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An Interview With Justin Wheeler, Design and Technical Communications Manager

Justin Wheeler joined Fourth Economy + Steer in October 2021 as the team’s Design and Technical Communications Manager. From his home-base in State College, Pennsylvania, Justin designs the digital and print materials that 4E’s analytics and economic development experts use to illustrate their findings to clients and communities.

We asked Justin a few questions about his role, how it builds on his past professional experiences, and what he’s excited to accomplish at Fourth Economy. Justin is also a gardener with a love for pollinator species, so we asked him to tell us about some of his favorite plants to grow each summer.


You are Fourth Economy’s Design and Technical Communications Manager! What does that entail? What does your work look like on any given day?

Broadly speaking, I provide visuals that help our team communicate its findings and recommendations to clients and the public. This could be in the form of a report, infographic, or presentation, or with data visualizations such as graphs and charts. I also work on proposals and presentations, so I typically see our projects at their infancy, before they’ve even begun, and then again as we’re producing a final report.

One of the things I love about my job is that I get to see the culmination of all the work my colleagues have been engaged in as I compile the final report. For example, when working on the Scranton report we recently completed, I got to learn about the rich history of one of the country’s oldest industrial boomtowns, the character of its neighborhoods, an analysis of its current struggles, and where the city might be heading. I can’t wait to visit the Everheart Museum and Nay Aug Park!

You have spent a lot of your career helping scientists, researchers, and conservationists communicate with the public. Tell us a little bit about the work you have done in the past!

Throughout my career I’ve always been involved in visual communications in some form or another. My first “real” job out of college was designing DVD menus (remember those?) and websites for film releases. In more recent years I have worked for the Xerces Society, an environmental non-profit that protects pollinators and other invertebrates, and at Penn State University, where I worked with researchers to illustrate scientific concepts for journal publications and grant proposals.

My job at the Xerces Society fed my heart and soul, as I got to work with amazing and dedicated conservationists working to support and protect some of the smallest and most important life on earth – the bugs and beetles that keep our ecosystems running and the bees and other insects that pollinate our flowers and keep us fed. One of my favorite projects there was to create an illustration which showed how pesticides move through the environment. I also got to write a lot about gardening, which was always fun!

My job with Penn State fed my intellectual curiosity, as I got to work with researchers across disciplines, from biology to engineering, who are trying to solve some of the biggest and most intractable problems of the day. I described my job at Penn State as the most interesting boring job a person could have. While the work itself was rarely the most artistic I’ve done – I was working to illustrate concepts that were often abstract or entirely theoretical in nature – it involved a completely different kind of creativity. I had to problem-solve out how to communicate complicated and nuanced ideas, often in limited space, to viewers who may be spending only seconds at a time reviewing the material.

The through-line for me in this work is that I’ve learned to apply design systems and develop visuals that bring clarity, provide direction, and synthesize complex ideas. I feel like Fourth Economy is a perfect mix of the mission-driven environment of Xerces and the analytical and research-based environment I worked in at Penn State.

Tell us about the most interesting design assignment you’ve ever had, and the one that was the most challenging!

Some of the most interesting projects I’ve done were when I worked for photographer Bill Coleman, who photographed the same Amish community for over 40 years. In addition to designing exhibits and marketing materials for him, I also worked to digitize and re-master more than five thousand of his images and, of course, there was a story behind each one. I learned about customs and intricacies of Amish culture and the differences between Amish communities living in the same valley – a population that previously I hadn’t thought much about.

One of my biggest professional challenges was when, on my first day on the job at Penn State, I was asked to illustrate a theoretical rocket engine for a grant proposal. When I asked the researcher what it should look like he said “I have no idea, it’s never been built before” and provided me with a literal napkin-sketch. Luckily, Google and the National Air and Space museum website came to my aid and provided some reference material, which allowed me to create something credible in a hurry!

The through-line for me in this work is that I’ve learned to apply design systems and develop visuals that bring clarity, provide direction, and synthesize complex ideas. I feel like Fourth Economy is a perfect mix of the mission-driven environment of Xerces and the analytical and research-based environment I worked in at Penn State.

In the same position, I was tasked with providing illustrations and figures for a proposal about advanced nuclear reactors. I had to read fifty pages of dense, technical writing and somehow glean enough to develop charts, drawings, and cross-sections to explain what the researchers were proposing to do. I feel as if I could now credibly discuss the ins and outs of fluid-flow problems in small-scale advanced reactors at a cocktail party, if pressed.

What do you hope to accomplish with Fourth Economy this year?

As I approach six months at 4E, I feel like I’ve finally got my legs under me and better understand the economic development work we’re engaged in, which I did not have much exposure to prior to joining the team. I recently started a graduate program in data analytics and visualization, and I hope that through my studies I will strengthen my ability to provide expanded visuals and engage more fully in the analysis work we do.

You are a gardener! What is your favorite plant to grow?

I have a rule in my yard that anything I plant has to feed me, the bees, or both. To that end, I like to grow all sorts of “weird” herbs such as mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) and figwort (Scrophularia sp.). Mountain mint has a menthol-like flavor and makes an incredibly refreshing iced tea. It is also known for being one of the most beneficial plants for supporting both abundance and diversity of pollinator species. Figwort isn’t a very showy plant but, when in flower, it produces an abundance of nectar that attracts a huge number of bees and hummingbirds. According to 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, the plant was mass-planted across the midwest in the late 1800s and was then called Simpson’s Honey Plant. Beekeepers claimed a single acre could produce 400 to 800 pounds of honey that was prized for being light, clear, and aromatic.


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