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At the Intersection of Pride and Great Design

By Charles Purdy

Art director and designer Micah Rivera holds down a full-time job at All Turtles, a technology company that develops AI products and is based in San Francisco, Tokyo, and Paris. Currently, he’s the lead designer working on Spot, an anonymous reporting tool that helps employees document harassment and discrimination so HR can respond. He’s also a happy new dad with his own personal artistic practice—in other words, he’s a busy guy. But he recently added an identity-design commission project to his very full plate: he decided the freelance project was too meaningful a fit to say no to.

When Adobe first contacted Rivera about designing the visual identity for its corporate LGBTQ Pride campaign, he agreed to speak to Adobe creative director Kashka Pregowska-Czerw on the phone—thinking only that he would put her in touch with another designer who’d be right for the job. 

Rivera’s design was used on everything from T-shirts to signs to parade banners—this picture of Adobe’s contingent in Salt Lake City’s Pride celebration was taken by Clint Goudie-Nice.

But by the end of the conversation, Rivera says, “I realized I might have said no too quickly.”

ELEMENTS OF QUEER SYMBOLISM

The first thing that Pregowska-Czerw said to Rivera that excited him about the project was the acknowledgement that Pride is not only a parade, but also a march. “She understood the history of Pride. Kashka was encouraging me to be conceptual, and I got really excited thinking about all the creative I could draw from that’s related to historical LGBTQ activism,” says Rivera, “from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and specifically from the AIDS crisis in that era. I was very interested in bringing in queer symbolism.”

Click to watch an animated version of Rivera’s design. 

The theme of Adobe’s 2019 Pride celebrations is centered around intersectionality and interconnectedness, and is anchored by the slogan “Better Together,” a message that Rivera finds very powerful: “It speaks to me and to the heart of queer community, as well as the broader ally community of Adobe. This is obviously for Adobe’s celebrations of Pride, but I like that there’s an intersection of us as queer people and the people around us: the chosen family many queer people have, and the relationships we have with colleagues, whether they are in queer communities or not—it’s inclusive of all of them.”

The artistic flourishes in Rivera’s design represent not only diversity but also the way that LGBTQ people express themselves in the world. Rivera says, “I think that queer people are very elegant in how they move through their lives and their world. I liked playing with the idea of ‘signaling’ and ‘code-switching’ as something queer people do to find community, whether it’s in language or in dress or in more overt ways.”  

Rivera compares his design to the rainbow flag, a universal symbol of the LGBTQ community. “The flag is powerful, but you notice that the bars of color don’t mix,” he says. “However, you can be a queer person and a gender non-binary person and pansexual person all at once. I like the gradients, especially in the animated version, with the colors moving and changing…. It speaks to fluidity and intersectionality. There are rainbows, yes, because that is a place to start. But this continues the conversation.” (Photo by Clint Goudie-Nice.)

RIVERA’S JOURNEY TO DESIGN

Like many creatives, Rivera knew from a young age that he was attracted to art and design. But his path is singular. He remembers, “For me, my start with design was when I was five years old, living in our family car, and my parents were dumpster diving in San Jose, in Silicon Valley. They used to dumpster dive for motherboards because they were wired with gold, and some of my earliest memories are of drawing with crayons on printer paper in the back seat of their car while they were trying to make enough money to feed us. We were encouraged to be creative only because that kept us busy for long periods of time. So I’ve been creative my whole life.”

But that life did not lead Rivera in a straight line to being a lead designer at a tech company in San Francisco. As a young person, he experienced homelessness and lived in foster care. He rarely stayed at the same school for more than a year, and although he was a decent student, being in foster care and group homes meant school was hard to focus on. A frustrated three-time high school freshman, he left school at 16, took the high school proficiency exam, and went into doing full-time service work.

About his lettering process, Rivera says, “There’s nothing like using your hands, especially for compositions that have a lot of script flourish. Luckily, I have spent a lot of time studying the process of my design heroes: Jessica Hische and Erik Marinovich—they are responsible for teaching me indirectly some best practices when designing with Bézier curves. Because of this, I always use Adobe Illustrator as the final production step to clean up my lettering before I ship work. There’s no other tool that can replace this level of granular control when producing print-ready work.

“I was 19 or 20, and I thought I had messed everything up too badly,” says Rivera. “I didn’t have any SAT scores to apply for colleges, I didn’t have a family that had finances, there was no ‘college fund’ savings account. I thought the barriers to moving forward were too great. It was around the time that I met my wife that I finally woke up and realized…that none of these factors were really telling me ‘no.’ I decided I wanted to have a life where I could do what I loved for a living.”

Rivera went to the financial-aid office at City College of San Francisco, where he learned that as a former foster child he was entitled to aid. And once he got into his classes at CCSF, there was no stopping him: He focused on design and ended up graduating as the valedictorian of his class, with a 4.0 GPA. From there, he got a full-ride scholarship at his dream school, California College of the Arts. And since graduation from CCA, he’s held positions at companies like Chronicle Books and fuseproject, and done client work for brands like Nivea, Herman Miller, Instagram, Facebook, Sephora, Salesforce, and now Adobe.

RETHINKING THE MODERN WORKPLACE

Rivera says that as both a trans man and a person of color, he finds his work at All Turtles very meaningful. It’s not just that he feels supported by the company and the work environment. It’s also that he’s passionate about the meaningful direct impact of Spot—and as the product’s lead designer, he has a hand in everything from the product’s look and feel to its functionality and public identity.  

Rivera’s character designs for Spot—he calls these characters “folx”—were thoughtfully created to be representative of all types of people.

In fact, he came to the company after being inspired by a podcast about Spot, an AI chatbot that people can use to anonymously record and document incidents of harassment in the workplace. Rivera says, “As a queer person, I know that 97 percent of people in the LGBTQIA community experience harassment and discrimination at work, at some point in their career. Yet 75 percent of those incidents go unreported, because people are afraid of retaliation, or they’re uncomfortable talking to a human about what happened, or both. As someone who has experienced a spectrum of incidents like that, the notion of being able to speak up anonymously about serious barriers without risking your job was powerful to me. It’s inspiring to be part of a team that could impact how people are protected in the workplace.”

An interesting element of Spot is the illustration style. Rivera and his team worked hard to develop characters who would not be seen as belonging to a certain gender or cultural group.

Spot was designed to facilitate anonymous documentation of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. 

Rivera explains, “We were very intentional about the way that we describe incidents and representation in general, and that is apparent in our character design. Working together with Carlos Rocafort IV, we ‘queered’ the figures. In our case, that means literally rotating things upside-down. Our figures’ shape is an inverted V rather than a deep V, the typical figure socially constructed for men. There are things we’ve done intentionally like place the muscles of the characters on the outside of the curve to indicate emotional strength. We don’t use color to represent race; instead we use it to represent emotion—so our color palette is based in color psychology, and that speaks to an international community that might not even share a common language. Using body language, color palette, and a gender-neutral figure allows people to get past ‘Does this person look like me or not?’ and instead say, ‘Yeah, I’ve felt like that before.’”

Rivera acknowledges that with the character design, there was a bit of going back and forth to the drawing board: “People have really strong opinions based on the social constructs of representation about what means ‘male’ or ‘female,’” he says. Working as a team, the Spot designers were able to develop characters that Rivera hopes will empower everybody to feel like this product belongs to them.  

The second version of the Spot brand was recently released. The product has gone through a lot of iteration since the reporting tool for individuals was released in February of 2018, with the HR dashboard available to customers soon after, in October of the same year. “We still had a few pimples when I first joined, and we’re now grown-up and bright-eyed and ready for the world,” he says with a laugh.

It’s a product that, although he is passionate about it, Rivera would love to see put itself out of business. “I want to help create something that works so well that it changes the conversation about what happens at work…and the culture around harassment and discrimination in general—so much that Spot doesn’t need to exist.”

Learn more about Spot, and check out Micah Rivera’s online portfolio.