Good Taste: interview with Courtney Dailey from Nike

Courtney Dailey. Artwork pictured by Amy Dov.

Good Taste is an interview series with West Coast creatives in all industries.

When I went to school for photography, I had a painter friend tell me that my medium wasn’t Art. At least, not in the way painting and sculpture are art. I remember thinking she was narrow minded and ignorant to the nuances of what art is and can be, but I also always felt uncomfortable calling myself an artist. I was a photographer. There was some difference I didn’t know how to name.

Later, in grad school studying art criticism, I learned that the definition of what art is and is not came from a select group of powerful people in art history (spoiler: white men). Thankfully, there have always been people testing the boundaries and finding new, generative ways to weave creative practice into our lives.

One distinction that still feels particularly rigid is between art and design. In my experience, the two communities stay relatively distinct despite the fact that many artists have professional careers in design and related fields. Wanting to know more about the relationship between the art and design communities, I talked to someone who has been fluidly existing in both worlds.

Courtney Dailey is the VP of Accessories Design at Nike and an impressively active supporter of the art community here in Portland. We talked about what it’s like leading a team of creatives, what inspires her daily, and, of course, how artists and designers differ and are similar. —Amelia Rina

Amelia Rina: How does the design of the world around you affect your mood and/or inspiration throughout the day?

Courtney Dailey: Oh dear, this is such a huge question! When I encounter systems, objects, and experiences that are considered and thoughtfully created, it instantly lifts my energy. If something is beautiful and well-functioning, it’s the best feeling! I get so much satisfaction and pleasure out of a seamless encounter, but also appreciate those experiences or objects that introduce productive friction, causing me to step back or consider a different perspective.

A poster made by Courtney in early COVID lockdown, 2020.
Ceramic bowl made by Courtney.

AR: What has your team of designers and creatives taught you about leadership?

CD: The importance, above all, of creativity, collaboration and care for what we do, and for one another. As a leader, I need to be sensitive to where folks are engaged: sometimes we need freedom to explore, and sometimes we need a frame within which to move around. And it needs to be fun sometimes!

AR: Where do you find inspiration in the world?

Trying to pay attention to big and small things I’m seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting. I try to put myself in situations where I know that I’ll find something new or unusual to encounter: travel, magazines, and books, working in the garden, hanging out with friends and pets, spending time with art, going to live performances or sports, visiting amazing stores. I started taking ceramics classes this summer and just messing around with clay, with no specific agenda. It lets me just get lost in the making of something.

AR: How are art and design different? How are they the same? 

CD: There are so many ways that artists and designers push against any kinds of boundaries or edges of these distinctions; when I was in university, the debate was about Art vs Craft, and I’ve realized the Art vs Design conversation is pretty similar. 

My very general distinction is that artists tend to create their own questions (and work to respond to those questions), while designers tend to solve problems posed by the world or by others (through a brief, for example).

Training for artists and designers is quite different (though they are frequently in the same schools!): though both are responding to prompts, there seem to be more asks of artists to be subjective, to insert themselves and their experiences into their work, whereas a designer is asked to imagine a client or customer and respond to the assignment/problem with them in mind. Suggesting, however, that designers are not bringing subjectivity and bias into their work, or that artists aren’t thinking about audiences is where the distinctions start to get pretty fuzzy…

Atelier NL‘s Clay Service collection.
The Nami Project in Ucluelet, Canada.

AR: What advice would you give to someone working with an artist or designer for the first time?

CD: Trust! You’ve chosen them for a reason — articulate why, and remember that they have some expertise or perspective that you’re hoping to access. Be as clear as you can be so they understand where you’re coming from and why you want to work with them. If you have an outcome or piece of the puzzle that you’re set on, tell them!

AR: What is the most memorable design you’ve encountered recently?

CD: The Nami Project in Ucluelet, Canada. I am scheming about getting up to Ucluelet to stay at this incredible spot. And Atelier NL. We have been using these ceramics for over three years, and every time I pick up one of the plates or cups, I am excited about the idea of digging up clay from the ground. I love when materiality and concept fuse so thoughtfully, like they do in this ongoing project.

AR: How does your experience in the art community intersect with the design community?

I trained as an artist and curator, and my paid work experience has mostly been in design. For me, the two are weaving toward and away from one another all of the time. But there tends to be less overlap with “designers” and “artists” than many folks would think.

Every profession has its own language and customs, and though designers and artists are both “creative,” their words and experiences are distinct. When you learn to approach the world with a set of concerns and terms (mostly from school, but also from self-directed or communal learning), it can be hard to feel at home in other groups. There is a lot of overlap and potential for collaboration, but a bit of translation is required.

As chair of the PICA Board of directors, I try to bring experiences and resources that I have as a result of working in design to an incredible art organization, and I gain access to curators and artists and learn how they’re engaging with the world, the questions they’re asking. Both sides feed one another, no doubt.

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