For Jennifer White-Johnson, AI is a platform for activism

Free - Jennifer White-Johnson, AI is a platform for activism.

Activism is a way of life for Jennifer White-Johnson.

As an adjunct professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she teaches her students to use design as a tool for change and technology as a way to amplify their voice. As a mother living with Graves’ disease and ADHD, and whose son is autistic, she is on a mission to shed society’s misconceptions about neurodivergence by championing the unique forms of creativity it engenders.

“Whether I’m helping students design posters with Adobe Illustrator or using Adobe Firefly to work on a zine with my son, the beauty of design technologies comes out when they become a platform for liberation and change,” she says.

The Anti Ableist Art Educators Manifesto.

Johnson’s bold activism, amplified by impactful design.

Bridging the gap in the design narrative

Johnson sees Adobe Firefly opening new opportunities for the neurodivergent creative community to express themselves. Nowhere has that been more poignant than at home, where she uses the technology to co-create a flurry of content with her son, Kevin Johnson III, AKA Knox.

Born two-months premature and diagnosed as autistic at the age of three, people might have a number of preconceptions about Knox’s story. But Johnson never saw disability as a weakness or something to be cured. In fact, she believes that society should normalize neuro inclusivity and celebrate the ways it makes people, like her son, Knox, unique.

Johnson was also disillusioned by the majority of content used to teach people about life with neurodivergence, which felt removed from hers and Knox’s realities. “Most books about autism were written from an outsider’s perspective and didn’t speak to a diverse audience,” says Johnson. “They didn’t reflect a true autistic experience, much less a Black neurodivergent experience.”

Image of Jen and Knox, champions of radical acceptance.

Jen and Knox, champions of radical acceptance.

Realizing that she was in a unique position to fill this glaring gap in the design narrative, Johnson began to tell a more nuanced and compelling story of Knox’s life that showcased his joy, rather than his perceived disability. She began using Adobe Photoshop and InDesign to document his life in photos — photos of him popping bubbles in the bath, playing in the sand at the beach, running around in her design studio, and other moments that brought her son joy — and share them with the world on her social media accounts.

The response was overwhelming, and Johnson’s following quickly swelled to tens of thousands of people. “Those images of Knox’s joy reframed society’s perceptions of neurodivergence and showed other people in the autistic community that they aren’t alone. Our art become a platform to foster acceptance and shift the narrative,” she says.

For more on Johnson and Knox’s mission to bring Autistic Joy to the world, check out their interview with Photoville.

KnoxRoxs redefines autistic joy

Johnson and Knox began using Adobe Express in 2018 to combine all their images into a photo zine called KnoxRoxs. Johnson used Adobe InDesign to develop the layout for KnoxRoxs, which she refers to as a love letter to her son, her family, and all the neurodivergent Black people and families in the world. Today, the Adobe Firefly features in Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator have given her and Knox even more creative freedom in the way they conceive, collate, and present KnoxRoxs to the world.

One of Johnson’s favorite Firefly features is the ability to play around with background textures in her collages using verbal commands. “I once asked Firefly to create a bright pink vibrant graffiti backdrop of a galaxy infused with glitter and sand, and it returned a totally unique visual texture that was straight out of my imagination,” she says.

Adobe Firefly has also made Johnson more efficient. Text overlays that previously took her hours to develop from scratch can now be completed with a single prompt, giving her more time and bandwidth to experiment. “I love bold designs, and the combination of Adobe Firefly, Photoshop, and Illustrator allows me to be fearless in the way I bring my ideas to life. It feels like there are no limit to what I can conceive,” she says.

Image of “KnoxRoxs”: a global beacon for inclusive design.

“KnoxRoxs”: a global beacon for inclusive design.

For his part, Knox loves bringing everyday objects to life as living characters. The ease of Firefly makes it an ideal platform for him to explore that passion without advanced design expertise. Most importantly for Johnson, the process of creating with verbal prompts is fun and inspires Knox to keep flexing his creative muscle.

Knox with his “Radical Joy” digital art created with Adobe Firefly and Adobe Express.

Knox with his “Radical Joy” digital art created with Adobe Firefly and Adobe Express.

“As a neurodivergent person, I like having more options to experiment and maximize my workflows and spend less time preparing or worrying about trying new things,” says Johnson. “That’s what Firefly enables, creative freedom. It encourages risk-tasking over second-guessing, which means even the wildest ideas see the light of day.”

New dimensions of creativity

As the technology gains steam, Johnson is excited by the potential of generative AI to make design even more neuro inclusive. Though she understands the artistic community’s concerns around the future role of AI, her experience with Adobe Firefly suggested the opposite.

“Generative AI doesn’t replace the way I create. If anything, Adobe Firefly has added new layers of dimensionality to my artistic process and I’ve never felt more joy in coming up with new ideas,” she says.

Making design more inclusive by shifting the narrative around life with autism.

Making design more inclusive by shifting the narrative around life with autism.

That’s not to say Johnson doesn’t see room for improvement. She would love to see more neurodivergent creators involved in the development of generative AI technologies and hopes the example she has set will inspire more people in her community to shape the future of this powerful technology.

Speaking during a panel at Adobe for All Days, Johnson stressed the importance of working “disability wisdom” into the development and use of AI. In other words, getting neurodivergent people involved in educating designers on how to use generative AI in a more ethical way. For instance, by hiring actual autistic people to lead workshops on how to create more neuro inclusive text prompts for Gen AI content, businesses can inspire their design teams to make creative decisions that foster community, rather than rehashing stigmas and imagery that might misrepresent the neurodivergent population.

“It’s one thing to drive the ethical conversation around AI forward by giving more people access to the technology, but real empowerment happens when you get those people involved behind the scenes so they can shape their destiny,” says Johnson. “That’s the future I want for my son, and technologies like Adobe Firefly give me every reason to believe we’ll get there.

To learn more about Jennifer White-Johnson and KnoxRoxs, visit her Instagram.