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May 30, 2017 Comments (3) Views: 26529 Creative, Design, June 2017, Long Stories

Is San Diego a Creative City?

Does San Diego think differently and do cool things? We asked a handful of local insiders

Are we a creative city? Do we think differently and do cool things that move markets and culture? We asked these questions to a handful of San Diego insiders and the resounding answer was “Yes …” with a caveat: We don’t own it. We don’t celebrate it. We don’t sufficiently organize ourselves around it. So here’s our attempt at a rallying cry. Creativity is alive and well, here, in the following people’s law firms, design firms, artwork, buildings, ideas—and yes, even cell phones and tax software.

How’d we get this list? Last year we chose 10 designers, with the help of UC San Diego’s Design Lab, who were important in San Diego. This year, we asked those 10 who the most creative people doing business and cultural work in San Diego are now. Then we took the telephone tree one step further, asking those people who inspires them. So it’s a three-deep network of incredibly creative people, and we love that the list ended up having job titles like lawyer, architect, and software executive as well as designers and artists. Whom did we miss? We know there are a lot of creative folks out there. Let us know by emailing


Justin Manor

Partner, Sosolimited; Artist

“There’s no competition here and the quality of life is better than anywhere else in California. Opening our West Coast office in San Diego was our ‘blue ocean strategy.’ It’s a blank canvas. There’s no one above you holding you down, creatively. We can do what we do from anywhere, but we find that California companies feel more comfortable doing business with us if we have an office somewhere in California.”

What’s next: “Qualcomm is one of our most exciting clients. We visualize a lot of their IP. We did the lighting of the county administration building and their new parking garage.”



Max Nanis

Biologist, Scripps Research Institute; Artist

“If San Diego wants a strong art scene, it needs to focus on biotechnology and its other industrial strengths. Creating a local economy that’s bringing smart, ambitious people here will create a wake whose pull can incubate a creative community. A city is powerless to directly control artists, and any attempts to fabricate them is a phenomenal means to produce garbage. Paired with the exorbitant wealth sleeping in vacation and beachfront properties, there will be plenty of support for these new residents: the punks, the perverse, the hungry artists who are going to create novelty, and do it right here in San Diego.”

What’s next: “Visit”



Matt Faulk

CEO, Basic Agency

“It has been really interesting to see the progression of San Diego as a creative city. While I feel we have some very creative people here, as a culture we have yet to define our position as a creative hub like Portland, San Francisco, and NYC. With that said, I’d love to see more events and happenings that bring the creative class and like-minded individuals together. I feel that the Makers Quarter has been helping in this regard, and will do some great things for our city.”

What’s next: “We’re currently working with a few of our clients on some progressive digital marketing and branding initiatives. We have new e-commerce websites launching for L’Oréal as well as Volcom, and we’re helping PTC with a new app that we feel is game changing in the augmented reality space.”



Stacey Pennington

Urban planner, Makers Quarter

“We’re young. We’re nascent as a creative place. We’re still under our own radar, in a way. It’s great because the opportunity to make a real difference is still there and the community is really tight.”

What’s next: “We’ve worked tirelessly to create a human-centered design approach to the planning and community engagement in the Makers Quarter. Now with several of the blocks under construction, it’s beyond exciting to see it all come to fruition.”



Brian Haghighi (Right)

Cofounder, The California Fruit Wine Co.

“San Diego has a buzzing community of creatives, but that culture is more grassroots than anything. There’s a lot the city can do to help cultivate creativity, such as directly or indirectly providing the resources to small businesses and having an actual stake in their success. The city has a good start with their GAP financing program, and is beginning to database resources. I think the general problem is that the city generally focuses on big developers and corporations to increase their tax base instead of taking a more active role with small businesses.”

What’s next: “After eight years as The California Fruit Wine Co., we have embraced a truer positioning with FruitCraft Fermentery + Distillery. This ties us more closely to the inspiration we find in the craft beer, craft cocktail, and craft spirits movements instead of trapping us in the social boundaries of wine. Simply put, we are taking creativity in craft alcohol to a whole new level by fermenting (and soon distilling) some of the highest quality ingredients on earth: fruit! The grand opening of our tasting room in Hillcrest is this summer.”



Jeff Svitak

Architect and Founder, Jeff Svitak Inc.

“Creatives here get along. There’s a lot going on; there’s an energy that’s bubbling up. There’s a sense of collaboration; it’s not competitive, like other cities I’ve been to. As a creative city, San Diego isn’t a major player yet; it’s just really young.”

What’s next: Svitak’s firm is building a new North Park apartment complex, “The Louisiana,” on the corner of University Avenue and Louisiana Street. He says the aesthetic is focused on outdoor living spaces, and that every one of the 15 units will have a courtyard. The complex will be available to rent in October.



Emily Wilkinson

Attorney and Managing Partner, Wilkinson Mazzeo

“San Diego has a ton of potential and I see progress. I see a number of wonderful organizations stepping up to help foster creative entrepreneurship in our community—San Diego Creative Foundation, Design Forward Alliance, and Main Street Alliance, to name a few. However, there is more work to be done to truly embed creativity into the organizational fabric of our city. Things like developing not just innovative, but visionary leadership partnered with a strong public will; welcoming more “outsiders” and immigrants into our community; greater access to capital for small businesses; and building a stronger local brand and cultural identity.

What’s next: Wilkinson says she and her business partner, Sam Mazzeo, have a law firm devoted to “providing accessible legal services for creatives.” The firm has the East Village Association and Startup San Diego as clients, and Mazzeo is on the board of TEDxSanDiego. They’re building up a local chapter of Main Street Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for small business in public policy.



Ryan Sisson

CEO, Moniker Group

“San Diego has an incredible amount of potential to be a creative hub, however, we need to build it first. We’re not the right fit for those who are looking for a large, established creative community like Brooklyn, LA, or San Francisco—it’s not quite there yet. However, there is a unique opportunity for local creatives to help shape the narrative and be a part of the story San Diego is telling.”

What’s next: “We’re excited about having just opened our new coworking space in Liberty Station called Moniker Commons, as well as getting ready to open our cocktail and wine bar in Moniker General at the beginning of June. We have some other stuff in the pipeline, too, that we hope to share with everyone soon.”



Julie Morgan

Lead User Experience Designer, Qualcomm
Founder, Designing Women San Diego

“San Diego is booming right now, with groups like the American Institute of Graphic Arts, UX Speakeasy and Design Forward [both nonprofit groups for design professionals], and meetup groups like San Diego Experience Design. San Diego is cultivating a rich, creative community to elevate our telecommunications, biotech, government, and nonprofit industries as well as thriving startups. It’s a fun time, especially to be a creative in tech.”

What’s next: Morgan founded Designing Women San Diego, a group that provides women in UX professions with workshops and networking opportunities. They’ve held panels at GoPro headquarters and connected female leaders in tech. Their next meetup is in August. Find out more at

Qualcomm’s UX designers study how people interact with their phone, and work with engineers to make their devices easy to use.



Arsalun Tafazoli

Cofounder, CH Projects

“San Diego is extraordinarily creative. I believe there are some pretty amazing people in this city who are leading the way nationally in creative fields of all sorts, including architecture, design, beer, food, art, and life sciences (we sequenced the freaking human genome in SD). I just don’t think we get the cred we deserve. We tend to get too heavily defined or stereotyped by our beaches and weather—which doesn’t suck, but shouldn’t define us so one dimensionally.

When we first started CH Projects, with concepts including Neighborhood, Noble Experiment, and El Dorado, most of the advice we’d get from friends was that San Diego just wouldn’t ‘get it,’ and that a good bar in SD had to have a lot of TVs, bad entertainment, and cheap liquor to thrive. Fortunately, we were just the right amount of stupid at that time and didn’t listen to them. Today, the support we’ve received over the past decade has been unprecedented. It has given a soul and life to our efforts, and we couldn’t be more grateful to this city. So as long as you can deliver on whatever your creative pursuits are, I think this city will wholeheartedly embrace you and give you a home. But then again, what do I know.”

What’s next: “Turning 10 is a big deal for us. We may not have aged as well as we had liked to, but we’re still breathing, and that’s worth something. So on June 17, we’re celebrating with Neighborhood’s 10 Year Anniversary Block Party. We’re shutting down the block to commemorate with friends, good beer, great cocktails, and damn good entertainment with Talib Kweli (your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper).”

Who’s Who

Sharon Carmichael

She helps design TurboTax software

Francis deSouza 

CEO of genomics giant Illumina

T. Scott Edwards

Helping lead the Port of San Diego into a new era

David Graham

He keeps San Diego’s neighborhoods running

Jamie Hampton

PR maven

Gini Keating & Shiae Park

Help Qualcomm figure out how people want their phones to function

Sam Larson

Owns Other Sons design studio and Lone Flag, a men’s retail shop in Del Mar

MaeLin Levine

Creative director of Visual Asylum and design instructor at San Diego City College

Candice & Rafael López

She’s the legendary design instructor at San Diego City College; he’s an award-winning illustrator who created the “Latin Music Legends” stamps for USPS

Miguel Marshall

Developer of a mixed-use project in Tijuana with lofts, a coffee shop and co-working center

Ron Miriello

Design expert who helped rebrand Sony, the MTS trolley, and PLNU

Michele Morris

Helps run UC San Diego’s Design Lab under Don Norman

Christopher Puzio

You’ve seen his metal sculptures all over San Diego—like the one at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse

Scott Robinson

CEO of FreshForm, which designed websites for Qualcomm, Ballast Point, and Reef

Claudia Sandoval

Chef, cookbook author and season-six winner of MasterChef

Nate Spees

He leads the agency Grizzly, which has Marriott and Microsoft as clients, and hosts CreativeMornings lecture series

Jordan Stark

Owner of Product Etc., the design company behind the “Bring Back the Brown” campaign for the Padres

Greg Strangman

He owns Tacos Perla and the Pearl Hotel, and has turned his design eye toward Tijuana, with a new inn opening soon

Kurt Walecki

TurboTax’s 60-percent market share is credited to his creative vision

Melissa Walter

She’s worked on science illustrations for NASA, and her work is on display at the airport’s gallery

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3 Responses to Is San Diego a Creative City?

  1. Allison Manch says:

    List needs more diversity and also a broader definition of creative work in San Diego.

    • Natasha Anderson-Moncrieffe says:

      You hit the nail on the head Allison! San Diego struggles with embracing cultural hotspots that aren’t in or surrounding Downtown or the coastal communities. Neighborhoods such as City Heights are easily glanced over for public projects but are brewing with opportunities to enhance creative and cultural equity.

      • Erin Chambers Smith says:

        Hi Allison and Natasha— thanks for the comments. I will make a note and discuss further with the team here. We do consider diversity of people and places when making HATCH — in the same issue as this story, there’s also a story on San Ysidro-born Daniel Aguirre’s efforts to bring science and cultural education to South Bay Communities via the RH Fleet, a story on a new firm that’s launched specifically to invest in gender-diverse tech companies, and a story on the best cross-border insiders. There’s even a story on a new cannabis group that featured football great Ricky Williams at their launch! If you email me at, I’d be happy to mail you a copy of the issue. Natasha — I’d also like to talk with you further about cultural hotspots outside of downtown — that could be a good story. Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment thoughtfully.

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