Growing up, Sam Johnson only knew one thing about his future: He wanted to do something fun.
The Yuba-Sutter native lived in Yuba City until he was 21 and is now a group creative director for the video streaming platform Twitch and leads its Brand Creative and Design Team.
The idea of working in a career that was fun was as specific as Johnson thought, as he went through high school. He graduated from Yuba City High School in 2004 and enrolled in classes at Yuba College in 2006.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do growing up,” Johnson said. “It’s really not something I thought about often.”
His memories of Yuba City include enjoying the area’s hot summers and cold winters, riding a bike along the levee, playing basketball every day and warm nights in the park with friends. When he was in high school it snowed one day in Yuba City, representing the extreme end of the city’s weather spectrum.
“I remember our teachers at YCHS let us go outside and have a snowball fight, because, literally, no one knew what to do – it was both hilarious and magical,” Johnson said.
Johnson spent much of his youth playing video games like “GoldenEye” and in his teens eagerly waiting in line for the release of the latest “Call of Duty” title. At Yuba College, Johnson took design and sound engineering courses.
“I found a sound design class that opened my eyes to what a creative career path could be,” Johnson said. “And after completing those classes, I began to look for schools that specialized in the arts. I still didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do, but I knew it was something creative.”
After Yuba College, Johnson enrolled at Cal State University, Monterey Bay in the school’s Teledramatic Arts and Technology program. He majored in visual design and minored in communication and web design.
Another catalyst for Johnson’s search for his passion came when he met his future wife Stephanie. Unlike Johnson, Stephanie knew for certain that she wanted to be a teacher.
“She didn’t say it was the job she wanted, she said it’s who she was,” Johnson said. “That moment forward, I just knew I wanted to do something that I felt was me, and that made me as happy as she was.”
The couple married and have two girls. The Monterey Bay program focused on graphic design, film production and editing, motion graphics and animation. After graduating in 2011, Johnson moved to San Diego to intern for Callaway Golf and the industrial design team. He helped create the graphics for most of the golf clubs produced that year. From there he ended up in San Francisco working for BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer technology company. After a few years there he felt it was time to find another place that was more in line with his creative ambitions.
A visit to a friend’s house helped spark the next chapter of his professional life. Johnson’s friend was watching someone else play video games instead of playing them himself. Johnson didn’t understand the appeal at first but found himself engrossed as well and spent a few hours watching along too.
“’Oh, I get it now,’ I said to him,” Johnson said. “Because it was more than just people playing games. People were building communities around the things they loved ... There was something so special about it, and I was kind of obsessed from there on out.”
That led him to Twitch – a video streaming platform that started in 2011 and has evolved into a place to build communities around shared interests including gaming, art, cooking and sports. Johnson started working for Twitch as a senior designer as the company started to build a brand design team. Over the last six years Johnson helped build the 20 or so person creative team. He is now a group creative director and leads the Brand Creative Design Team.
Johnson manages the creative team – building strategy, designing identities and campaigns and steering the creative work that’s done across the company. Pre-pandemic, his typical day starts with a one and a half hour commute into a nine-floor building in downtown San Francisco. The office is equipped with massage rooms and a full arcade. While enjoying a hot cup of coffee, Johnson’s morning consists of catching up on emails, reading articles and finding inspiration from his library of design books. Next on the agenda are staff meetings where everyone talks about what they are working on that day. The rest of Johnson’s day will depend on the project he’s working on but generally involves reviewing creative requests from teams around the company, crafting creative briefs for his team and reviewing work that happens throughout the day.
He has traveled to New York, London, Berlin and Amsterdam as part of company trips during his time at Twitch. Johnson called the way work has shifted at Twitch since the pandemic bizarre.
“I’ve traded in those office perks for the ability to live in sweatpants,” Johnson said. “I mean, I’m not really sure which is better if I’m being honest.”
Johnson said he doesn’t miss his commute into work and that his team adapted quickly to having to work remotely. The collaboration process critical to the team’s work has been recreated through direct messages and video chats. The experience has opened Johnson’s eyes to the benefits of being able to work from anywhere – a concept that more and more companies in the tech industry are embracing and shifting to, he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are many advantages of having a physical space, but we are seeing that it’s truly not required every day – and in many ways, productivity, and quality of work go way up, not down,” Johnson said.
For those looking to get into the tech industry and are not sure where to start, Johnson said the key is to research different jobs in the industry and what it takes to do the job. He said people come from all sorts of education backgrounds to Twitch.
“No matter your background, my biggest piece of advice is learn how to think critically,” Johnson said. “Learn how to approach problems in unique ways, as this way of thinking transcends any degree, and is one of the most valuable skills anyone can have at a company.”
He encouraged young people to start building a network and finding people who are interested in doing similar things with their lives. As someone who works with technology on a daily basis, Johnson said technology has grown beyond providing entertainment to becoming relied upon by our culture in everyday life.
But technology is not the be all and end all. Johnson said the best creative work won’t be inspired by something found online but from real life and a person’s unique experiences. He also offered a piece of advice on how to curb the never-ending screen watching.
“One thing I always try to do is start and end my day without electronics,” Johnson said. “In a day full of screens, it gives your brain a break, and it will give you clarity.”