selling a book! I would love for everyone who takes the time to read this article to buy two books and share a copy with a friend who is creative. And, if you don’t buy a book – at least follow the brand online @superhumanbydesign on Instagram. I’m hoping to design and produce swag soon.