Julian Williams

It’s a new month, and I am beyond excited to share with you my interview with Julian Williams. He may be young in age, but his impressive body of work rivals those of designers with years more experience. We talked a few months after he completed work on the Biden for American campaign as their lead opposition brand designer. Pretty cool!

We spoke about how he landed on the campaign, and Julian shared the differences between working with clients in the U.S. versus clients in Europe. From there, Julian took me through his history as a designer, including working for fashion designers Tommy Hilfiger and Karl Lagerfeld, a stint as an intern at &Walsh, and being a designer at Nike while in The Netherlands. Julian also shared how his passion for voguing and the ballroom scene helps influence his work, and he gives some great advice for graphic designers out there looking to find their own style. Julian’s motto is about making good work with good people — something we can all take to heart!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
So tell us who you are and what you do.

Julian Williams:
Hi. My name is Julian Williams, and I am a graphic designer and art director based in Amsterdam.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Before we get more into what you do, and your background, and everything, tell me how are you feeling right now? I know it’s late. For folks that are listening, we’re recording it’s 5:00 PM ish my time, but it’s several hours ahead where Julian is.

Julian Williams:
No. I’m feeling wonderful. We’ve had a lot of really good, sunny weather here in the Netherlands after the canals froze over about two or three weeks ago. And I think that’s been keeping my mood very, very high. I’ve been having some good work lately too. So I’m feeling quite happy and quite good.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has the year gone so far for you?

Julian Williams:
It’s been great, actually. I think now that kind of … in the Netherlands, we’ve been in our own lockdown. And we also have had for the majority of this year 2021, a curfew. But I think we’ve all kind of acclimated to that and are just kind of used to it. We can’t go out past a certain times and I’m just like I’ll get some projects done at home. I’ve been playing guitar a lot and writing some music when I’m not designing, or working for clients, or doing some personal work. So yeah, I’m doing pretty good. I think the year’s been going great so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What would you say the general, I guess feeling is like in the city? I know that might be a little difficult to gauge.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. It’s interesting here. I’m in Amsterdam, which some people really look towards I think when they think of the Netherlands. And there’s a lot of controversy going on right now with the pandemic. There’ve been a lot of protests centered in Amsterdam of people who don’t agree with lockdown measures. And it is creating quite a bit of tension. There’s even been small instances of violence around the country based around lockdowns and stuff. So I think things feel a little tense. And also, people have kind of been doing what they want for a while and not being as careful I think, as other European countries. Like it took us longer to have a mask mandate than a lot of other countries. So yeah, I think there’s a little bit of tension in the air. But mainly, people are just kind of sticking to themselves and going about their days. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I figured America would have a monopoly on people acting in public around-

Julian Williams:
I thought the same actually. I was like oh man. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was like, “I’m in Europe. We have everything together. We got it going.” And lately in the last few months, the Netherlands has also not been doing so great with their vaccine rollout. And I’ve been talking to friends in the U.S. who have gotten their shots and stuff already. And I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be August or something by the time I get vaccinated.”

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like it might be that way here as well. I mean, I’m in Georgia. Which is I think as of our recording, the state that is the worst in terms of vaccine rollout. If it’s not the worst, it’s one of the worst. It’s circling the bottom, 49 or 50, something like that. So we’re not doing too great either. But I can wait. Really, I was concerned about whether or not my folks got the shots and my grandparents got the shots, which they did. So I’m like I can wait. I work from home. I’ve already had to do this for a year. I can wait-

Julian Williams:
That’s the feeling I have too. I’m very fortunate with the kind of work that I have as well. So I’m quite good being at home. A lot of the stuff that I like to do, I can enjoy in my living room. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Talk to me about what kind of projects you’re working on now.

Julian Williams:
Right now, it’s quite interesting because … so I have entered into the world of freelancing, which is not something that I’ve been crazy used to before, but it’s something I’m loving a lot right now. And I am actually working with a company called Meow Wolf that was started in Santa Fe, New Mexico where I went to university. And they have acquired some spaces in Las Vegas and Denver. And they make these kinds of insane, it’s so difficult to describe what I’m working on now. These insane interactive, almost museum spaces that are also story-based. Each place that they acquire kind of has its own narrative. And I’m doing work for their space that’s going to be opening later in the year in Denver, Colorado. And I’m really excited to be working on this because a lot of my colleagues are former professors and classmates of mine, who I saw all the time in Santa Fe. So it’s really been great to kind of reconnect with those people after so many years and make cool stuff like we used to.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So you still kind of keep in touch with folks, and friends, and everything from back home?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. I definitely make a point to have conversations with former classmates, and friends, and teachers about things I think are interesting and design. Because when I was in university, I really believe that those were the people and the parts of studying that gave me the most. Just talking to people about things that they were interested in. And yeah, I make an effort to keep that going, even though we’re not in school anymore. And I think people feel really engaged by that sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
How is the design scene for you in Amsterdam?

Julian Williams:
I love it. And I feel really happy that I had the opportunity to study American design in the United States, and then just kind of get thrust into this other design world. It’s interesting because I started my career in Europe, but I was studying in the United States. I feel like there’s kind of a seriousness to design in Europe that obviously in some parts of the United States exists as well. But there’s just something about the way that people approach the execution of design that I think is quite rooted in history and design movements from the past. I mean, in the Netherlands, you can see the influences of Mondrian and quite prolific artists and designers all the time in repeated and interesting ways. So yeah, it’s interesting. It’s quite cultural here. It’s quite serious.

Julian Williams:
And then I think I’m also fortunate because I’m in Amsterdam, and it’s such a multicultural city, that it’s great to see outsiders like me come in and have a play with that kind of design language, and kind of bring our own taste into that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I know that you just came off of a pretty big design gig. You were working for the Biden for President campaign.

Julian Williams:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about that.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Coming onto it was rather random. So pandemic is happening. I’m in my apartment in the Netherlands. I was sitting on my couch. And this person I had never met before in my life named Robyn Kanner sends me an email saying, “Hi, I’m creative advisor for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. And we’d like to talk to you about potentially coming on and working for the campaign.” And it was quite a process from that first email to signing the contract and being like okay, I’m part of the team now. But gosh, it was a fantastic, exciting, fiery, wild, interesting design experience that I feel so fortunate to have been part of. And I met incredible people working on that team on something that we all felt was so important.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it difficult working with, I would imagine the team is mostly U.S. based, but was it difficult trying to kind of acclimate to that?

Julian Williams:
Well yes, you are correct that it was U.S. based. I was actually the only person on the campaign based outside the United States. It was not difficult for me though, because I am quite used to adjusting my life to other time zones. My mom is German, and my dad is American, and we’ve always moved around the world as a family and had to talk to family in the states when we live in Germany, and talked to family in Germany when we’re living somewhere else. And I also told them I’m willing to adjust my entire life to work on this. If I need to sleep a few hours in the daylight and then be up all night, I will. It’s funny that’s what I thought it would be. And then it actually just ended up being I was just awake as often as possible to work on stuff. Because you never know what’s going to happen when the president gets COVID and then you have to make content based on that or not make content based on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And you were working specifically with opposition research, right?

Julian Williams:
Yes. So in my interview, it was funny. I remember Robyn Kanner asking me, “How would you feel about designing content that I don’t know, maybe attacks the president of the United States?” I was just laughing. I was just like, “I feel amazing about doing that. And I also have a bunch of content that I’ve been making for years on my personal platforms showing that not only can I do it, but I can do it quickly, and I can do it in interesting ways. So let’s get to it.”

Julian Williams:
And yeah, then I was hired as a middleweight designer on the campaign, and then I was quickly promoted to lead opposition brand designer. And I developed with Robyn the art direction for how the Biden campaign talked about the Trump administration and the things that the president had and mainly hadn’t done.

Julian Williams:
It was a really interesting opportunity for me because I have a large background in really graphic design, a little bit of art direction. But I loved this because I have quite a political background. Before I just decided to study graphic design, I actually wanted to go to West Point and study political science, serve in the military, and then go into politics. That was my plan. And I had been talking to my parents about it for a lot of time up until my last semester of high school when I did a complete 180 and I was like, “No, I’m going to be working with something visual for sure. Or I’ll go crazy.” But I’m so happy I got to do this because a large part I feel of what I was doing was strategy-based. Stuff would happen and we had to react to it quite quickly, especially around debate time. And I actually really loved the engagement and almost weirdly thrill of having to quickly concepts visualize and then execute designs based on things happening in real time. I loved it. It was quite interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s quite a shift. And I’ll ask you what it was just growing up and everything. But yeah, that’s a go from wanting to be in the military and politics to switching over to graphic design, that feels very sort of left brain, right brain in a way.

Julian Williams:
In high school, actually I did a lot of things in high school. I was in theater, I was running cross country. I was in choir. I was like, “Let me do everything.” But my actual kind of baby was speech and debate. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the NFL, the National Forensics League.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Julian Williams:
So the National Forensics League is this thing in universities and high schools. It’s an institution in the United States that is the main program for public speaking debates and extemporaneous speaking in the United States. And when I was in high school, I participated in debate tournaments around Texas. And in my last year, I forgot if I represented El Paso or Texas in the national competition in Birmingham, Alabama. I loved to debate. And my specific category was CX debate, which is evidence based debate. And I loved it. And I’m really happy that I did that when I did, because I think that has made me quite comfortable going from verbal communication to visual communication. And then talking about that visual communication when I need to.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting that you were able to kind of transfer those skills over like that.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Yeah. It really worked out like that.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your time on the campaign, what do you remember most?

Julian Williams:
I remember working with really strong women and a really diverse team of people. A lot of colors on our team. A lot of gender identities, a lot of sexual identities. My bosses Robyn Kanner and Carahna Magwood are two amazing, intelligent women. Also just really inspiring. Carahna is a mom. She was deputy design director of our team. And now she’s working at the White House I believe as creative director. She’s running creative at the White House. I forgot what the official title is. But she’s raising a five-year-old and guiding an entire team of designers, reacting to content, driving her kid to school while on meetings with us. And I remember just thinking, “Gosh, this woman is Wonder Woman. Wow, I’m so inspired by this.” And it really became this little family. And it was also so interesting because no presidential campaign has ever been like this, and hopefully no one ever will be.

Julian Williams:
A bunch of us never met. I was on the other side of the world getting on phone calls with people who are just waking up. We had a morning meeting every day. We had an evening meeting every day, every single day. Every single day for four months that I worked on the campaign. And I’m so happy we worked the way … for something that serious, I feel like we didn’t have a choice but to work as a family. And I think the thing that I just remember is just how diverse, and engaging, and interesting, and fun, and exciting this family was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Folks that have listened to the show knows that I’ve worked on a political campaign before. It was just a mayoral campaign. And I was on there for I think from February to November. So 10 months-ish doing design, and new media, and everything. And this was back in, I’m dating myself. This was 2009. So this was right after Obama got elected. And this was the first set of real municipal races in the country that saw what Obama did with social media, and with great graphic design, and everything. And they wanted that. I’d say every candidate that I had run across including the one that I worked for, they wanted that Obama sort of shine and everything. And it was so interesting trying to navigate that time because there was no handbook.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, the people that did that first campaign, some of them of course went off to the White House. But nobody really knew how to do any of this stuff. I mean, now it’s common. Now if you’re running, you have to have all these things kind of in your toolbox, in your campaign toolbox. But back then, I had found some girl on BlackPlanet that did custom MySpace pages. Again, dating myself. We had a custom MySpace page. We had a Flickr page and a Meetup page. We tried to get on every sort of social network that we thought we could find constituents on or at least try to connect with people on. And it was just such a different time from then and now.

Maurice Cherry:
But I know what you mean about those daily meetings. And you really get close with those people in a very short amount of time. I mean, I feel like any campaign, it’s like a little mini company in a way. And then of course once the campaign ends, everyone kind of goes their separate ways. Some go with the candidates, some don’t. For me, I was at that time also starting out with my own studio. And it was so beneficial to me afterwards. Because I had now this Rolodex of contacts that I could reach out to.

Julian Williams:
I do feel like that as well. It’s also interesting that you mentioned people wanting what Obama had on his campaign in their campaigns. Because I think in the world of design that happens, and it did happen for our campaign, with really simple things. Like after Obama’s campaign, everyone wanted to use the font Gotham. A bunch of people were using Gotham. And it’s interesting something that we did. So before I entered the Biden campaign, I hated gradients. Just gradients. I was like, “I’m not putting gradients on anything that I make. They’re hideous, no place for them.” And freaking Robyn Kanner made me fall in love with gradients, made our entire team fall in love with gradients. And she was constantly talking about how gradients were so she used the word luscious. It’s actually kind of an inside joke within our campaign, this thing of luscious gradients or something that we applied to a lot of the visuals that we made. And then kind of towards the end of the campaign and after our campaign, a bunch of other campaigns like the runoff election in Georgia, they were using gradients as well. Which is not something that’s very common to I think a lot of political campaigns before. So it’s interesting how this stuff becomes cyclical and these influences kind of trickle down. They wrote the book. So let’s work in the way that they worked.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I think we’re starting to see a lot more … I mean, this is probably a weird observation, but we’re starting to see a lot more design in politics in several different ways. I think one, of course in the way that we’re talking about, which is for advertising a candidate or particular cause. Usually a candidate is using some combination of red, white, and blue in a very sort of discrete fashion where you don’t see things like different topography, or gradients, or halftones, or any of that other sort of stuff. But I think also what we can see from just what’s happened in this country over the past few years is how design can be used in a negative fashion to disinform people to have wrong information out there, all that sort of stuff. So I think it’s kind of always around, but it feels like it’s certainly become a lot more prevalent and known to more people over the past few years just how much design has been kind of a double-edged sword in politics.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. That was something that I had to, I feel I applied a lot of that kind of research into the way I went about creating the art direction for the opposition of the campaign. And it comes directly back to the debate world that I was talking about before. In CX debates, often there’s a topic every year. And at the time when I was a senior, it was transportation infrastructure. And the main topic for the entire country or all schools the entire year was should the United States increase investment in its transportation infrastructure? And you actually have to learn to both affirm and negate that statement. You have to play both sides. And I always feel like understanding that is so vital in getting your message across.

Julian Williams:
Often now, I find myself telling younger designers when they’re making something, like if they’re making a poster, don’t go to designers asking for the opinions. Obviously you should, you should get as much help as you can. But in a way, the people who aren’t designers are the ones who you’re communicating to. And that was something I tried to always keep in the back of my mind to think about it’s best if we get as many votes from everyone so it’s good to understand the viewpoint of everyone and the way that people view the current president, if I’m trying to create content that is attacking him, and decreasing his power, and making him look smaller than he is. That was something that my team and I felt maybe hadn’t been explored as much in previous campaigns.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And also, I have to say of course you all did a fantastic job. After the campaign ended, did you have an opportunity to work for the administration, or did you just decide to sort of stay freelance?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. So I actually did a little bit of work for the inauguration just for a hot second. That was really nice. And everyone had the opportunity to kind of apply to positions at the White House. I kind of wanted to get back to making more connections. And I think that’s kind of the way that I’m approaching the work that I look for right now. I say that my biggest dream is to make good work with good people. And I think this last year, that’s really become a reality, and I’ve had a taste of how amazing that is. And I want to just keep meeting more people and working on diverse things. And I do definitely see myself coming back to the political world in the future. Although, I think the thing that drove me to do it this year, with this last year was just the urgency of this campaign had to go the way that it did, or so much would have gone wrong.

Julian Williams:
And I’m really happy that they hired me because I brought a whole different perspective anyone else who was working on the campaign I feel, in the sense that I was telling my coworkers, “This affects the whole world. If this man remains president, there are people in the Middle East who are going to have a lot of problems.” My two countries had a fantastic relationship with each other before Donald Trump was president. And it actually really pains me to see the two leaders of the countries that I’m from having the conflict that they do.

Julian Williams:
So there was a whole lot of other things kind of riding on this election for me. And to have an opportunity to be a direct part of effecting that in any way was really important to me. So I feel myself being drawn towards working in politics in the future. I kind of hope that I don’t feel such a drive and need to be involved in politics in the way that I did last.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s probably for the best. I’m sort of speaking from experience. Again, not at the level that you have. But yeah, it’s good to have that experience to be able to work in that sort of crucible of creating work, but it’s so much better to be outside of it. You just gain a different perspective. So yeah. You mentioned Santa Fe. Is that where you grew up?

Julian Williams:
Where I grew up is a loaded question. Okay. How much time do you have? So I was born in the Southwest of Germany in a place called Kaiserslautern. My mom and I’s hometown is Ramstein-Miesenbach, which is right next to Kaiserslautern. And I lived there for five years. And then my family moved to El Paso, Texas. And El Paso has always kind of been what I consider to be my American hometown. We spent a lot of time in Germany and El Paso because my dad was in the army for 30 years.

Julian Williams:
So we were in Germany. Then we went to Texas. We were in Virginia a bit, we went back to Germany. And then high school time, ended up back in El Paso, Texas. So I was in the Southwest. And that’s kind of what got my eye towards Santa Fe. And Santa Fe, New Mexico one is my favorite place that I’ve been to in the United States. And I think it’s the most beautiful place. And it definitely was where I needed to be.

Julian Williams:
I have a special connection to Santa Fe, Mexico City, And Amsterdam. I also spent a lot of university time traveling to Mexico City. My school had a sister school in Mexico. And a lot of my friends live in Mexico City and got quite close to that city. But those three places, I just had this feeling. Whenever I was there, I was like, “I’m meant to be here right now.” And it’s not a feeling I’ve had about anywhere else that I’ve lived or been. And yeah, I feel really fortunate to have been in Santa Fe when I was there. It’s such an amazing place. And Santa Fe University of Art and Design, I kind of describe it as a lovely experiment gone wrong. Because unfortunately, the school closed down the year after I graduated. But for the time that I was there, it was fantastic. That such talented engaging students and teachers, we were kind of like this little artist colony. Just making stuff, just wiling out on some art. It was great.

Maurice Cherry:
How many people have asked you if you know the way to Santa Fe?

Julian Williams:
I feel like actually only people in New Mexico ask me that question.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Okay. So with all of this kind of moving around and this really sort of melding and meshing of cultures, I would imagine that you were exposed to a lot of design probably just through all of these different stimuli.

Julian Williams:
Oh yeah. Yeah. And I think I’m really, really fortunate for that to be the case. I mean, I do kind of feel like I have to acknowledge that there’s a little bit of privilege that is associated with that. In the sense that me being a citizen of two countries has a lot of privilege behind it. I can work anywhere in the EU. I can work anywhere in the United States. So now in the last year, I’ve been giving a lot of talks to university students. And I always make sure that I mention that, because it’s not always so easy I feel for people to have some of the experiences that I’ve had. I mean, I definitely have things going against me like working as a Black person in the creative world obviously has its drawbacks around the world. But being a citizen of these places does give me some advantages of having lots of different cultural influence in my work, opportunities to meet people, and work with people, which I feel very fortunate to be a part of. And I hope the stuff that I’m doing is giving back to people around the world in some way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was curious about kind of your influences. Because when I look at your work, like the work that you have on Instagram, the work that you have on your website, it’s so strongly topography based.

Julian Williams:
That’s very funny to hear. Sorry, go ahead.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you heard that before?

Julian Williams:
No, it’s so interesting. When I was in university, everyone was afraid of topography. We had a wonderful topography instructor named Arlyn Nathan. Bless her. A fantastic, fantastic teacher. I believe she attended Yale. And all of us were always so scared of typography. Topography is like the most difficult part of graphic design. And I think I still feel some of that. I still feel quite intimidated by typography. But I often find myself engaging with things that intimidate me. So maybe that’s what you’re seeing is me being a bit of a masochist maybe.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean there’s that. I think the way that you approach it certainly is in a very kind of I don’t know if I want to say brutalist. First of all, I didn’t go to design school, so I don’t know these terms. But when I see it, it’s in your face. You don’t miss it. There’s no subtlety about it. Which I like. I like that.

Julian Williams:
My actual introduction to design and typography, when I went to university in Santa Fe, I barely actually knew how to navigate the internet. A home computer wasn’t something that … my parents were a little strict. So they were like, “Yeah, do something that’s not on the computer.” So when I got to university, I was quite intimidated because it seemed like everyone knew Photoshop, and people knew their way around the internet. And I definitely didn’t and didn’t even know how to hold a Wacom pen.

Julian Williams:
And actually when I got to university, the thing that I gravitated towards was graffiti and spray paint. My dad was in the military. I wasn’t running around at home with cans of paint, getting into trouble. Because I would have problems when I come home. But when I got to university, it was something I was really interested in. And I think that is kind of my first jump into the world of typography, and communication specifically. I was meeting graffiti writers in Santa Fe. I was spray painting legally, sometimes not so legally, and doing quite in your face messaging things. And I think that is maybe what I see in my work now. My relationship with typography is quite loud and informative, I think. And it’s been quite an evolution from those freshmen days of messing around with some cheap spray paint cans. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Graffiti. That’s interesting. I don’t know why I’m not thinking that there would be graffiti in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But-

Julian Williams:
It’s great. It’s great. And also, New Mexico has a large native population. and that comes into the work a lot as well. I’ve met quite a few native graffiti writers around Santa Fe. Really awesome stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one of the first design gigs that you scored right out of college was actually pretty big. You worked for Nike, or you interned for Nike, and then you later worked for Nike. Is that right?

Julian Williams:
Correct. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
How was your experience?

Julian Williams:
It was really fantastic, interesting, challenging at times. I think definitely the hardest point in my career. I got interested in Nike as a student because Bijan Berahimi, a designer who runs a studio in Portland called FISK, fantastic design studio, came to my university and gave a workshop with his friend Chris Burnett based around Nike because they had both worked at Nike previously. And we made all this interesting work. I remember being really stressed out about the work for some reason. I was just thinking I have to make the most amazing thing. Because this is based on Nike, and they’re such a big place. And I stayed up until 4:00 AM working on this little poster I was making. And I left the lab crying because I just hated what I made. And I went back to my dorm room, and actually someone had set off like the water sprinkler in the dorm. And all me and my friends had to sleep in this brightly lit storage shed off the side of our dorm for an entire night. It was just the worst night of university ever.

Julian Williams:
But I talked to Bijan a lot at that workshop, and he actually reached out to me a little bit later to work on some freelance work for Nike. And my mind was just like, “Man, Nike. I really feel good when I work on this stuff. And I’m so interested in it.” And I saw that they were hiring a design intern in Europe. And I applied, I had an interview, and I got the job. It was so funny. When I got the phone call, it was 4:00 AM in New Mexico. And some number I didn’t recognize called me, and the person on the phone was like, “Hi, are you Julian? You’re going to come to Amsterdam and work for Nike.” And out loud on the phone I said, “Fuck.” It was the first thing out of my mouth. I was just like I’m in New Mexico right now. I’m about to get on a plane to a place I know nothing about.

Julian Williams:
But I did it. And I came to the Netherlands. Nike’s European headquarters is in a village called Hilversum a few minutes away from Amsterdam. And it was really challenging. I think I was still working on my thesis. I was halfway through my last year of university at the time. So that was another thing. I was still working on schoolwork while working for one of the biggest companies in the world as my first career thing ever. But I also feel like in that time, I was kind of relearning how to be European and how to engage with Europeans on a creative level, on just conversational level as well. I feel like I kind of in a way, had a little bit of an American handicap when I started working at Nike.

Julian Williams:
But there was a point where I just kind of pushed through and stopped worrying so much about this stuff, and was just making work in the way that I had learned to in university. My design professor David Grey, who he was kind of a mentor of mine in university. He really had us just kind of sit down and make things without worrying. Obviously we have to think about the process at some point. But our really early design practices revolved around making. And that was also something that we did in our workshop with Bijan. And I started working in that way and also bringing a bit of analog stuff in. And stuff just started clicking, and I stopped worrying about stuff. And all the things that you learn about how to present decks, and how to talk to clients and stuff just kind of came naturally.

Julian Williams:
It is difficult though, working in that kind of world. So I finished my internship, and then I was hired as a brand designer at Nike. I do feel that Nike has a very large hierarchy problem. I think that titles matter to people a lot. And I don’t think I realized it at the time that it was actually quite toxic. I think it still is quite toxic, which is unfortunate because Nike is my favorite brand. They produce some of my favorite design work in the world. However, yeah, just this kind of ranking stuff was not something I was aware of until I later left Nike and worked at other places and realized it’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to feel my opinion maybe doesn’t matter as much as this person because they have a higher salary than me.

Julian Williams:
I also feel like sometimes if you’re a minority working in creative at Nike, sometimes your expertise in certain cultural things might not get taken advantage of in a correct way. I mean, I was 21 and 22 when I was at Nike. I was the target audience. Young, male, interested in street wear and sports. And I don’t know, I wasn’t trying to go around being this loud intern like, “Listen to me. I know.” But I feel like maybe it’s just the thing of missed opportunities.

Julian Williams:
I also feel like, and just to be quite candid, I think it would be difficult to work as a creative at Nike if I were a woman. Without getting too into that, just Nike is a boys club. It’s a straight, cisgender white boys club. I mean I worked in the European headquarters. I witnessed it there. But I actually heard it echoed heavily in Portland where the global headquarters is. And I think it’s a big problem. And I think it’s come to light a lot in recent years. And I hope that things are being done to change that.

Julian Williams:
And also interestingly enough, I lost my job at Nike. I was fired actually. Which at the time was really devastating. And now, I’m actually very thankful for it, and thankful for the opportunity to talk to young designers about this. And the reason I was fired interestingly enough, I had been about 10 months into working as a brand designer. And I was asked to give a design talk to a university in the United States. And my Instagram at the time was all personal design work. I was making a lot of posters based around political things that were happening in the world, stuff that Donald Trump was tweeting. Or just poems songs, honestly whatever I felt like. It’s just a typical design Instagram. And I gave this talk, and the talk was about me studying in Santa Fe, getting my job at Nike, the way that happened. I actually made a poster based on that phone call I mentioned earlier where I was like, “Fuck.” And I took the word fuck, and I put it on top of the Nike swoosh. And I posted it to Instagram. And the caption I wrote was, “Just finished wrapping up a wonderful talk with my former professor and his new students at university of so-and-so about my wild life at Nike.” And I tagged Nike.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no. I think I see where this is going.

Julian Williams:
So I think I gave the talk on the Thursday, posted that on Friday, came into work on Monday, worked all day, got asked to come into the back Nike office, and was just told, “Yeah, we have a zero tolerance social media policy. We have to take your laptop. We have to take your hard drive. We have to escort you off campus, and we’re terminating your contract.” And I was 22. Yeah. In hindsight, I do sometimes kind of wonder. Because at the time, it was wintertime, things were really busy, and the environment was quite tumultuous. And I wonder if there were other things that maybe influenced a decision. Because my team was devastated. They were actually talking to our leadership basically saying, “This is ridiculous. There’s no reason why you can’t give this person a warning. They obviously love this brand.”

Maurice Cherry:
Did they even give you a chance to explain the context?

Julian Williams:
I was shocked and I said, “You can read this caption right there. It’s very obvious that I have no malicious intent with this design.” At the time, it really sucked. I asked a random person to take a photo of me standing, at the time, Nike was having their just do it campaign with Colin Kaepernick where he says, “Stand for something. Even if,” I forget the phrase of the campaign. It won a bunch of awards, it was brilliant. But there was a big poster of Colin Kaepernick. And I was being escorted to the main office to be taken off campus. And I asked some random lady to take a photo of me in front of that for some reason. And I actually show that photo when I give talks. Now it’s just me looking devastated in front of Colin Kaepernick because I just lost my dream job.

Julian Williams:
Now though I have to say, I am extremely thankful that that happened. Because I think when you’re a student, sometimes people look at Nike as the end all to the design world. It’s the top of what you can be. And then when I got into it, I realized no. The thing that I love is working with cool people. And I’ve met some cool people at Nike, and I’ve met some not so cool people at Nike. So I want to see where the other cool people are. And I think if I hadn’t been fired actually, I would probably still be in that world because I didn’t know any better at the time. And yeah, nowadays I feel really thankful that that happened, because some amazing stuff happened after that. [inaudible 00:43:44] first though.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I told you kind of before we started recording that I’ve had a few other black designers that worked at Nike on the show before. And they’ve all kind of pretty much said the same thing about just how the work culture is and everything. So it’s sad that that’s the case from such a prolific brand. But I have to say, you said you were 22 when that happened?

Julian Williams:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s the best time for that kind of stuff to happen in your career is. No seriously, at the beginning, that is the best time. And I don’t know what it is, and I guess I’m sort of looking at my own story here too. I also got fired from a job for it wasn’t a social media post. It was a blog. Actually, it was several blog posts. I’ll tell you after we stop recording. But yeah, I got fired in a very similar fashion from a job. And I wasn’t a designer. I was doing customer service or something like that. But it was after I got fired from that job that I got my first real design gig that then sort of kick-started my career. So I mean sometimes, you have to have a setback to have a comeback.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. And I also really established my own personal design practice at that time. Because to be honest, after I got fired from Nike, for a few months, life got quite hard. It just so happened that the time I lost my job was also the time the contract for the apartment I was living in was ending. So I wasn’t job secure. So then I became not house secure as well. And I ended up couch hopping for a few months. And I hated being a burden to other people. My friends were quite helpful. And to them, it wasn’t a big deal at all to have me on their couch for a week or so. But I just felt so bad.

Julian Williams:
But what I will say is in this time, I was making design work like crazy. And just for no reason at all. And the kind of mindset that I had, I was giving myself ridiculous design briefs. I was like I’m going to design a passport for the moon for the future when we colonize the moon, and I’m going to create a rave poster for the planet Venus in a made up language. And the kind of mindset that I had, because I had only worked for Nike. So all the work I had to show was from Nike. And I didn’t like that. I was like if I’m going to interviews and stuff, I need to be able to show some different kind of stuff. I mean, I can make a bunch of different things for Nike, but I don’t want to just have swooshes all over my portfolio.

Julian Williams:
And going into interviews, I was showing this personal work actually as if it were real work. I wasn’t even mentioning, “I just made this one.” I just showed the things. And I was like, “Obviously, no one’s asked me to make this. But I’m showing you that if someone did ask me insanely to design a passport for the moon, I would be able to do that. And if I can do that, I can do whatever you want me to do for your brand. I can design a website for you. I can design a clothing line. Let’s get to work.” And I was making stuff like every single day. I was like if I’m not going to be working, I’m going to be working for myself. And I’m going to have some tools in my back pocket to show people what I love to do. And yeah, I’m really happy that I did.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good that you kept on kind of designing and sort of honing your craft at this time, even when you sort of had this other insecurity, just in terms of where you’re going to stay and where money is coming from. That didn’t deter you from still creating.

Julian Williams:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you also have worked as a graphic designer in the fashion industry for a few well-known designers. Was it different doing design work for a fashion brand versus more of a sports brand like Nike was?

Julian Williams:
Definitely. Actually, the first job I did after losing my job at Nike, I worked as a freelance designer for Karl Lagerfeld for quite some months. I have an interesting story about that as well. I got the interview with Karl Lagerfeld. I had actually used the last of my money to move everything I own into a storage unit. And I was staying at a friend’s place. I ran back to the storage unit, got whatever the nicest outfit was that I could put together, which was quite nice if I do say so myself. I had some Nike shoes and some things. They were just in storage. I went to Karl Lagerfeld office, had my interview.

Julian Williams:
A few days later, I get a phone call. “Hi, we loved you. We’re looking forward to work with you. We’d love for you to come in and start on Monday.” I said, “Fantastic.” This is not a lie. I put my phone down. I went to use the bathroom. I came back, I picked my phone up. I opened Instagram. The first thing that pops up, Complex News, Karl Lagerfeld has died. And I was like, “Is it me? Am I cursed?” That is not a lie. It happened exactly like that. A few minutes later, I got a phone call back from the project manager saying, “Hey, don’t worry. We still want to work with you. Can we move your booking by one week? Because everything is on fire.” And I was like, “Yep, completely understand. Let’s do it.”

Julian Williams:
I loved working for Karl Lagerfeld. I got to do a lot of things that I hadn’t been introduced to before, like art directing some product photo shoots. They gave me a lot of creative freedom because they at the time wanted to revamp a lot of digital and social content. And I think that’s one of the reasons that they went with me. I think that like you said, it’s a fashion brand. It’s not sportswear. They might have some sportswear items every now and then. But I think they were looking for someone like me who had had a different kind of experience to bring a bit more interesting content.

Julian Williams:
And then I went on to work for Tommy Hilfiger, which I felt kind of walked the line of the two worlds that I had worked. Sportswear, and then a bit more fashion-y stuff. And I really loved working for Tommy Hilfiger. I think they did the opposite of what I was missing at Nike. They appreciated who I was as a person, the interests that I had. And thought how can we apply this to our work? An important part of my life actually outside of design. So I Vogue. And maybe some people don’t know what that means when I say that I Vogue.

Julian Williams:
But voguing is a community and a culture of people that was started by people of color in New York, in the United States. And these people gather to have kind of these competitions/performances called balls that incorporate a bunch of different things like fashion, and dancing, and creating outfits, and sometimes drag. And at the time, I had been voguing for about a year or so, maybe a year and a half. I had started voguing because voguers have things called houses, which are basically groups of people who compete together at these competitions, at these balls. And the main house of the Netherlands is called the House of Vineyard. It was started by Ms. Amber Vineyard who came to give a voguing workshop at Nike, spotted me. And she came up to me. And when you participate in these balls, it’s called walking. And you walk different categories. There are categories like face, and you have to show your beautiful face. Or there’s body. And you have to show that you have a luscious or muscular body. And there are performance categories like Vogue femme, which is a fantastic expressive dance and performance style.

Julian Williams:
And Ms. Amber Vineyard spotted me at her workshop and in the crowd. And she came up to me and she said, “You need to come to my balls. You need to come to my classes and meet my ballroom children. I see you walking this category and this category.” And gosh, it just thrust me into this insane, fantastic, beautiful world of queer Black arts. And I met so many talented people, and it became such an important part of my life. I really see a lot of these people as family who I see all the time, we confide in each other. We actually have we call them mothers and fathers. They’re the ones who kind of like lead the houses and the ballroom children. And that is something that I became quite comfortable talking about in my work.

Julian Williams:
And when I have interviews with people, when I went to interview at Tommy Hilfiger, my eventual bosses who I was interviewing with asked me, “What do you do?” When I worked at Nike, it had also kind of become known that I Vogue. And at the time I was a little like I maybe don’t like so much that everyone knows that I do this. So I was going to try to kind of keep it a little on the down well when I started working at a new place. But I was like, “It’s an interview, whatever. It’s fine. I can tell them.” And I told them, “I Vogue. And I vogued around Europe and around North America.” And on my first day of work, a bunch of people came by my desk and they’re like, “You’re the voguer, right? You do this and this.”

Julian Williams:
And Tommy Hilfiger head of influencer marketing actually came to my desk and was, “I need you to tell me who the interesting people are in Amsterdam right now. Because we want to work with these people in the correct way.” Which I appreciated so much. Because I feel like in the world of fashion and these brands and stuff, ballroom is becoming quite popular right now. .It’s becoming quite marketable. And a lot of times, people do it the incorrect way. So it makes me quite comfortable when people approach people within the scene, so that they make sure that they’re doing it the correct way.

Julian Williams:
And when I worked at Tommy Hilfiger, I managed to get some really close friends of mine booked as models for campaigns. Because they actually came up to me and they were like, “We want you in the campaign.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. I’ve been voguing for about a year and a half. I know people in the scene who this has been their life for years. And if you want them to turn the party, I have some dancers set up for you, and some performers, and some beautiful, fantastic people. Let’s go.” And I can’t describe how amazing it feels to go to a fitting and see your friend who is perhaps queer like you and maybe a person of color like you. And we don’t always get these opportunities that other people have. And see them smiling back at you in full head to toe gear from this world famous brand. And then the next day, they’re on a photo-shoot voguing doing the thing that they love. And they’re getting paid for it. That to me was, I was just like this is what this is all about. When stuff like this happens, I’m so happy about the field that I went into.

Maurice Cherry:
Look at you putting on the homeys and everything.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. I keep people booked and busy.

Maurice Cherry:
So basically, season three or Pose is going to be about you.

Julian Williams:
Can we talk about it? Can we talk about how Pose is ending and it’s just so sad? Actually, Tommy Hilfiger, right before I left Tommy Hilfiger … gosh, I really feel thankful for my team at Tommy Hilfiger because they wanted to hear what I had to say about things. And it feels so good when you’ve come from somewhere where maybe that hasn’t always been the opportunity. And we were doing a campaign when I was there that was honestly based around working with underrepresented voices and amplifying those voices. And we ended up working with people in the ballroom scene. We worked with Indya Moore. The campaign is live right now actually at Tommy Hilfiger. We worked with Indya Moore who plays Angel on pose. They’re a fantastic part of the ballroom scene and a queer icon. And we worked with [Kittie Smile 00:55:26] who is also in the ballroom scene in Paris and throughout Europe. And my team was asking me the correct way to reference things that they didn’t know about. Spent a lot of time talking to my team about the correct use of people’s pronouns. It’s just great when people, and it always felt authentic and genuine. It never felt like a cash grab. Because the stuff we were making was cool too at the end of the day. And I think people appreciated that as well. It was really an experience that I enjoyed.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome to hear because oftentimes when you see, I think probably from the consumer standpoint, when you see brands start to venture into, I don’t even necessarily want to say venture into what’s cool. But I think certainly when they end up venturing into ethnic or queer content or something like that, people always sort of wince like, “What is this going to be?” One, because I think they’re just protective of their individual communities. And two, they just want to make sure that it’s done right and with respect and homage. And it’s not a cheap knockoff or something like that.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. One thing that was interesting in one meeting, and I’m really happy that people listened to me on this. So we were doing this project to amplify certain people’s voices. And it was kind of brought up. Someone was like, “Yeah. And if we work with Indya, maybe they will want us to put on a ball. And we have all these ballroom performance.” And I told them, “You know what? You need to ask this person what they want to do. Because in your head, what you’re doing right now is projecting. You may have a projection of what you imagine this person will want to do. And you may think Indya wants to put on a ball for this community. And then you go and talk to Indya and they say, ‘I want to have a talk show where I bring on queer people and talk to them about what they think needs to be changed in the world around us to make their lives better.'”

Julian Williams:
I was like, “You never know.” And that was another thing that I felt comfortable voicing. And people were comfortable receiving that feedback, and applying it, and making the work better. And I’ve been gay and Black my whole life. I think I know this world. So it’s great that people recognize that and understand that maybe, I have something to offer. It also feels good that the fact that being a queer Black person in Europe and the United States has not always been easy or fun. And it’s great when it is. And it’s something awesome. I mean to me, being queer and Black is fun and great all the time. Maybe not to other people, but that’s their problem.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I should also mention that while you were doing this at Tommy Hilfiger during the day, you were also interning somewhere else at night. Is that right?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Sorry. So I was working for Tommy Hilfiger. And then around February of 2020, I was contacted by Jessica Walsh of the studio &Walsh and formerly a part of the studio Sagmeister & Walsh. And Jessica Walsh and Stefan Sagmeister have honestly just been huge inspirations to me since I started studying design. I feel like when I was a student, I was like, “These two are pushing communication to where I want it to go. They’re doing interesting things.” Also a thing that I really respected and that inspired me was that they would make projects just because. They would make projects not to get paid for anything, just because they want to do stuff. And I always felt that that’s so important to just make things because you love design. I hope if you’re in the world of design, you’re doing it because you enjoy doing that.

Julian Williams:
So I was sitting on my couch. I had been working at Tommy Hilfiger for quite a long time actually. And I got an email from Jessica Walsh asking me if I wanted to intern remotely for &Walsh. And I jumped about 10 feet in the air and emailed yes back immediately. So for about three months, I would work during the day for Tommy Hilfiger. And I would come home and remotely work for &Walsh as an intern. And it was fantastic. It was just like wow, what an amazing team. what an intelligent team. What a diverse team, which I already knew this before working for Walsh. But working there really cemented in me that diversity breeds better creative work. It just makes sense just to have that many cultural, and intelligent, and visual backgrounds coming together to make awesome stuff. Yeah, it works.

Maurice Cherry:
Your inbox must be the place to be. You’re getting all of these amazing offers and stuff. This is wild. And then of course after you’re working with &Walsh, that’s when you started with the Biden campaign.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Yeah. And it was another one of those kinds of, I was on my couch and I get this email that changes your life. I actually later found out that Robyn Kanner my boss at Biden approached Jessica Walsh asking for a designer. Because I interned for about three months. And then I freelanced for a little bit of time for &Walsh as well. And Robyn approached Jessica asking about a designer, and my name came up. And I think that’s what led to me interviewing for the position of designer with Biden for America. And I feel very thankful for people who just kind of put my name out there and stuff. I really love designing so much. And I love getting to make work with great people for great causes whenever I can. It’s not always possible, but I try to strive to be a part of that stuff as often as I can.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at the entirety of your career so far from interning at Nike, to Lagerfeld, and Hilfiger, &Walsh and everything, and even the Biden campaign, what did those experiences teach you as well?

Julian Williams:
Again, I get to talk to students now. And I’ve been having … oh God, I really love these talks because the questions that these students have just get more and more interesting and more and more personal and engaging. And I think that it would be so crappy of me to give a talk and then not give someone something that they can work with. I’ve had this in the past where I’ve been to a talk with a creative, and it just kind of feels like them talking about themselves the entire time.

Julian Williams:
I actually have three things that I tell people. One is to make things. And I feel like maybe the three things I have to say are quite obvious things. But I’ve met so many older designers who are just like, “You’re going to get older and you’re just going to get tired of design.” Because they see me making all this personal work and they just … and I just do not accept that. I love what I do. And I feel that just because I work, doesn’t mean that I can’t also make things just for the hell of it. Make stuff for no reason. Make stuff not to sell something. So I tell people to make things as often as I can, as often as they’re able to. Something else I say is to, and this is something I … I always was able to do this even before getting into the professional world.

Julian Williams:
But it’s worth it to invest in learning how to talk about yourself and your work. And I also, I always add onto that, I know that it’s not easy for everyone to get on a soap box, and talk about themselves, and things that they’ve done. But what I think is maybe a little more within reach for a lot of us is talking to our colleagues, and our friends, and our classmates about the things that we’re interested in, the things that we’re not interested in. And then that facilitates language about the way we think about work and maybe kind of guides us towards talking about our work. Because you can be the best designer, the most creative, innovative designer in the world. But if you aren’t able to kind of put yourself out there and talk about yourself and work, I think sometimes that may lead to problems.

Julian Williams:
And the last thing, which has honestly become my design manifesto in recent years is people matter. So don’t be an asshole. That also may seem quite simple. But I think one of the most important things I realized is that lots of the time, I feel the people matter more than the work in multiple ways.

Julian Williams:
One thing I tell students is, “When you go in to an interview, the people have seen your work. They know it. They’ve seen your Instagram, they’ve seen your website. The thing that they’re looking for is who you are. Because you’re essentially making a contract with them to be with them for a long period of time. So they want to see if you’re going to get along, if your values align.” And I think understanding that is important, and also just understanding that we should always carry ourselves with empathy. And I don’t know, just not being a jerk. That seems really simple.

Julian Williams:
But this isn’t related to the question that you just asked, but I do want to mention it. Something I end with is another kind of fortune cookie kind of lame thing to say. But it’s never too late to do anything. And I actually usually end my talks with students talking about my dad. Because my dad, he served in the Army for 30 years. He retired from the Army two years ago at the rank of command sergeant major. And I really feel appreciative of my dad. I mean, he supported his family for years. And I really think that my dad is an example of what a soldier should be.

Julian Williams:
I’m not a very pro military person, not a very pro United States military person. I think that my dad embodies what a soldier should strive to be. My dad was like, “My country is a world superpower. I’m here for my country if I’m needed. And I’m here to educate young soldiers about the ways that they should carry themselves with respect and treat other people with respect around the world.” And my dad has been so helpful to women within his ranks, and people of color, and queer people. And I feel so happy that people like my dad are there, because they often aren’t in the United States.

Julian Williams:
But my dad originally joined the Army to get money to go to art school. When I grew up, he was always drawing in sketchbooks and stuff. Well now that he’s retired, my dad has started studying graphic design at the age of 50. And I can’t begin to talk about how amazing this is. I was actually invited, so my dad is studying right now at community college. I think he may transfer to university later. But I was invited to give a talk to his class. And it was just the most incredible thing ever. And having conversations with my dad about what I do and giving him advice on work is … I think he tells me he’s inspired by me, and I’m just incredibly inspired by him doing what he wants because he loves to and understanding that it’s never too late. And he doesn’t care if he’s in a class with 19 and 20 year olds learning about design. He’s so excited about everything. And he’s learning some stuff that I don’t know about. My dad knows more about after effects than I do now. I need to catch up to Command Sergeant Major Williams.

Maurice Cherry:
Look at that. So you even had an opportunity to speak to your dad’s class?

Julian Williams:
Yes. And it was fantastic. And the questions they asked were really great. They were asking, because we’re living in this Zoom call world right now. And they were really asking me ways to kind of stay inspired and what I make content about. It was just wild to having my dad be my student for an hour.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, have there been any kind of particular challenges that you’ve had to face, I would say as a black designer in Europe. But aside from that, you’re working between Europe, between the United States. I would imagine even just the volume and the quality of work might be different. Have you run into any challenges thus far? I don’t want to say thus far in your design career, because you have, because you’ve mentioned them. But I guess as it sort of breaks down among certain identities, like you mentioned you’re Black, you’re queer, you’re American, you’re German. Have there been particular challenges that have come with that for you as a designer?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. I think I’ll kind of just start talking about from racial, nationality view. So I always grew up between United States and Europe. And the way that racism exists in those places, their origins and the way it exists now is different in different ways. I feel that more outright directly racist in your face, things happen in the United States. And I’m actually nowadays quite fearful of those things, because they’re amplified by things like people being able to purchase weapons. So in a sense, if someone’s racist to me in the United States, I may hold my tongue about it because my mind is kind of like, “Well, they may have a gun if I say something.” Really, I fear for my life.

Julian Williams:
And I also tell people, because people in Europe ask me about my experience as a person of color in the U.S. And I tell them I feel like I think about my race every single day that I’m in the United States. In Europe, I don’t think about it every day, but I do think about it often. And also, the ways that racism happens to me, especially in the Netherlands is different. Do you know what Black Pete is?

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. And that’s such a weird thing that is always a conversation here in the Netherlands. So yeah, just in case people may not know, there is a caricature here in the Netherlands. In Dutch, he’s called Zwarte Piet. And he is basically a Golliwog. He is a Black person who kind of accompanies the Dutch version of Santa Claus. I’m mixing languages. Santa Claus is called Sinterklaas. And it’s tied to the origins of slavery. And people here in the Netherlands will cover themselves in blackface, draw on red lips. White Dutch people will draw on red lips, put on an afro, and gold hoop earrings. And it’s really ingrained in the culture here and is a conversation every single year. And black people in the Netherlands and decent people are explaining, “No, this isn’t okay.” There’s a whole campaign called Zwarte Piet Is Racisme, which is Black Pete is racism, that comes up every year. And there are people who say, “It’s part of our culture.”

Julian Williams:
So here, it’s funny. That is not life-threatening racism to me. But in a sense when stuff like that happens, often the excuse that people use is, “It’s not so bad. We’re not the United States. Our police aren’t killing Black people,” even though they are in lots of places in Europe. So I’m kind of told to silence myself a little bit.

Julian Williams:
I’ve also in the professional world have had experiences here. I mean, I’ve always physically worked as a designer in Europe. I had a little bit of freelance work when I was a student in the U.S. But for example, something that I really vividly remember, I went to have an interview for a little freelance gig in Amsterdam. And I was waiting in kind of the main lobby of the office building. And I could see the person who was going to interview me come down, but she didn’t know what I looked like. And it was raining outside. And a man came into the building, and you needed a key card to come in. And he buzzed himself in. And he was a white man. He had an umbrella, he had just gotten into the building. And the woman who was interviewing me came down and she stopped. She looked at me and then she looked at the man who came in and she said, “Julian?” So I was already like well, I’m obviously not her visual representation of what she thinks someone who would fill this position is. And I’m pretty sure it’s because of my physical appearance, because I am a Black man with dreadlocks. And somehow, that means that I can’t accomplish my job.

Julian Williams:
Which now I’m kind of like, “Well, that’s their loss.” But it’s unfortunate when you realize that kind of stuff. When you realize that that is the way that people go about … and it’s rancid to me because I definitely don’t ever think like that. I don’t think that someone’s physical appearance is going to affect how they can accomplish work.

Julian Williams:
So it’s interesting my kind of experience and relationship with racism in the countries that I’ve lived in and am a citizen of throughout my life, and the kind of give and take that I have to deal with personally and professionally. But one thing that I refuse to do is silence myself anywhere.

Julian Williams:
So actually, it was interesting this last year, Black Lives Matter protests obviously, I won’t even say erupted because I was in Black Lives Matter protests in Santa Fe when I was a student. But I feel like they were on quite a global kind of stage last year. And we had Black Lives Matters demonstrations in Amsterdam and in Belgium. And I made sure that I was a part of those because I felt that it’s important. Especially here where the kind of relationship with racism is, “It’s not as bad as in other places. So deal with it.” And the POC communities here are fed up and we’re like, “No, we need to have these same conversations.”

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned earlier when you were talking about your work with Tommy Hilfiger being into voguing, being in the ballroom community. How has that influenced your work?

Julian Williams:
So ballroom has a lot of interesting language that has kind of shifted through various communities. I feel like a lot of terms that maybe people, adopt or appropriate, different people might say different things, come from ballroom language. Like for example, the phrase reading. If you read someone, you’re kind of insulting them maybe in a roundabout way. That’s something that comes from ballroom. There actually used to be a category called reading where two people would stand apart from each other and they would just say vicious things to each other. And whoever said the most vicious things won. That’s a kind of like mainstream phrase now. I hear more people saying things like reading, what’s the tea, oh girl. And this kind of language, it’s very important to ballroom. But it’s also vital to queer people. Throughout the world, queer people and Black people have created coded language to survive. That is a fact dating back to the days of slavery. It’s a fact dating back to the ’80s in England and the United States for people to survive.

Julian Williams:
My relationship with the ballroom world and what I’m really thankful for about the ballroom world is that the seniors, the teachers of ballroom who are older, who lived through that nonsense, who lived through the AIDS epidemic, are doing a fantastic job of making sure that the young people entering into the ballroom scene understand where they’re coming from. That this is not just a competition. It’s not just us dancing. This is about us being alive and living our truth.

Julian Williams:
And I try to reflect that language and that communication in my work. Something else I’ll say that’s important about ballroom is the entire idea of ballroom. I maybe mentioned this a bit earlier, is that minority communities don’t often have the same opportunities that straight, white, cisgender male dominated people enjoy. And ballroom is kind of a play on that.

Julian Williams:
For example, there’s a category called executive realness. And there are categories called realness, which are about … realness is kind of like, a category called male figure realness is about a maybe gay, effeminate man who goes up and portrays himself as his straight counterpart. And that is a direct commentary on the fact that gay people in the real world outside of the ballroom very often have to do this to stay alive. They have to pretend to be heterosexual to be alive. So ballroom is always kind of about embodying the lives that we don’t have the opportunities to have as queer people of color. Executive realness is a category where you walk up to the judges dressed in a suit. Maybe you have a briefcase. You’re trying to show yourself as an executive, as an owner of a company. Which I mean we can see what the owners of companies and CEOs look like. They don’t very often look like people like me. And ballroom kind of challenges that, and gives us an opportunity to show that if we have the same opportunities as you, I could be an executive. Because I can dress like this, and I can walk the walk, and I can talk the talk, and I can present myself that way.

Julian Williams:
And it’s made me have some interesting thoughts about how I apply language to my work, how I apply typography. It’s also given me an interesting relationship with fashion. I’m very interested in fashion. My interest in fashion has evolved through my life. When I was living in Texas and stuff, I did not know anything about Jean Paul Gaultier or Saint Laurent. And it was actually kind of a joke when I joined Nike and other fashion brands that I didn’t know this. But I came from this world that kind of wanted to touch that. And ballroom people also are people who want to touch that fashion world, but maybe can’t because the lives that they live. So we’re driven to create stuff ourselves, to create amazing outfits that could be on the runways in Paris. And now we’re seeing with things like Pose and a lot of ballroom people are walking fashion shows in Paris and New York and stuff, that now it’s coming back. Now people want us. Now they’re seeing they’ve had it right the whole time. And we’re like, “Yeah, we’ve known this. It’s nice that you’re catching up.”

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best advice that you’ve been given about design?

Julian Williams:
It’s funny. Something I think about often kind of contradicts some of my own advice. But I think there’s kind of give or take with both of them. One of the piece of advice I was given is you can stand next to your poster. Basically saying once you make something as a visual communicator, ideally, someone will look at the thing that you’ve made and understand the message that you’re trying to convey. So you can’t stand next to something you’ve made and explain it. Which maybe goes a little bit against how I’m saying you should be able to talk about your work. But that’s, I think can apply to different things like the process and stuff. But that is an idea that I often come back to that you can’t stand next to your poster. You can’t stand next to your work and explain it to someone. So create always keeping in the back of your mind that this is for someone who knows nothing about what you’re making.

Julian Williams:
And kind of an offshoot of that, another good piece of advice I got at Nike actually was sometimes we would be in meetings. And when you work at Nike, you drink the Nike Kool-Aid. Everyone knows the brands. We all have our little acronyms for different stuff when we work there and stuff. Something one of my bosses said in a meeting that I found to be quite profound and I ended up saying it in other companies I worked for was, “Guys, let’s take the Nike glasses off. Let’s look at this as if we weren’t working here and we knew nothing about this.” And I think that is super powerful. And I’ve actually found myself in meetings with places I worked on in the future saying this. And I think it has a power to change a room, to have people look at projects differently. And understand at the end of the day, we are visual communicators. We have a job to accomplish. We have messages to communicate. And if we don’t do that successfully, we aren’t doing our job.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Julian Williams:
These days? I already talked about my dad. And that is something that lately I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.” But I think talking to younger people and seeing the way that they engage with social … oh my God. I’m saying younger people and I’m 25. Just to put that on there. Oh my God. Am I saying younger people already? Oh man. No, I am a millennial though. And the way that Generation Z interacts with technology, the fact that they have access to so much information so early is, I think other people are afraid of it. I’m like, “Hell yes, let’s turn the party. Make some cool stuff when you’re five years old.” That’s awesome.

Julian Williams:
But also the way that they’re involved with social things. Like after working in politics and stuff, I do wish that it would speed up a bit. But I don’t feel so much worry for when I’m 40. Because I know that the people behind me have their heads in the right place. They know what’s wrong and what’s right. And they understand how the world should be. And I think that they’re really making an effort to educate one another about what’s right and wrong, and the barriers that they need to break once they kind of get to the ages that we are at, where we’re more able to make some of that change. And some of them are saying screw that, we’re going to start making change now even though we’re 10, 12 years old. Because the internet and technology allows us to do that kind of stuff, to communicate with like-minded people. That’s what keeps me inspired. Maybe that’s not so much on a design level. But on a social change level and maybe creating content in the future, that’s what inspires me.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s what, 2026. You’ll be 30 years old. What kind of work do you, I didn’t mean to scare you there. But what kind of work do you see yourself doing?

Julian Williams:
I react to whatever is happening. When I finished the Biden campaign, I didn’t know what the next step was. I think there’s two things I’m interested in. One of them will definitely happen I know for sure. The other one I’m not so sure. The one I’m not so sure about is I would like to have a design studio of my own with other people. I’m also quite curious in that studio being a remote worldly design studio working with people all over. I’ve seen in the last year how common that’s become now because of the world that we’re living in right now. And it works. And I think it’s creating some interesting work. So having design studio might be interested.

Julian Williams:
The other thing that I definitely will do at some point in the future is I want to be an educator. I want to be a teacher in the field of graphic design. I actually feel like I have an ethical obligation to do so. I think it would be incorrect, I can say I’m quite happy with the career that I’ve had so far. I think that I’ve gotten to do some amazing things. I’ve definitely done some things that have been dreams of mine. And I feel so humbled, and fortunate, and privileged to have been able to do those things. And I think it would be incorrect for me to not pass on what I learned or the ways that I came to do that kind of stuff to other people. I actually feel like I need to be teaching at some point.

Julian Williams:
Even though I feel like it is an obligation, I also am very, very, very excited to do that. Especially after talking to students. I’ve never really given a proper design talk until this last year after I finished with Biden. I talked to my dad, I talked to some schools in New Mexico. I just spoke to the University of Arkansas who have some wonderful students who ask some really engaging questions. And it’s making me so excited. Because the best way to learn from people is to have conversations about what interests them and stuff they’re working on. That was the way that I learned about design when I was at university. No syllabus, no lesson plan is ever going to be more valuable than talking to your mates I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know what you mean there. I mean, I’ve got this podcast where I get to talk to people from all over the world, which is great. So I definitely get a chance to … I have to say that’s the one thing that really kind of helped me get through even just this whole pandemic is being able to still connect with other creatives and talk about their work, and what they’re doing, and things like that. So, yeah. Well just to wrap things up here Julian, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Julian Williams:
So my website, which maybe it’s due for an update is J-O-O-F-W-O-O-F .com. That’s where you can find my kind of portfolio stuff. If you want to see the really fun stuff, follow me on Instagram @joofwoof. That’s @ J-O-O-F-W-O-O-F. You can find some voguing there, mainly design. I post a lot of my personal work on there. I talk about Phoebe Bridgers a lot who is a musician that I love and am a bit obsessed with. And I often find myself talking about her in these talks I give to students, and there’s always some students who feel the same way I do. So that’s really exciting. And you can follow me on Twitter @joofwoof J-O-O-F-W-O-O-F as well for some fun, maybe weird wild content.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well Julian Williams, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Even just as the time that I spent just researching and finding out about what you do and about your story and everything, I’m like, “This young man is so talented.” I cannot wait to see what kind of work you are doing in the next five, 10 years, whatever. I mean, even just the work that you’ve done so far, the fact that you have all these cultural references and experiences that you can pull from. I mean, I’m captivated by your story. I hope that people listening to this are captivated as well. So just keep on doing what you’re doing. Because it’s working, man. But again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Julian Williams:
Oh gosh. Thank you so much. [German 01:25:51].

Sponsored by State of Black Design Conference

State of Black Design Conference

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program and the Common Experience are excited to announce the State of Black Design Conference, presented by IBM, April 9-10.

The theme of the conference is “Black Design: Past. Present. Future,” and the event will bring together aspiring designers with academic and industry professionals for networking opportunities, career development workshops, and important panel discussions with leaders in the field.

If you are a company looking to diversify your workforce, or a designer of color looking for your next role, be sure to attend the State of Black Design Conference. Recruiters have until April 5 to register.

Get your ticket today at https://txstate.edu/blackdesign, and follow the event online on Instagram or Twitter.

The State of Black Design Conference is presented by IBM, with additional sponsorship from Adobe, Civilla, AIGA, Texas State’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, and the School of Art and Design.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Joseph Carter-Brown

Joseph Carter-Brown is a man of many titles. He’s a UX strategist. He’s a human-centered designer. And by day, he’s the global UX manager at Stanley Black & Decker, a Fortune 500 company that’s over 175 years old! Joseph’s versatility as a design leader extends far beyond titles, as you’ll definitely discover in this week’s interview.

We start off with a look at his work and his team, and he shares an anecdote from last year that put him on his current path to success. Joseph also talked to me about how he worked his way into a position at Apple thanks to Steve Jobs, his shift to UX after studying at Full Sail University, and speaks on his time with AIGA Baltimore and about how he wants to bridge the digital divide in Baltimore. Joseph is a prime example of someone who is using his skills to help build a more equitable future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m Joseph Carter-Brown. I am a user experience, service design and design strategy specialist. I’ve been in design for over 20 years. Started as a kid. I am currently the global UX manager for Stanley Black & Decker, and I’m leading a team of user experience designers, strategists, and researchers helping to bring user experience in the user-centered design focus toward our digital brand and overall design culture.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. We definitely will talk more about your work at Stanley Black & Decker just a little bit later. But right now, how has 2021 been treating you so far?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
2021 has actually treated me really well. I just bought a house about a few, well, two weeks ago now. So that was coming from a kid who had to be rather scrappy throughout childhood and growing up and get into an opportunity to say I can make that happen for myself was such an honor for me really. So far it’s been treating me really well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Over this past year or so, have you picked up on any like new habits or behaviors about yourself?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I had this latent introversion that I’ve regained. It’s really funny because a lot of my work as we’ve talked about previously about with AIG Baltimore, and working in this often front facing space where I had to be in front of people, I got used to being an extrovert, and over the pandemic, it reminded me that I actually kind of just like small understated experiences, hiking, getting away from people, not being around a whole lot of people. It’s been a way of rekindling my love for maybe just myself in those small interactions.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like everyone has gotten closer to their true self in some aspects because of this time, because we just had to spend so much time quarantined or isolated from other people.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I think it’s one of those things where I know when the pandemic starting I had, or especially when it really hit, my daughter’s birthday, my daughter’s 10th birthday was March 13th, 2020 and I had-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I had this whole amazing surprise trip for her. We were going to go somewhere we had never been. I designed a website for it. I did all of these things and then I had to cancel that over just the day before we were supposed to leave and it was supposed to happen. I had this new job opportunity lined up that got washed away. My girlfriend is a nurse and so I was nervous about her going into work. My ex-wife got sick with COVID actually. So I’m concerned about, is she going to be sick? I kind of had to take a step back and just sit and do a lot of reading and look at myself and say, “No matter what happens, who are you?” I had to ask myself that question and really go inside for a while and understand my values and myself as a person. So I think that was an important moment. Fortunately, everybody’s okay. Everybody’s so safe and healthy in all of that. But it was definitely a moment of reflection for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I bet. That’s a lot. Wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, just more gray hairs on my head is it seems to [inaudible 00:08:55].

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about your work at Stanley Black & Decker, which, I mean, in case people don’t know, that is a huge, huge business. Of course, you can probably infer from the name of the company. There’s two brands, Stanley Black & Decker. There’s like a dozen or so brands of consumer goods and manufacturing goods and stuff. The business has been around for over 150 years. You serve as their global UX manager. Tell me a bit about what you do.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, so it’s probably as daunting as it sounds. I am there to really help bring a structure to how they approach digital brand engagements. I have a team of about six or seven designers, strategists and researchers, and we’re currently working on really working to reshape the way user experience is done throughout the global brand. One of the things I find interesting is with this old, long in the tooth organization, a lot of their understanding of the digital space is also growing. So there’s a lot of teaching that we have to do, a lot of mindset shift that we have to do. So it’s a lot of work in helping teams internally understand how to collaborate because so much of it for so long has been about working to… People build their silos and people working in these very tight knit groups.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m kind of the kick in the door type of person like, “No, we bring everything together. We show our work. We show our dirt. We show our ugly and we just go and we work together and we build this together.” Sometimes that’s a little bit uncomfortable for people and especially for teams that are used to having this very tight-knit, close-fisted environment. So it’s a lot about really organizational transformation, as much as it’s about digital transformation within the organization. It feels like we’re kind of tackling both right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you mentioned that about kind of the work that you’re doing, focus on the global brand, because I was even thinking, as I was doing research for this interview, like where does UX come into a company like Stanley Black & Decker? I would imagine maybe for the actual websites or something, I’m not sure. I mean, when you say the global brand, can you talk about just what some of those touch points are?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. So one of the really tricky things that we’re dealing with is we’re a global brand. So we have to think about not just how say Black & Decker site is presented to someone in the US. We have to think about how it presents in Latin America, Germany, Asia, Australia, all of these places. So it really about understanding, dealing with cultural difference, cultural expectation, cultural norms. It has a lot to do with understanding just communication and setting proper expectations. It’s also about not just control, but flexibility and letting go, like where do you compromise and where do you let go of the reins and understand that you can’t do everything. So some of it’s about just creating guides and helping people move in the direction that you like them to be.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But yeah, so a lot of our work is particularly around the website and the digital experience to start. But when I look at user experience, I like to call user experience the customer service of branding. It’s the thing that you have to do where you have to think about how every step of the way is managed, and especially now, I mean, the key touch points that we have are digital, right? All of us have probably been in our houses, at home and doing everything virtually. So the experience that you create in the digital space is so much more important now, but it’s been going that way for so long. So I think that it has a big role to play on the external end, and then on the internal end, I think that there’s the aspect of user experience or maybe an offshoot of it, which is called service design, which is an area where I tend to specialize, which is really about coordinating teams and internal components to make sure that what you’re creating is actually feasible for those externally.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So one of my favorite examples or illustrations of that is I used to always work with people, especially when I was in an agency, and everybody would come and say, there was a time where everybody would come and say, “We want a blog.” These companies are like, “We need to engage with people. We’re going to have a blog and then everybody’s going to come to our blog.” But then you start to dig in into it and you say, “Well, how are you going to support this blog?” It’s like, “Well, we’ll do a couple of posts a week.” “Well, who’s writing those posts?” “I’ll do it.” “Okay. Do you have the time to do that?” “Not really. I’ll make my assistant do it.” “Okay. Does your assistant know how to write?” “No, not really.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Service design is really about making sure that ensuring really, I would say an equitable user experience by making sure that you’re serving the internal components in a way that’s feasible, because it’s like if you’re going to start a process that you can actually support, or you’re not willing to put the resources up to support, then what’s going to happen is you’re going to put something out there that won’t support the people that you intend it for and you’re just going to fall short. So either divert your plan or put your money where your mouth is. I think that’s another of, important part that user experience plays with the service design discipline and something that I think we play as a role within Stanley Black & Decker is understanding feasibility and not just let’s create something and throw it out there and hope that users want to interact with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would say also just because of the types of deliverables, goods, et cetera that you make, because it works in so many different types of fields, in different parts of the country, different parts of the world, et cetera, there’s almost a expectation of that reliability anyway.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Oh, for sure. I think that really important part of it is that experience extends from the product that you make that’s tangible to just, again, those intangible interactions that you have. That’s why, like I said, I think it’s the customer service of branding. If I need to reach out to customer service, if I need to register a product, if I need to do any of these things, if you hinder my process any way throughout it, I’m going to get annoyed. I’m someone who’s a stickler for poor customer service. I mean, I’ve grown up in a service environment. My family was service-oriented. I worked for Apple and that was all about customer service. So I’ve just grown up about service. So when I have bad customer service, when I see bad, just things that aren’t thoughtful, I tend to get a little bit frustrated. So I try to put that into the work that I do as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What does an average day look like for you? I mean, you mentioned you have this team of researchers and strategists, but how many people are reporting to you? Do you have a lot of meetings? How does an average day work?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. We tend to have a whole lot of meetings and that can be a little bit daunting at times. You got to kind of block out your calendar to make sure that you make some time for yourself. On an average day, so I have six reports, four direct reports, and then two other members on my team who also kind of filter up to me. So in total, my entire team, including myself, is seven people with two of them being in the strategist research realm and the rest really being more on design, development, or even engineering side of things. On a given day, it might be batting a number of meetings and working on strategies for some particular projects that are working on being launched. Sometimes it’s just kind of creating communications because so much of what we do, and I have to often remind my team that there’s a part of what we do, which is selling. It’s not just about creating the deliverable and it’s not just about getting it done, but it’s about selling to other executives within the company why the work we’re doing is valuable.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So one of the main things here is that it’s been… My team, in fact, I started in September of 2020, and my team really started maybe a month or two before me and then I came in to lead the team. So it’s still relatively new, but a lot of my day to day is really just working on testing plans, research plans, deliverable plans for visual designs and website launch projects that we’re working on, kind of looking at what’s on the horizon and trying to see what a little bit past the horizon to set a plan, making sure… It’s kind of like being a coach in a lot of ways, making sure all of the pieces are in the right place so that right in front of your face it can be handled, but also having the other pieces in place looking down the line to see what might be coming and then making a plan for that. So sometimes I like to call it building the plane while you’re flying it, but that’s a lot of what my days are like.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I mean, I can imagine that’s a lot to sort of juggle even with not that many reports. I mean, it sort of trickles down because of how large your organization is.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I mean, and there’s so many different stakeholders that you have to take into account. So a lot of times, I’ll try to make sure I’m having temperature checks, even today we had our team meeting and I had just a temperatures are like, “How’s everybody feeling? Where are you frustrated? Where do you need help? Where can I be providing…” Sometimes it’s kind of like the player-coach idea even. Sometimes it’s like, all right, I need to stop looking so high level, jump down in the weeds with the rest of the team and just knock some things out. Sometimes it’s like, okay, let me take a step back, see what’s on the horizon, help set up a plan, put pieces together. Sometimes it’s working with other leaders throughout the organization, just kind of understand where their concerns are, where their focus is, and then help set a plan for, okay, this is how we’re going to kind of help support you. There’s definitely a lot to juggle.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve said you’ve only been there since September. So you started fairly recently. I bring that up because there was an incident last year that happened that sort of brought you into this new role. Can you talk about what happened?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, so it was a really interesting thing that happened. I was working for a publishing company, and when the pandemic hit, like I mentioned, there was another job opportunity that kind of got nuked because of the pandemic. At the time, I’d grown a little bit leery of some of the practices, just the way the organization was treating people. As I kind of set and watched again, really had to do that introspection of who am, I would do I believe in, I started noticing that… We were publishing a site, it was a financial publishing firm, and we had a new site that if you imagine who your common financial investor type might be who has a lot of money and is trying to figure out ways to make more money, you can probably imagine they’re a little more conservative, a little more right leaning. I’m someone who believes that, hey, people can have their voice as long as you’re not challenging anyone or my humanity, then you get to have your views.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
We had a site that I’d kind of build a strategy around that was geared a little bit more to write conservative views. I noticed that over the time it was getting a little bit more… The editors were getting a little bit more sensationalist, which was something that I told them ethically I didn’t agree with early on. As I kind of watched the pandemic unfold and I started watching the conversations around it, and there was this long thread in April into may about the adverse and disproportionate effects of the pandemic on black people, brown people and underrepresented groups in general, I started noticing that this news site never mentioned any of that. So I went, “Well, this is kind of strange.” There’s been a lot of conversation around this. Why wouldn’t you mention this?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I just kind of kept my eye on it and in some of our team meetings, I was planning to bring it up, but I didn’t get the opportunity because I had to miss one and some different things happened. But in missing one of those and having to skip a couple, around the time just before our next ones, the Arbery killing had happened.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I said, “Well, let me go check in and see how they’re talking about it,” and there was no mention of it. I go, “Well, this guy’s name doesn’t show up. Why wouldn’t this be… This is news. Why aren’t you talking about this?” Then around the same time, there was the first mention of the disproportionate effects of the pandemic was labeled as people are getting worse effected in blue states than red states. I go, “Well, that’s a really disgusting way to talk about people, talk about humans and kind of not talk about the… I’m going to talk about the race disparity and the systematic racism that provides the reason for some of this, but you can talk about blue versus red as a way to dehumanize.” So Ahmaud Arbery happened. Then there was the, what was it, Amy Cooper situation that happened with the woman calling-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, in Central Park, yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Cooper situation that happened with those [crosstalk 00:23:02].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. In Central Park? Yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Right. So that happened. We had Brianna Taylor started to get brought up and no words about any of these and I’m going, “There’s so many reasons to talk about this.” Then, of course, there was George Floyd and at this point, steam is coming out of my ears and I’m going, “There’s no way you missed this one, right? No way.” They never talked about it until that Friday after when there were some riots and protests got a little more violent. The first mention of it was, was the headline that said “Black man’s death while in police custody sparks riots arson and looting.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That was when I just banged on the desk and said, “Come on, guys. This can’t be the way you’re doing it. You’re leaving me no option here.” So, in one of our next team meetings, the next week, I asked them and I just brought it up, straight up and explained it the way I just explained it to you and said, “Well, what’s wrong here?” First, got a lot of mealy-mouth responses of like, “Oh, well we just didn’t know how to explain it and so many of our readers are racist and we don’t want our advertisers to think that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Yeah. So at that point, my heels were dug in and I’m a pretty stubborn person when I want to be, so I was just like, “We’re having this conversation.” Our organization was rather small. I was one of only two Black people and the other Black person in the organization, she spoke up and said, “Yeah, I’ve actually noticed this too and I’m uncomfortable with it.” There was a lot of dismissing of the ideas, going, “Oh, you just don’t get it. You don’t understand. Oh, well, who cares? This isn’t a big deal. You’re just angry. You’re just this, that and the other.” Never was there a moment where somebody said, “Hey, how about you help us here? How can we fill these blind spots?” I’m going, “You’re clearly just not valuing the voices.” So, like I said, that was of that moment where I really had to look at myself and I said, “Well, I make these websites. I’m the catalyst that makes this whole thing go.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I said, “One more minute of time to this organization is supporting this kind of White supremacist culture and racist, if you’re not overtly racist, you’re aiding and abetting racists within your readership and you’re making a comfortable space for them. So I said, “I can’t do that.” So the next day I just said, “I’m out. I can’t do it anymore. Effective immediately, I’m gone,” and this was beginning of June. So, unfortunately, like I said, there were some things that happened from a just personal/moral standing that made me a little bit questionable about them. So, unfortunately, I was saving as much money as I could and I had enough in the nest to cushion myself for a little while, but yeah, it was definitely a crazy moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, props to you for not only standing up in that situation, but also being able to walk away from it, especially, during such a unpredictable time. You definitely upgraded, so that’s a good thing.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Thank you. Again, it was a scary moment, but the thing is it really also brought to mind for me was it made me really sad because this was an organization that even though I was part of one of the smaller divisions, it was a actually, rather big organization, about 1600 employees in the Baltimore area. They have multiple divisions and a lot of different things that are happening and it just made me sad for the people who didn’t have that choice, who didn’t have the cushion or the opportunity, the privilege, to say, “I can step back on my laurels,” and they kind of had the grinning bear it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I thought about all of the Black and Brown, LGBTQ people and all of these different things, women who just have to deal with many of the sexist views that are getting put out there, because you got to survive and it’s like, I can’t blame you, but it just really made me kind of sad that people, we still have to deal with that type of thing. I hate to say, we still have to, because I feel like that’s such a cliche thing to say, but yeah, it just made me really sad that that was a thing that I had to fight over and then leave a job over. It couldn’t have been a situation where they say, “Huh, you know what? Let us at least reflect. Let us be honest about it. Let us be open about it.” It was more of like, “Eh, too bad, so sad.” I was even told, “We work for the mob, get over it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Well, I guess, in a way, that is sort of honest. They’re not covering it up with a black square on Instagram or anything. They’re just letting you know right out, flat out. Wow. Let’s turn the page from that. Now, I know you grew up here in Atlanta, so tell me, what it was like for you growing up here and being exposed to art and design and everything?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I moved from Baltimore when I was about nine or 10 and came to Atlanta. Atlanta was a culture shock for me. Baltimore has this reputation or this nickname of Smalltimore. You have a lot of small little communities and you can interact with a lot of different cultures and a lot of different environments and I really loved a lot of that with within Baltimore. Even though Baltimore has kind of a racist history with a number of things that happened and I think I had rather diverse group of friends I remember as a kid and classmates and different things like that. Coming into Atlanta, it was one of those things where you really saw the way things were separated. We moved just before the Olympics came, so it was ’91, ’92 and there was still the conversation of like the Techwood community in Atlanta getting, basically, a really heavy conversation around gentrification where they moved a whole group of people to make way for the Olympic village. They wanted to, basically, get rid of the undesirables and my family was in community activism.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
My dad was a musician, but also a very active in Black rights and just speaking up for people. If you are familiar with Hosea Williams, Hosea Williams was like my grandfather. I really look at him in that light. We always were doing Hosea’s Feed the Hungry, Feed the Homeless. We were always doing different things around that and spent a lot of time around him and with him my dad worked with Curtis Mayfield, so I spent some time [crosstalk 00:29:46] with him. So it was an interesting thing to come in and be in this environment where I didn’t talk like the other other Black kids. I didn’t have the same type of accent. I didn’t have all of those types of beings. So it was also interesting because I also had to deal a lot with identity in terms of how people perceived me. A lot of Black kids going, “Oh, why don’t you talk so White?’ I was just like, “”No, this is how I talk. This is just me. I’m not trying to be anything. I have zero interest in being anything other than myself, but this is just how I talk.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Having to go to a school in Sandy Springs, in fact, and deal with overtly racist, attitudes and being called the N-word in class and the kid basically getting sent to the principal for a little bit and coming right back with no extra conversation about it. When my dad had asked the principal why there was no further conversation, he just says, “Ah, Black kids, you got to punish. White kids, you just give them a look and they’re good.” So there were so many little things and even just the idea of not getting that opportunity to be recognized for my abilities, having a teacher who I felt like I clashed a lot with, I didn’t respond to really. Yeah, I really didn’t have any response to the point where I was missing work and doing all those things, to having a new teacher come in, a substitute, for a little while who really said, “Oh, actually you’re pretty good at math. Why are you doing this math class? Why are you doing the remedial math when you should actually be doing advanced math?”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Then going, “Oh, he actually does know something,” and just those feelings of being ostracized in so many spaces which really led me to being homeschooled. While that was a challenge, it was difficult adjusting to that. I was, what, 10, 11, going, “Oh, I don’t have to go to school today? I guess I can just hang out and watch cartoons now, right?” To having to learn, “Oh, wait, I got to go and get it on my own. I got to figure this out,” and that was actually how I got into design. I was a tinkerer. I like to call myself a hacker, in that sense, in the sense of being a tinkerer. I like to take apart electronics and try and put them back together to see if I can get them working again. I like to just mess with things and see what I could figure out about it, see what the underpinnings of things were.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I get an old computer from a thrift store and take it apart and see if I can get it working again. But I was also really interested in journalism. Probably when I was about 14 or 15, I was super into sports in general, but I was really heavily into it then and especially basketball. I wrote these five or six, maybe more, articles of just original content for myself and I designed it in Microsoft Publisher at the time, just on my family’s a old computer and was really proud of it, printed it out as this newsletter. My dad wanted to share it with everybody and I wanted to print out a new copy of it after he had given all of them away. When I went to open it, the file corrupted and I lost all of my work.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, and again, being very service-oriented, the first thing I said to myself was, “Never, again. I’m going to figure out how to not have this happen ever again.” So it really just sent me down this rabbit hole of everything I could learn about computers at that point. I started reading every little thing I could about the inner workings of computers and then it just kind of bubbled up. At that point it was the early stages of the web, really, and I was getting online and I think there was an opportunity. GeoCities was a thing and it was like, “Well, you can create your own website.” So I said, “All right, I’ll do that,” and started messing around with it, but the little Wizywig system and it wasn’t really anything to me and it was very limited. So I said, “Well, what’s this Advance tab?” And it just gave me a blank screen.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I went, “Well, this is cool. This is kind of what I’m looking at. This It’s an opportunity.” So I started learning HTML and code and just absorbing everything I could, picking up every book. My dad always taught me, “If you can read it, you can learn it.” So I was just like, “Well, let me go and learn everything I can about web design now and coding, HTML and CSS and Java and JavaScript, XML, and all of these different things and what does this do?” I ended up building some websites and I was like, “Well, this should probably look good. This is not enough, just HTML and at the time, CSS was barely a speck. So I was like, “Well, let me learn everything. Let me figure out how to make it look good.” My mom was really a catalyst for me. She worked at Kinko’s and this is Kinko’s still had a computer services department, so I would get in really good with the computer services guys. A lot of them were nerds. They loved computers, so they loved that I liked tinkering with stuff.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So they would show me little tricks and ways of working in the command line and then the more design-oriented guys were like, “Let me show you this program. We call it Photoshop.” I started learning how to make things in Photoshop. They had CDs on Illustrator and Photoshop training. So I would just sit and absorb everything I could from that and really just taught myself Photoshop and Illustrator. It went from there. I learned everything I could about everything computers and I thought learning Photoshop, maybe a designer, I’d learn it the hard way. That was not the case.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
When I realized I didn’t know what DPI or PPI was and I was trying to print something and it kept coming out really small and I’m like, “But on my screen, it’s so big. It was like, “Well, that’s because the resolution is off.” But that really pushed me down this line. I was also a huge lover of Apple and that was really where I found my love of branding. It was seeing something that connected with me where it wasn’t just this rote memory. It was about a connection and it was about something that made me feel like I had value. I had somebody talking to me and when they were talking to the weird ones and I really got into learning everything I could about Apple, again, immersing myself in that. We talked a little bit about the Art Institute of Atlanta and there was a center right across from that in Northside where there’s this office building and it had an Apple logo on it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It had this Apple Market Center and they did free seminars and so I just started going to those. I’m 15, 16 years old. I’d go to the Art Institute with my sister. She’s seven years older than me and so I’d go to the school with her and I walk over to the Apple Market Center and hang out with these business owners and learn as much as I could about new software and new products and I started learning all of that. Then I’d go over to the school and I’d get in really good with the tech guys and help them rebuild the networks and they’d let me use the computers. I’d sit in classes and nobody knew I wasn’t a student, so that was my way of stealing my education for a little bit. So it was this really unorthodox path that I took and I can keep going on and on, but I’ve told you more than you need to know.

Maurice Cherry:
But back in the day, that’s how you had to learn it. There weren’t really university programs or things like that. You kind of picked up a little bit from a book or you reverse engineered something by viewing source or you picked things up here and there and that cobbled together into how you learned how to use the web and build the web back then. I remember those times very vividly.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It definitely was a lot about, again, that hacker mentality, like taking it apart and deconstructing it and trying to rebuild it, seeing if you took this one piece and put it over here, what would happen and what’s the response you’d get? I think that was what I really loved about a lot of the design and what I still love about design as part of that, some of the user experience stuff is, I like to call it ‘the science of art,’ in a lot of ways. It’s like that you take a hypothesis and you iterate off of it, you test it, see what happens and you adjust your test and see what reaction you get from that and I just love those types of things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm, nice. Now you attended Full Sail University, but before that, you mentioned this Apple training center, but you actually got your first job at Apple. Is that right?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Yeah. My first job was at Apple. I was 18. I opened the Apple store at Lenox Square Mall, in fact. I probably borderline, stalker energy in that time, but I was so infatuated with Steve Jobs. He was someone who, when you saw the way he talked with so much passion and I just saw the vision that he brought to things and, again, that experience. It was something that just resonated with me and then I just read so much about his story and his struggles. He was someone that I saw as maybe a person that I could emulate, in some ways, or even just someone that I could have. I felt like if he could do it, I could do it. Obviously, it wasn’t like he was like super poor, but he also went through a lot of hardship in life.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
He had to go through a lot to get to where he was. He got kicked out of Apple early on and had to go through this whole journey and he had this triumph that came back to Apple, because I was always just inspired by him as a person in his story. I read so much on, again, the growth and birth of Silicon Valley, which also included him in those stories. I remember where I mentioned the bordering stalker energy was like, “I want to reach out to him. I want to make contact with him. I got to send him an email.” So I searched everywhere to see if I could find his email. What was it? Think I was going to the Apple Market Center. I met a few Apple employees and someone had given me their card and I realized the naming convention for their email addresses. So I was like, “Well, if this is how your email is patterned, maybe his email is patterned the same way.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I sent an email to Sjobs@apple. I think the first time just emailed and said, “Hey, is this a person?’ I got no response and then I sent another email and I said, “Hey, look, if this is actually Steve Jobs, I just want to thank you because I’m a homeschool kid and the work and creative in education has really inspired me. It’s helped me find what I want to do in life. I didn’t know where I was going and now I feel like I have had this path. So I’m really appreciative of what you’ve done with the company and the focus you brought, because it’s really helped give me a direction.” So, and I was, like I said, 15 or 16 at the time and he responded. He said, “Thanks,” and that was all he said.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, for me, it was like a ping. It was like [crosstalk 00:41:24] So I said, “Well, there’s someone there.” So then I just went off and then this was when they were working on the Mac OS X.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my gosh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I was following all of the development of Mac OS X and I emailed him and I’m like, “Hey Steve, this would be a great feature to include in Mac OS X.

Maurice Cherry:
This was a wild story. I’m sorry, I just have to interject. Keep going, Keep going, though, keep going.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I would send him little emails and I’d be like, “Hey, what about this feature? What if you added spring loaded folders to this thing?” I just started giving them all these ideas. He would never respond, but every now and then I would see one of those ideas pop up in a build and I’d like to take credit for it, but it was when they had announced that they were opening Apple stores and I was super excited for it. I was about 17 and I said, “Well, there’s surely going to be a store announced for Atlanta. Why wouldn’t there be?” When they announced the first 10, 11 stores, they had all of these stores, LA, Washington, DC, so on and so forth, but none on the roadmap for Atlanta. So I sent him this really angry email and I said, “Hey, I’m really disappointed that Apple does not have a plan for a store in Atlanta. If you’re saying that your goal for Apple is to double your market share, because at the time Apple was what, two-and-a-half percent market share and you want to double it from two-and-a-half to 5%?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
The fact that you don’t have Atlanta on your list of stores means that you’re not that serious about this idea because Atlanta has a huge creative community. It’s got one of the busiest airports in the country, in the world, if anything, a huge tourist community, a huge creative community, all of the markets and verticals that are within Apple’s range of market. So for you not to have a store on the pipeline here means that you must not be that serious and especially as someone who really loves these computers, I just want to have some access to them. So I hope that you all change your course and you decide to open a store in Atlanta. So a few hours go by and I get an email from a recruiter and she says, Dear Joseph, Mr. Jobs forwarded your email over to me. Please send your resume and cover letter at your earliest convenience. Again, I’m a 17-year-old kid and I’m like, “A who? A resume and a what?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I went and had to develop that really quickly and sent an email. At this time they actually didn’t even have a store on the pipeline. Again, that stalker energy, one of the ways you would know where Apple’s roadmap was, is you would look at their jobs page and they would put out, “We’re looking for employees in this place,” and people would go, “Oh, that must be a store.” So there was no openings in Atlanta for anything like that. Then, probably about six months later there was a thing where they had openings for a store or they had employee calls in Atlanta I was reaching out to the recruiter and she reached out and she was like, “Hey, it’s going to be slow, but we got your information.” I think she was just kind of being like, “Cool out, kid,” but yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So next thing I know I was getting a call and interviewing with the recruiter at 17 and just about to turn 18. The next thing I know in April of 2002, I was going into the training as the one of only two full-time Mac specialists to open the Apple store at Lenox Square Mall in come I think May, or I think it was about May was when we opened the store and it was all thanks to sending an email to Steve jobs. I was actually kind of sad when he died, just for obvious reasons, but a week prior, I had thought about him. I looked at where I had gone from that point and I said, “I should email him and say, ‘Hey, you probably didn’t think anything of sending this email over. You probably thought you were just getting me out of your hair, but you really kind of changed a lot for me.'” So, but yeah, that’s the Apple story.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And that was from your first job? Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, outside of working as a dishwasher in a [crosstalk 00:45:42] restaurant as under the table [crosstalk 00:45:46] my dad, I was 14, but yes, my first legitimate job.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That is quite a story. Wow. The fact that he even responded back and was forwarding your emails and everything, it just goes to show you, you have to be persistent. Nowadays, I guess that would be a bit stalkery, but-

Maurice Cherry:
… days, I guess that kind of would be a bit stalkery, but back then I don’t know how many people were really using email in that way, like they are now. But wow. That’s something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Again, it goes back to the idea of what I like to call a stealing shots. And sometimes you just got to find that sliver of opportunity and shoot and you might make it, you might miss it, but you got to shoot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So while you were at Apple, is that when you started going to full sale or was it after?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
No, it was actually, well after that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I branded myself as an anti-traditionalist for a long time. I think it was the homeschool [inaudible 00:46:43] and at the time of being homeschooled… This was before homeschooling got, I guess you could say popular. At the time people didn’t think… I would tell them I was homeschooled and they just were like, “Oh, so you’re just dumb,” or whatever. And so there was a lot of stigma around it and I was always like, okay, I’m going to buck the trend. I tend to try and buck trends. And so I started working at Apple and I was like, well, I’ve learned all of this stuff. I used to read business books, I used to do this, that and the other. I was like, “Well, I could figure it out. I’ll do it on my own.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I just kind of kept trying to do it, I guess you could say the hard way, but it was also cool. You know what I mean? I had an opportunity just from the knowledge and the, I guess the value that I’d shown even at Apple and things like that. I taught at The Creative Circus in Atlanta, taught some design classes and so forth. I didn’t even have a degree really. So I just kind of did my own thing for a really long time. And it wasn’t until 2012 that I attended full sail. And it was really era in which after the great recession, I worked at a newspaper prior. And at the time I started up a small clothing company with some friends, and we ran that for about seven years, from 2007 to 2014.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But in around 2008, 2009, I had gotten laid off from a job at a newspaper in the ad department because it was a newspaper. So I lost that job. And it was also again around the economic downturn. And so I was this guy who felt confident in my abilities. I felt like, hey, I can figure anything out. You can put anything in front of me and I will tackle it and I will figure it out. But I was now this guy without a degree in environment where there were people who had 10 years experience and a degree, and they had all of this stuff behind them and they were also in the market.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And so I just kind of found it where I was really struggling to get a lot of opportunities or get a lot of second looks. And I’d also had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder or a complex even about again. Then you hear a lot of the way people, again, talk bad about being homeschooled. I didn’t have formal training. I didn’t have all this. So part of me was like, well, can I do it? Can I figure it out? If I’m tested, how will I respond? And do I have the foundation?

Maurice Cherry:
You kind of felt like you had something to prove in a way to yourself.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I needed to prove it to myself more than anything that I could just follow through with something and finish it. And so, yeah, I entered into full sales, online graphic design program and had done that from 2012 and then graduated in 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program? I know that as a, I think as a for-profit school full sale kind of tends to get left out of conversations when people talk about design slash art schools to go to, to really sort of get into the industry. But I mean full sale places a lot of people in the creative fields.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Full sale was interesting for me. And I think that you do see some of that for-profit mentality come in where there is a bit of a what some people might call a degree factory mindset that is there in the sense that, hey, if you are willing to give them your money, they will take it. But if you are willing to hold them accountable for taking your money, you will also get a lot of value out of that. And for me, it was one of those things where again, I was doing the online program and I think that I succeeded because I’d already had this scrappy mentality. I was already used to figuring things out and going and finding my way. And so when I went to school, it was also, I was always kind of like against the idea of student loans and all of that, especially where I had seen people who had been saddled with all this debt and didn’t know what they were doing in life, or didn’t know, had felt like they wasted their time.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I was like, I’m not wasting my time. If I’m paying for this, I’m getting my money’s worth. And so I kind of went in with this attitude that like, I’m paying you are going to give me the same treatment you give your students in person. And I think for people who have gone there in person, they got a great experience. I saw a lot of people who went there online and they didn’t have that mentality, or they didn’t know how to go out and just dig and be scrappy for what they want it. And they kind of just fell through. Some of them fell off. Some of them were ending their school in some ways graduating and I’m looking at it going, oh, that work is not that great.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But like I said, that was the degree factory of it. But like I said, I went in and I had a goal. I knew what I wanted out of it and I said, “I’m going to kind of make you teach me and do what I need you to do because I’m paying you this money.” And actually I had some great interactions with teachers. I learned a lot, I got a lot out of it, but I think it’s really all about what you make it. And I think it was, but I think that’s with any school, right. It’s what you make it. And I think they were good for what I wanted to get out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how… I think school in general can be like that, but particularly those for-profit schools so for graduate school, I went to a for-profit university and then later also taught at the for-profit university. I went to Keller Graduate School of Management and taught at the [inaudible 00:52:23]. And it’s interesting I think one sort of the perception of course, that people have about for-profit universities and what that means about the value of the education, but then to be on the other side of it and being an instructor there, I definitely get what you mean about the online students and you needing to really have that scrappy mentality to get it done because the online instructors do not care. They are, most of them are literally following a script to go through the course.

Maurice Cherry:
They’re teaching in a very abstract way in that most of these classes will have some type of a discussion forum. And so you may have to have a participation requirement where you speak to students three times a week, five times a week, et cetera. It’s not really the same as giving a lecture because the lecture is often times have already been made for the course. You’re just the instructor. You’re not really teaching it. I guess I might be giving away some secrets here, but like, you’re not really teaching it. You don’t even get a chance to make the tests or change the tests. When I taught design at the [inaudible 00:53:29] I was teaching design to business students. It was like a BIS course. And this was maybe 2011, 2012, something like that, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
And I was surprised that they were still teaching students how to make webpages using tables. And I had to take it all the way up to the dean to say, you are setting students up for failure. If they take this course and they think they’re going to make webpages out of tables and get a job out in the market. And the dean was sort of like, oh, they’re business students. It doesn’t matter. I’m like it does matter. It matters that they’re paying for this and we’re deliberately teaching them old information. I really had to lobby to make it happen. And then once they said, no, I just changed it myself and started teaching more CSS and things like that. And I don’t know necessarily if the students appreciated it. I ended up getting fired. So it wasn’t necessarily probably the best thing on my end, but like at least I wanted to make sure that students were getting what they paid for in terms of proper information.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. And I think you rather get caught trying.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. And so I think [inaudible 00:54:38] good on you on that. And again, I think that was how I approached it in terms of being a student, which was I had the teacher’s email address. I had some kind of messenger option. I might’ve had, sometimes I had a phone number. So if I didn’t have the information I needed, I would have… I was always about building community. So I even built out a online, a Facebook community for some of the… Especially the students that I saw who kind of gave a damn. I said, “Hey, you seem like you’re going to be someone that I want to be connected to. Let’s have this group where we help each other.” But I saw other people who were like, oh, I can’t get this. I don’t know what to do. And I’m like, well, go ask the teacher like, “Oh, I can’t talk to the teacher. I can’t find them.” Well, okay, well try something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
[inaudible 00:55:25] figure it out. I would call the teacher. I would email them. I would message them. I would call my student advisor and say, “Hey, I need to talk to this teacher.” I would be a pain in their butt until they reached out to me because I was like this is… If I were in campus, I would be able to walk up to you and talk to you. But since I can’t do it, this is what we have to do now. So either take me seriously or I will make you take me seriously.

Maurice Cherry:
For me, I would have loved if you would have been that kind of student because I can tell you, we get all the instructor in you never hear from the students, ever, unless it’s them trying to weasel their way out of some excuse or if they got caught, I would catch so many students plagiarizing stuff, which you would think would not be that common in a course about web design, but like they would take tests and some of the tests would have essay questions. And it’s like, you can tell they just copied and pasted this from some companies about page because the response makes no sense in relation to the question.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s like I don’t even have to run this through Turnitin to know that you didn’t write this. Where are you getting this from? So the fact that you were that proactive as a student, I hope that your professors and instructors appreciated that because I can tell you from the other side, I would have loved that. It would kill me to see students not do well. And I could tell them come see me during office hours. Let me know if you have any questions and I’m blue in the face and they do nothing and then fail the course. And then they want to get mad at me and leave me a two-star review. [crosstalk 00:56:58]. It’s wild. So yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I think that one of the things that I learned there probably more than anything was it was one of those things where I look back at it and so I was valedictorian of my class and things like that. And I kind of looked at that with a little bit of like, eh, who cares? It’s about the work, as a designer is about the work. And I remember when I first started maybe my first couple quarters, I was doing the work that I knew would get me a passing grade. I’m a competitive person. I want to do the best, I want to be the best, I don’t like losing, those types of things. And so there was this moment when I first started, again, I knew Photoshop illustrated all those tools, like the back of my hand.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So we would get projects. I understood the coursework. So I would do it well enough to get an A, but I didn’t necessarily come out of it learning anything. And I remember toward the end of maybe my second quarter or so, I had to kind of look at myself and I said, you’re about to pay a lot of money to basically learn the same things you already know, is that really worth it? So I said, okay, so now my new model went because again that competitive aspect of me was like I want to be valedictorian. And they also had this, forget what the award was, but it was like you had the best quality of work. And I was like, I wanted both of those. And so I was like really trying to aim for that. And I was like, but you know what really, I want to learn as much as I can out of this.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I adopted this mentality where [inaudible 00:58:34] I’m going to try and fail. I was like, I’m going to do things that are so far out of my comfort zone. I’m going to go way off of what I know and what I know how to do well. And if I get a good grade awesome. But if I fail, I at least learn. And I kind of went at it with that approach. I ended up getting even better grades and coming out with more fulfilling work and ended up getting both the awards that I was kind of put on… That I was trying to cheat my way to in a way but also kind of gave me that idea of… I think prior to that, I was doing a lot of things in a safe manner. And I was trying to just, in some ways in a survival mode. I had been in such a survival mode all my life, where I just wanted to do enough to make sure I could go to sleep somewhere and wake up somewhere and eat something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If that’s what I got, that was good. And when I went into and embraced this idea of you know what, I have another slogan, which I don’t… Profanity, I’m not going to use it, but F S U [inaudible 00:59:36] F up is the term I like to use where it’s like, if I don’t know what I’m doing, instead of freezing, I’m just going to go in and go out in a blaze of glory. And if I fail, okay, but you’re at least going to be like, man, he did it in a way that nobody can look away from. And I found that that’s kind of paid off more than it has hurt me.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s something that I’ve brought up here on the show before about how black designers kind of really need to have that space to fail. Especially if you’re approaching the design industry through a more, I guess you could say traditional routes, like if you went to a design school and then from there you started working at a product design company or a tech company or advertising agency or a branding agency or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
The constraints are so narrow that there’s not really any space for you to fail. I wouldn’t even necessarily say fail, we’re talking about that certainly in the guise of experimentation, but like everything you do has to work, everything has to succeed. And I think while it’s great to have that track record, sort of like you were saying, you were kind of just getting by. It wasn’t until you really were able to break out of that space that you were able to do your best work and it’s rough that the industry unfortunately doesn’t really allow for those sorts of spaces. I would say mostly for black designers, but I think of designers probably across the board.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I definitely think it’s glaring for black designers, but I think that you see that in a lot of spaces in general. Again, I’m a sports fan. I’ve noticed where black quarterbacks tend to get criticized more harshly where it’s a guy who is an average quarterback, average black quarterback will get less chances than an average white quarterback.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And I’ve seen that. And I’ve noticed that even in professional spaces where, yeah, both as a design leader and as a, I guess for lack of a better way of putting it, a design follower where I was looking for guidance and I was looking for how to be a professional, where I was looking for mentorship and I didn’t always get it. And I’ve noticed that even in some of my peers who… There’s two sides of it. I think as a young black boy, my dad, my mom, everybody really, you tell me if you had the same experience where you kind of told like, hey, you’re black, you got one shot. They are waiting for you to mess up, don’t screw up because they’re just waiting for it because you will be the stereotype who fits the profile. Don’t fit the profile.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I had that complex, but then if we think about studies that are around how teachers, for instance, police black bodies and they enforce punishment on black children more harshly than white children. Even to my I think, my story about growing up in school and kind of being told the same thing. You see it at all these walks of life and I experienced it as, again, as a professional who wanted to do a lot of things. And I was even in one of my old companies, I was being put out there. I was the person who was really able to speak to business owners because I understood business and I could translate what design was to a business person. And I could translate what design was to a developer. And I could speak all of these languages.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And I was one of the only people in this organization, in fact, maybe the only person who could do that in a way that was effective, but I was still getting paid like a junior designer. I was still getting… But when they would take me into these meetings they would say, here’s our senior designer, Joseph Carter-Brown, but then I was getting paid as a, as a junior designer. And when I said, hey, look, I’m barely making ends meet. And I was helping to transform how the organization approached design. They didn’t understand user experience. They weren’t thinking about design and measuring design. They were just developing and hoping design fell in afterward. And I’m saying, hey, let’s build up design [inaudible 01:03:40] helping the company win awards and doing all these things. But I’m still getting paid as a junior designer.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And it was one of the lower paid designers there. And when I spoke up and said, “Hey, I would like some, I would like you to give me a challenge to be who I believe I can be.” It was like, “Oh, well, remember this one moment where you slipped up. Yeah. That’s why we’re not going to help you out here.” Yeah or be like, hey, we need you to jump this hurdle. And then I’m the type of person where you tell me something once and I’m going to do it and you don’t have to tell me again. So I was like, you gave me a hurdle. I’m going to jump in there. I’m going to clear it every time. But then when I say, hey, I cleared that hurdle. They go, oh, but you didn’t clear that hurdle. And I’m like, well, you never told me that was a hurdle.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And it was like the moving of the goalpost and all of these little bangs. So I felt that. And then when I went into a design leadership space and I had a black woman who was reporting to me and I had people coming and going, oh, well, she’s not doing what she needs to do. And she’s screwing up here, she messed this up and she messed that up and I’m going… And I’m having conversations with her saying, hey, I’m hearing these things and she’s going, nobody told me about this. I didn’t know I messed that up. I thought everything was okay. And I’m going, oh, well, who’s providing you mentorship. And it’s no one. And I’m going to them like, well, you guys can’t expect her to be doing things perfectly if you’re not showing her how to be there.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I’m trying to work with these people and I’ve seen it where I’ve seen other black reports under me coming in and having this fear of pushing themselves or pushing forward and they’re asking, well… Before they move, they’re going, am I getting it right? And then it’s just like, no, just go. You just need to go and run and if you slip, cool, just get back up and keep moving. But it’s so heightened and there’s such a magnification of like, do not screw up that it feels like you can’t even… It’s like that in every creative space. We’re all creatives, I think.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But I definitely think for black people is you have this… You’re dealing with this history of if you screw up, everybody’s going to say, yeah, that’s what we expected. And if you screw up… It’s kind of like the saying, where’s what working twice as hard to get half as far. I like to say that we have twice the expectation in half the time. And I think that’s one of the key things that I see is like we expect like black designers, black creatives to be twice as good in half the time or else it’s a negative mark on your character in your professionalism.

Maurice Cherry:
You spoke a word there. Wow. Knowing all of this, this is probably an obvious question, but what do you do to make sure that that’s fostered that feeling of experimentation and such, or I would say even the space to make mistakes in that way is fostered on your teams.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I try to speak to it. I’m someone that… I like to say that I have a bit of black privilege and I used to joke to a buddy of mine. I’d be like you don’t realize how many spaces you’ll get access to when you’re a black person who who speaks proper. I’ve met so many racist white who think that they can speak to me in certain ways or they can say things they think that I agree with them because of the way I taught. But it also gives you this ability to kind of, to speak truth to power in a way that you don’t always see room for. So I just tend to speak to it. And I think one of the great things about Stanley Black and Decker actually is when I joined there… Because of my experience with my last company, I asked them about how they talk about equity and inclusion and to their credit for a hundred plus year old organization, they have a lot of conversations about this.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
They encourage these hard conversations. So one of the first things I did with my team was I got us all together. And my team is made up of black, white, queer, men, women, so forth. And I brought them all. And I had even the person that I report to in this meeting. And I said, let’s talk about what your identity means to you. What pain points, what do you bring? What baggage do you bring with you? How do you perceive yourself in this space? And I try to have those hard conversations. I talk to different people and I would say, hey, again, I speak straight to it. As a black man sometimes I freak out. If I have a mishap, I give myself a hard time and it scares me because this is the baggage I’m bringing with me.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And so I say, hey, I need you to make some room and I need you to let me know where failure is on your scale and what room I have for failure. And I relay that over to my team and I say, hey, fail, fail fast, get up, make a plan and keep moving. And I try to encourage that and I even take one of the [inaudible 01:08:26] on my team, who’s a black man. And I’ve had this direct conversation with him. And I said, look man, I deal with this in a different way than you do. But we know what this experience is like. And in any way I can provide that psychological security, I want to at least provide that so that you can grow to be your best self and not trying to be who you think everybody else wants you to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. I noticed kind of from just what you’re talking about here, we skipped the little bits because I want to focus on this shift because we talked about your time at full sale. Of course, we’ve talked about the work…

Maurice Cherry:
… shift, because we talked about your time at Full Sail. Of course, we’ve talked about the work you’re doing at Stanley Black & Decker. There was some time there in the middle that you were in Atlanta and then eventually, you moved back to the DMV area and you were doing a lot of graphic design work, web design work, et cetera, and you took this shift in 2016 to doing more UX. What prompted that shift?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It was actually going to Full Sail. Like I said, I started Full Sail in 2012. At the time I was also doing a lot of freelance work. Again, I had been laid off from a company. I was also running a small clothing company by the name of Rogue Squirrel. Me and three partners were doing screen printing, and going to shows, and selling merchandise, and we were doing branding and things like that. I was the web designer, as well as the business person and all the things, like the Jamaicans in In Living Color. I was doing all [crosstalk 01:09:57].

Joseph Carter-Brown:
When I went to school, I had to reduce a lot of things. I stopped doing freelance for a while to focus on school. I worked part-time at a few different places. I always approached everything like everything was design. In fact, the talk I did at the AIGA Design Conference was called, It’s Just Fricking Design. It was about how design in all of these areas are basically the same. But when I was at Full Sail, like I said, I stopped doing a lot of web work and freelance work to focus on school. Around the time I was getting close to graduating, I started to get back into the flow of things and doing web work and so forth. It was around that time that there was a whole lot of conversation, a lot of, you saw the word or the term UX being put around.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I said, “Well, I guess I need to go learn UX coding now. I guess I got to go learn how to code in UX.” I didn’t know what people were talking about. I started reading about it and it was like, oh, you think about the user and you do blah, blah, blah. And I went, “That’s what I already do. That’s how I already approach design. I don’t think about this for myself. I think about it for other people. I look at why they need this thing and I try to advocate for them.” I do X, Y, Z. And so I was like, “This is basically what I’ve already done. This is already what I’m doing.” So I just kept going in that direction. It made logical sense to me that that was just the route that you went in design, because it’s like, if you’re not thinking about who you’re making it for, then what are you doing?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If you’re not talking to the business to understand what are their goals or even if it’s not a business, it’s a community organization, it’s a hospital, whatever it is, you’re not thinking about what it is, what problem they need to solve, it’s like, well, what are you doing? To me, it was just the natural thing. And as someone who was, again, a techie, a business person, a web developer, a graphic designer, I really loved the process and the logical and the puzzle of it, like detective work. Figuring out where that thread is that other people don’t see. And figuring out how to pull that out. So to me, it was like user experience, and especially some of the service design stuff, was a natural conclusion of the work I had been doing since I was a kid, really, because it blended all of the things that I was passionate about without having to… I never viewed myself as a traditional graphic designer.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m not the greatest drawer. Sometimes it takes me a minute to find the idea. But if you immerse me in having empathy for the person and thinking about how I make the best thing for someone, I wouldn’t put too many people’s ideas ahead of mine. To me, that was just the natural thing. So when I had an opportunity, I was working as a developer/web designer, I said, “Well, I’m just going to make this what I want it to be.” Again, I just started advocating, saying, “Well, we got to think about how this measure. We got to think about the user. We got to do this.” And I just kept pushing in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. As I’m listening to your story and as you’re saying all this, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you’ve also done a lot of work with AIGA, specifically the Baltimore Chapter. Talk to me about how you got started with them.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I got involved in AIGA after I graduated, or around the time I graduated at Full Sail. I had always heard about AIGA as an organization. It was always like, hey, you network. You got to get out there. Again, as someone who was now about to graduate with student debt, I’m like, “I need to make some money. I need to get a job.” Really, to start, it was like going into AIGA, it was like I wanted to find a job. I wanted to make some connections in the design community, because I was doing so much freelance stuff. I was living a little further out outside of Baltimore at the time. I didn’t have a lot of connections and so forth. It was just a way to get connected to the community. But when I got in there, I think, again, I’m a service person. I love helping people. I love figuring out ways to build things and create systems and so forth. It was just natural that I started getting close to the board.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If I would show up to an event early, I’m like, “All right, well, I’ll help y’all up the tables.” And it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to be hanging out later. I’m going to help you break down tables.” That was just how I started. It evolved into me really needing to find my identity as well as a designer. Because again, I didn’t know where I fit. Again, I wasn’t a graphic designer. I wasn’t fully a web developer. I wasn’t always the business person. I had all of these, but I had areas that I could fill in. I just wanted to find how I fit and who I was as a designer. That gave me a space to really hone my leadership skill. I’ve actually talked with people within AIGA about this a lot, that I think that sometimes they do a disservice to themselves by not embracing themselves, the organization, as a leadership incubator. Because it, more than anything, it seemed like that type of space for me, where it was like I got a chance to take all of these things and learn how to lead with the skills that I had gathered.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It had given me a bit of, again, a bit of that experimentation space. It gave me a safe space to try things and to test things out. I got involved with the AIGA Baltimore Chapter. It was at the time, like I said, it was about an hour outside of Baltimore. It was an excuse to come back home, to be near water. I love being near water. So it was like, “Hey, I’m going to go to the Harbor. I’m going to go visit my grandmother. I’m going to do this and I’ll go to an event.” I just kept going deeper and deeper. I started as the Programming Chair, developing events, workshops and different ways of reaching out to the community. I moved into Programming Director and then eventually Vice-President. And then President of the chapter. And really, my time there was just again, doing the thing that design did for me, which was gave me access.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I just used it as a space to provide access, because Baltimore has a huge digital divide. I was like, well, how can I provide the platform that we had to lift the voice of the people in the community and use the resources we have? Whether it was Adobe partnerships or IBM partnerships, to bring those into the community and inform people who wouldn’t normally have access to it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really good way to think about AIGA, as a leadership incubator. That’s a good way to think about it. Different chapters in different cities are always different. Folks that have listened to this show for any length, know how I feel about the Atlanta Chapter. I always will tell people that AIGA is only as strong as its weakest chapter. Certainly there are some that do really great work in terms of outreach to the community and other types of programs and things of that nature. I think the organization, even now, it’s what? It’s over a hundred year old organization. Even now in this time where we’re so distanced in terms of being able to meet up and things like that, the organization is, I feel it’s still trying to find its way.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s, of course, having missteps along the way, as I think any organization is. But I still root for AIGA. I’m not a member, as folks know. I still root for them. I want them to succeed. I want them to do well, because I do see the impact that it has in the community. And the impact that it can have on designers if they really fall into the right space.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I agree one hundred percent. I’m the same way. As much maligned as it has been over the past few years, and some people who are close to me who have had some public falling outs and so forth with it and it hurt me and saddened me to see those things happen. At the same time, I don’t know that I would be where I am without the opportunity in AIGA. I still have people within the organization and around the organization, close to the organization that I consider very good and close friends and great collaborators. It was a great space. I definitely don’t want to see it go anywhere. But I want to see it grow and really build its voice. I think that with AIGA Baltimore, the motto that I left the organization with, the chapter with was, we’re not AIGA Baltimore, we’re Baltimore’s AIGA.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That was the way we really approached it, is like we went out into the community and we asked people what they wanted. We said, “Hey, how do we bring you what you need? How do we provide something for the city? How do we support other organizations?” And it was like we were the cheerleaders, is the way I really started to think of it. We’re this big organization. We will get the windfall of things. We don’t need to go out there trying to grub for money. People are going to come to us anyway. We will help other people, who are smaller, build their voice. We will be the platform that they build their voice on. We’ll do this. I think that idea of AIGA as this incubator space, I think it’s so stuck in like… I think there are a lot of people who want to say, “Hey, we need traditional graphic design and this to be the thing that we are.” But it’s like, we’re moving into such an era now, where it’s so much about the experience. It’s so much about the connections that you make.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If you can be a connector, that is more of a benefit than being an artifact maker. I think AIGA, hopefully, will embrace that and figure that out and push itself as a place that has now the cachet to provide that access. Like I said, they have all of these tools and resources. Get involved in communities. Somebody once said to me at an event, and it really made me think critically about it and thus, about that access point, they were like, “It’s expensive to be a designer.” Yeah, it is! I was like, well, how can I make it a little cheaper for somebody? Because again, I had to steal every shot I had early on. I had to fricking steal zip disks sometimes and fonts and all of those things. It was all in an effort to just be something that I felt like I could be.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
There are so many kids who don’t get that opportunity. They’d never even know what the edges of the universe might be. They never explore that. And that’s going back to the idea of that experimentation space and then providing that access. If AIGA could provide that, I think how much change could they make for equity in the design community that we know we don’t have?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to accomplish this year? Of course, you’re at this new position that you’re working with. Now, you’re probably not as involved with AIGA Baltimore, because there’s a new president there now. But what do you want to do for this year? Is there anything on your to-do list?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. On my to-do list this year, I took a break from doing a lot of speaking engagements. I was actually really thankful that AIGA, speaking of them, reached out to me to speak at the Design Conference at the end of the year. For me, it’s about getting back out there as a bit of a thought leader, sharing my experiences and doing more workshops and helping to build more strategy, growing, just continuing to grow my skillset. But also just continue to expand the conversation around what design is and how we use it as a tool for good. The place I always go back to is, how can I use my opportunity to make opportunity for someone else? Whether it’s getting more involved in community organizations. I’m really interested in something that’s been again, stewing in my mind recently, as I get a little more time, hopefully, is to get involved in supporting opportunities to help bridge that digital divide that’s in the city.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I think that’s something that’s glaring so heavily, because of what’s out there with COVID and how it changed things. I’m thinking about a lot of those things. But ultimately, I’m just working on getting my feet fully implanted or cemented in this space, helping to really do a lot of organizational transformation within Stanley Black & Decker and then continue to really broaden myself in and put myself a little more out there in that space so that I can use that to propel other voices.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as we think even more into the future, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
In the next five years I really want to get into helping communities build equitable spaces for themselves. I’d love to do more in the civic design space, helping to bridge communication gaps between communities and cities or states, local municipalities and businesses to help provide systems that are again, sustainable and feasible for the people and again, equitable for the people within those communities. Ultimately, that’s the thing I want to start doing. Another area for me is really diving into the mental health space, is something that I think that there’s been so much stigma around. I’m happy that I’ve pulled, I won’t say pulled back on it, but I’ve seen that there’s been a lot more conversations. So it’s made me a little more hardened that it’s not as big a thing to have to tackle completely. But I definitely have a real passion for the conversation around mental health, especially in Black and Brown communities.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I actually started a small event series within AIGA Baltimore called, Well Aware, where we started having these open and more vulnerable conversations. In fact, before COVID, that was part of my trajectory, is I was going to come back to the board and help foster that type of conversation again. I think I have a lot of different things, as you can probably tell. But I think that those two areas, helping communities build spaces that allow them to take advantage and take ownership of their own mental health and the systems that are there for them, so that they’re more equitable and in alignment with what is needed is an area that I think will be really important.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
You can find me, I’m mostly on social media more than anything lately, at abrowncreates on Instagram, as well as on Twitter. On LinkedIn, Joseph Carter-Brown. I’m always happy to connect with people. And then on my website, anthonybrowncreates.com. So those are the key places that you can find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Joseph Carter-Brown, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. The stories that you’ve told about how you have really progressed in this industry and really put your own stamp on it, being in the game for over 20 years and all the things that you talked about, it’s so clear to me that you have a real passion for this community. Not just for design, but for the community around design. And to be able to help people to see that this can be a space that you can really grow and thrive in, I think is something that is super important and something that you definitely have been able to show through your actions, through your words and through your deeds. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Well, thank you. It’s been an honor and I really appreciate you having me on here.

Sponsored by State of Black Design Conference

State of Black Design Conference

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program and the Common Experience are excited to announce the State of Black Design Conference, presented by IBM, April 9-10.

The theme of the conference is “Black Design: Past. Present. Future,” and the event will bring together aspiring designers with academic and industry professionals for networking opportunities, career development workshops, and important panel discussions with leaders in the field.

If you are a company looking to diversify your workforce, or a designer of color looking for your next role, be sure to attend the State of Black Design Conference. Recruiters have until April 5 to register.

Get your ticket today at https://txstate.edu/blackdesign, and follow the event online on Instagram or Twitter.

The State of Black Design Conference is presented by IBM, with additional sponsorship from Adobe, Civilla, AIGA, Texas State’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, and the School of Art and Design.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Kelly Walters

We have had a good number of design educators this year on Revision Path, but how many of them have written a book on designers of color? Meet Kelly Walters, an artist, designer, and educator who is currently the assistant professor and associate director of the BFA Communication Design program in the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York. Kelly is also the founder of the multidisciplinary design studio Bright Polka Dot. Talk about having a full schedule!

Kelly talked about the adjustments she has made over the last year with respect to teaching, and we talked about how she was exposed to the arts early, but never thought of it as a profession. We also discussed the works she’s done through her studio, collaborating with other Black design educators, and the launch of her upcoming book “Black, Brown & Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race.” Thank goodness for educators like Kelly who are helping add to the corpus of design history!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Kelly Walters:
My name is Kelly Walters. I’m an artist, educator, designer. I teach at Parsons School of Design. And yeah, I make things. I make a bunch of different things. Print and digital, and everything in between.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How are you feeling so far about 2021?

Kelly Walters:
2021? You know, I was really curious to see how the inauguration was actually going to play out at the end of December. Just anxious about all the various things that have been happening. And I think the beginning of 2021 felt really rocky just for me and trying to understand the end of one presidency, the beginning of a next, the middle of a pandemic, and just a lot of uncertainty. So it felt a little overwhelming, I think. But it feels like it’s getting potentially better. As best as better can be, I guess. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but …

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I can certainly see how it sort of feels a bit like we’re starting to see the light at the end of this long pandemic sized tunnel in a way. So I know what you mean. Now especially that we have new leadership, there’s vaccines that are out there, people are getting vaccinated. It feels like things are starting to go into a different direction.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I feel like, I don’t know. I’m just anxious for everyone and making sure that we can safely make it through this second year I guess, of this new world that we’re in. And I’m also really curious to see what patterns or observations that are made in this time that will affect us longer than this time, I guess. Longer than the year and change that it’s been. I’m really curious to see what it looks like. And being able to reflect back maybe even in 10 years or five years, what I remember of this era. So I don’t know. I’m reflexive I think in that way of looking forward and back if I can at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny. That’s kind of, January is after the Greek, I think Greek god or demigod Janice, that has one face looking forward, one face looking back. So that’s a very kind of apt comparison. Are things different for you now than they were last year?

Kelly Walters:
I’m trying to think. At this point last year, we were maybe a week out before everything shut down. If I recall, I think the last time I was in New York was March 11th when we were told two days later, everyone had to stay at home. And I think things were more uncertain in some ways at the very beginning of that last year. And as I reflect on where I am now, I don’t know. I feel like there’s still unknowns, but I’m living to sit inside of the uncertainty. It’s very uncomfortable to do that, but I don’t know. I think more than last year, I feel like this year, you have to sit with the uncertainty in a way that I don’t know. I don’t know how to really describe that exactly. I just feel like I’m navigating what it means to not know even more than before, and not take for granted what was thought to be stable. Or what was thought to be certain, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So what is a regular day like for you now?

Kelly Walters:
Well, my home, is my office, is my classroom, is my social space. So it’s the all-purpose room for many things. And I think it was weird to navigate that last year of finding what the delineation is between all of those kind of spaces. But I think depending on who you’re talking to in meetings, whether it’s coworkers, or your friends, or your family, kind of figuring out a way to feel as though even at your own environment, home environment, that in a separate area or at a certain time of the day, that it can feel as though you can feel the shift. And it’s sometimes it’s about just getting up, and walking outside, and coming back, and feeling like you’ve gone into a new room. Or changing the lighting, or opening the blinds, or turning on the light. I think it’s these small actions to make it feel like you’re in a different space sometimes. So I feel like that’s what my day’s like more and more now of just what are the subtleties that I can adjust in my home environment to feel like I’m in a different space, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Has there been a change in how you’ve been teaching or anything like that?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah, definitely. I think now, it’ll be a full year of teaching remotely online. And I think that for my program, the communication design program at Parsons, I think we had transitioned to an online teaching format. And I think what was really challenging the beginning was trying to figure out what does it mean to do a critique in this environment? What does it mean to build up student rapport and morale, and all of those, and community around students that you are working with that previously you were seeing physically in a particular space? And I think the difference between what I’ve learned in that kind of crisis, moving in somewhat of a crisis mode to teach remotely versus starting the year teaching remotely. It’s just like I’ve been working with students all year that I probably won’t ever get to meet in person. So there’s this difference in trying to figure out how to get to know someone as much as one can. An online format through smaller group conversations, or having Slack channels or things where people can sort of commune in a digital sphere. But it’s definitely been different than previous years.

Maurice Cherry:
And has Parsons kind of been accepting of all of this and all these changes that have been going on?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think every program is navigating this in its own way. I think that including ours, we have tools, and supplies, and things that we are wanting our students to use for all these various projects. But with students kind of navigated across the world really, it makes it difficult for them to be able to have access to that. And I think that the school is aware and understands as does many other institutions as well, that the safety protocols of social distancing, and having rapid tests, and all kinds of things to kind of make sure that people are being safe on campus is understood. I think it’s just challenging overall, many schools as well. Where students want to be back, but we’re kind of navigating the pace of the pandemic and what that looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
What courses are you teaching right now?

Kelly Walters:
I am teaching a Black visual culture class, and that’s a class that I’ve created. It stems from some of my research. And then I’m also teaching a senior thesis course with our BFA students.

Maurice Cherry:
A Black visual culture class. That sounds pretty dope.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I’m figuring it out. I think it’s an experiment, and I’m learning how to teach it, and learning how to teach it from the perspective that I’m seeing, and also being influenced by how my students are seeing. I feel like I’m learning as much through them as I’m providing to the class as well. So a lot of it is about learning how to teach even this material. Just as much as I may know certain things, they also know things that I don’t. And I try to build that into the context of the class.

Maurice Cherry:
Now have you taught this in person before? Or have you only just done it virtually?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. Fall 2019, I taught it for the first time in person. It was very different. We were using the Risograph machine. We had access to come together in a classroom space and project and view, view material together. And I think it’s a little harder to do that now. But yeah, I had taught it in person before.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What does teaching do for you as a designer? And we’ll get into your design work as well. But how do those two work together?

Kelly Walters:
I feel like they’re interconnected. I think for me, teaching is a way of relearning tools, or techniques, or methods that I’m using in my own practice. So when I’m talking with students or we’re talking about projects, or conceptualizing about something, or trying to figure out how to make something, I think I feel like I’m a co-facilitator or co-collaborator in that, where we can talk through strategy. We can talk through approach. And I think it’s so important to my practice because through those discussions and my ability to kind of think through how do I deliver this material to students? How do we discuss X, Y, or Z, or think through these things? I see my own self being able to kind of in my practice, reflect on even those lessons or conversations that I’ve had with students.

Kelly Walters:
And I think they inform each other. And I think my design practice with things that are happening outside of the classroom, those experiences working with clients or working with other artists and designers. For me, those are examples that I can draw upon to kind of bring into the class about this is how I did X, Y, or Z with whoever. And I think it lends a bit of a credibility to it as well, because it’s not like I’m just making stuff up. I’m speaking from the various experiences that I’ve had. I think it’s helpful to draw upon as lessons in the classroom space.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting. Because I’m sure that like you say, the students are informing you, as you are going through all of this. I wondered though if it was maybe easier because now you’re teaching over kind of an entirely visual medium. Teaching over the web. You can use Zoom, you can point to YouTube videos. But I don’t know. Have you found that it’s been a little easier in some ways?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. In some ways it is. Because the only thing that’s between us is the screen. Right? And what I’ve really loved about this time is being able to draw on the screen over the design. So when a student is sharing the work of let’s say a book that they’re making, or progress on some design work. Once it’s up, I have the ability to annotate on the screen. And I’ve been doing more and more of that because I can point out very specific details. Whereas previously, it’s harder to do that with everyone just looking at one big projector screen. So I think there’s a hyperfocus in some way that the screen sharing and annotating various tools on the screen, or me just sharing how I do something in a software or program. Just seems like the focus and attention is a little bit more direct than sometimes it can get lost in the classroom. Because you’re running to class. You’re tired. You’re not really looking at the screen. Your head is down. Lots of other distractions sometimes in the space when 15 other students are with you. So I think that there’s some positives to the hyperfocus that I think lends for some students.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been focusing now on your teaching and the work that you’re doing there. I’m curious, were you kind of always exposed to design and art even growing up as a kid?

Kelly Walters:
I think so. I look back at this. In elementary school, I went to what was called an arts magnet school. And I don’t think I really fully thought through this until you’re asking me now, further back than even college. But I think in elementary school, because it was an arts magnet, there was a huge emphasis on creative projects. And from movement and dance to artistic projects that were happening in the art room, plays, and musicals, and all these various things. And I don’t think I fully thought through how much of an influence it’s had on me. Because once I left elementary school, I was still interested in arts, and I always did band, and was definitely a music and band person. But I think what happened was that you had to choose, right?

Kelly Walters:
I think for middle school and high school in particular, you could only do one art or art focused discipline as part of your credit sequence. And I chose marching band, and I chose band, and would always be in a lot of the music classes. But because of that, I only got to take one art class at the end of high school, which was a graphic design class.

Kelly Walters:
So I think I was exposed to music or creative environments. But not really knowing what to do with it, or just thinking that it might be a hobby. I think through middle school and high school, thinking that art could be a hobby, not necessarily as a profession.

Kelly Walters:
But at the same time, there was one other project that I did in eighth grade where I think I wrote away to Pixar. And Pixar sent me back a folder of all of these inserts from all of the different animated films, and Toy Story, and Bug’s Life, and all this stuff. Again, I think there were things that happened, but I didn’t connect the dots I think at that time that I was interested in some kind of computer animation or computer generated imagery kind of thing. But not knowing exactly what to do with it.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s something interesting that you mentioned there about how in elementary school, there were all of these different arts and music. And I don’t know, you were exposed to a lot of it. And it had me even thinking about when I was a kid, we had school plays. We had of course music classes with recorders and the little xylophone blocks, and all that sort of stuff. And it was always just kind of presented as options. Not necessarily, “If you stick with this, you could be a musician.” But more so just showing you that this is kind of out there. It’s an option.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course as you go through your education, you go from elementary school, to middle to high school, it appears like those options kind of winnow away a bit. It’s less about arts and more about humanities and science. Depending on what school that you go to. I’m curious, knowing that that was your experience as an educator, does that help inform you when you’re teaching your students now?

Kelly Walters:
Just the types of exposures that I’ve had you mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean for me, I think what’s really important is that people feel like there’s versatility, that they can have adaptability, that they can use these different skillsets in different ways. And I think my exposure to music for example, while I’m not a musician anymore, play the clarinet like I used to, I think being in the creative musical environment for as long as I can remember, there’s just a sense of improvisation. A sense of listening for others, hearing other voices. So those things have translated for me. Even again just using marching band for example, the ability to be a single individual playing inside of the sound while also creating sound, I think is just something that it translates in other areas I think of my practice. Where you’re kind of trying to be attune, and listening, and taking note, and being observant. So I think that those things have definitely translated to teaching and working with students.

Maurice Cherry:
What did you play in the marching?

Kelly Walters:
I played clarinet.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice.

Kelly Walters:
Yes. The small fin, less heavy instruments.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a good instrument.

Kelly Walters:
It is. It is. Woodwind instrument.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When did you know that working with design and art was something that you wanted to do for a living?

Kelly Walters:
When did I know? When I entered undergrad, I was still uncertain. I went to UConn up in Storrs, Connecticut. And I came in as an undecided, undeclared major in my freshman year. And I think I was again, the idea that art could be was present. There were things that I was doing that was creative. But I guess I just didn’t know or have enough awareness of what could be or what was possible. But I did know that I wanted to start taking some more art classes. And it was in that process of taking, I think it was a drawing class or painting class in my spring semester is when I was like oh yeah, this is immersive conversation. The looking, and the thinking, and conceptualizing, it just felt right. And I think it’s when at that point, I applied to get into the graphic design program. And I think it was once I was in that program, and I was seeing, and I was exposed to more pathways that I really was excited about that discipline.

Maurice Cherry:
While you were at UConn, I’m curious. What was your time like overall outside of just studying?

Kelly Walters:
Well, I also did marching band in college. So for me, I really liked it in that you got to go to football games, and basketball games, and things like that. And I think on one hand, I was really just trying to find myself as an undergrad and navigate this really rural environment. I was coming out of more of a city suburb backdrop previously just growing up. So Storrs, Connecticut was really rural. So for me, there was also this kind of tension of navigating being in that sort of isolated space. And it also being really predominantly white and feeling like I was missing … I think towards the end as I was about to graduate, I was ready to kind of move to a more eclectic, more diverse space. But I think as my time evolved while I was there, it took me time to figure out who I was, and what I was saying, and what I wanted to say. By the end, I was like okay, I’m ready to go elsewhere or try something new.

Kelly Walters:
But I think it had its challenges. I think that I was one of very Black students in the art program. Luckily the year that I went through, I think we had in graphic design, I think there were three of us that were kind of in the program together. And I think the other kind of interesting thing about UConn is that it’s known for basketball and science, right? So those are giant components of the campus culture. And everyone kind of fawning around all the basketball players, or science and research were really dominant focuses of the campus. As I look back, I was just learning how to become who I am in some way. and navigating again, what I needed to do next.

Maurice Cherry:
When you graduated, did you feel like you were prepared for the design world, prepared to work as a designer?

Kelly Walters:
When I graduated, I felt bereft of the academic environment in some way. Because my thesis project as an undergrad was called Black, and I was investigating my identity, who I am, what I wanted to say like I was saying before. And the design work was very, it might even be if we were to kind of situate it, almost kind of as a contemporary artist. Right? So I was making work in a way that what I was concerned about was how it was going to be perceived in a more corporate context, and how I could apply for jobs with my thesis saying Black very visibly on it.

Kelly Walters:
I think I was just trying to, when I finished getting out of school, I was trying to figure out what my design community would be. And it was a very different time. We have all these different digital spaces, Black spaces where people are convening, and connecting, and meeting each other. Yeah. I don’t think that I knew what it meant to have a community. I didn’t know what kind of design I really wanted to do or go in. So I was a freelancer for the first year or so out of school, where I was kind of navigating through job boards, and finding places to do smaller, freelance gig projects with.

Kelly Walters:
It was also in that time that one of my former professors had reached out about teaching in a class at the University of Bridgeport. So I was like, “Really, can I teach? Can I do this really?” And I think her reaching out, and because my mom is a teacher, they were really supportive of figuring out the thing, or not figuring out, but helping me figure out how I could begin to teach in this collegiate environment. Because I started in that way, it was like freelancing. I was teaching. I started out with a hybrid practice, and I feel like I’ve kind of maintained that ever since in some way where there was a kind of a triad of working in industry, teaching, and having also a research practice that may not necessarily be for clients at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
And now is this the beginnings of Bright Polka Dot?

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. And actually, Bright Polka Dot was born out of a web design class that I had in college, because we were all asked to create portfolio sites. And my name is so common, that there’s hundreds of people that have my name, Kelly Walters. So I was trying to come up with these different permutations of Kelly A Walters, Kelly Ann Walters. I was just trying different versions of things. And I didn’t like the other options that were left, like .biz .net. So I was like, well maybe I’ll just go in a very different direction and just kind of think about a moniker, if you will.

Kelly Walters:
Many of the fabrics and the patterns that I always gravitate towards are polka dots. So I was really interested in this idea of polka dot. And then I was also interested in adding bright to it. Also a metaphor for myself, but also just kind of a lively addition to polka dot, I guess. So I went with it. And there’s a very particular pattern that I use for one of my design books that is kind of also the very specific inspiration. I don’t know where it is. It’s somewhere in my apartment somewhere, but that became my website name. And I’ve kept it ever since. And I don’t know. It felt right I think to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Now as you sort of started Bright Polka Dot, and then even as you’re kind of navigating the postgraduate world, how did Bright Polka Dot change? Did you sort of start it off in one way and it shifted into something else?

Kelly Walters:
I think what’s interesting for me was navigating wanting to work with different design studios, right? And different agencies. And again, trying to figure out how to mesh more corporate work that has nothing to do with me versus projects that are kind of self-driven and are interested in various topics or themes.

Kelly Walters:
In the very beginning, my portfolio on my website would reflect a lot of work that wasn’t necessarily from me, but might be client oriented. That was I don’t know, it was just really corporate in a lot of ways. And I wasn’t sure what I needed to have up there to get a job, to look a certain way. I think I was very conscious of wanting to put up work that looked like a thing that would impress someone else. As I’ve gotten older and as my projects have changed in what important values are important to me at this point, what was more important was having a blend of projects that I was excited about, that were really connected to me, to communities that I’m a part of. That could really just push forth topics, conversations, have a critical point of view. And I think that that’s what’s kind of shifted in the last several years as my portfolio has continued to change, and projects that I’ve done are kind of again, discussing large or grander topics than I had previously.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk about some of the projects that you’ve done through Bright Polka Dot. One of them that I saw, I think it was one that I saw right off the bat was … and forgive me, I might be getting this wrong. I think it’s God is a Black Woman, I believe is what it was titled.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. So The Black Woman is God.

Maurice Cherry:
The Black Woman is God. Thank you.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. So that one, the curators for the exhibition were Melorra Green and Karen Seneferu. And when I was living in the Bay Area, I worked with SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. And one of the exhibitions that I was invited to work towards for the design components around was The Black Woman is God. And it was the first time I think … I’ve worked on it two or three times in different years for a different theme. But the first time was super exciting for me to connect with curators. And the show essentially featured black women in the Bay who were presenting art and design works in the SOMArts Cultural Center gallery space. And I think through those projects and thinking through the visual identity, I was just really interested in playing with color, playing with typography, and subverting expected visual tropes about what blackness is, and really kind of draw upon inspiration for things that I was seeing as typography in either old film posters, or one exhibition was called Reprogramming The God Code. And I was just thinking about the digital component of what reprogramming means and trying to think through typography that had a certain kind of digi vibe. So yeah, I was just really thinking through the approach in a lot of different ways for those exhibitions.

Maurice Cherry:
And one of the others, I know your research does focus kind of a lot on Black cultural media in a way. There’s another project Superfly and Shaft.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think what’s also a part of my practice is looking at visual identities, and again, typography that are a part of really influential or iconic spaces, media spaces. Whether that’s films, television, music. I’ve been doing just deeper dives around who created this work, right? Was it created by black designers? Was it created by non-black designers? What does it mean that this image or symbol is actually, it represents blackness, but not have come from a black artist or designer, I guess? And just thinking about what that means from social and cultural standpoint. And how within the Superfly work, just kind of amplifying and looking closely at what was significant. For me, out of that poster was the letter forms, and hyper isolating into certain areas, and then remixing. And in some way, I think the music influences that I’ve had. And I think about as if I were a DJ, right? What are the remixes and the samplings that I can do from these different eras, from these different visual graphics? And how do you reassemble them, where they can maybe speak to someone who like my parents, grew up with those films. But also, the visual and the type of graphic play potentially speak to someone right now who’s an emerging designer, and maybe not has ever seen that film or series of films. So I like the idea of remix and juxtaposition.

Maurice Cherry:
And now as we sort of delve into that more, which is your research focus. as it says in your bio, you focus on how sociopolitical frameworks and shifting technology influence the sound, symbols, and styles of Black cultural vernacular in mainstream media. Which sounds like a mouthful. What sort of research is happening right now on Black visual culture? You can talk about some of the other work that you’re doing, or maybe something that you’ve seen from peers, anything like that?

Kelly Walters:
The thing that I’m finding really kind of interesting right now is that a few years ago, I was just reading articles about digital blackface. And the circulation of memes, and gifs, and things like that on a social channel, like Instagram, or Facebook, or Twitter. And I was drawn to kind of understanding what does it mean to have something that’s digital blackface? And what is blackface? And I think I was going down a path in terms of research of just trying to understand more historically about how blackface has surfaced in the United States and what its history and its lineage has been. And I think there’s so much kind of visual content today that has a connection to that lineage. We just don’t always know what it is, or it’s been suppressed in various ways where it’s not been analyzed and talked about in the context of graphic design. But it’s analyzed and talked about in many other disciplines. Whether it’s media studies, or Africana studies. Things like that, I think that there’s so much scholarship that’s been generated around images, and understanding the root of those images.

Kelly Walters:
So anyway, I think for me as a designer that’s working with type and image often, I just wanted to have a better understanding of that history. And I began to kind of do research around music publishing, and early music publishing. And for me, was trying to trace the lineage between a music album cover to that early music sheet cover, and forms that have surfaced in between. So I think that it’s been a lot about excavation, and trying to see what I can find. And using digital collections to see what’s available and look closely at who was publishing various works. If there’s information about the artist. Sometimes, the artist’s name is embedded on the illustrations of those early works.

Kelly Walters:
So it’s just been for me right now, navigating a lot of that historical information. And I think what I begin to do with that is again, the remix part is wanting to look closely at the topography. And these become typographic specimens. And I think what’s really loaded and charged about doing that is the time is really charged. So I’m trying to be mindful of what does it mean for my own positionality to be working on top of these works, or fragmenting, or cropping them in particular ways? What do I find sacred? What can I touch? What is uncomfortable for me in creating a collage or a remix, if you will? And I think that I struggle and tangle with all of those things I think in the creation of work that responds to that research.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re also coming out with a book soon, right? Is this the culmination of this research?

Kelly Walters:
No. So the book that’s coming out is called Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race. And because for me, there’s multiple avenues of my practice and things that I’m exploring, right? The research that I was talking about is one avenue. Another of my design practice is collaborating and connecting with other design educators or designers of color. And this particular book that’s coming out features 12 interviews. One of which includes myself with design educators from across the United States and Canada. And it features kind of an interview of our experience getting into design, navigating private and public university and college settings, and what it means to now be teaching in the environments that we are. So I’m super excited about this book coming out at the end of the month actually on March 30th. Just because it’s the first time that I’ve had a public, a really, really public project I think like this, that is being published at this scale. So I’m excited, and scared, and all the things in between as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. Congratulations on the book.

Kelly Walters:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you hope people get out of it?

Kelly Walters:
I think what I hope the most is that folks like myself, emerging designers, emerging students in design can see themselves in this book. I think we’re only a sampling. We’re not everyone. And we can only share our perspectives from our own backgrounds and what we have accomplished and done. But I think that my ultimate hope is for there to be visibility, and to see it as a pathway, to see it as … like if you’re interested in teaching, you’re interested in design, and you’re a person of color. And specifically, you’re Black, brown, or Latinx. It’s just a sampling of folks who are doing it, and working through their own design practice, and navigating challenges that are coming up. And also to validate any other educators who are experiencing similar challenges or successes. And to recognize that we are a bigger community than we realize. And we’re only a step away from each other in some way. I think that that’s something that I’ve learned a lot about.

Kelly Walters:
And in this book, many of the people that I’ve interviewed have become such good friends now. And I’m collaborating with them on multiple projects. And I just think to feel connected to each other has really been life-changing for me in the last year. Because I think the project was born out of a panel presentation at the College Art Association. And I think that was literally the last and the last time that I’ve seen many of the people in this book in person. And I think for us to be together in that space was life-changing for me. I’m sure it was for others just to think about a panel that reflects us, talks about our experiences. It feels like it can be very rare. And I think I’m wishing and wanting us to get to a point where we don’t feel like we have to feel rare. That there’s many of us here. And there’s just a bunch of us in different places.

Maurice Cherry:
I have to say one thing that has been an interesting kind of, I don’t want to say improvement, I’d say an interesting development from the last year or so is just how many of these types of events, or panels, or things like this have happened where you’re starting to see more Black designers come together. Whether it’s Black design educators or just regular design practitioners, etc. That are kind of outside of what we may have seen prior to this in terms of other types of events or conferences. Like for example, The State of Black Design that happened last year. You were a part of a Where are the black designers? from Mitzi Okou. These sorts of events didn’t really happen before. And now, it’s so exciting to see these happen now. And that people are still continuing to work together. And even to your case, writing books. You’re now contributing to the corpus of design history by putting out a book that people can then go and reference years and years down the line.

Kelly Walters:
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the really exciting part that as I’ve met more designers, as I’ve met more design educators. And I’ve been trying to kind of navigate within my own practice what the importance of a book like this can be. There’s so much power in it, and it’s such a privilege to be able to do so. And learning even how to do this process, and learning what it means to kind of work with a publisher. And all of that, sometimes unknown, inaccessible, out of reach opportunities. And I think that it’s so important that as we learn is this how it works? How are we sharing that back out to the folks that we might be working with that may not know it as much about that process? So I think to contribute to the design field in this way is an honor. It’s a privilege. I’m excited to do so. And I’m also really just thankful for everyone in the book. Because to be open and share their stories also can be a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. And I’m mindful of protecting their stories, and making sure that they feel like they’re best represented. So I’m so just thankful for their contributions and participating, because it wouldn’t have come together without their stories.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you are an artist, you’re a designer, you’re an educator in academia. How do you balance all of that? Do you find that there are opposition at times? How do you make it all work?

Kelly Walters:
You see it as a kind of rotating hats. I think sometimes, the focus is on one thing more than the other during the year. Teaching fall and spring semester is really a primary focus. And then sometimes in the summer, what’s really nice is there’s a bit more expanse of time to work on more self-driven projects or other kind of commissioned works and things like that. Commissioned work happens I think year-round. So it happens even as I’m teaching, and collaborations with different people as well.

Kelly Walters:
So I think that it can be a lot at times. But I also, as I’ve gotten older, kind of navigating what it means to kind of rotate the focus and figure out what takes precedent right now. And how can I sort of not overtax myself, but create a balance such that things can rotate? And I think by seeing things rotate, I’m less scared that I’m never going to get back to X, Y, or Z? Or I won’t be able to do that kind of work or that kind of work. I think I’ve been more interested in telling myself that things can shift and rotate, and you don’t have to do everything at once. And I think that that has been really freeing for me. And it also just allows for a flexibility in yourself, and your life, and all the things that you want to try. There’s an opportunity to kind of space it out. Because what’s always important to sort of be aware of too is not trying to do too much where other things suffer, or you’re diluting the power of what it could be, because you just don’t have the bandwidth.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the best thing about the work that you do?

Kelly Walters:
The best thing that I like is when I’m connecting, and meeting, and bringing people together. I think that that to me, of all the various projects, and specifically all the different design projects where I’m meeting people or people are meeting each other. To me, that’s the most important thing and the most exciting thing. The most beautiful thing. I’m just thinking vividly of times when they’re like, “You’re over there? I didn’t know you were there.” Being able to kind of help facilitate that is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
If you hadn’t gotten into design, or I would say even if you hadn’t gotten into education, what do you think you would be doing?

Kelly Walters:
I would be talking about race probably still. Whether, I mean in fairness in college, I was a dual major. So I studied graphic design in the art program, and I also was a communication sciences major. So if I wasn’t doing design, I feel like I would still be facilitating conversations around topics of race and representation. I may not have been a designer I guess. But I think I would probably be still very focused and interested in these topics if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Kelly Walters:
I think there’s always more that can be learned or done. And I think what I’m learning is that sometimes, it’s okay not to have it all immediately. Does that leave you wanting more, wanting to try more? Perhaps. But I think I’m okay with that. I think I’m okay with not fully always having everything, and working towards more. Working for something else. Because I feel like it creates a drive and makes it so that you’re not complacent and staying in place. So I think it’s okay that I’m not always satisfied, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. Where do you kind of see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you love to be doing?

Kelly Walters:
I feel like in the next five years, I would love to work towards other book projects. I would love to collaborate with other designers. Some of which is happening right now. I want to keep learning. I want to keep growing. There’s so much that I still don’t know. I want to continue to find ways to connect with folks or bring people together. I know that seems really simplistic, but I think it can be … it’s actually more challenging. And to do it successfully can be an art. I’m learning what it means to be able to do that and to kind of work with folks passionate, interested, and excited about all aspects of design. And I just want to continue to be inspired by those that are doing really interesting work right now and celebrate what they’re doing just as much as I’m trying to work towards things in my own practice.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Kelly Walters:
You can find my work on Bright Polka Dot. And that is if you’re searching online, you’ll find it in the browser. And then on Instagram and Twitter, I’m also @brightpolkadot. So you can find me there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well Kelly Walters, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really talking about the focus behind your work. I’m excited to read the new book. Actually [Wes 00:50:48] sent me a copy, so I’m excited to kind of really get into it. But for those that are listening, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But no, I really like the approach that you have to your work. And I hope that people kind of feel empowered and inspired from hearing your story. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kelly Walters:
Thank you so much for having me.

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Sloan Leo

If there’s one word I would use to describe Sloan Leo, it would be “dynamic”. As the CEO of NYC-based FLOX Studio, they bring over 15 years of facilitation and community strategy to bring the power of community design to clients from all over. Sloan is also an accomplished mixed media artist, and their exhibition “A Watermelon for Leo” is a beautiful assemblage of ephemera, rituals and video.

We started our conversation off with a quick 2020 review, and Sloan talked about their daily flow and the work they’re doing through FLOX Studio. Sloan also talked about the beginnings of their passion for art and community design, and spoke on how they’re making space for joy during this current time. Remember their name, because I have a hunch we’ll be hearing more of Sloan Leo for years to come!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Sloan Leo:
My name is Sloan Leo, and I’m the CEO and founder of FLOX Studio, and also a multi-disciplinary installation artist.

Maurice Cherry:
How is 2021 going for you so far?

Sloan Leo:
Oh, Maurice. You really start off with the hard questions. It’s funny you ask that. I’ll tell you, though.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Sloan Leo:
20 minutes ago, I decided to take a little walk on the rooftop of my apartment building, because I just was like, “I’ve got to get out of these eight walls or four walls.” I was thinking about how different this January is from last year. Because last year I had just lost my job, I had left a big relationship. I was feeling really like … There was about to be a pandemic, but I didn’t know that yet. I was really adrift last year. This year it’s like full steam ahead, so much clarity. I feel like last year was about building up, and this year is about letting go of it, in terms of FLOX has enough stickiness, and we’ve got great people around, and I have great art that I want to be making. I feel like it’s about un-clutching and releasing, and allowing things to be in their flow state. I feel more optimistic than I did last year, and that’s not even related to the pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I think a lot of people right now in the States are feeling more optimistic for a lot of reasons. One, just the change in leadership, but also the fact that with the vaccines coming out, it seems like we might start to get a handle on this pandemic, on this disease that has kind of stopped the world over the past year. I think there’s a lot of that going on, that’s good.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah it was interesting, because when I was sitting outside, I was just thinking to myself, I was like, “I guess it’s time to let go a little bit more, and let more people be a part of the work that I’m doing in a different way.” Just as I was thinking it, Maurice, I swear to you a hawk, out of nowhere, just flew up in the air, dove in circle, and left. I just started laughing hysterically. It’s like, I’m not one for too much woo woo. But it felt like some sort of sign.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a pretty powerful omen.

Sloan Leo:
I know. I was really [inaudible 00:05:54]. I was like, “Well, I’ll listen to that. Sure. Sure thing.”

Maurice Cherry:
Not to get too churchy or anything, but usually in the bible, when there’s a hawk sighting, that’s a message from God. So that’s a great thing that you saw that at that time.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I got real chills. I was like, “This is cool. I’m okay. I guess the answer is let go.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Sloan Leo:
Couldn’t ask for much clearer of a sign, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw, at the beginning of the pandemic last year, that you bought a VR headset.

Sloan Leo:
I did. I was thinking about it, as I was making my pandemic purchases, I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to get the groceries and all the things. I also was like, “If I’m going to be trapped inside, I’ve got to find a way to get outside from inside.” I experienced VR at Sundance and thought it was amazing, and figured maybe it’d be a way to, I don’t know, be more active, but also connect with people and it’s become a big part of my relationship with my parents, some friends, really unexpectedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Which one did you get?

Sloan Leo:
I got the Oculus VR.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Sloan Leo:
I think I have the Quest. It’s interesting because I feel like I grew up playing Snood and all these MS Dos games. It makes me feel a little dated to think about all the video games I played on five inch floppy disks. Now I’m inside a portal. There was this time I was sitting on my couch, watching the Netflix in the VR, on a couch in VR, in front of my television. I was like, this is actually too meta for me. So I don’t do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, they have a Netflix VR?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, it’s like a living room. So you go inside, I guess if you were a person who just had a room and you didn’t have a couch it’d be cool. But on your couch, it’s too strange.

Maurice Cherry:
I was thinking about getting one. One of the other guests that we had on the show, Regine Gilbert, who’s a friend of mine and she also does some work with Revision Path here and there, too. She also bought a VR headset and just talked about how wonderful it is. One, I think just because it allows you to get up and just have a little motion. But it does, sort of like you said, take you from the inside outside, in a way.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. I haven’t seen my parents in two years. We’ve gotten really close in the pandemic, and part of that is because we started doing family bowling night, or this game called sports scramble. So you’re like, I’m in my apartment, my mom’s in her house, and you can hear each other, you can’t see each other, but you’re in the same VR game. There’s one game where you’re playing baseball but you have a hockey stick, and instead of a baseball it’s like a pineapple. My mom is 68 and considers herself very tech forward. She just laughs and laughs, and it feels like that kind of just hanging time you have with your family when you’re a kid, where it’s not really about anything but you’re kind of just around each other. That’s been really comforting.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, that’s nice. What are your days looking like now? What does a Sloan Leo day look like?

Sloan Leo:
Well it starts the night before by trying to go to bed on time, real hard. For me that’s like 10:00. I usually play video games at night and, and I talk on the phone, I don’t know, 80% of the day probably. Friends and stuff like that. So I go to bed early so I can get up early, my day starts usually around 5:30. 5:30 to 6:00 is kind of fake meditation where I putter around the house thinking eventually I’m going to sit down. Then from 5:30 to 8:00 I work, I do videos. But I do recordings of video-based internal communications, so that our team can just watch and get updated on things, and then we can have cool meetings. I’ll work on client stuff. I draw, I sketch a lot in the mornings. Then it’s pretty regimented from 5:30 to noon.

Sloan Leo:
I have a best friend all every day at 8:00 for the last year. So every single workday, all year, my best friend and I talk at 8:00 on FaceTime. We make coffee together, we have breakfast together. He’s kind of like my morning husband, but platonic, it’s been great. The afternoon, mid-morning afternoon, is a couple facilitations, time thinking about, I don’t know, what would be really cool to make, in terms of a big concept piece. Then evening times are things like this podcast, panels, community jams, which is our FLOX version of just hanging out and talking about fun ideas and design. I make a lot of playlists during the day, I listen to those, and I do my best to not order more takeout.

Sloan Leo:
That’s kind of the rhythm, is super structured 5:30 to noon, a little chiller between 12:00 and 4:00, and after 4:00 I’m just not productive, unless I’m just chatting like this.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s good that you sort of found a way to introduce some structure into the day, and sort of have these blocks where you can move from one mode to another.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. I grew up, I’m neuro atypical. I grew up needing a lot of self induced structure, kind of like swaddling. My mom was really big on just chunk it out. Do what you can what you can, when you can, how you can. I feel like between that and learning this framework, dialectical behavior therapy, it’s just a way of thinking about your own personal capacities. All of that has led to me being a person who has a fair amount of discipline, I would say. Not as much as I would want sometimes, but for structuring the day, it’s just gentler for me than just kind of letting it all randomly unfold.

Maurice Cherry:
No that makes sense. One thing that I sort of adopted a bit during the pandemic is … I mean I’m saying that we’re still in it. But I kind of talk to myself in these different states. There’s present Maurice and then there’s future Maurice. Present Maurice may be thinking about, well what do I need to do for future Maurice on Friday night?

Sloan Leo:
I love that.

Maurice Cherry:
Because it’s going to be the end of the work week, what do you want to do? I sort of think of my days in that way, or if I get to the end of the day, and I’m like, “I really need to finish this, but future Maurice will handle that.” Like, present Maurice will go to bed, and then future Maurice will wake up and handle it later. That’s allowed me to kind of let things go and just let things happen as they happen without trying to hold myself to too rigid of a schedule. I also time shift a lot of communication. I time shift probably 90% of my emails. They go out when I’m sleeping or when I’m working or something like that. Then when I come back to them, I’ve got an actionable list of things to do all at once, as opposed to it sort of pinging me throughout the day with like, “You’ve got to do this, you have to do this, you have to work on this.” I can sort of chunk it, in a way, and get to it later.

Sloan Leo:
I think I like that, I get that. When the pandemic first started, I wasn’t working. I had three months of what I would actually describe as some of the most precious time in my entire life, because I didn’t have a schedule, and I got a chance to see what my natural rhythms are. Which, it was nice to have that space to listen, despite how difficult it was to be in New York. I guess anywhere. But I feel like the shutdown in New York in March was just like, one of the most scary things I’ve ever experienced as a human. I let myself just be a bit shook, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Sloan Leo:
Without feeling like, figure it out, or be productive. Now that the pandemic has been a year this month in terms of shutdowns in New York, I’m pretty committed to reassessing things. It’s like it’s been a year, we’re going to live. So what does that look like moving forward?

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of moving forward through all this, let’s talk about your studio, FLOX Studio. Where did you get the idea to create your own studio?

Sloan Leo:
I should say the idea was not first to create a studio, it was to ask a question, if that gives you any insight about how the studio was formed.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Sloan Leo:
One of my best friends, Wesley Hall, he’s a graphic illustrator, designer, creative director, fabric maker. He’s a maker of many varieties. We’ve been friends for 10 years. It’s like, December 2018, and we spend most of our nights listening to ambient house music from Japan, talking about good design, and what does good mean, what does design mean? How does it connect to social justice? We met because he was making posters for the local black lesbian cabaret night in New York City. We started to say, “I wonder if anyone else wants to hang out and talk about design for community building, and what that means, both in terms of aesthetic and in terms of built environment and social technologies, how people spend time together.”

Sloan Leo:
We started FLOX Labs in January of 2019, and spent that whole year hosting 20 person design sprint dinners in my studio apartment on Madison and 28th in Manhattan. That’s where FLOX came from. We would have these sprints and sketch with 20 strangers in the room trying to figure out some idea. Like how do you create ways for seniors to take care of themselves during a heat wave? How do you create a equitable cannabis industry? Just having idea festivals for two hours with a meal that a friend would make. That’s where we came from.

Sloan Leo:
Since then, we incorporated as a studio in August of last year, after testing some products all early 2020. It really comes from a desire to make it easier, better, more enjoyable, more effective to do important work, to change, to make justice real for more people. While that means a lot of working with nonprofits, it doesn’t mean exclusively that. It means working with people who are like, “We can create pathways for change and bring people in. But it doesn’t feel good to work here, because all the structures are designed for centralized power.” Which doesn’t feel good for most people, besides the person who has the power. And even them, I don’t think it feels that good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How has business sort of been going throughout all this?

Sloan Leo:
I mean honestly Maurice, if you would’ve come to me, if future Maurice would’ve come to pass me and said like, “Listen, the year is 2020 and you’re going to build a facilitation and strategy business on Zoom.” I would’ve been like, “What are you talking about? It sounds like you’ve been doing some real hardcore things with your brain.” Business is good. I’ve been thinking a lot about what scale means, because I don’t want to be … We’re not trying to be the scale of an IDO. But in terms of our ideology, we do want community design to be an understanding that’s everywhere. But we don’t have to have 800 people to do that. I think a lot of it just comes from wanting to have a dedicated crew of people to make magical things, like unexpected things happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Now as I was going through the FLOX Studio website, and we’ll have a link to that in the show notes. One of the projects from your studio, I guess you could all it a project. More like an exhibition almost.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Is called a Watermelon for Leo. Talk to me about that.

Sloan Leo:
I grew up with a dad who’s an artist. I’ve flirted with art most of my life. I believe that art is the stuff that really touches you in the soul. When the pandemic first started, and I had some months to just be at my house, I started thinking about a Watermelon for Leo, that came to life through the studio six or seven months later. It was an exhibition of objects that we called artifacts of blackness. Kind of just exploring the idea of how did I construct my own sense of race identity outside of just the hard things about being black? I didn’t want to just be like, “Being black is just about being afraid of the cops, and being afraid of judgment at work, and not getting paid enough.”

Sloan Leo:
For me, it was about all of the lessons around self discipline, all of the lessons about community building and food from my grandma, and trying to reclaim joy. Because the story of how Watermelon became black, that object is imbued with so much meaning, it’s such a heavy fruit, literally and figuratively. The idea was how to explore that heaviness of objects and race with this dash of kind of delight. It actually started with a video on Instagram of me eating watermelon in the sun on my balcony. Then the research happened, and I started thinking about the objects in the home and that’s how most things kind of come together. There’s a flash of an idea, I get a sketch out, I talk to some people about it. We start making some pieces.

Sloan Leo:
Then next thing you know it’s like 30 people have come together to produce this four month long exhibition.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that go to the website and they can see some of the images from here, there’s this quote, I think it’s probably a quote that frames the exhibit beautifully. It says, “I want to go someplace where I can have a piece of watermelon in the sun without any shame, without any worry, just presence, enjoying it, savoring it, relishing it. And letting it be just for me.” That is such a powerful, powerful quote.

Sloan Leo:
Thank you, Maurice. I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
What has the reception been from the exhibit?

Sloan Leo:
I have cried touring it with people. And received with a lot of speechlessness, in a good way, you know? I’ve had some interesting conversations with white women who didn’t see the live exhibition, but saw the 13 minute point of view documentary that we shot of it, knowing people couldn’t come in person. That just really resonated with me because I grew up with my grandma’s recipe box, and never thought about how that was a tool for her to make community, at a really hard time in the world. For my mother, who is the daughter of Leo, my grandfather, for her it felt like we could finally see each other a bit. Because it was like we shared my grandparents, but had very different experiences with them. Then for folks who heard about the story of Watermelon, it was a lot of, “I didn’t know that story of watermelon being used as a smear campaign against black joy.”

Sloan Leo:
The opportunity to reclaim a simple act of eating a piece of fruit without shame for the black people in my life, it felt kind of like a ghastly story, but also such a simple and beautiful opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
You also have opened it up where it looks like people can have virtual tours, I suppose? Or a virtual exhibition tour?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. It’s a virtual exhibition tour and artist talk, where we screen the 13 minute documentary with a small group, then we talk about objects and community and if race comes up, race comes up. But there’s a lot of ways people can hold the concepts in the show.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Awesome. We’ve been talking sort of a lot about family and origins and such. Let’s talk about where you grew up. Are you originally from New York state?

Sloan Leo:
I am a New York stater forever. I’ve lived other places, but I’ve always considered New York state home, and for the most part, it’s always been where the IRS believes I have lived. But I grew up in the suburbs of upstate New York, around Albany. It was 98% white. It was very small. It was the ’90s. We used to call Albany Small-Bany. But the public education system there was extraordinary. My mom, right after I was four or five when we moved there, from near Ithaca, New York. She chose it because she knew … There’s a lot of reasons she chose it. She had a good job at the State Education Department. She mostly, though, knew I could get a good education at K through college, that wasn’t going to be expensive but was going to be really high quality. I really appreciate her doing that.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you a very artistic child? Did your family help cultivate that sense of artistness within you?

Sloan Leo:
Completely. My mother can barely draw a clown. She’s more creative in policy design than I would say anything in the traditional senses of design. But my stepdad, who’s my dad, Scott, he’s an artist. And was a welder, worked in sculpture. Both of them, my whole life, were like, “It’s okay if you’re different.” Not even it’s okay, but my mom’s thing was like, “Be able to take care of yourself and be self sufficient, but be yourself.” My dad’s like, “Even if it’s difficult your creativity is something that you’ll figure out over time.” He always saw me as an artist and still does. Even though I spent a long time as a nonprofit administrator.

Sloan Leo:
I always felt though, I went to puppet making camp as a kit, and architecture camp. And was in modern dance and gymnastics and took up watercolor and played clarinet. I bought a Dictaphone when I was like 11, and I would write songs, and I would take notes to self and write little plays. I’ve always, I feel like, been fortunate that when I’m in the decent space in my brain, I have a lot more generation energy, I think, than is typical.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you went to the State University of New York at Albany. What was your time like there?

Sloan Leo:
I was a child. I went to college when I was 16, and I went to graduate school when I was 19.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sloan Leo:
I then dropped out of graduate school when I was 21, because I was real tired. So I didn’t finish it ever. I’ve come this far, at 36, with a bachelor’s from a state school in sociology and Africana studies. Which is a field I’m not even sure totally exists, or is politically correct to call it that anymore. I loved U Albany, because the very first week of college, I met my best friend Ashley, who I know 20 plus years later. I met Barbara Smith in the library. I don’t know if you know who that is, but she’s like the founding black lesbian feminist figure in social justice circles. And she was a member of the Combahee River Collective, which is named after the Combahee River Raid, and was all about intersectional feminism.

Sloan Leo:
I met her in the library, and I was reading her book the first week of college, and she changed my entire life. Really saw me as a political being, not just as a smart person. Which was a real difference for me. Albany, the school, became a place of activism and energy. I did, not just, we did the Vagina Monologues. We did Fred Hampton, Junior, the son of a Black Panther, came to speak at my school.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sloan Leo:
U Albany was like a hot bed of politically activated people in the early 2000s. I loved it. I loved going to school there.

Maurice Cherry:
But you said later on though, you ended up dropping out. Did it just become too much at the time?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I burned out. I burned out, basically. I mean, not basically. I burned out. As much as it was really difficult to go from being 16 year old college phenom, youngest person yadda yadda, I think that really understanding burnout at that age was a gift. Because now, I know that burnout isn’t just about the volume of work, it’s about what is it that actually sustains you. For me, that’s always been my relationships with other people. If I can only work, but I can’t be in community, if I can’t struggle to figure out how to take care of myself with other people, and just be connected, that kind of deep loneliness I think is what burned me out. Now that I know that, I don’t live that way anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back to something you mentioned there about going to college at such a young age, and being this phenom. I’m curious, just curious, were you in any sort of gifted courses or anything in school leading up to that?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I did AP classes. I did learning in the gifted programs. But the big thing for me is that I graduated from high school early. We moved to Long Island very briefly, to East Northport on Long Island. It was a really difficult experience for me. I was really aggressively bullied, called the N word, spit on, people threw things at me. It was hard. I was out and gay at 15, which is not easy. Didn’t know I was trans, yadda yadda. My guidance counselor, though, Ms. Goldberg was amazing. She was like, “You’re really smart, and let’s keep you in classes. Let’s double up on gym, double up on history.” I took a feminist studies course at SUNY Stony Brook when I was 15, as an advanced college course, I could graduate from college early.

Sloan Leo:
Basically, Ms. Goldberg showed me the path to graduate from high school a year early. That was a big part of how I got to school early. I felt a lot of pressure to be living up to my potential. When I got to college I was like, “I’m going to get my PhD by the time I’m 30.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sloan Leo:
Again, building your entire identity in one bucket of the smart, young, brown person. At some point, you’re going to get older.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sloan Leo:
It’s good to understand yourself outside of being the youngest.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I wanted to go back to that briefly. Because it actually kind of reminded me of how it was when I grew up. I’m from Selma, Alabama. So from the deep south. Was sort of considered, growing up, kind of the same way. Oh, he’s super smart and knows all these things. There is this burden of expectation that can be put upon you when you’re that age that is largely community driven, which I find to be interesting. I mean, for my family, for example, they knew that I was smart, but they didn’t make a big deal out of it. I still had to do things like a regular kid had to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Like for example, me and my mom would go to, oh God I hated this. I don’t know why I’m telling this story.

Sloan Leo:
Tell the story.

Maurice Cherry:
Me and my mom would go to Walmart, you know, maybe bump into people that she knew or something like that, this is when I was at a younger age. They were always sort of quizzing me. Like, “Spell woodpecker.” Or, “Sing that song that you know.” Or something like that.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, do a dance, smart kid. Do a dance.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like after a while it’s like you’re treated like this performance object and not like a person. In a way, I think when I got to high school I was just rebelling. Not really rebelling, but just doing things in stupid ways because I could. I knew that I could pass my courses. So why not cause a little mischief in school? Because what are people going to do about it? I’m the smartest kid in school, what’re you going to do? That kind of thing.

Sloan Leo:
Like, kick me out of school? Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I wish more parents knew this, and I really kind of wish that communities knew this, putting that much pressure on a young, smart, black child, it’s such a fragile time when all of that stuff happens and how it can really form and shape who you are in the future, and what you do, and how you look at really just life and people and humanity.

Sloan Leo:
[crosstalk 00:30:32].

Maurice Cherry:
It’s such an interesting time. I look back at that time, and think about how I was talked to. Similar to kind of what you were saying, you’d go to these different sorts of things and people are calling you names and bullying you and stuff like that. It’s just so … I don’t know. Because by the time I got out into the world, none of that mattered.

Sloan Leo:
Right, right.

Maurice Cherry:
By the time I graduated college, I got into the world. No one was like, “You could read at a young age, so?” None of that mattered.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:31:00]. Yeah. You don’t go to job interviews saying, “I was in a gifted and talented program when I was 12.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah but when you’re a child, or when you’re in that age up to 18, there’s so much undue pressure that’s put on you to just … I don’t know. Perform, over perform, I don’t know. It’s such a, oh God, I don’t know.

Sloan Leo:
It’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
You said that, it triggered something in me, like I remember that time so, so vividly.

Sloan Leo:
You’ve got to have, I feel like also it can mess with your … What did they call it when I was a kid? Delusions of grandeur. I definitely was always like, “You’ll see, ha ha ha.” I still kind of feel that. I can definitely have a little bit of … Because all the praise came from people who were a lot older than I was. My peers just sucked. They’d be like, “You’re going to have a nervous breakdown when you grow up.” All this stuff. I definitely am that person who really wants to go to my high school reunion so I can be like, “Sucka sucka. Actually I turned out just great.” Because my mom and my dad were always, again, they didn’t actually push me to … They wanted me to be financially independent.

Sloan Leo:
But my mom is really smart, too, and so is my dad. We’re just kind of three smart, weird people living in a house together with a pretty big age gap, and a lot of love, and a lot of curiosity about how things work together.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it makes a difference. Especially when you start to grow out of that, and you go out into the world and you’re able to still come back home in a way that you know that you’re a changed person from being out in the world and experiencing things. But yeah, I don’t know, that’s such an interesting kind of time.

Sloan Leo:
It’s hard, we need to talk about it a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you mentioned, you worked in nonprofits, you have this super extensive background in facilitation and community strategy. Where does that come from? Where does that passion come from?

Sloan Leo:
The Women’s Building in Albany, New York. And Holding Our Own Women’s Foundation. Holding our own, so when I met Barbara Smith my first week of college, she helped me get involved with the Albany Social Justice Center, then she got me involved with Holding Our Own and the Women’s Building. The Women’s Building, when you walk down Central Avenue, which is a major street in Albany, New York, this living room storefront. They had a back with offices and a conference space and multipurpose spaces. But it was just a big living room with every feminist social justice book that you could ever imagine, all donated by women and social justice luminaries in the area.

Sloan Leo:
On campus, I hadn’t really found my groove yet, and in my peer group I never found my groove. But there, again, I had a political voice. I felt like I discovered my own political agency and the understanding of what’s possible when you have collective political power. That was incredibly addictive. I’m really always aching for making things possible by working together, even though it’s not always more pleasant. But the outcome is better. But it can be pleasant. But it’s like, I don’t know. I feel like it was the Women’s Building that got me kind of hooked. Then the identity-based groups on campus, and activism. I’m black and trans and fat. If I’m not activist oriented, I’ve swallowed a pill of assimilation, which I know happens. But the reality is, I would like to make the world, I’d like to make my little pocket of community as strong as it can be.

Maurice Cherry:
Was there a moment that marked a shift more into art and visualization around community strategy and facilitation? What happened to make that sort of change happen?

Sloan Leo:
I would love to say it was like, ‘I went to the MoMA and I saw this thing, or I went to this IDO class, which I did, which also really changed my life.” I really found all of the courses online from the IDOs, the SOI Partners, all these big social design firms, put a lot of stuff out online and that was all really cool. But I didn’t really understand the power of design in my life, as a nonprofit person, until I started to really understand how much time was wasted with text-based documents. I work specifically with board management and these really big nonprofits. You have a board of 45 people, and they meet every four months and they have to get ready for those meetings, right?

Sloan Leo:
You would send them a 200 page … I would spend months pulling together from every department, getting everything ready, making it all work with the agenda, blah blah blah. A 200 page text-based PDF. All text.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sloan Leo:
You’d send it two weeks in advance, and the expectation in the whole sector, this is still true, this is true right now, for all 1.7 million nonprofits in this country that have four board meetings a year, they’re all sending out these 15 to 200 page PDFs. Then they’re expecting the boards to read them, digest them, make meaning of them, then come to the meeting and make some decisions. I was like, “This doesn’t make any sense.” Then the boards aren’t engaged, they don’t really understand what’s happening. This feels like a real obvious issue. So we started playing with presentation decks, and iconography.

Sloan Leo:
I’ve always had an eye, just I like making things look cool and interesting. So I realized basically in the nonprofit landscape, what you don’t have is time. You don’t have money, so time is super special and this hyper precious resource. In the private sector, people spend so much energy figuring out how to save more time. And building way finding systems and onboarding systems and all these designed systems and assets. Then in the social sector, none of that innovation comes. It doesn’t show up there.

Sloan Leo:
We’re seeing the nonprofits are doing the most important work in the world, and they’re only 10% of the economy, but we’re not equipping them with any design fluency in any sense of design. From community design to illustration to systems design, communication design. It’s a tragedy, and it’s not necessary.

Maurice Cherry:
Is this kind of where you came upon the concept of community design?

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. Because community design to me, well it comes from the land of urban planning. It was about building engagement over a system. Building community ownership and voice in a process to design a community neighborhood. It’s like, this is your thing, people. So it should be your thing. And you should be part of, well not just part of, you should be leading the design of what you need. I started thinking a lot about, growing up, reading a lot of management books. Because before my dad was an artist, he worked for Kodak, when Kodak was Google. So I grew up with a mom working in education justice, a dad who was a learning and development specialist, and a knack for creativity. I started to say, how can you actually take design and community design and apply it to organizations.

Sloan Leo:
Because nonprofits are communities of people trying to make the world better. I want that to be easier and more likely, honestly, and faster.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say community design is different from other types of human-centered design?

Sloan Leo:
Well, I don’t look at community design as human centered design. Because I find that human centered design … If traditional design is one to one, right? I, Sloan, design a pen for Maurice, one to one to one. Human centered design is like, “Maurice, I’m designing a pen, do you write mostly in black ink or in blue ink?” And you’ll tell me, and I’ll go back and finish the pen. And community design is sitting down to say, “Do we want to write a story together?” That is more many to many, making a decision about, what are we doing here? What tools do we need to do what we’re doing here? Who’s going to do what when? It’s actually shared. It’s like relocating power and decision making to the many instead of the few.

Sloan Leo:
I think nothing could be more urgent right now, because clearly we don’t know how to handle working in collective and in commons, or we wouldn’t have so many collective crises.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was just about to ask, why do you feel it’s important to do this type of work right now? But as you mentioned, being able to work together in that way is something that, especially now that I think about the coordinated responses that have to happen around not even just with vaccines.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah, I was like, “Like vaccines?”

Maurice Cherry:
But fundraising for healthcare, and the storms that just happened in Texas and everything like that. People trying to rally together for resources and stuff. It’s super important right now.

Sloan Leo:
There’s a breakdown somewhere. There’s been a limited coordinated response from our institutions. What’s happened is that people show up for each other. It’s like, if your neighbor needs food, and you realize all your neighbors need food, and how many of your neighbors have the food? How do you move the food? I’m constantly in awe of what emerges in community. In New York people are like, “New York City is dead.” But New York seems more alive to me than the whole 12 years I’ve been here. It’s more dynamic and people rooted and community rooted. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to make it work better for us overall. There’s obviously nuance to that, in terms of resource hoarding and all that kind of stuff.

Sloan Leo:
But the energy of the city feels much more like, “How do I help a neighbor?” As opposed to just how do I help myself?

Maurice Cherry:
I would say that’s one of the good things that has come out of all of this, is really realizing the power of community and that really we have to help each other.

Sloan Leo:
That’s what we got.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s all we’ve got. I mean in a way, it did kind of come because of the lack of support from federal leaders and such like that, that we kind of were fending for ourselves out here.

Sloan Leo:
Yeah. When you feel like a system, like democracy, doesn’t care about, you want to find that care. I think that we are finding that now. Re-understanding what democracy means, and civic participation. Just community nets. Not every community thing is going to happen because there was a nonprofit or a government entity or a business. A lot of things have to happen because they have to happen. If I’ve learned anything from some of our clients it’s like, when I ask them how did you survive 2020, as an organization? These are groups who are working on anything from economic justice, climate justice, but justice. They were like, “It’s not an option. It’s not like this year was like, do we need each other? I don’t know, it’s a luxury to have each other.” Now it’s like, “Because we can’t have each other in the same way and care for each other and work together in the same way, we realize just how much we need that in a different way.”

Sloan Leo:
We’ve all been on community time out, and I think now people are like, “Okay, now I’m ready for the contact sport that is being in community with all these other humans that I live near, work with, share an interest group with.” Or whatever. A shared need.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How are you making space for yourself these days?

Sloan Leo:
It feels timely. I got more notepads, like more big sketchbooks. Because I realized so much of my life is just on my phone or the computer. I’ve been trying to de-digitize a bit, and spend more time with a piece of paper and a pencil. Which, that’s felt kind of kind and gentle with myself. That’s felt good. I hold space for myself with a pretty firm boundary around I don’t work Saturdays ever, I don’t have meetings on Wednesdays ever. Those things literally hold space for me. I also made my apartment a little more comfortable, because I was definitely living that bachelor entrepreneur life. I was like, “You should really get a bed frame, you’re 36.”

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like a lot of people, now that they’ve been at home so much, and that their home has been so many different spaces, or has had to accommodate so many different functions, everyone’s trying to find ways to make things more comfortable, more cozy. I totally feel that.

Sloan Leo:
To the tune of 15 … It’s funny you say that, Maurice. I read a paper this morning, I read a lot of papers, but I read a lot of articles but also reports and papers. Then this morning’s came out and said that, “While employers are trying to figure out if everyone should go back to the office, they’re also like, we saved all this money.” They saved it, but the employees did not. Employees spent $15 billion on home improvements this year. Some bananas number, is this increase in how much money people have been putting into home sound systems, furniture, lighting systems, ring lights, all of this stuff to be working from home. Which continues to push the cost of being employed off of employers and onto employees. That’s a conversation for a whole different day.

Maurice Cherry:
What does home mean to you, then, now?

Sloan Leo:
It feels like my answer is, it feels like a command center. Yeah. I think about it as if I’m sitting in front of one of those Star Trek dashboards, where everything kind of lights up, and I can move things around. It does feel like a central post of everything, in a way that it hasn’t before. I traveled almost a million miles in the last 10 years. 80% of that was domestic. This has been the first year of my life in eight years where I wasn’t traveling twice a week. It feels really like a grounded place, a power source for me.

Maurice Cherry:
If you look back at your life, and look back at your career, if you could go back in time and talk to teenage Sloan, talk to 16 year old Sloan, that’s about to enter college, what advice would you tell them? What advice would you give them?

Sloan Leo:
You don’t want to be a doctor. Just don’t waste the first six years, or the first six months of college figuring out if you want to be a doctor, you don’t want to be a doctor. And I would say that be careful of the desire for fame. Because it should never be the goal.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Have you taken time to think about future sort of work that you’d like to be doing?

Sloan Leo:
When I moved to New York 12 years ago, I really wanted to be a music director. I thought it’d be the best job for me ever. It’s multi-dimensional, it’s creative, and it’s big, and it’s a whole room that people experience. Like you create this whole shared experience. I don’t exactly know what I’ll be doing in five years. But I know I want myself and the studio, I want us to be creating incredible, immersive experiences and installations that make people see how, again, just how intentional and wonderful and complicated but effective and meaningful community can be. That’s all I want. South by Southwest, but for community building. And cooler than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Well just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work and everything online?

Sloan Leo:
The best thing to do is to follow me on Instagram, is where I do a lot of fun things. I’m @theRealSloanLeo. My website is SloanLeo.com. If you have questions about the studio and consulting projects and stuff, it’s just FLOXStudio.com. But the best source to get to all of the things is Sloan Leo, S-L-O-A-N L-E-O, dot com.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. That sounds good. Well, Sloan Leo, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to admit, I was doing my research and I was like, “I am so excited to talk to Sloan.” I have to say, this has been such a great conversation. I feel like you have this nuclear engine inside you, when it comes to the passion that you have for your work. Even for just the brief things that I saw on your website around the exhibitions you’ve done and the work that you’re doing, I’m excited to see what comes next out of FLOX Studio and what you do in the future. I’m just so glad to have had this time to talk with you today. Thank you for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Sloan Leo:
I appreciate that too, Maurice. I forgot to say that the best place to follow a lot of stuff in terms of our projects, and when you can hang out, and what events are happening, is really on my LinkedIn. But regardless, it has been … This is the first interview I’ve ever had where it was like, “If you could reflect on your career.” And I was like, “That feels good. It feels like good aging.” So thanks for giving me a change to have just some perspective on the last 15 years that went really fast.

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Azarra Amoy

We’re back across the pond this week and having a good ol’ chat and a spot of tea with one of London’s most brilliant artists — Azarra Amoy. It was a good time to catch up with her since she just got a new studio!

Azarra spoke on how art is like her diary, and she walked me through some of her inspirations and talked about growing up in London and even spending time in Bangkok before transitioning into her current artistic career. Azarra’s colorful, kinetic designs are a welcome sight during these times, and may also inspire you on your creative journey!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Azarra Amoy:
My name is Azarra Amoy, and I am a multifaceted RS and designer, creative thinker and a student of this crazy world we call life. Or shall I say, yeah I work as an artist, and I’m also a part-time designer. So I work with presentations for a creative agency called Empire. So I do that three to four times a week. And then the rest of the days is all for art.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What is the feeling in London like right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Quiet because we’re back in lockdown. So we’ve been in lockdown just before Christmas, which was a bit mental because it was literally a last minute thing. They were like, yeah, you can spend Christmas with your family. And then literally three days before they’re like, no, everyone’s on lockdown. Basically all the presents you bought, send them back.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no.

Azarra Amoy:
You aren’t seeing your family. So I don’t know how many people actually stuck to that. But right now, I feel like a lot of people are fed up because this is our third lockdown. And it’s just like in and out, in and out. But I’ve just been trying to keep myself busy personally. And check up on friends, family, and try and find some normality in this.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you been doing just kind of overall this year so far?

Azarra Amoy:
So far this year it was quiet. I literally took time out for myself. I was like, before everything gets a bit crazy or if it does get a bit crazy, I just want time for myself because the end of 2020 was a bit nonstop crazy for me work-wise. So it’s just been nice just to just chill, let me think. Write down some goals that I want to achieve personally and professionally. And just take time, eat right, detox from all the drink and food that I ate over Christmas period and just yeah, just reboot.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you I guess … Can you talk about just some of those goals you might have for this year?

Azarra Amoy:
So one of the goals was to sort out my studio. So I moved out of my last studio just before Christmas, and I needed to find … It was a bit last minute.com. And I’ve been trying to find places, but it’s really hard because we’re on lockdown. So it’s through video calls and just trying to work out through pictures if it looks okay. But luckily yesterday I got the keys to a new studio. So I’m really excited to get in there and just fix it up and make it my second home.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice.

Azarra Amoy:
So it’s a bit hard sometimes working from home, separating from work and personal time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, congratulations on the new studio.

Azarra Amoy:
Thank you. I’m really excited.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s one thing that I’ve been thinking about over this whole pandemic quarantine thing, is I got to get my own space. I like my apartment where I’m at. And I’ve worked out of my apartment for a long time. I’ve been doing the working remote thing since 2009. So I’m not unfamiliar with it, but the difference is that I had the option to leave the house.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I could go and work from a coffee shop or work at a client location or travel or something like that. And granted, right now our restrictions aren’t super strict at all. I’m in Georgia, which honestly has been open since last May. There’s been … We had three weeks of lockdown in April. And then we’ve kind of been open. To that effect, our rates are super high because people have been traveling and just coming and going as you please. But as I’ve been working, I was out of work and then got a new job. And I’ve just been thinking, I really want my own space. Granted, my apartment’s nice, but I really want to have that separate workspace that’s just for creativity.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It does make a difference. I miss having my studio space. I was like, I just need to get something.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
But luckily I found a place that’s really nice. It has a balcony and all sorts, so I’m just really happy.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice. So what do your days look like now with lockdown and the new studio space and everything?

Azarra Amoy:
So I usually have a routine, I get up early, do a little meditation, work out. So I’m addicted to spin at the moment. And I login to work at 9:30, so I work three to four days a week depending on how busy they are. And yeah, I login and I usually have schedules set out for me already. So I just crack on with the work. And my team is really small, they’re really lovely. We all have game nights and stuff, and just try and make it as normal as possible. And yeah, I do that until 6:30, and then I usually eat and then spend time on personal projects, whether if that’s just me just trying to do a sketch or a digital collage, those are sort of my go-to things that I do.

Azarra Amoy:
And I do them without even noticing that I do them, if that makes sense. Some people chill and watch Netflix and stuff. But for me, doing a little sketch, a little doodle on something is my chill time. And not everything that I create, I show. So basically I always say that my art is like my diary. It’s like what I feel in the day, or something that’s on my mind because I’m not really … I feel like I’m not a great communicator with words, but I communicate well when I draw. So that’s my output.

Maurice Cherry:
I got you. What are some of the projects that you’re working on right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Art-wise or work-wise as a designer?

Maurice Cherry:
We’ll say art-wise. We’ll say art-wise.

Azarra Amoy:
So art-wise, I’m working with a publishing company. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to mention them yet, but looking to do some illustrations for a children’s book. So I had just recently done a mock-up of stuff. So I’m just waiting on feedback if they’re liking the direction that it’s going. I’m trying to do some personal paintings because fingers crossed with COVID, I will be able to have a solo exhibition, which has been on my list for forever. And last year was meant to be the year, but obviously with what happened, it was a no-go. So I’m hoping come October, that will happen. So I’m just slowly putting their stuff into motion.

Azarra Amoy:
And I’m going to be on a panel for a studio space that’s in Brixton, London. And I’ll be on the panel for their residency. So I’ll be helping select who gets a year’s residency with them. So I’ve been working with that team just discussing a few things. So that’s what I’ve been doing art-wise.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, you’ve got your hands full with a lot.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. I try to keep as busy as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you usually have sort of a limit of the number of projects that you try to take on?

Azarra Amoy:
I listen to what my body tells me, if that makes sense. So if I feel like I’m really run down, then I have no problem just saying no to whatever project comes. It’s like, no, sorry, you need some you time just to just relax. So I just go off on how I feel, and that’s how I take on the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So these are … Just the projects you mentioned between a book cover, personal paintings, doing this panel, talk to me about how you approach a new project. It can be any type of project. What’s sort of your thought process when it comes to that?

Azarra Amoy:
I guess with a lot of projects that do come my way, they usually come to me because they know my style of artwork. So for example, I feature a lot of black … All the women I feature in my artwork are black women. Me myself, I’m a black woman. So yeah, I think it just comes from … I’ve been lucky enough to be able to navigate where the direction of the artwork goes because they know my style. So they know that’s the sort of direction, and what I’m trying to portray and uplift black women in the artwork that I do. So that sort of is usually the base. And then from there, I just then add on what the client wants, if that makes sense. And yeah, and then from there I usually do a mock-up. And then they give feedback.

Azarra Amoy:
So that’s how I’ve always really done it. So and usually I research into certain stuff. So right now, I’m really interested in the black Madonna, which is religious, the black Virgin Mary.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
Let’s put it that way. And I’ve been looking to the history of that, which is really interesting because these countries that are really popular with the black Madonna are not exactly the most black-friendly places. So it’s really interesting how they worship this idol of this black Virgin Mary. But in day-to-day sort of experiences, they’re not like that with people of color in real life. It’s just a weird, she’s allowed to be worshiped, but if you put a black woman in front of them, they’ll do anything to put them down, if that makes sense?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
I just go off of what surrounds me, what comes to mind, stuff that I see [inaudible 00:12:42], things that I see in movies, magazines, blogs that just trigger something, and I’ll just start researching.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ve actually got a church here in my neighborhood here in Atlanta called Shrine of the Black Madonna. It’s a church, it’s a cultural center. They do events and stuff there. So I’m familiar with the concept that you’re talking about. Do you usually try to have some religious iconography in your work, or is this just a particular … Or is it a particular figure I guess you’re kind of obsessed with right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah, it’s just a particular figure that I’m obsessed with right now. So yeah, not all work features, but it just … I don’t think I have any religious features, no, in my work. So this is just something new that I’ve come across that I find really interesting, and we’ll see where it’ll take me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Is there anyone out there that you would love to collaborate with?

Azarra Amoy:
Oh. I guess right now it would be interesting to … I have no one in mind, but there are a lot of people that I have collaborated with have been London-based. So it would be nice to collaborate with people from different countries to gain their experience, to understand their experience and how it’s similar and how we can collab. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
But I can’t think of no one from the top of my head right now.

Maurice Cherry:
From looking at your style, your style actually reminds me a lot of another mixed media artist that I had on the show. God when was that? That might’ve been about two or three years ago. This guy in … He’s in New York. His name is Kendrick Daye, D-A-Y-E.

Azarra Amoy:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
He does kind of this similar collage mixed media kind of work. So your art reminds me a lot of what he’s doing. You all have very sort of similar styles in terms of I think the color and the elements. I think your work at least from the work that I’ve seen, there’s a lot of play on symmetry.

Azarra Amoy:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
With portraiture and things. You try to have a lot of symmetry, which I think is really nice.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. I like the whole kaleidoscope kind of effect in my work. So there’s always some sort of symmetry as much as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the hardest part about what you do?

Azarra Amoy:
Knowing when to stop. As an art issue, always something try to over-perfect. And I speak to my cousin every day, and there’s this painting that I’ve literally been working on for about two and a half years. And I just don’t know when to stop. I’m like, no, it’s not right. It’s not right. And he’s just like, it’s never going to be right. Just show the world. The art is amazing. I’m just like, no, it’s not ready. And just know when to say, okay, that’s enough. It’s never going to be right sort of thing. And you can always add … The beautiful thing about art, you can always add to it. Just because you start and you show the world, doesn’t mean that, that’s the end of it. You can add on to it. You can take away. You can make it into something completely different.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So kind of switching gears here a little bit, were you born and raised in London?

Azarra Amoy:
Yes I was.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, tell me about that. Did you kind of get exposed to a lot of art and design growing up?

Azarra Amoy:
Most definitely. My parents are both creatives in their own way. So my dad paints. And well, he enjoys painting. He’s a painter and decorator by trade. And my mom just dabbled in everything I guess. I guess that’s where I get a lot of my creative talent from. So she was a hairdresser. She was that crazy mom who had the bright hair, then green hair, and then orange hair. Every time she turned up to pick me up from school, her hair was always different colors. So she was the crazy, cool art mom. And she’d done fashion, yeah just around the house little DIY projects. Whenever she was sewing, she always used to set me little tasks to do. So I’ll make a pencil case from scratch. Make little bags for myself.

Azarra Amoy:
Just stuff like that. So and I think she got that from my grandma because my grandma’s like, “You must know how to sew. It’s a key thing because you don’t have any money or you don’t have anything, at least you can sew the clothes on your back.” You can make curtains, you can make a chair, you can do whatever. As long as you can sew.” So that’s one of the skills that was drummed into me from a very young age.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like being exposed to all this so young, did you have a feeling that this is what you wanted to do? Or was this just a part of your world?

Azarra Amoy:
It was just a part of my world to be honest. I didn’t even think of it as a career choice or anything like that. It was just a way of life, and it only hit me that actually this is what I really want to do as my career choice was not until I moved to Bangkok and I went there to work in doing something completely random. I was working as a governess, which is like a nanny almost for a family out there. And I was just getting really down. I was like, no, this is not being homesick, this is something else. And it just wasn’t clicking to me. And then one day I was just sitting on the sofa and I was like, I know. I know why I’m so down. I know why I’m feeling a little depressed.

Azarra Amoy:
And I was like, I haven’t picked up a pen, I haven’t drawn anything. I haven’t made anything. That’s what it is. So as soon as that popped into my head, I jumped in the bike taxis, I went to the nearest shopping center and bought up a whole load of art supplies. And it just that feeling of just being creative again, I was just like, yeah, I’m coming back home and this is what I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Were you studying abroad? How did you end up in Bangkok being a governess? That seems like such a random kind of departure from what you were doing.

Azarra Amoy:
So my friend was actually working as a governess out there. And she’s like, oh, there’s this family that’s looking for a governess. I’m going to put your forward, do you mind. And I was like, I have no experience in this. She’s like, it doesn’t matter. Go interview and if they like you, then come over. And I was like, well, this is a bit out of my comfort zone. I was tempted to say, no. But I felt like it was one of those things that in a few years time I’ll kick myself like, why didn’t you just take the opportunity. So I went with it, and I had about three interviews with this family. And they’re like, yeah, just we’ll pay for your ticket. Apartment’s paid for, just come over.

Azarra Amoy:
And I was like, oh okay. And I stayed there for a year, and yeah, it got to the point where I was just like, this is not where I’m meant to be. But I absolutely love Bangkok. There’s a place in my heart for Bangkok.

Maurice Cherry:
You are the second person that I’ve interviewed recently that has had some tie or connection to Bangkok. That is so … Yeah I just interviewed an artist in Washington DC here named Reggie Black. And he spent four years in Bangkok as a designer and doing talks and stuff like that. You let me know because you were there, was Bangkok a really creative city?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. There’s loads of stuff to do. It’s like the city that kind of, it doesn’t sleep. Which is not like London. London, people always think that London’s busy and stuff. But come a certain time, things just shut down. But Bangkok’s just, they have a night market. There’s just lights, there’s culture, there’s just artwork everywhere, music. It’s just a really nice atmosphere. So yeah, definitely I would love to go back to Bangkok under creative or creative reasons anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you went to the University of the Arts in London. Can you tell me what your time was like there?

Azarra Amoy:
Oh, I was there for a while because the University of the Arts, they have different campuses.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Azarra Amoy:
So, well different colleges under the University of the Arts. So the first one I went to was the Art College in Camberwell. Camberwell Art College it’s called. And I had done a foundation art course there. So that course is just to help you build your portfolio and understand which direction you want to go in creatively. So you do a bit of fashion, a bit of graphic design, a bit of sculpture, painting, et cetera. And then from there you branch off into which field you’re more comfortable with. So that was my first college, and I actually went into graphic design. And now looking back at it, I was like, why did I do that? Because I was really interested in sculpture, but I thought, oh, how can I make money as a sculpture?

Azarra Amoy:
I’m just thinking, I think people are in your ear like, how can you make money from being a sculpture. Graphic design makes more sense. So I went down that route. And then I ended up in London College of Communication, which is where they do mostly sort of graphics, digital courses there. And I had actually done a foundation degree, which then turns into a full degree if you did the final year. So I had only done two years of that. So I have a foundation degree in graphic communication. And I was like, I actually absolutely hate this. So I was like, but I want a full degree. So I managed to sort of blag my way onto another degree course, which was something completely different, magazine publishing.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Azarra Amoy:
So I spoke to the head of the course. I was like, “Yeah, I’m really interested in doing this course. I have experience.” which was not true. I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “Oh okay.” She looked at my grades. She’s like, “Okay, you can join the course, but over the summer you have to do some coursework to make up.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” And she’s like, “Okay.” And I made it happen thank God. And from there, I graduated in magazine publishing, which is a weird course because it’s a bit of design, a bit of PR, marketing, all of the stuff that you need to know basically of how to run a magazine.

Azarra Amoy:
So by the time I graduated, it was that weird shift between print into digital. So I was like, this course was mostly about print. And now I’m graduating and everyone’s transitioning to digital. I was like, what is going on? I was like, all the places where I had done work placements at, their print … All the prints of their magazines were being shut down the department, the print department of their team. So I was just like, everyone’s just shutting down. I don’t know anything about digital. So I think that kind of scared me and I just sort of was stuck for a while thinking, what am I going to do next? I don’t know anything about digital. Should I take a course or something?

Azarra Amoy:
And I think I was stuck in a rut for a long time. And I just continued at my job that I was doing during uni, which was working in retail. And that, that’s when … After that, that’s when I went to Bangkok, and that just opened my eyes.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Well, it sounds like that trip to Bangkok was what you needed, if you were at this point where you had went through all this school and you were feeling stuck.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
A change of scenery will do it.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah, because over here I saw they sort of sell you a dream. They’re like, yeah, once you leave uni you’ll be able to get a job. And that’s what I thought. I was like, yeah, as soon as I go through it, I’ll be able to get a job easy. No. Not like that at all. Everyone I speak to, they’re like, yeah, we saw the same dream. And then it hits you. Life hits you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know that feeling all too well. I graduated … Well, I didn’t go to design school, but I graduated with a degree in math. And I really had no career prospects lined up after school. I was still working like you. I was working the job that I was working while I was at school, which was just selling tickets at the symphony. Just selling to old white patrons that wanted to hear Chopin or whatever. Telling them where to sit and stuff.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And it wasn’t until a few years after that, that I sort of ended up falling into design. But yeah, sometimes that’s how it is. School’s … And that’s not really I guess the fault of … I don’t want to say it’s the fault of the schools. It’s really the fault of the market.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Just because you come out with a degree, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ready to go right into working somewhere because maybe you need a portfolio or maybe the school that you have has a different reputation that this company doesn’t go for. So I don’t know, it can be tricky. I know it’s tricky here in the States. I can imagine it’s the same way overseas as well.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah, definitely. It’s not easy. And as you said, it’s true, you can’t blame the institutions for the lack of opportunities once you leave. But I think with the course I was saying, the foundation degree course, that was meant to be heavily work experience-based. And when we joined, everyone was like, where’s this work experience? Because we were meant to have industry teachers come in every week.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Azarra Amoy:
To teach us from different companies and stuff. And we literally had one the whole year. We’re like, this is not what we signed up for. And we were all meant to be allocated sort of a mentor from the industry, which they were going to provide. So there was meant to be a mentorship scheme and stuff. But yeah, it didn’t work out that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Azarra Amoy:
But here I am. I found my feet.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you went to Bangkok, you worked there as a governess. You didn’t like it. That sort of sparked you wanting to become a designer. And you came … Did you come right back to London after that?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Straight back to London.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was your plan once you got back?

Azarra Amoy:
I had saved some money whilst doing this job because I didn’t have to pay rent or anything like that. So I had saved, and I was like, okay, I’m going to give myself a year to really try and get this running. And if there’s no progress, then I’m going to have to really rethink this. So when I came back, I was just applying for sort of any artist call-outs and stuff like that. And I was just … I just began painting. And luckily I had a friend who used to do an evening called Arts Meets Music. And he was like yeah, why don’t you display some of your artwork at one of these events? And I was like, amazing, jumped on it. And then from there, that’s how I met people. And someone told me about, oh … Some of my artwork [inaudible 00:27:32] murals.

Azarra Amoy:
Because my paintings are such large scale paintings. And they’re like, why don’t you do murals? So I was like, oh, I never thought of that. I just thought street art is murals. Spray paint, I’d never touched a spray can in my life. How can I do this? Well, let me just apply for a call-out that I saw, which was local to me. And I actually had a dream that told … People think I’m crazy when I say this. I actually had a dream about it. And I was like, I woke up from this dream and I was like, yes, let me do the application now. And I actually won. And I was like, oh, this was a sign. So I had done it, I was like, okay, I’m going to literally win this because I’ve never spray painted in my life.

Azarra Amoy:
And the mural actually came out really nice. And it’s still there in Brixton until this day. And from there, people just started contacting me. “Oh yeah, do you want to do a mural here?” “Do you want to do a mural there?” And I was like, wow, I was really not expecting this. And I found a new passion for something else as well. That’s how I got into the murals.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of which, that’s the mural that’s … People can see that in the cover art for this episode. The one that you’re standing next to.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s quite a mural. So you worked on all of that by yourself? Or did you have a … Did you work with another artist or anything?

Azarra Amoy:
Yes. So this, the mural that you’re talking about, I worked with another artist called Lynette [inaudible 00:28:49]. And I worked with her on two other projects as well. So the person who created the project, [inaudible 00:28:57], she knew both of us. So she knew that we worked together, and she wanted two artists who had a good relationship who can work well together. And she’s more of a calligraphy artist. And I’m more of a sort of paint now, visual graphics. So both of our styles just seemed to work together. So she commissioned both of us to do the project. And yeah, and it worked out amazing. I’m really happy with the outcome.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s a beautiful mural. It’s a beautiful mural.

Azarra Amoy:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ll make sure that I will link so people can see the full thing because with the cover art it’s just sort of cut off in that square. As I was looking through your website and looking at your projects, one project I saw that I really liked was the work that you did with MTV. How’d you end up working with them?

Azarra Amoy:
So they contacted me last year about the award. And they’re like, it’s a really short turnaround. But we really love your style, and really think that it will suite … My art style will suite the award winners. So all the award winners for the … It was … Let me get the name off the award. Generation Change Award. All the winners are black female women or women of color, sorry. And I was like, well, I paint women of color and I paint women. So I was like, yes. All these women who have won, so it’s Raquel and Willis, [inaudible 00:30:23], Louisa Brazil, Kathea … She’s going to kill me for pronouncing her name. [inaudible 00:30:32] and [inaudible 00:30:33]. Sorry, my pronunciation of the names are terrible. And yeah, these women are amazing. They’re doing so much for our generation, for the future generation, fighting. They’re all amazing activists within their field.

Azarra Amoy:
I was just so excited just to be asked just to create something personal for them. So all of the awards … Each of their awards is hand-painted and customized to them. So it was a very special project. I was very happy to be selected and honored.

Maurice Cherry:
So these days when it comes to big, high profile projects like that, are the projects coming to you, or are you seeking them out?

Azarra Amoy:
Luckily they seem to be coming to me. I have no idea where MTV saw my stuff from because when they contacted me, they showed me some of the artwork that they liked. And I was like, this is so random. It’s literally just random artwork that I just posted on Instagram, not thinking anything of it. Just, oh, this is what I’ve been doing during lockdown. Here’s a painting sort of thing. Just didn’t think about it. And those are the ones that they selected. So it was interesting because I would’ve thought it would be something that … Like another big project that I’d done before or something like that. But no, they contacted me. I was very lucky.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of your influences? Like I mentioned, the work that you’re doing, this sort of collage work is very vibrant. And certainly very unique. Who influences you or what influences you I should say?

Azarra Amoy:
As I said before, a lot of the collages and painting that I do are stuff that I do daily. So they just represent my mood. It could be influenced by a song that I’ve just had on repeat all day that makes me feel good. I’m like, oh, I’m going to do a collage on that. I know it sounds typical, but literally the women that I have around me are amazing from my sister, my mom. A lot of the other artists that I work with are mostly females. So yeah, they push me and inspire me constantly.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage in your career, you are doing these large scale projects and things of that nature, what does black art mean to you?

Azarra Amoy:
Black art for me is a place to be free. It’s a way for me to share my experiences and also hopefully uplift other black women. I think that’s important because representation especially in the art world … I don’t know about in the States, but over here the art world is very white male-based. These institutions are very white man, paint a sculpture sort of thing. And that’s even projected in the education within the art education when I was at uni and school. So for me, it’s about representation, authenticity, and just uplifting. That’s what art means to me. It’s just being free.

Maurice Cherry:
What is sort of the London design scene like for you right now? Being on lockdown, are there ways that you’re able to connect with creatives?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. So I’m part of … What’s that group’s … I sign up to online courses. So one of the courses that I use is Black Blossoms. So it’s an online art school. And you sign up and there’s different art courses. So every week there’s a different course. And I’ve been literally killing those. I’m right now, the course that I’m on is the Art Revolution in China, which is really interesting. Just opening up my eyes to different genres of art that I just wasn’t exposed to. And having these other women in these blossom art groups, and all of us just sharing opportunities like oh, someone’s contacted me to do this, but I just don’t have time. Any of you sort of have any idea of someone or if you want to do it? And we’re just sharing contacts, sharing opportunities because everyone’s just trying to eat. Some people have been made redundant from jobs and stuff. So I think, I feel like there’s a real sense of everyone coming together and just trying to help each other out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a good thing that you’re able to kind of use technology as a way to reach out to people and to sort of have that fellowship and that … Also the ability to kind of work together. I don’t know if you collaborated with anyone solely on a virtual level with any work?

Azarra Amoy:
I worked with a team who I had done murals with in the past. And I was actually scheduled to do a mural with them summertime last year, but it didn’t work out. So in the end, it ended up being a digital project. So from there it’s just, it was all online-based having to work from that sort of platform, I wasn’t able to research how I usually research sometimes. So especially if I’m doing artwork in a certain location or reference if it’s referencing a certain location, I usually go out with my camera, take photos. I just spend the day there, really just take in the atmosphere, but being obviously locked in the house, I’ve just had to find other ways. So YouTube, and watching old documentaries on the area, just trying to gain as much information. Trying to put out contact people via Instagram, which is a bit wild. But just people who you see off on the area and you can try and, “Hey, this is a bit weird, but I just want to get an understanding what this location means to you.” Or get as much interviews and stuff like that, which I’ve never really worked that way.

Azarra Amoy:
So definitely even after we come out of lockdown, I think I’ll be using those forms definitely to my practice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Sounds like you picked up a new skill over the pandemic.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Which is cool because I’m literally … I’m a person who keeps themselves to themselves. So it’s definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone having to talk to people. And even doing interviews, I don’t like my first Instagram Live at the end of last year. And I was like, I’ve never done this before. I was so nervous. And just doing radio shows as well I’ve been doing. So it’s been practice. I’m not great at interviews, but I’m getting there.

Maurice Cherry:
Practice makes perfect, let me tell you. Just the more that you’re able to do it, the more comfortable you’ll become. That’s really the best way to do it. You get more comfortable, you end up kind of being able to pull on … Particularly if you’re talking about different projects that you’ve done. You’re able to kind of pull those narratives out really easily. So if I could give any advice, I would say, take all the opportunities that come to you because each of them is just a way for you to get better at it.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Definitely. And it’s just fighting the inner demons as well because it’s so easy to sort of self-sabotage. Be like, oh, I don’t want to do this. It’s out of my comfort zone. But you just … I just push myself all the time, and just be like, come on Azarra. Come on. Do my little speech to try and motivate myself and be like, you’re going to look back at this and think, oh, what was I panicking about? It’s so simple.

Maurice Cherry:
Because the flip side to it especially I think with doing a podcast interview is that the audience is vast and varied and diverse. There may be someone that’s out there listening that is like you. And is like, oh, well if she’s doing it, then I can do it.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. And I hope there is someone out there. You can do it.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Success for me is doing what I love. Yeah. Doing what I love and getting paid for it, which is the dream. So I’m always selective as well on what I work on. If it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t sit right with my core, or if it doesn’t feel authentic to me and feels forced, then I try to avoid it in a sense, but not restrict myself at the same time. So for me, it’s just what brings me joy at the moment because especially in times like this, you have to be selective with your energy. Even though you’re not being around a lot of people, it’s draining. So just trying to find happiness in everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you think your life would have gone if you weren’t a working artist? What else do you think you would’ve been doing?

Azarra Amoy:
I can’t even imagine that life. Something creative definitely. But maybe in a different field. For ages, I wanted to be an architect. Which is completely random. And I was actually so close, I applied for it at uni and everything. And I just last minute changed my mind and done the art foundation course because I was like, I haven’t explored all that’s out there creatively. So for me to just rush into being an architect doesn’t feel right at the moment. But yeah, probably an architect or maybe something with children. I love kids, so a teacher. There’s one. I probably would’ve been a teacher.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What sort of work do you want to be doing?

Azarra Amoy:
So I would love to be working full-time as an artist, and hopefully have my own creative agency and be doing what I do full-time. Even though as much as I love being a presentation designer, I would like to have more time to do projects that I really well. Whereas, working as a presentation designer, you’re restricted by what the client wants, Gram brand guidelines and stuff like that. It’s very sort of corporate, I would say corporate design. Whereas, as a creative, if I had to … My agency, I would be able to be selective and really push the boundaries and collab more with other people. Which is definitely on my list of things to do. Just get myself out there and just learn and work with other people. That’s the big thing for me, learning new skills as well. And just bringing that all together.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find more about you and about your work and everything online?

Azarra Amoy:
So you can check out my website, which is azarraamoy.com. And I’m also on Instagram @AzarraAmoy. And also on Twitter, which I don’t tweet that much, but just in case. It’s, ThisisAzarra. That’s my Twitter account.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Azarra Amoy, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you really for kind of sharing your creative journey and showing how you can really sort of find creativity in sort of the most seemingly unlikely of places. You were a governess like you said, in Bangkok. And you decided, oh, this is what I want to do. But no, the art that you’re creating is so vibrant and beautiful. And I’m just really excited to kind of see where you go from here. Hopefully one day we will be hearing about that exhibition that you’re planning.

Azarra Amoy:
Yes, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Azarra Amoy:
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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