Read Time: 8 minutes
In honor of Women’s History Month, SEGD is sharing stories about “women you need to know” in experiential graphic design. Next up is Cynthia Jones Parks, President and CEO of Jones Worley Design, an Atlanta-based marketing, communications, and experiential design firm which Cynthia founded in 1990. SEGD contributor Franck Mercurio interviews Cynthia about her career and the challenges—and rewards—of running a successful woman-owned and minority-owned business.
Hi Cynthia! Great to meet you. Let’s start from the beginning. Can you please tell me how you got started in the field of design?
My first job out of college (Georgia State University, Bachelor of Visual Arts) was with Stevens and Wilkerson (S&W), a predominately white architectural firm in Atlanta—and it was great. I learned skills. I learned about policies and procedures. I learned how to do the work.
Two years later, I got a job across the street with Turner Associates which is another architectural firm, but a minority-owned firm. It was an extraordinary experience for me. There, I learned the importance of relationships, and I learned how politics and relationships influence business.
And after Turner, why did you decide to go into business for yourself?
The two positions [I had] were truly the foundation of starting my own business. I met other entrepreneurs while I was working there, and I saw a gap—I saw a need—in the black community for a marketing, communications, and experiential design firm.
So, after two years, I resigned my job at Turner Associates. One of my former coworkers from S&W, Barry Worley, and I joined forces in 1990. It was my idea and vision for the company, so we split the company 65/35. I was the principal owner, and Barry held the second position. And we had 12 great years together. Even now, Barry and I remain friends.
When you started Jones Worley, you were still pretty green, right? What were some of the challenges of starting your own design firm at a young age?
I started this business based on skill, not based on business models, and not based on theory. I didn’t go to business school. My background is in design and communications, and so I developed my business acumen on the job by making mistakes—and getting some things right! And, so, going into business was a big experiment for me. That’s why I am very simple in how I manage my business … 1+1 = 2.
It must have worked! From what I understand, your first big client was Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Yes, my very first project at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson was in 1992, and it was the E Concourse (then the airport’s international concourse). We have been on various teams doing roadway, gateway, terminal, landside, and airside projects for 30 years.
We have the amazing fortune right now to be on the “ATLNext” modernization program management team. I have five full-time employees working at the airport on this 10-year initiative—and I just don't know of anything other than the Olympics that has had a more profound impact on my business.
Tell me more about your firms’ work on the 1996 Olympic Summer Games hosted in Atlanta. What a great opportunity that must have been!
It was pretty extraordinary. We were on more than 40 teams, and a lot of those teams won work. We ended up winning six stadium projects, multiple streetscape and pedestrian signage programs, and we designed and managed the installation of the two “count clocks” installed in the MARTA station (overlooking I-75/85) starting on the 1000th day—and we were on the most prestigious project of all, which was the branding of the Centennial Olympic Games. I was the only woman-owned firm to be on that team.
Sometimes you get a once in a lifetime project. I learned so much, and I think the Olympics project really laid the foundation for my company. It is still a living legacy.
… and we learned a lot of lessons.
What kind of lessons?
Well, the thing about the Olympics, it had very, very defined deadlines. When you host a world event, you don't have time to do it over and over. We needed to get it right the first time.
And it taught the importance of relationships; collaborating with people that you may or may not know.
I’ve read that one of your business philosophies is “Skills plus relationships is a formula for success.” Can you tell me more about the role networking and relationship-building play in sustaining a successful design studio?
I think it's really important. And let me just say on the networking part, I'm a high touch person. My staff is much more technologically savvy than I am. I still write letters, you know. [laughs] I still call people. I'm still doing business with people I've known for 30 years.
And, so, if it had not been for my relationships, we probably could not have gone through a recession in 2008 and a pandemic in 2020. During those tough times, I'd call my clients and say “I don't really care how large or small the project is. I need a project—and when I finish it, I need you to send me my check.”
So, relationships allow you to have very candid conversations.
Aside from ensuring that work is coming in during tough times, what other challenges have you faced as a business owner?
I think the biggest challenge was initially overcoming being a minority and a woman-owned business working in a male-dominated industry. I think that was tough. I think it can still be tough, but I now have enough experience, confidence and professional relationships to overcome anything.
Another challenge is trying to have a work-life balance. People say “You own your own business. You get to set your own schedule.” No, no, no, no, no, no! That is not how that works! [laughs] You do not get to set your own schedule.
And managing client and staff expectations. Clients have expectations. Staff have expectations. Sometimes they’re not the same. That can be challenging.
Tell me more about your leadership style? How do you motivate your staff and manage their expectations?
I think I’m a simple person, so my leadership style is simple—my staff may not believe that. [laughs] But I think I'm simple. I think I’m humble. I think I’m courageous. I think I’m strong.
I try to focus my staff on providing our clients with excellence and a good experience each and every day. And the thing that brings me the most pride, in leading, is finding great opportunities for my staff so they can work on great projects and build their skills and portfolios.
The salary is one thing, but part of their legacy and part of their growth is going to be “What kind of projects did you work on?” “How did you create solutions?” “What will your portfolio look like when you go seeking your next job?” That’s my responsibility. To make sure that they can grow and fulfill their goals.
And what are your thoughts about the role of professional organizations, especially in helping your staff make connections and build relationships with other colleagues?
I have been involved in SEGD almost 20 years (since 2003), and I have memberships for some of my staff. I encouraged them to participate locally and nationally.
Sometimes we’re isolated where we work, or we’re isolated in our own thoughts. So, I think being with your peers is a great learning experience and helps you realize you are not alone. And I think that exposure is meaningful to our growth. It brings value to the person and the company.
And what types of projects at Jones Worley are you and staff currently adding to your portfolios?
We're working with MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) through Schindler, which is the largest elevator/escalator company in the world. MARTA is rehabbing all the elevators and escalators in their 38 stations. With a 10-year implementation schedule, it is the largest rehab project in the world, and Jones Worley is responsible for the communications and outreach about the changes.
We’re also working with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) in Florida. They just finished a new transportation center where we designed 25 interior wall murals presenting the history of transportation.
And we are about to start a new project at the JTA at their Myrtle Avenue campus that I'm excited about! It includes an operator's center and a maintenance building. We’re designing experiential graphics on the outside of the facility, and on the inside, to enhance the employee experience at work, motivate, and provide messaging and storytelling—because without the operators and maintenance people, there’d be no public transportation!
I love working with the people who are behind-the-scenes, who make the difference, so I personally will be involved in these projects because they will transform the workplace.
What else are you working on closer to home?
I just got off the phone with my DeKalb County (Georgia) client. They are about to celebrate their 200 years as a county. I grew up in DeKalb County, and we will be helping with marketing and communications initiatives to celebrate their 200-year anniversary.
So, I get to work on projects that are really meaningful to me and where people trust that we're going to get it done for them. It makes coming to work and doing the work worthwhile. It’s more than a paycheck—it’s the reward of the work.
About Jones Worley Design
Jones Worley is an Atlanta-based marketing and communications firm offering strategic marketing communications, media and public relations, branding, and wayfinding and signage design. Founded in 1990 by President and CEO Cynthia Jones Parks, Jones Worley specializes in environmental graphic design and the art of designing clear, effective wayfinding and signage systems for all modes of transportation, public institutions and public spaces. Jones Worley has worked on projects for nearly 27 airports and 27 transportation authorities throughout the US helping millions of people navigate busy airports, public transit, car rental facilities and multi-modal transit centers.