Pop Culture? Bruce King-Shey Plots the Critical Path to PepsiCo

Photo: Zack DeZon

How does an engineer reinvent himself? One possible answer: at art school. In 1996, just a year after graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in civil engineering, Bruce King-Shey felt lost.

A lifelong musician, he switched tracks from engineering to take an entry-level job at the Annapolis Symphony. But when his career in arts management began to feel stalled, he wasn’t sure where he should turn next.

Today King-Shey (Industrial Design 2004, MA Visual Criticism 2005) is vice president of design innovation at food and beverage giant PepsiCo.

His circuitous career path offers much insight into how an arts education can unlock hidden talents.

A Certain Civic Mindedness

A jump from civil engineering to design seems a sizable leap, but King-Shey notes that the fields share many similarities. “What brought me to design is similar to what originally attracted me about engineering. Civil engineers build bridges. They build roads. They help society function.”

During his brief stint as a professional environmental engineer (at ABB Environmental Services), he was a community relations specialist working with hazardous waste sites. “It was very much about wanting to help, making things work better.

“Likewise in design, there’s a certain civic mindedness. The sense of ‘Hey, why can’t things be useful? How can we make things work better?’”

Leaving the engineering industry to go into industrial design, then, was partly a reframing of long-standing interests. But moving to the West Coast to dive into design school was largely a leap of faith.

“I wanted to do something completely life-changing,” says King-Shey, “and figured that CCA would be where my brain got rewired.”

Why a New Saltshaker?

He started out in the undergraduate program in Industrial Design, but increasingly found himself drawn to the cultural underpinnings of the discipline.

“I found I wasn’t so interested in designing a new saltshaker, but rather in why someone would ask me to do such a thing. It was about looking for the ‘why?’ behind visual culture, and trying to decode it.

“And, in realizing all this, I recognized for the first time a certain itch that wasn’t getting scratched for me in engineering or design.”

The upshot was that halfway through his BFA in Industrial Design, King-Shey realized that CCA’s Graduate Program in Visual Criticism (now Visual and Critical Studies) was a much better fit if he wanted to tool up to answer the questions that were now consuming him.

He immediately signed up for that master’s program and began his studies while continuing to work toward his BFA. All while also working 20 hours a week for management consultant Booz Allen Hamilton.

“It was a trifecta of craziness,” he laughs. “I would never, ever recommend it. I kept telling myself, Bruce, you just have to be standing at the end of the five years. You don’t have to be amazing. You just gotta do it. If you finish, you win. And, indeed, for four years I didn’t sleep, but I made it work.”

An Interdisciplinary Journey

King-Shey says he is indebted to several professors who guided him on this interdisciplinary journey, including Tina Takemoto, Matthew Jackson, and Lydia Matthews. “Tina Takemoto was my thesis advisor. We’re still very good friends. She was just phenomenal in helping me articulate all this complex thinking I was doing.

“My thesis was about challenging the language of user-centered design, specifically the supposed ideal of universality, which dictates that one should design for ‘everybody.’ But by saying ‘This is about everyone,’ we’re precluding the idea that people are, in fact, different.

"What kind of shift would be required to expand the rhetoric of industrial design to acknowledge not only socioeconomic differences, but differences in sexuality, race, and gender?”

Matthew Jackson was the instructor who encouraged King-Shey to write. After reading one of his student papers, Jackson added a note at the end: “This is really good. You should think about doing this for a living.”

It sparked a new confidence in the former engineer. “That had never happened to me before,” King-Shey remembers. “It was like finding out I had a hidden magical power. To get that type of affirmation when you’re in the muck is so amazing.

“Art school is unlike any other academic environment. You’re trying to figure things out about yourself and the world, how to decipher meaning and form. Matthew’s comments helped me to remold myself and articulate a new life path.”

Design, Culture & Messaging

Lydia Matthews, then the chair of Visual Criticism, nurtured King-Shey’s ability to break down the genetic helix of design, culture, and messaging. In her course called Encounters (his first graduate class), he chose to analyze Thai gay pornography magazines a friend had brought back from a vacation in Bangkok.

“So here I am, sitting in Lydia Matthews’s office, talking about Asian porn, thinking, ‘This is kinda awkward, but kinda cool that she’s game . . .’ And I found that I was actually able to identify and decipher all the art historical tropes and racial narratives they were using. The storyline being told under the surface of the imagery. And she gave me kudos for my analysis!

"That was another moment when I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

No Small Steps

Nearly a decade later, sitting in his vice president’s chair at PepsiCo, King-Shey is conscious of what he owes to his art school education. “It taught me how to think, how to argue, how to present my work. It taught me about choosing your politics and sticking to your guns.”

Most importantly, he says, CCA taught him how to work through things with a creative process that isn’t always under strict control.

“As designers, we learn to trust the creative process. That’s totally different from conventional education systems, like my engineering degree. Until you’ve had the experience of pushing through that process, you don’t know what it’s like.

“As a result of CCA, I don’t fear not knowing something. And that way of thinking is different than what goes on in corporations. All corporations want clear answers. Everyone jumps straight to the solution. But as their innovation guy, I don’t need to have the answer already; I just need the confidence to know how to get to the answer.

“You can’t predict where you’ll end up in life,” King-Shey reflects. “You can only make the decisions based on what you have in front of you. You can only create the next small step.”

He pauses for a moment, then adds, “Although, apparently, I don’t take small steps.”