The Science of Art: Nicole Johnson
Nicole Johnson ('98), founder of Digital Made Simple, LLC, always loved to paint and draw. A self-taught artist, she found great fulfillment in creating.
She was also analytical, good at math, and ambitious. The daughter of a single mother of three who enlisted in the army to support her family, Johnson knew early on that earning a good income was important to her.
In high school she learned that chemical engineering graduates had some of the highest starting salaries. “I thought, who knows? Maybe I will work on manufacturing paint one day,” she said. And that’s when science and design began to meld in her mind.
Armed with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from The Ohio State University and later, an MBA from Indiana University, Johnson enjoyed an 18-year career in industry, mostly at DuPont. A Six Sigma Black Belt and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, she excelled in organizational change management, lean continuous improvement, supply chain, and global quality assurance, traveling around the world to help her company’s various facilities promote quality, teamwork, and manage change.
Despite her success, she felt an increasing tug to return to her true passion. She did get to work on improving paint manufacturing processes—but it wasn’t quite the same as making actual art. And although she had once hoped to move into DuPont's marketing area, she had come to see that she was siloed as an engineer. Frustrated, she began dabbling creatively on the side. She acquired graphic design and other skills through platforms like YouTube, Lynda.com, and Skillshare, and began building websites for herself.
As Johnson did her research, she realized how many small businesses lacked a viable web presence. She realized that she could combine her passion for graphic design with her strategic business background. "That was my value differentiator. I prayed that I would be laid off from my corporate job and I would say the Holy Spirit was pulling me in the direction I needed to go," Johnson said. She began moonlighting on the side, providing branding and web design services to a few external clients.
Meanwhile, with no actual plans, she had made a first step of putting her house on the market with a general aim of downsizing. She had also changed her phone from a corporate line to a personal one.
And then it happened. DuPont was in the midst of a downsizing as a result of a merger with Dow, and she was called into her manager’s office, where she received her layoff news.
“What they thought was going to be a difficult conversation was a joyous one for me!” Johnson told VoyageATL in a February 9, 2022 interview. “I was so pleased that they were shocked by my reaction."
That was in 2014. Realizing that she was now free to live anywhere she chose, Johnson moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and never looked back.
She immediately worked out a game plan, processes, and systems to begin marketing and growing her own business. With her combination of "left-brain" and "right-brain" skills, she can offer not just web design, but also expertise with the technical and functional aspects of web functionality and other marketing and outreach tools, bolstered by business strategy development and marketing acumen.
Once her own business had launched successfully, Johnson had a blueprint for helping other small business owners get their businesses off the ground.
Throughout the process, Johnson drew on her chemical engineering training and experience in strategic management and operations knowledge.
“If I had a choice to go back in time, I would still go through chemical engineering training,” Johnson said. “It was invaluable. It gave me a way to think, a process for systems thinking, problem solving, research analytics. I would not have learned any of that if I had just gone through a graphic design track.”
“Art and science are intrinsically connected. They can’t be disconnected,” Johnson said. “First of all, science is in everything. The brain is a scientific machine so there is a deep connection between science and art and graphic design."
Johnson also sees marketing as a sort of chemical process.
"Marketing and design are like a big distillation column. You gather all the ingredients of what the business offers, understand the problem/their pain, put raw materials into the machine, enhance it with what distinguishes the company, then optimize and make it efficient. After that, it is a matter of looking at the results and seeing where you need to go next. It's like a big mass or energy balance, managed with scientific analytics--a matter of understanding the ingredients and putting it all together with the right mechanisms to make a whole process work effectively," she said.
Now with over 200 clients under her belt, including public figures like inspirational speaker and television personality Iyanla Vanzant and Chris "Gotti" Lorenzo of Murder Inc. Records, Johnson has more than replaced her six-figure corporate salary and is excited about continuing to grow her business.
"I now have the best of both worlds," she said, "and it's beautiful."