Shaking Things Up


Creating Brands that Build Community

What does fear look like at the microscopic level inside your brain? How do neurons and synapses behave? The visually compelling, eerie opening sequence of Fight Club, which takes viewers on a journey inside the narrator’s brain depicting how the mind processes extreme fear, would not have been possible without the in-depth, highly complex medical illustrations of Katherine Jones.

“What if you started at that point of fear in your brain and traveled out from there? That was the idea,” said Jones, sitting in a conference room at Milkshake Media, her strategic branding and creative agency based out of Hyde Park. “There’s a part of the brian called the amygdala, which is where fear comes from. It was fun to talk to neuroscientists and ask how an idea forms and what it looks like.”

Jones honed her design skills and developed her forte with the technical aspects of anatomy in college. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she earned two degrees in fine arts and zoology, then received her master’s in fine arts from Johns Hopkins in medical illustration. A series of freelance jobs brought her to Austin in the late 1990s for some work with Girl Games, where she was tasked with marketing strategies aimed at young girls and gaming. That two-year stint eventually led to other opportunities–Milkshake Media emerged organically out of that.

“I just had clients and work and put the team together,” said Jones, adding that she never had a business plan. “Usually we work with brands at one of two points, either launching something new or at a big turning point.”

Dedicated to “building brands that build community,” Jones and her team have helped a range of thriving companies, but one of their best-known success stories is with Livestrong, Lance Armstrong’s game-changing brand focused on those living with and fighting cancer. “It started out as a website for cancer survivors,” said Jones, adding that they interviewed many survivors to understand their needs. “What do they embody beyond his cycling fans? We said, ‘You can be this new, empowered survivor community.’ ”

Her husband, Don Pitts, who is currently the City of Austin’s music programs manager, had worked for Gibson Guitars for many years, and one of his clients, Sheryl Crow, was involved with Livestrong at the time. After a few friends said they should meet, after several cancelations, their 30-minute lunch ending up being a three-hour-long conversation. The couple just celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in January and welcomed their adopted daughter, Josephine, into their home in December (all the way from Ethiopia).

The adoption process, not without its own drama, began in mid-2008. For her part, motherhood was a longtime goal that Jones wanted to achieve while being respectful of her age. Both of them nurtured a deep interest in African culture and the ways in which family is valued so much in tribal cultures. “One of the cool things about adoption is that it’s just so full of hope,” said Jones, adding that her perspective had shifted dramatically since Josephine, 15 months old at the time of the interview, joined the family. “You wake up in the morning, you spend time with her and you watch her do some amazing thing every day. One of my friends said to me, ‘Who would have thought that having a kid would completely chill you out?’ Things that seemed really stressful before, don’t.”

Jones said she’s had close friends in the community for many years, including people like David Smith, executive director of the Hill Country Ride for AIDS.

“Kat Jones builds community with her every breath,” said David Smith. “She offers her brilliance to not only her friendships, but to so many great causes. To try and capture all the good she creates every single day would be as impossible as capturing the joy in her baby’s smile.”

One of her early interactions with a gay person was her older brother’s roommate in college, Mike, who was his best man when he married. Her brother volunteered Jones–who was going through her own divorce at the time–to speak with her conservative parents about it. “I knew they woud flip out,” Jones said. “I told them, ‘The bottom line is, anyone who finds that love in a relationship, however they find it, I really want you to be supportive of them.” Needless to say, there was no drama and everyone had a blast at the wedding.

Having spent her childhood in Washington, D.C. exploring the Smithsonian and wandering around the Museum of Natural History, Jones gravitates toward charities such as the Austin Children’s Museum and Seton Cove, an interfaith spirituality center where Jones serves on the board.

Looking ahead, Jones hopes to continue expanding the base of clients locally and nationwide that Milkshake Media can empower for future success, and she also hopes to dive more deeply into African culture and Ethiopia

“Our ability to make each other feel grounded, connected and less alone is the most compelling force that drives me, personally and professionally,” Jones said. “It doesn’t cost anything, and it can change the world.”