I Am Board: Meet Eric Johnsen, AIGA DC’s Email Chair

In a town of transplants like Washington, DC, Eric Johnsen is a proud DMV native. A digital experience designer for the University of Maryland, his family moved to Maryland from Miami when he was young for his father’s role as a graphic designer with the CIA.

Eric earned his Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design from Virginia Commonwealth University, where this baseball fan interned as a graphic designer for the Washington Nationals. After his initial involvement with AIGA through VCU’s school chapter, he joined the board six years ago on the Communications team. He has since served DMV designers in several board roles, including Secretary and his current position as our Email Chair.

After several years of sending our chapter’s weekly emails, Eric will conclude his board service in June ’24. We sat down with him to hear more about his early inspirations, MLB internship, and how AIGA showed him designers can thrive beyond New York and LA.

Tell me about yourself! More specifically, tell me about the first time you considered pursuing design as a career for yourself.

Sure! I was born in Miami, raised in Germantown, Maryland, and got my design degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. My dad was a graphic designer for the CIA, so that was what prompted the move up to Maryland. He had a pretty decorated career with the CIA, first as a graphic designer and then as a polygrapher, special investigator, and historian.

As a kid, I always loved drawing, illustrations, graphic novels – Spiderman comics were big inspiration for me. Then in high school, I took a digital arts class and had a really wonderful teacher, Leonard Cave, who was also an accomplished sculptor. He encouraged me to pursue graphic design or communication arts as a profession.

What’s very sad about this is that Leonard ended up passing away later the next year. He and one of the band teachers were engaged to be married, but he was killed by a drunk driver. So in a way, it feels like my [pursuit of] graphic design is not just following my dad’s footsteps: I’m also honoring the memory of a really wonderful teacher and instructor who saw that I had talent and said I should pursue it.

Wow, that’s an amazing story, from both a mentorship standpoint and being able to share your graphic design skills with your dad. 

Yeah, actually somewhere in storage, I have a coffee cup with a seal and insignia that [Dad made] for a special reconnaissance division within the CIA for actual spy planes. And there is an actual design that he made somewhere on display at the Spy Museum in DC. So, I’m very proud of my dad. He’s very accomplished in his own right.

We talked about your creative origin story. Now, let’s talk about your AIGA origin story! How did you first join AIGA and then pivot to joining the DC community?

I got involved during my junior and senior year with VCU’s college chapter of AIGA. A bunch of my classmates got to go on a road trip to New York City and visit Tumblr, The New York Times, all of these other notable design studios in DC and New York City. That encouraged me to get involved with the chapter, and once I joined, we made a separate field trip to visit design teams in DC.

That was my first introduction to the DC design community. Meeting people who were involved in the DC design scene and answered all my questions gave me a good feeling that I could lay the groundwork for a strong career in this city. 

Usually, when it comes to design, it’s like, “You’ve gotta go to New York, you’ve gotta go to LA.” I started to realize that you really can have a really great design career anywhere.

After graduating from VCU in the class of 2013 with my degree in Graphic Design, I got an internship with the Washington Nationals as a design intern in their marketing and broadcasting departments. And that year, 2013, was also my first DC Design Week.

Five years later, in 2018, I joined the info. session to apply to be part of [AIGA DC’s] board. That’s where I became a communications coordinator, and I officially joined the Board five years after I started wanting to do it.

Tell us about your trajectory on AIGA DC’s board. You’ve served on our Board’s Communications team leading our email marketing for years. How will your tenure on the chapter’s board end relative to where it began?

I think it’s ending with a lot of really wonderful memories. I started as a comms coordinator, so I was the official notetaker for board meetings and big retreats. Getting to be the person responsible for documenting every retreat and board meeting was insightful. [I got] to see the growth of the chapter, our initiatives, and all of these different people who have come and gone.

And then, over time, I began slowly taking the reins from just being available for any type of communications work — social, editing, or copywriting — to being responsible for building out our weekly emails and creating our newsletters. I have a lot of email marketing experience from my own job as a senior digital designer with the University of Maryland. So, it made taking on the email newsletter a lot [easier].

I love being that cog in the machine that helps make everything work. I love playing my small part to help make AIGA DC what it is, so I never really had the big aspirations to be President or Vice President. I wanted to make sure that I have balance in my own personal life, and [this] was a role that I could commit to while maintaining work/life balance.

I feel very accomplished with my time on the Board, and I hope that anybody else who wants to be involved with this wonderful community [will] make the commitment. It is fulfilling to make a commitment and reach the finish line feeling like, “ I did really good work that fulfills me and makes me happy.”

Tell us about your creative impact on the AIGA DC Board and beyond. Which project do you feel is your biggest creative endeavor?

Aside from my email responsibilities, getting to manage the social media presence for two DotGov Design conferences was really rewarding and a fun project to be part of. Stepping out of the email mindset to help out with the social aspects of promoting the event, then live tweeting the actual conference to act as its voice, is a cause I’m proud that I contributed to.

What is something you believe our DC design community would be surprised to learn about you?

As shy and reserved as I can be, I would say I am quite affectionate and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I really love and care about all of the people in my life, including the people in this community, because life is short.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

By Lauren Maffeo
Published June 4, 2024