Elsa Amri

We’re going international this week to talk with a super talented visual designer — Elsa Amri. I first learned about Elsa via an Adobe Live presentation, and I had to reach out and learn more about her and have her share her story and her message with Revision Path!

Elsa talked about how she’s grown over the past year, including doing work with Adobe, and she spoke about growing up in Tanzania and studying abroad in the United Kingdom and discovering design. We also talked about her time teaching English in Japan, returning to Tanzania, the Tanzanian design scene in Dar es Salaam, and the power of networking over the Internet (and how it has helped boost her design career). I love how Elsa’s ingenuity, drive, and determination have contributed to her design success!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Elsa Amri:
Yes. My name is Elsa Amri. I am a visual designer from Tanzania and currently I work as a junior visual brand identity designer with an agency in Canada, actually. So more of a remote role, but I also do freelance work as a visual designer with clients here in TZ and also a few outside of TZ, so more international clients. I was until recently a student at Humber College, a school in Canada studying user experience design, but I graduated, technically I completed my course. So up until recently, that’s what I’ve been doing education-wise and now primarily I kind of just work as a freelancer and designer with a company in Canada, but that’s a bit about me and what I’m doing right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations on your recent graduation.

Elsa Amri:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, what’s been on your mind lately? How are things going in general?

Elsa Amri:
It’s definitely been a bit of a switch up. I was doing the course since January. So I kind of got used to the whole schedule of learning for a couple of hours, kind of working on group assignments and now it’s like I have all this free time. I technically still have work, but it’s a lot more free time than I was used to for several months. So I think I’m still in the process of trying to adapt to all this extra time I have and trying to use it more productively, building myself up more as a designer. But it’s kind of a limbo period for me right now that I guess will go away soon, but that’s kind of how I’m feeling.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’d say maybe aside from you just graduating, how have things changed over the past year? Have you grown and improved in any ways? What’s been a big change from this year to last year or from last year to this year, I should say?

Elsa Amri:
I definitely would say that I have grown and improved because at the start of the year, I told myself that I wanted to really push myself in terms of promoting my work and creating more work. So actually creating content that I can promote and just really putting myself out there in ways that I didn’t do last year. And I’ve seen kind of the outcome of actually doing that and taking on that challenge.

Elsa Amri:
So there have been opportunities and roles I’ve gotten that I would’ve never thought I’d get to do at this point in my career, but I have been able to do simply because I was a lot more open and a lot more forward in terms of really reaching out to people, connecting with people and just sharing my content and not being afraid to do that. So I’d say this year I’ve been a lot bolder in that sense and I’ve seen that it’s paid off in a lot of different ways, which has been pretty awesome. And I’m just hoping to keep that up and do even more as the year goes on as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That is awesome. One of my favorite sayings is, fortune favors the bold. And you have to shoot those shots. You have to be bold and forward because the worst thing that anybody’s going to say is no. So you kind of have to, especially if you’re, I think just starting out as a designer or you’re starting to get your footing as a freelancer, you have to take those big wild shots in order to even grow and progress. Because no one’s going to hold your hand and tell you which way to go or anything like that.

Elsa Amri:
Exactly. No, I agree with that. You have to kind of put yourself outside of your comfort zone, which can be scary, but likely you’re going to benefit from it in some way. You just kind of have to take that first step.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And speaking to those big opportunities and we talked about this before we started the recording. You’ve been doing some presentations with Adobe over the past few months or so. How did you first get involved with them?

Elsa Amri:
Oh gosh. Let me try to think back. I think Adobe, the main design program I use for interface design for website or app design is Adobe XD and that’s kind of been my go-to for a while. So I was always using the product and over time, I guess you could say around last year or maybe even end of 2019, I became more involved in the actual community. So on Discord and stuff, they have challenges and they have these different channels that you can participate in. So I started becoming a lot more active within the community and even though they didn’t help directly, I think it kind of put me on a path towards, like you said, doing the Adobe stuff that I’ve been able to do this year.

Elsa Amri:
So around the start of this year, like I mentioned previously, I decided to kind of put my content out there more. And I made a Twitter specifically for my design stuff, which was kind of an interesting decision because I didn’t think Twitter would be effective at all. I had a personal Twitter but I didn’t tweet at all. So I didn’t even have any followers or anything. I kind of just used it to catch up with what other people were saying but somebody recommended to create a design Twitter. And I was like, “Okay, cool. Let’s try this out.” Apparently the design community is pretty awesome, which it is. I ended up discovering, but I would share a lot of my content on Twitter and I would follow all these other accounts, also Adobe accounts as well and particular designers within Adobe that I admired and look up to.

Elsa Amri:
And in terms of the Adobe Live opportunity, that really came by chance. I can’t even say that it was directly me. It was more like I posted something cool or what other people thought was cool. And it got a lot of reach and engagement and then somebody tagged one of the senior designers in Adobe. So his name is Howard Pinsky, to check my content out and he did and he liked it. And then that same person recommended that I should be an Adobe Live. And for some reason that was more than enough because Howard asked me if I wanted to be an Adobe Live after that. And I said, “Yes, I definitely want to be on Adobe Live.” So that’s kind of how that happened. So it kind of by chance, but I think it wouldn’t have happened at all if I didn’t obviously create a Twitter and put more of my content out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it sounds like initially you found a way to kind of get on Adobe’s radar by doing things that are in the community properties that they manage and things of that nature but then also you had this separate Twitter. So you were really doing a lot of brand marketing with getting your name out there and getting your work out there, which I think that’s a really smart thing to do. I’ve worked for some SaaS companies that they try to do community, not in the best way, but it’s interesting the way that people get on our radar or the way that we know who our fans are or who other people that really like the work, is through the community stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, especially if you’re using something where all your users are just usernames and they don’t have profiles or anything like that, it’s hard to really kind of know, well, who are these people? You just sort of see them as this aggregate set, but if you’re participating in our support forums, if you’re on a Discord, like you said, or even Twitter or something like that, that’s how we ended up finding like, “oOh, these are the people that really like the work that we do. They’re tagging us, they’re talking to us.”

Maurice Cherry:
So I would, for designers that are listening that want to sort of, I would say get in the good graces or get on the radar of companies that they admire, reach out to them through their community efforts and platforms. That’s really the best way to do it. Not just to complain. A lot of people complain about Adobe, of course, but if you’re doing work with that platform and you want them to just kind of know about it, that’s the best and easiest way to kind of get noticed and seen. So that’s really cool.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. I agree. Because you might be surprised how many brands do appreciate that and we’ll respond in some way. So there’s another brand as well called Voiceflow, I don’t know how many people have heard of, but it’s kind of a platform where you can implement voice features in whatever product you’ve designed. And I made something that included their product with one of my class projects and I posted it and I tagged them and they were so, I don’t know if grateful is the right word, but they responded so positively. They shared what I said. They followed me. They promoted the post that I published. So a lot of brands do respond positively to you tagging them or sharing your content with them, telling people, “Oh, I made this with this particular program.” It’s typically seen in a positive light. So people should always kind of be forward and doing that kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. They really should. And I’m telling you from the company that’s worked in those marketing departments, it makes our job so much easier. And we can see the community talking back to us and letting us know because then we don’t have to try to hunt and find down, well, who are the people that we should focus on and spotlight on? Especially, especially people of color and especially women. It makes all the difference if you’re reaching out to the company and letting them know about this kind of stuff that you’re doing because it makes our job easier. And it helps us help you because a lot of these companies are really, especially software companies, and I’m kind of giving a bit of inside baseball here, but a lot of software companies have zero idea how to approach community, zero.

Maurice Cherry:
The most that they will do is put up a Twitter account, maybe a Discord account or Discord about something, that’s about it. They’re really depending on people to talk to them because these are generally, and I’m generalizing here, these are software developers that do not have social skills. I’m being completely honest here. It is so, so, so beneficial to just reach out to us and let us know what you’re doing because there’s a saying, closed mouths don’t get fed. A lot of these companies that have these community efforts are struggling to find ways to do things better for their users because they want their users to be rabid fans. They want this tool that they’ve spent hours, weeks, months, years building to take off and be really profitable. And the way that that happens is if they have a community of people behind them that love the tool and the product. So reach out, talk to them. Trust me, they want to hear from you because otherwise they really don’t have much to go off of. I’m just being totally honest there.

Elsa Amri:
I agree completely. We’ve got [inaudible 00:14:45] inside from you.

Maurice Cherry:
So I see on Instagram, you’ve been doing this little personal series called, Introverts Talk. Tell me about that?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. And also a good reminder that I need to kind of create a new post to that series that I started it initially because I do describe myself as an introvert. Typically, because I do like my own space and my own me time, which is, I guess, your typical introvert and I thought, “Oh, okay. So I’m an introvert and I work in design, which typically is a collaborative kind of environment.” You’re working with other people, other designers, sometimes people in different roles, engineers, et cetera. So you do kind of have to know how to work with people in different ways and accommodate yourself to their situation or vice versa. And I thought, “Okay, this is interesting. I’m in this industry, I’m working as a designer, but I’m also an introvert. So what are some things about both those aspects of my profession or aspects of my personality that would be interesting to talk about?”

Elsa Amri:
Because I knew other introverted designers, but I had never really come across content from the perspective of an introvert designer. So I was like, “Okay, why not share my perspective, my stories, kind of what I’m experiencing on a day-to-day basis and maybe other people would relate to it in some way.” So initially that’s kind of why I started it. It was more of a personal thing. I wanted to take a bit of a break from just typical design stuff and put out more personal content. And a lot of people did resonate with it, which was extremely surprising more than I thought would, but it was reassuring to kind of see that all these people were in somewhat similar situations and related to some of the points that I mentioned. I was like, “Okay, there are a lot of us and a lot of us kind of have those similar experiences and we should definitely talk about it more.” I feel like that’s not talked about enough except occasionally, but it should be a point of discussion a lot more often in the design industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I agree with that. I mean, one of the interesting things about sort of what this past, gosh, I’d say two years now has done, even with this pandemic is, it’s in a lot of ways kind of flattened communication across different parts of the design industry. I know prior to all of this, the people that really were out there that were getting seen and doing stuff were the folks that were always at conferences and doing podcasts and they were outs being visual, not being visual, they were out really in a very big way in the community, you could see who they were. And now that everything has kind of been condensed to online, it’s made people that maybe aren’t as social or don’t want to be a social for whatever reason, have an avenue to also now be seen and talk about their work in a way that maybe prior to this they wouldn’t have, because it would involve stepping outside of their comfort zone in that way.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you are in Tanzania, which I don’t know how much of our audience really knows a ton about Tanzania. Is that where you grew up?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. That is where I grew up. I moved right before I started uni. So essentially 99% of my life has been here in TZ and that’s kind of where I am now as well, but that’s totally where I grew up.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed a lot to art and design growing up through your family or anything?

Elsa Amri:
No. I actually wasn’t. The only exposure I had to, let’s say in art, was learning art in school and that kind of art was either music. So growing up, I did play the piano or it was drawing. So the typical painting classes that you would have at school. And that was kind of what I did, but neither of those were stuff that I thought I was great at. I was decent at the piano but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do full-time or anything like that. And when it came to literal arts or drawing and that kind of thing, I never thought I was that good at it. So growing up, eventually going through high school, I kind of lost interest in both those things.

Elsa Amri:
When it actually came to the type of design I do today, so graphic design or website design, app design, we didn’t do that at school at all. So it was never something growing up that I was like, “Oh yeah, this is interesting. I want to do this.” But I also think back then it was also just not popular or not a thing yet. Graphic design, maybe to a certain extent, but definitely not user experience or user interface design at all. So my path to actually becoming a designer started way later. So towards the end of university, because I didn’t really have that exposure to art or a similar kind of art growing up.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Well, let’s talk about university. You went to the University of Leeds and you majored in communication and media studies. What was your time like there?

Elsa Amri:
Leads was awesome. I was there for three years. Yeah, three years and it was such a great experience. Whenever I think back to it. I’m always like, “Yeah, I’m definitely glad I went to Leeds.” Because it’s interesting, when I applied to go there, I didn’t know what I wanted to do like I’m assuming most high school graduates. You don’t really have an idea of what you want to do as a career for the rest of your life. It’s a lot of pressure to kind of figure that out at such a young age. So when I did apply to Leeds and a couple of other schools, I didn’t have a solid idea, but I thought, “Okay, I like media.” And at the time I liked studying media representations, I thought that was interesting. So I was like, “Okay, let’s apply for communication media at the university of Leeds.” And that’s what I ended up going to do.

Elsa Amri:
In terms of my actual experience at the university, the course itself was very theoretical. So not what I wanted exactly or what I learned, I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be writing essays and doing research for the rest of my life, but everything else outside of it was an experience that I think really helped me grow as a person. So the city itself, I fell in love with. I think, Leeds is an awesome city. I guess you could say not super busy if you compare it to places like London, but also not boring. There’s a ton of stuff to do. So I found that I became a lot more outgoing and a lot more open and social during my time there because it was such a new experience, very different from the city I grew up in. And I was able to kind of do a lot more stuff that I never had the chance to do.

Elsa Amri:
The university was huge. There were so many, societies is what they were called, I guess maybe in the states you might call them clubs, after school activity type things, that you could engage in and participate in and I did so much. So I felt like during my three years there, I picked up all these new skills and met all these great people and it just helped me grow and develop as a person. So I kind of always looked back on it as, “Okay, it was an awesome experience.” Maybe in terms of the course I took, it wasn’t the best but everything else outside of that was awesome. It kind of helped me grow.

Maurice Cherry:
And Leads is kind of, I mean, here in the states we call it a college town, but it’s a town that has several universities. So you always have kind of this vibrant throng of students and culture and everything that comes through, I think every year.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. You would always run into young people or you said students, there were quite a few universities there. So exactly, it always felt vibrant. There was always something going on, something that you could do. So in that sense, it was just such a great city to really kind of branch out in.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And so while you were at Leeds, this is when you kind of first saw and looked at design as something that you wanted to do, is that right?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. I guess you could say kind of. So in my final year I took an optional course where, it was called mobile design and it was mostly theory. So studying concepts about mobile design, but we had an optional assignment where you could actually design a mobile product. And I remember I took the option of doing that assignment because I thought it might be interesting to kind of do more of a practical concept piece. That I would say is the first time that I really designed anything at all. And that whole experience was new to me, but also exciting because it was the first time I was doing a school assignment and I wasn’t bored. I was actually interested in what I was creating. I didn’t mind spending hours and hours and hours of my time building this product.

Elsa Amri:
I even remember back then I was using Sketch, I believe, that was the first UI/UX design software that I came across and I downloaded it and I used it to build that app. Looking back on it now it was not a very well-designed app, but at the time I thought, “Wow, this is amazing. I’m really good at this.” But the whole point was it really ignited something in me for the first time and really made me think, “Oh, okay, this is interesting. I kind of really liked doing this. Maybe I should look into what kind of career might involve this type of work more.”

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go a little bit deeper into that. When you describe that feeling, how did it fulfill you? In what ways do you feel like doing that project sort of made design really click for you in your brain?

Elsa Amri:
I think it was because I enjoyed every single moment of it. So we had a problem that was presented to us and had to come up with a solution. So obviously involving brainstorming and then actually creating that solution. So ideating building a prototype or a design or a sketch, and then having your final product that you then presented. And it was the first time that kind of, I enjoyed each and every single step involved in the whole process. I think with previous things I had done it was more about the final product. Like let’s just do this, get all this out the way and create something that we can then submit and be done with it, but there wasn’t any sense of attachment to what I’ve actually created.

Elsa Amri:
That was the first time that I did feel attached to what I made and I felt proud of what I’ve made and it was a feeling that I wanted again. I wanted to be able to create and design products at the time, really. I just wanted to design more apps because I thought the process was fun and also I was proud of what I kind of was able to come up with in the end. So it was that kind of pride. I don’t know how you’d describe it. Maybe I’ve described it well and you kind of understand what I mean, but it was that feeling that I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think Pride is a good way to describe it because sort of as you alluded to earlier, when you’re in those young ages, let’s I say, 17, 18, 19, et cetera, and you’re going off to school, there is this really strong expectation, I would say, particularly among black folks. There’s a strong expectation to really kind of figure out what it is that you’re going to do, especially if your family isn’t really supportive of the arts, that it’s something that will make money. They want to make sure that you’re going to be doing something that will provide for you and that you’re not necessarily just kind of like chasing up a hobby, I would say. I don’t know, maybe it’s different in different cultures throughout the diaspora, but I think once you find that thing that you get really excited about it and you feel proud about that’s a feeling that inevitably you continue chasing because that is what will fuel you and kind of guide you through your career.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. No, I agree completely. Growing up my parents have always been supportive regardless of what I wanted to do. They just kind of wanted me to figure out what I wanted to do because for a long time I didn’t know. But like you said, there is that pressure that whatever it is that you decide to do, you want it to be something that you can use to support yourself in the future. You don’t want to be completely reliant on your parents forever. So there is a pressure and that expectation. And at the time when I was building that project for the class assignment and I had that feeling, I wasn’t even thinking about, “Oh, I can earn a lot of money from this.” I didn’t know how much designers earn from designing products at the time. It was just more of, this is something that I think I love doing and that’s the first time I felt that way, so why not explore that field?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. So you finished up at Leeds. What was sort of your early career once you graduated? So you’ve gotten this feeling like, “Oh, I designed this mobile project. I love it. I want to keep doing stuff like this.” What were sort of your first early career experiences after that?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. So I graduated from Leeds and initially it’s very, not necessarily complicated, but in direct pathway to what I’m doing right now, but initially I wanted to go for my masters and I wanted to study front-end development, which is a bit different, but at the time I thought, “Okay, I like design.” So I like the visual aspect of designing something, but also I had taken a class on coding and I kind of liked that too. So I thought, why not pursue front-end development and see if that’s something that I’d want to do, but that didn’t end up working out.

Elsa Amri:
So plan B was to find a role in like marketing or PR in Leeds, more of a temporary type position that I do while I figured out everything else, which also didn’t end up working out. So I went to plan C, which is very left field and that was going to teach English in Japan. So my first job outside of university wasn’t anything design-related. I was in Japan for a year and it was teaching English, but it was awesome and amazing. And I think that’s also where I also kind of built my interest in design more on the side, but that’s kind of what I started out with first.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about what it was like teaching English in Japan?

Elsa Amri:
It was amazing. I would definitely say of all the places that I wish I could go back to most Japan is number one and probably will remain number one forever. It was just such a different experience. Before going to Japan, it was on my list of places I wanted to visit. I’d met a couple of Japanese students while I was at lead, so exchange students, and gotten to know them really well and become good friends. So the whole experience for me was, for one thing, I could reconnect with those people and link up with them again, but also I could explore this country that I’d been wanting to visit for such a long time. And for me for the entire year that I was there, initially I knew it would be very new and very different from anything else I had before. So putting aside the language barrier, just adapting to a whole different culture, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I wouldn’t even say it was hard as all.

Elsa Amri:
Right from when I first arrived, I stayed with a friend for a couple of days and then eventually I kind of started orientation for my job and everything, but it felt so smooth and easy. And everyone I had met both internationals on my program but also local people, were just really nice and accommodating. One thing I’ll always say is that the Japanese people, well, actually it wouldn’t be right to generalize, but everyone I met while I was there was very accommodating and very polite and very helpful in a way that was so different from anything else I’d experienced. People would go out of their way to help you in any way possible.

Elsa Amri:
So it was just so surprising to kind of be met with that politeness and be met with that type of sincerity and people’s actions and the community that I lived in. So I lived in a small town that was kind of near Kyoto and Osaka and it was a really small town, but community-wise, the people I met there were just so, they brought me into their community in ways that I initially wasn’t expecting. So I’m Christian. So I went to church even while I was there and the church community in particular, I guess you could say even adopted me.

Elsa Amri:
They were just so accommodating and so helpful and so nice and really went out of the way to include me. Because it is easy to feel alone and to feel like you don’t really have anyone, especially in a small town way out in Japan, super far from Tanzania, but the community in particular was just, they went out of their way to really make you feel like you were at home and you were with people that cared about you. So that was something that I really grew to appreciate during my year there. Just getting to know different people and learn more about them and feel accepted by them. And that’s something that I miss as well from my time there.

Maurice Cherry:
Very cool. I’m curious, what’s the one thing that you really kind of remember that sticks out aside from the anecdote that you just mentioned, but is there a food or a piece of culture or art or anything that really sticks out to you when you think back to that time?

Elsa Amri:
I would say, I’m trying to trace my memories of the very many things that stick out. I would say, I will mention a couple. So for one, just how much you could do, which sounds a bit weird, but where I live now, so TZ or the specific the city I live in, it’s great. There’s a lot to do, but in comparison to Japan, obviously not in any way comparable. So living in Japan just really put me in a situation where you can be like, “Oh, this weekend, I’m going to go to Kyoto and I’m going to do X, Y, and Z.” I remember I went to Kyoto for new years on my own for just a couple of days, exploring different temples and stuff like that to celebrate new year’s or next week and you can be like, “Oh, I want to go to Osaka and I want to go to USJ and go on all these rollercoasters.”

Elsa Amri:
So it was such a new experience in terms of being able to do anything and everything whenever you wanted and that really allowed you to have a wealth of experiences in such a short amount of time. So that’s one thing that I really remember, having the opportunity to have all those different experiences. And the second I would say the food, I loved the Japanese food a lot. I would say my favorite was sushi. That was number one. The first time I had sushi in Japan and it was amazing. And then a couple of others that I really grew to love takoyaki which is, oh I forgot what even it is.

Maurice Cherry:
Octopus. Yeah.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Elsa Amri:
I didn’t think I would like it at first, but [inaudible 00:32:14] one of my favorites. I absolutely loved it. I mean also Okonomiyaki, was one of my favorite stew. I ate that a lot. So I really grew to like the food as well. I didn’t pick up any recipes, sadly. I wish I could. I would have been making them here. So the food and also just the opportunity to have different experiences were the two things that stood out for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Very cool. So you finished up teaching English in Japan. Did you then go back to Leeds or did you go back to Tanzania?

Elsa Amri:
After I was done in Japan, I finished end of 2019 and I actually came back to TZ. So the plan was to go back to school and do my masters. And at the time it was because as much as I liked teaching in Japan, teaching wasn’t something I wanted to do as a career forever. I always knew that I wanted to go back to design. So I thought the best way of doing that would be to go back to school. At the time, that was kind of my thought process. Go back to school, get another degree, and then you’ll become a designer and that was kind of my plan coming back home. So that’s kind of what I immediately worked towards applying for different schools and eventually I went to Humber College.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. And you mentioned just now that you just finished up there. Can you tell me about what you were studying and kind of how the program was?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. It was a short program. So technically a year, more under a year, and I was studying user experience design. So it was a pretty comprehensive course in the sense that we got to learn about UX research methods, which is great, but also practice actual visual design skills and visual design processes. So it was a good combination of both aspects, the UI and the UX part of it. And I would say that the professors we had and the projects that we did, really helped me kind of grow and refine my skills as a designer. So when I came back from Japan, I was applying to school but in the meantime I was also working. So I had these jobs as a graphic designer and as a junior art director at different companies. So even before I started my course, I had design experience from these different jobs that I have, but actually taking the course helped me really develop the research aspect of my skills. So how do you conduct UX research? How do you become an empathetic designer, which is something that people do talk about a lot?

Elsa Amri:
So it was a really good course in terms of developing those kinds of skills and the great thing is that we also had an internship that we were supposed to do after you were done with your study. So right now I’m completing my internship. I’m done with my classes, but I’m finishing up the actual design internship that I’m doing and then I’ll technically be completely done with school. But overall it was a really great course, not that long and I managed to learn a lot. Everyone I studied with, I think helped me learn and grow in some way as well. I worked in some really dope projects, one of which I’m working to add to my portfolio right now, but yeah, it was overall a really great experience.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you think your prior experiences, both teaching in Japan as well as studying in the UK, how do you think those things helped you out as you were studying UX at Humber?

Elsa Amri:
I think they kind of helped me become quick to adapt in terms of working with different people. So our course had a lot of group assignments. Most of our assignments were group assignments. We’re working on projects with different people. And that was really easy for me because both during my time at Leeds and in Japan to a certain extent, I was working with a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. And I would say for anyone in that kind of environment, you have to be patient and you have to be flexible in a lot of different ways. And I felt like doing this course, it was a lot easier for me because I did have that experience, even in terms of time zone.

Elsa Amri:
So a lot of the people that I was working with, so the other students on my course, lived in Canada. Canada is seven hours behind my time, I think. So even in terms of adapting to working in the evening or late at night, my time, which was easier for them because that was early in the day for them, was just something I adapted to as well. So I think it just made me a lot flexible in terms of just working with whatever it is that was working with and bringing out each other’s strengths and just kind of working collaboratively to achieve the same outcome. It just made it a lot easier for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Overall, what appeals to you? What about UX design really appeals to you?

Elsa Amri:
I think for me it’s about kind of creating a solution that benefits people in some way, except it’s more of a tangible solution or a solution driven by technology. So I always had an interest in technology, but when it came to UX, it helped me look at it in a new kind of light. So we’re not just building products for the sake of building products, like designing a website just because you want to or building an app just because you think, “Oh, it’ll be fun.” It’s about kind of building these products in order to address a problem from an innovative point of view and I thought that was always really cool.

Elsa Amri:
And after I started my course in Humber, it was more about learning, how is this process driven by looking at users and looking what problems they’re experiencing from an empathetic point of view and really trying to put yourself in their shoes and understand what it is they need or what it is they expect from this solution, from this product, from this service, and really trying to frame your mindset and frame your thinking as a designer in that kind of way. So I always thought that was really interesting. That’s kind of the designer I want to be. I want to be someone that can take on these issues, working in a team to address these issues in ways that helps a specific user base in some manner. And that’s something that I’m also still working towards, but ultimately that kind of became a goal of mine and really is what solidified my interest in UX design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, throughout your both educational as well as professional journey, who are some of the mentors or people that have really helped you out along the way?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. Well, I always say my first mentors are my parents, not from a technical perspective, obviously they’re not designers, but more from an emotional and supportive perspective. I think I mentioned a bit earlier, they’ve always been very supportive in terms of whatever I wanted to do. And there have been times when things have not been going well or I felt that this wasn’t a career path that I would be good at and they’ve really been the main people kind of holding me up and pushing me forwards. So I always kind of label them as my first mentor, so to speak in terms of life lessons in general.

Elsa Amri:
In terms of this design industry, I have a few mentors that have really guided me in my path up to where I am now. So the first is a designer based here. Her name is Lillian and she’s kind of head of design at an agency here called AIM Group. And she was my first official design mentor. She actually ended up becoming my mentor because I applied for a role at her company and I didn’t get it, but I guess here’s also another tip, I didn’t kind of let that be. I reached out a couple of weeks later and I was like, “I know I didn’t get the role, but I would kind of love your feedback on my portfolio or on a specific case study and see what I could improve.” And she was completely for it.

Elsa Amri:
So that was kind of my first experience getting insightful feedback from someone in the industry. And she kind of became a mentor for me and still is. So she’s just somebody that I always go to for advice whenever kind of different things in my life happen in terms of my career. So she would be my first mentor and a mentor that I still have, and I’ve managed to acquire a couple more mentors.

Elsa Amri:
So there’s a platform called ADPList that I’ve recently became an ambassador of and that I use often. And that’s really made it a lot easier to find mentors in different companies all over the world. So through ADPList I’ve managed to connect with mentors like Rihanna, who is a designer in the states. And she’s been helping me a lot in terms of really refining my portfolio and adapting it to improve. And it’s just kind of been a really great way to talk to people and a lot of different companies and learn more about what they expect from hiring designers and getting their feedback and getting their insights.

Elsa Amri:
In terms of people that maybe I haven’t spoken to as much directly so on a one-on-one basis but I still credit as inspiring me when I was younger. One I’ve already mentioned Howard Pinsky, who is a designer at Adobe. I would always watch his videos and kind of be inspired by his design work. Andrea as well. He used to be Creative Resident at Adobe, was also somebody that inspired me a lot. Others, Brandon, who is, I think, what is this exact role? There’s so many different roles, but I think he also kind of works in collaboration with Adobe and has his own community. I remember when I joined his community, that kind of really motivated my desire to design, not just from a professional perspective, but also just for fun as well. So those are a couple of people that I’ve learned from in different ways over time.

Maurice Cherry:
When you said Brandon, do you mean Brandon Gross?

Elsa Amri:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow. I had Brandon on the show a couple of months ago, actually. Look at that, small world.

Elsa Amri:
He’s always awesome. Yeah, I know. Joining his community was just so awesome. I’ve never experienced something like that before, but he’s great.

Maurice Cherry:
Now people here in the states may not know a lot about Tanzania just as a country. When I think of Tanzania, I know it’s, and honestly this is mostly coming from my grade school education, from watching, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? But I know it’s a country near the equator. I know it’s between Kenya and Mozambique and the Serengeti is there and Mount Kilimanjaro and you have the island of Zanzibar. If you were to sell or I guess just speak simply about Tanzania, how would you describe it to folks?

Elsa Amri:
I would say it’s a place brimming with culture and experiences that are probably unlike anything you’ve experienced, if you’ve, for example, if you’ve lived in the states and had a chance to visit. From a cultural perspective, it’s really a place where you can really kind of learn a lot of different things in terms of different cultures and different practices and traditions. So I know sometimes people, that’s kind of one thing that they really look for in visiting new places, learning more about the culture, and there are a lot of ways that you can do that here.

Elsa Amri:
So obviously there’s one aspect in terms of the wildlife, which is great. Serengeti, all that stuff that you can definitely do. You can also kind of immerse yourself more in specific local cultures. So something a lot of people do is kind of embrace themselves or other immerse themselves in the Maasai cultures, actually living within these communities for a certain amount of time and just kind of experiencing their different traditions and customs or even if you were kind of just visiting more of the mainline area.

Elsa Amri:
So for example, the city I live in Dar es Salaam, there are a lot of different ways that you can really kind of just have a different experience from what you’re used to. Walking along the street, kind of looking at different artistic products that people have created, sculptures, paintings, handsewn objects, all that kind of stuff. And really just getting to learn more about what it is that they’ve created. Taking the initiative to kind of take those products for yourself as well as mementos. In terms of food as well. Just kind of getting to walk around and experience the culture in some way.

Elsa Amri:
I think for me, the one thing that I really do like about TZ and that I missed when I was abroad is how chill it is. And I think that’s something that a lot of people will say that it’s just a very laid back place. Some might say too laid back at times, but I think sometimes when you compare it to other places that are extremely high paced and stressful, when you come back to Dar es Salaam or come back to TZ, everything slows down a bit. People aren’t in so much of a rush. There isn’t that feeling that’s around you all the time. So that’s something that I do appreciate a lot that it does feel laid back and it does feel a lot more relaxed. And that’s something that growing up I became used to and when I’m away from TZ that I missed a lot. Just a very relaxed, accommodating, welcoming place whenever anyone would like to visit.

Maurice Cherry:
Before we started recording, I had sort of incorrectly said that, “Oh, you live in the capital.” Dar es Salaam is not the capital of Tanzania is-

Elsa Amri:
A lot of people think that.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s the largest city though.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. Dodoma is the capita.

Maurice Cherry:
Dodoma, okay.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. I live in Dar es Salaam.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is like… Are there specific elements to Tanzania in design? If you had to sell, I’m asking you to sell the country, but if you have to sell when you think of Tanzania and design, what jumps out to you?

Elsa Amri:
I would say maybe the uniqueness to it and that might be something that’s maybe applicable for a lot of different countries. But when you do purchase a product from here made by people local to here, there’s a certain uniqueness to the design. So whether it’s a sculpture or a painting, there’s this essence to it that feels very Tanzania or feels very, at least for me, it feels very home and so that’s something that I think stands out for me. It can be something as simple as a small sculpture of a man, but a lot of times tells a story from whatever it is that the sculpture is taking inspiration from.

Elsa Amri:
And I think that a lot of artists here are able to convey those stories and convey those emotions within whatever it is that they create. So there’s a lot of homeness to what’s created here, which I guess maybe is a perspective unique to me or unique to people who are from here that maybe people not from here might not get to experience. But I do think that a lot of the stories and a lot of those emotions and feelings are conveyed in the art that people make.

Maurice Cherry:
I was doing a little bit of research earlier and I saw there’s this unique kind of painting style to Tanzania called Tingatinga?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk about that a little bit, as much as you might know about it?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. We actually have, I think there’s an arts museum as well, close to where I live, Tingatinga Arts Museum, but that’s kind of an example of the kind of work that I think people make that does convey a story or convey some kind of idea in a colorful and unique way. And for me, Tingatinga products aren’t something that I bought a lot growing up just because I feel like when you live someplace you kind of tend to neglect embracing the art of where you live as much as you should in comparison to where you travel elsewhere. But for me Tingatinga has always kind of just been an art style that is unique and that is able to kind of convey those different stories in really dynamic and colorful ways.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there any Tanzanian designers that you know of that maybe we should know about or we should be on the lookout for aside from you, of course, are there any that you though of?

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. There are a couple that I do typically follow and that I do, I guess you can say, quote unquote, admire or their design work inspires me in some way. Most of them are if not product designers, it’s graphic designers, because that’s more of the area that I’m involved in, but a couple that I’ll name, I guess. There’s one called Rafael. He is a brand identity designer. He designs a lot of brand identities and logos for clients and he’s someone whose work that I’ve seen a lot, even before I actually started working as a designer, I would see his work often and I still find myself being inspired by his work every day. Even though I don’t typically want to become a brand identity designer, but what I admire is how he’s able to kind of take what the client is asking for or expecting and really create these unique identities for these clients. So I think his logo work, his identity design work is awesome. He’s somebody that I found that I learned from a lot.

Elsa Amri:
Another designer is a female designer, her name’s Edna. She’s actually an animator, but we connected on LinkedIn. And occasionally I see her work on my feed and I’m always a big fan of coming across other female designers or female creatives who are from where I’m from, because it isn’t something that’s super popular or that you come across often here, unfortunately hopefully that changes over time. And that’s an example of somebody whose work that I genuinely do appreciate whenever I come across it. I’m not super great at animation and motion graphics. So it’s just always really great to see somebody who is and see some of the great concepts that they’re able to come up with.

Elsa Amri:
In terms of another person, I guess I would say Jackson is one. He is a director at a company that I can’t quite remember the name of, but I’m inspired by some of the work he recently shared. It’s more of creative work created for a specific company located here, but I kind of just thought it was a really creative interpretation of the idea they had. So it was kind of this connection between a telecom company here but branding it from the perspective of something ecological or it was more of a sustainable type of project. And I found that the creative products that he was able to create were really unique.

Elsa Amri:
And as somebody who has worked in that environment before, so junior art director at an agency, I know how hard it is sometimes to really come up with creative executions and concepts that the client actually likes and wants to move forward with. So I kind of just thought that his work was really dope. I mean, it’s something that I should learn from as well. So those are just a couple of names, but there are definitely a lot of designers out there within the industry with different roles that I’ve gotten to know a lot this year in particular. So I’m super grateful to always be learning from them.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to any designers that are listening that want to get more into UX design in general?

Elsa Amri:
I would say a couple of tips. The first one being, I kind of already talked about this, but putting yourself out there. I know in the beginning in particular, you are so much more self-conscious about your work and what you’re putting out there because you think it’s not good enough. And we live in a day and age where people are always sharing their work online. We have so many different platforms dedicated for that kind of thing, especially from a creative point of view. There’s Behance, there’s Dribbble, there’s Instagram. There’s so many different platforms where people are sharing awesome work and it’s easy to feel intimidated by that and feel like what you’ve made is not good enough.

Elsa Amri:
But I’d always say regardless of what stage you are at in terms of your career or your progress towards becoming a designer, don’t be afraid to put your work out there and share it and people are more than likely going to provide positive feedback in some way or form. I think there are very few people out there that are going to see something you’ve made and judge it harshly. People tend to be very accommodating, very welcoming, especially for newer designers. I’d say Twitter is one of the best platforms for that kind of thing. So first step is to put your work out there.

Elsa Amri:
Second tip would be to always find ways to learn. So my ways of learning was to take a post-grad course in UX design, but you don’t have to do that. I mean, you can learn a lot of different ways. I think with online platforms these days, there are so many different ways that you can really pick up new skills. So there’s YouTube, but there’s Skillshare, there’s Udemy. There are a lot of different platforms where you can take actual courses that will teach you specific skills or alternatively, you can just learn by involving yourself in different communities. There’s Design Buddies, there’s the Adobe creative community, there’s Brandon’s community. There’s so many different design communities out there that you can really become involved in and that’s a great way of really learning to become a designer, but also building friendships and building relationships with these different people that can help you on your path.

Elsa Amri:
And then my last tip would be I guess, to kind of find what your motivation is. I think, especially when you are transitioning from a different field, that’s something that a lot of people have been doing lately, which is awesome, but sometimes it’s really easy to lose sight of what’s motivating you to pursue this path as a designer. For me, my motivation was I wanted to build solutions that would help people, especially on a community level. That was kind of the main thing that kept me focused on my goal up until this point. So I think for anyone at the start of their career that’s something that you need to identify so that when things do get tough and when they do get hard, especially when you are applying for full-time roles, it’s not easy at all. For most of us, you do need to have that source of motivation that keeps you going regardless and that you can hold onto even during those tough times. But those are kind of three main tips I’d give to people.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say you are obsessed with lately?

Elsa Amri:
Obsessed with Netflix.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Elsa Amri:
No, not Netflix. I think my obsessions haven’t changed in the past few years. My main obsession, I think is anime and manga. That’s kind of, if I’m not designing, that’s typically what I’m consuming in some way.

Maurice Cherry:
What shows or what titles are you checking out?

Elsa Amri:
A lot of them, I guess, mainstream ones that most people are. So like My Hero Academia or the slime, one whose title, I can’t remember. It’s way too long. Haikyu, the volleyball one. So typically I’ve been watching anime and reading manga since I was in high school. So quite a few years now. And it’s just something that I always go back to because there’s never a shortage of good content, ever. There’s always some things that will peak your interest in a lot of different genres, really any kind of content. So up until this point, I kind of have kept going with that and that’s typically what I use for entertainment, I guess you could say.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Have you seen Cowboy Bebop?

Elsa Amri:
I’ve seen episode one of Cowboy Bebop.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was going to ask if you had heard about the live action. I think it’s a movie or a show that’s coming to Netflix.

Elsa Amri:
Oh, yeah. I have heard of it. Yes. I have heard it looks good, is what I think people are saying.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m interested to see what it is. I’m always a little wary about live action adaptations of anime because it’s one thing to convert from animations to alive action but there’s so many cultural things about animated that are intrinsically Japanese, that when you are converting it to English and English speaking audiences and cultures, it just doesn’t mesh well for some reason.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m thinking specifically about the Ace Attorney series from CAPCOM. It’s this lawyer, Phoenix Wright, that’s what the American title is, but the Japanese title is Naruhodō something, I forget his last name, but anyway, there’s certain very Japanese things that they try to convert over to American. Like instead of them eating ramen they eat hamburgers and the fan community calls the city that they live in Japan Angeles, because it’s supposed to be in Tokyo but they’re actually in Los Angeles in the US or whatever. The Cowboy Bebop, I’m interested to see what that’s going to look like in live action. The cast looks great. I wonder how they’re going to really capture that feeling. I remember reading an interview with John Cho and he was saying that he wasn’t going to sign on unless Yoko Kanno, who’s the composer of the theme and much of the music throughout the series. He’s like, “If she’s not on board, I’m not on board.” So that gives me hope that it’s going to be good, but we’ll see, we’ll see.

Elsa Amri:
I see what you mean. Live action adaptations do not have a good rep at all. I don’t know what the good ones are. A lot of them people typically say suck. The most common example, so I don’t think Avatar is necessarily anime, but people always trash the live action of Avatar because it’s awful. So I personally haven’t seen any live action adaptations yet, but if the Cowboy Bebop one is good, I might just have to.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope so. I think anime fans everywhere wants, I think they want it to be good. I mean, no one wants to go into seeing these things and they hope that it fails because there’s such a rabid fan base behind it. So they want it to be successful, but what the fans want and what Hollywood gives you are two different things, two entirely different things.

Elsa Amri:
Yeah.

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

Elsa Amri:
Well, I hope I am working in a company as a full time product designer, just because that’s something I haven’t gotten an experience of doing so yet. So I’ve been working as a freelancer for quite a while now. And although that’s great and has its merits, there’s also a lot of value in what you can learn working in a company environment or even working in an agency. So right now I do work with an agency but more of on a part-time basis. So I definitely see myself kind of working as a full-time product designer, hopefully even in a senior role as well.

Elsa Amri:
I think I have high expectations for myself in terms of kind of how I want to improve and progress career-wise. So I don’t want to be stuck in the same position I’m in right now a year down the line. I want to be able to look back and see, “Oh, okay. I went up this many levels, figurative levels.” So I kind of see myself, yes working as a product designer, but hopefully in a more senior role too, I want to kind of be at that point, but I also want to be able to look back and really feel like I’ve made an impact in some way.

Elsa Amri:
So I talked about this a bit before, but I’m really interested in kind of how you can create solutions for the communities you belong to. And there are a couple of projects that I have in mind for my own community. Just kind of based on my experience, being back in TZ since 2019 and what I’ve experienced here so far. And there are a couple of things that I really look at and I feel like we could have a solution for this, but we don’t yet. Why is that? And how do you approach those problems to create solutions for those problems?

Elsa Amri:
So I hope several years down the line that I have participated in creating solutions for some of those problems as well on a community level. I think that’s something that I really strive towards creating as a designer as well. Yes, you are a designer and you have successfully worked on this many global projects, but also what impact have you had on your own community? I think that’s something important for me too.

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

Elsa Amri:
Yeah. I’m on a lot of platforms. So the main ones that I use Twitter, @elsaaamri, so that’s a bit confusing. It’s Elsa and then another A and then Amri, so three A’s in the middle. I’m also on Instagram, @elsaedwardamri. I’m on LinkedIn a lot too. You can find me there. My name is Elsa Amri, so same as always. Am on Behance as well. I always love following other creatives on Behance and checking out the cool work that they do. My username there is also Elsa Edward Amri. So you can find me in all those different platforms. I also have a portfolio website, elsaamri.com that you can check out and all my social media contacts are there as well. So that makes it a lot easier if you want to find me on a different social media platform too.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Elsa Amri, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really sharing your journey as a designer and how you really kind of came into your own and really were able to use the experiences around you from going to school in the UK, teaching in Japan and really bringing that to your work. I really hope that this interview will help more people not just learn about you and about Tanzanian designers, but also just about the ways that they can put themselves out there and really be seen and be recognized for the work that they do. Because I think what you’ve done, certainly just from what you’ve described and from what I’ve seen has been something that I would love to see more designers do to try and make a name for themselves. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Elsa Amri:
No, thank you so much for inviting me. This was super fun. I’ve never done something like this before. So I was kind of nervous going into it, but it was really fun to just kind of talk about my experiences and for anyone who does listen and if they do learn something from my own experience so far, that’s awesome and that’s really all I could ask for, but it’s been super fun as well.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Black in Design 2021 Conference

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On the weekend of October 8-10th, join the Harvard Graduate School of Design virtually for the Black in Design 2021 Conference!

This year’s theme, Black Matter, is a celebration of Black space and creativity from the magical to the mundane. Our speakers, performers, and panelists will bring nuance to the trope of Black excellence and acknowledge the urgent political, spatial, and ecological crises facing Black communities across the diaspora. You don’t want to miss out on this weekend of learning, community, and connection!

Visit them online at blackmatter.tv to learn more and be a part of the event.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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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.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington

Our back to school theme continues this week with a conversation with Dr. Christina N. Harrington. I first met Dr. Harrington as a contributor to the first volume of RECOGNIZE, and now she’s an assistant professor in the HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of their Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab! Impressive!

After a brief pandemic check-in, Dr. Harrington talked about some of the design research work she’s doing at Carnegie Mellon, and spoke about how her past teaching experiences helped prepare her for this opportunity. We also talked about how she got into design via engineering, the utility of design Ph.Ds, and some of her latest obsessions. I’m glad we have educators like Dr. Harrington who can expand the concepts of design for the next generation!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
All right. I am Christina Harrington. I am a Southern, black, queer creative technologist. I have backgrounds in both engineering and design. I’m a tinkerer. I’m a crafter. I’m an inquisitive, how does this work, inside mechanics, logic type person. Right now I am in the space of higher education academia. I’m an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I teach at that intersection of design and HCI, where we think about people and what people need when they engage with technology, why people engage with technology the ways that they do, the ways that technology can better support black and brown folks, folks that may not have the infrastructure to interact with the newest or coolest tech or gadgets or whatever, but that could really benefit from tech being ubiquitous in their everyday lives. I’m a writer a little bit, in terms of talking about design and figuring out ways to have these conversations about design outside of the walls of academia.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of writing, you were one of the first people that we published on Revision Path when we did our recognized design anthology back in 2019?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
2019. Yeah.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. You scared me with that one. It’s crazy because going through school, it was almost like you were told you can either be really good at math and science, or you can do the humanity side of things. And I always wanted to write, because I just felt like sometimes expressing ideas is just as equally powerful through text as it is through sketching something.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
When I saw that Revision Path call, I was like, I’m just going to jump out there and see what happens. And I was super, super, super nervous, which is crazy because I had done like a whole dissertation and conference preceding papers and journal articles, but I was like, I really, really, really want to get into this anthology. And I really want to do writing that has a little bit more of my voice and a little bit less of like academic, technical jargon. Very, I don’t know, polished speech. It was really, really cool. Thank you for that opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
No, thank you for submitting it. Unfortunately we had to, I don’t know if I mentioned this on the show, but I certainly had wrote about it. Unfortunately, I kind of took a hiatus from Recognize this year. The pandemic really did a number on, honestly like the number of people that were submitting, which sort of made sense. I mean, folks were just trying to survive out here. They weren’t thinking about trying to write stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
But then the things that we would get, people just wouldn’t write to the prompt. They’d write what they wanted to write. To give you an example, the year that we did the first anthology, and the theme was space, a lot of people wrote about Nipsey Hussle. I’m not super familiar with Nipsey Hussle. I don’t know if there’s like a space theme in his rap or anything, but I was like, why are so many people writing stuff about Nipsey Hussle. This has nothing to do with space. Or maybe it does, I don’t know.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Is that the year he passed?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that was the year he passed.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I mean, I imagine that might be part of it. I don’t know anything about Nipsey Hussle either.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. If people are listening and want to clue me in, please do, because I was like, why am I getting all these … It wasn’t just that people were writing poems, people were submitting artwork. And I’m like, “No, I just need an essay, I don’t need something in Photoshop. I don’t need to see something you painted. Thank you, I guess.” I plan to bring Recognize back at some point in the future. I just think right now, probably the timing’s not great for it, but hopefully in the future, with more support, I’ll try to get it back out there.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
That’s one of the things about thinking about how we stretch design. Saying that you got so many people that we’re submitting artwork and Photoshop, and it’s like, designers are afraid to write sometimes. I’ve literally heard running jokes, designers, engineers, computer science folks that are like, “I’m an engineer or I’m a computer scientist, I don’t write.” And it’s like, “Wait, wait, wait, how do you communicate what you’ve done? Or how do you communicate your ideas behind what you’ve built or what you’re envisioning?” There’s so much space for that, yet folks shy away from it so, so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s certainly something that I was trying to put forth through Recognize, is to have more people just write because it helps you, like you said, formalize your ideas. If you’re an entrepreneur, it helps with writing better proposals, writing better proofs, just communication in general, it tends to be really helpful. I mean, we even had a writer, actually a couple episodes ago, had our first writer on the show. I think in his background, he called himself a verbal designer, which I thought was really interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a writer, and we talked all about how writing is, at least nowadays’s, such a crucial part of the design process. It was good just to have someone who’s a writer come on and really talk about like, yeah, I’m a writer and this is how I work within design teams and on design projects and giving feedback to designers about what they could do to either strengthen their writing or improve their writing, or even see the importance of writing in the whole design process.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, aside from the new appointment, how’s the year been going? What’s been on your mind?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
The year has been transformational and also kind of like, you feel like you’re sludging through mud at the same time. I think the world is like a really crazy place right now. I don’t know if it’s like, oh, all of these things are going on, and 2020, 2021 is like this unprecedented time in life. Or if it’s like, no, the world’s always kind of been crazy, but as you get older, you have more of a connection to why.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Politics have always been wild in the United States, but for some of us, it’s not until we get older that you start to really see how like, oh, the ways that we’re voting are impacting like, I don’t have healthcare. I can’t go to the doctor and take care of myself. I can’t do the things with my body as a person who identifies as a woman in the United States that I want to, because of the state that I live in.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think that all of those things on top of a global health pandemic are happening at the same time. I’m like, am I becoming an empath in my old age that it just … I literally have days where I’m like, “I can’t today.” Because everything feels so heavy and it feels pointless to be writing a journal article or to be writing a conference paper. And these are things that I like to do, but there are some day ease lately where I’m just, I don’t have the motivation.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I’ve been seeing a lot of memes and all of these articles that are talking about how black women in particular are just like, we are collectively burnt out. And I think it goes to earlier, the question you asked about the things that have happened in the last year in terms of really intensified racial moments. And it’s like, we dealt with a couple of months of white people coming out of the cracks of the sidewalk, asking us how we’re doing and apologizing for things. I don’t even know you. All of that contributes to this like just community exhaustion, I’m kind of feeling, from a lot of my friends and a lot of folks.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So on the one hand with this new job and with this new role, it’s really exciting. It’s a blessing to be here. My career in terms of academia has shot through the roof to places I don’t think I ever would’ve imagined, but I am very tired. I’m very tired with just holding all of the emotions of what’s happening in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s been a general sort of feeling that I’ve gotten from talking with a lot of black creatives, just a lot of black friends of mine. It’s been like, we’re just tired. It’s like a lasagna of fatigue. There’s tiredness of just like, you being a black person in this country, and then on top of that, whatever other identities you have on top of that, whether you are queer or trans or what have you. Then on top of that, just like this whole pandemic and coronavirus and these variants. And then on top of that, there’s the government like forcefully pushing people back out into the world like, no more masks mandates, get back out there. Even the whole, and I don’t mean to get super political, but the insurrection was this year. So much has happened.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Time is so warped right now. Time is so warped right now. There’s no concept of time because it feels like things are back to back. And it also feels like there’s so many intertwined struggles that you can’t parse out something to say, this is what’s upsetting me, because everything’s connected.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think that when we think about the moments that we had the uprisings that we had last summer, and it’s like, you’re mad about that. You’re angry about that, because collectively, black lives have been proven over and over again to be disposable in this country. But then at the same time, within those conversations, we have to talk about how black, queer and trans people are treated when they also too are part of those black lives. And what does it mean to have to have those conversations among other black folks who are telling you, we can’t talk about that right now. Don’t be divisive right now.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And watch the number of black trans women being killed continue to rise. Watch people not mention the names of the black trans men or the gender non-binary folks who have also been murdered at the hands of the state and police. Watch folks not want to talk about the rates of homelessness and just all of these things. And it’s like, whew, you can’t touch on one part of it without feeling that thread and the whole sweater unraveling. So, yeah, it’s a different type of … I think I ask my social media once every two weeks, what’s the word for past exhausted? What happens after you’re exhausted? What is that called?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I don’t know. I feel like we’re all at some point trying to persevere through whatever that state might be called, but it’s there. Now, we’ve jumped in like both feet in this discussion. I do want to bring it back to your work and what you’re doing. You mentioned your assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon at the HCI Institute. Can you talk about what that is and what you’ll be teaching?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. So the HCI Institute, it’s kind of like a dream job for me. It’s like this collection of, they joke like a collection of almost misfits of people across computer science, human-computer interaction, design, folks that are interested in that intersection of people and technology, technology and environment, people and environment, and anything that has to do with the ways that we interact with the digital world is kind of that area of human-computer interaction.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think what’s so dope about the HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon is it’s one of the few, if not the only spaces designated purely to human-computer interaction degrees. You could study human-computer interaction in schools of computing, sometimes in schools of design within the United States, but to find a space where they’re like, we know exactly what this is. It’s kind of thus become like the leading institution for how HCI is thought about. To be at the place where it’s kind of like, this is … Some of the work that’s come out of this institute, this university, is what we’ve based other research on, is definitely cool for me.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think a little larger than that, being at Carnegie Mellon, where they also have a really high ranked school of design. And folks that work across that so seamlessly, because they do go hand in hand. I think that that’s just, it’s really, really, really exciting for me. And a lot of what I’ll be teaching is everything from foundational courses and introduction to user experience design or human-computer interaction. I like to say that I’m a methods girl. I love design research methods. Or engaging with students around how they learn about the people that they’re designing with or for. How they engage people in design and all of that is like design methods.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
You could go your traditional research route of just doing an interview, or you could be doing like card sorting, or role playing, or artifact analysis. Like all of these really cool things that designers have in their tool belt. I will be teaching any one of those things, but also hopefully introducing courses that consider design equity and design justice and thinking about design where design has not been talked about.

Maurice Cherry:
I first got exposed to HCI, wow, I’m dating myself. This was 20 years ago. Oh, my God! It was 20 years ago. I was an intern at Marshall Space Flight Center, right outside of Huntsville, Alabama. It’s normal, Alabama’s a city. I remember my mentor at the time, he was studying HCI, as it related to like haptic interfaces. And it was so funny because he was like, “In the future, we’ll have like a computer that’s just like the size of a sheet of paper.” Basically he was talking about a tablet.

Maurice Cherry:
And this was, my God, this was 2000, 2001, something like that. But talking about like learning how we interact with haptic interfaces. I think it was still very new at the time. I mean, I find that a lot of innovation that tends to happen sometimes through NASA, eventually trickles into consumer stuff. Because that was also where I saw my first 3D printer, was back then, because they print the nose cone of the space shuttle is made out of this substance called Marco. It burns up on reentry when the space shuttles reenter the atmosphere. They print that out every time. They literally like print it out, a big machine, and replace the nose cone every time. And I was like, “Oh wow!” I was like, “So you’re printing in 3D.” I mean, that was what? 1920 at the time. It blew my mind, like you’re printing in 3D.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
It still blows my mind. I didn’t know that. Definitely learned something. HCI has been around for a while. I mean, definitely since the late nineties, just from like the academic texts that I’m familiar with. Actually let’s say, I can think of papers in the mid to late nineties that have talked about human-computer interaction because the minute we started talking about computers, we had to talk about how folks are interacting with computers. And I think initially that was done in like the human factor space. Thinking about work and cognition and like mental load and task load and what it takes for a computer to remember chunks of information and memory and how that is likened to the human brain and then what the person can be expected to be able to do and task and stuff like that.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And then human computer interaction came along. And then somewhere down the road, design kind of like attached itself in a very particular way, because we started talking about, how do we develop the tools that we’re either building computers with? How do we develop the code? How do we create the housing of the computers? We’re talking about new phones and we’re talking about new tablets or iPods. When Apple came along and started doing that so, so, so, so well, and not to say that this was the initiation of it, but it’s always my go-to example because Apple is just kind of like the Mecca of design for me, when you’re talking about technology consumer products. Then I really think folks started having conversations about the way things looked in the technology space. And the way things were experienced in the technology space. I think it’s a cool place to be, in terms of like the work that I do.

Maurice Cherry:
And now with HCI, are you focusing on hardware software or both?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Neither.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I am the anti-technologist technologist. I’m focused on how we think about everyday technologies in people’s lives. I am not necessarily trying to design the software of the phone and I’m not necessarily trying to design the casing of the phone, but I’m trying to think about how the phone can be used as a tool for health information, for folks who might not have access to medical professionals on a consistent basis.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I’m the researcher that’s trying to consider, well, in what ways can we embed public displays? How can we get community health information out there for people who don’t have wifi in the home or computers at home, such that they’re not behind … When we think about the pandemic and how out a lot of that information that was coming out from the CDC, I was seeing it on Twitter. I was seeing it on Instagram. You’re getting alerts. Like the CDC just made this update, here are the places where you can get tested and things like that. How do we get that information to people who aren’t so heavily reliant on their phone? And do we do that through computers and public libraries? Do we do that through health kiosks that are at the Walgreens or the CVS? That’s the level at which I’m thinking about technology?

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, that makes a lot more sense too, to think about it in that way. I think it’s because now, I mean just thinking about haptic interfaces and everything like that, I mean, everything that we utilize with technology, it feels like it’s through some sort of a touch interface or an audio interface or something like that. Thinking about how it works within the context of our lives and spreading information and stuff like that is really crucial.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good point that you mentioned about with the CDC stuff, because my folks are in rural Alabama. Basically I was passing the information to them on the telephone because they don’t have an internet connection. They don’t have a computer, so they’re not going to get that information in the way that it’s going out, especially because, one, they’re in the rural south, but two, broadband is not everywhere in this country. So it’s not a public utility in that way, like the plain old telephone services.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. And unfortunately, the reason I focus on digital access and design equity is because is I’ve been the poem and the quote like, [inaudible 00:24:30] on the moon. Like we’re trying to get information to our folks in rural areas, but we have communities that are literally shipping off to Mars to escape the realities of what’s happening down here. And it’s like, there’s such gap. There’s such an imbalance in the ways that technology is utilized between certain communities.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So it’s like at some point we have to say, hey guys, we can’t keep building new, new, new, new, new, while we have communities that are still like, wait, what’s a Google Home? What’s Alexa? Oh, I could use that to track my doctor’s appointment? Like, what? That gap, that dissonance is something that I feel like I’m always going to have an area where my work is needed because we have folks that are so focused on creating these technologies for the year 2032, and we are still trying to get some folks caught up to the year 2005.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. A lot of those futurist innovations really just like, they just completely blow by a lot of communities. I mean, even with smart speakers, I think I got my mom a smart speaker, I don’t know, a while ago, probably back in the early 2010s or whatever, when they first started coming out, and Alexa couldn’t recognize her. Couldn’t recognize her accent. So it’s like, well, that’s not good. She ended up giving it to me. I don’t even still have it anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
But to that point, like, yeah, you’ve got these other interfaces and stuff like that. The tech tends to be so focused on the next big innovations when like there’s still so many issues right now that need solving. And I don’t know if it’s because these are not like flashy, sexy news making issues that need to be solved, but it’s a huge chasm between the work that needs to be done and the work that’s being done.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
It’s also why you don’t have a whole lot of people focusing on it, because it’s not sexy, innovative work. I get hit with the same question, oh, do you do hardware? Do you do software? Are you in AI? Are you in machine learning? Are you in VR? And it’s like, I’m in this space of information because folks are still trying to understand the full features of what your phone can do, to support your everyday living. To jump to, here’s a headset that can make it seem like you’re pumping ice cream at McDonald’s in Kansas. It’s like, okay, that’s cool, but we’ve skipped a whole area for certain folks. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That reminds me of what I saw on, I think it was maybe last week or this week, I think, with Good Morning America Facebook debuting these virtual reality work rooms. And like everybody’s got on a $300 VR headset to meet in a virtual space to have meetings. I’m like, this is the most ridiculous shit I have ever seen in my whole life. I mean, it’s one thing that we can’t get together because of the pandemic, where like now I have to buy a $300 peripheral just so we can sit in second life and talk about status updates? It’s ridiculous. You’re also heading up the Equity and Health Innovations Design Research Lab. Talk to me about what that is and like what some of the projects are that are coming out of the lab.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. I mean, the EHI lab is literally just that. I came through both my masters and my PhD in heavy lab cultures. I was involved in the research in ergonomics and design research lab at North Carolina state. And then I worked with the Human Factors and Aging Lab at Georgia Tech. Becoming a faculty, literally the first thing I wanted, and I don’t know why I was so obsessed, but I was like, “I need a lab.”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I want a lab where I can curate projects, but not just for namesake or ownership of a space, but more so, one of the things I’ve really been trying to do is kind of like kick open the doors of academic research to the communities that we sit in. So I wanted something where communities know like, okay, if we’re trying to do something, if we’re trying to build something, we can come here and collaborate and build and work and voice concerns or discuss some of the things that we’re trying to do.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Most all of my work is community-based participatory design. What I call CBPD, which stems off of community-based participatory action research that you’ll find in public health sectors, where it’s like letting the community define the need, define the project, define the scope of what we’re doing, which in academia sometimes means flipping on its head, what the project outcomes are. How can we do a design research project and put something in the hands of community before we ever publish a paper or present at a conference or do a poster or whatever? And that means creating zines.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
One of the projects that we’ve been working on for almost a year now is the creation and the development of a speculative design toolkit for communities to be able to brainstorm without the leadership of a formal design researcher or a professor or academic PI or whatever you want to call it, to say, we want to brainstorm our own solution to this thing that we’ve been working on, whether it be re-imagining what to do with an abandoned building on a particular block, or we’re trying to get safety cameras put in at the basketball court, so that parents feel safe. So that with their kids being out there late, or we’re trying to get broadband access in a particular neighborhood, how can we think about that through a design lens? How can we brainstorm that? How can we iterate on what solutions might look like?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So we’ve been developing this toolkit that we’ve been calling Building Utopia, and we’ve been working with community design practitioners who do just exactly that type of work. So, Jen Roberts, from the Colored Girls Liberation Lab. An amazing, brilliant end day who works with Black Womxn Flourish Collective, which you may or may not be familiar with. They’re one of the co-founders of that with Denise Shanté Brown. And they and Jen have been collaborating with my lab on the development of this toolkit, and we’ve been testing it and refining it and hoping to launch it maybe sometime this year, early next year.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I told myself that I wanted to do projects that I cared about. So what are the projects that matter to black and brown folks? I think what you mentioned about your mom is actually a really great example because that’s another one of the big projects I’ve been doing is looking at health information seeking with voice assistance for black elders. And how do we meet the needs of them being able to ask health-related questions of these devices that right now, for all intents and purposes, don’t want to understand our voices, our accents, our dialects, the words that we use that may not be formal language. And so that’s another one of the projects that’s coming out of my lab at the moment.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And we’ve been looking at, how do we redefine more ideal conversational assistance? How do we define what the conversational dynamic black elders want to see looks like? And we’ve been doing that in a very community-based participatory manner. I kind of let the work that I’m doing lead me, like doing this project, and when you hear enough, people say one thing and it’s like, okay, here’s that defines what the next project is. When the toolkit literally came out of us exploring speculative design with folks that are like, yeah, this is all well and good, but what are we doing when the academic researchers are gone? And the students have finished whatever project and studio classes are over, and we’re still trying to think through some of these things?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s like, oh, well, what if we worked collaboratively with folks to develop a toolkit that is kind of like a resource for folks to do that work without the need of having to engage with universities or industry designers? So, yeah, that’s kind of what the EHI lab is about. And the things that I’m open to doing is really just closing that gap that I was mentioning earlier between the ways design has been used in communities of privilege and of fluency. And the ways that design can impact communities that are not defined in that way.

Maurice Cherry:
As you’ve been going through these things with the lab, it’s interesting that you said that the problems or the things that you all are working on, kind of uncover themselves as you start talking to people, as you start using the things that are coming out of the lab more. It’s almost, I don’t know, self-generating in a way. Like you’re finding new ideas as you get out there and talk with other people. I mean, I think that’s a good thing. That’s how labs are. Labs are for experimentation.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, prior to this, you were teaching at DePaul University in Chicago for a number of years. When you look back at that time, what do you think you learned that really prepared you for what you’re doing now?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Several things. Definitely I think DePaul, being one of the few formal schools of design that had a PhD, that also was open and starting to define design in this very like social good, social impact way. DePaul, A, I’d say is known very well for like games design, graphic design. And then you had folks that were also starting to define this sector of like Dr. Sheena Erete’s lab, the technology for social good and this area of social impact.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think it was a great home for me to start off and define my own research interests and my own research agenda, and how I was going to maneuver through some of these projects in an academic space. And I think Chicago was a really great city to do that because Chicago is kind of like this very, I don’t want to say social impact, when you’re talking about things outside of academia. But Chicago has this movement activist, equity driven lens just inherent throughout a lot of the work being done in the city. So I think engaging with outside organizations and then seeing how other faculty were engaging with the city and different organizers and community partners is definitely something that rubbed off on me.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And then I think DePaul as a university, being a place where you really get to harness teaching students. I’ve been in this research thing since I started my master’s program. But teaching is very rarely something they teach you how to do. Like how do you effectively develop course objectives and evaluate students in ways that’s not just throwing a 300 question exam at them? And I think I was able to learn a lot of that at DePaul.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go general, like more into your background, because you have an extensive educational background and everything. Let’s start from the beginning. You mentioned at the top of the show that you’re Southern. Where did you grow up?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I am from Fayetteville, North Carolina, born and raised. At some point my parents moved to Richmond, Virginia. And then when my parents split, my mom’s side of the family and my dad’s was still back in North Carolina, but we had the closest relationship with my mom’s side. We literally were in Fayetteville whenever she was not on the clock at work, because that’s where her support system was. So North Carolina is very ingrained in me, but I did a lot of my schooling during the week in Richmond, Virginia.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of tech and design growing up?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
What I would consider the tech and design that I know now, no. I went to the math and science center. I was one of those kids in middle school, I went to the math and science center in middle school. I forget how I got into that. I was always a tinkerer, even in like my younger elementary school days. I was always trying to take things apart, put things together, build things from scratch. I remember one year when I had the concept of like what a birthday is and you get people a gift. I tried to build my mom these shoes by taking one of her pair of shoes and tracing it on paper and then foam. And then the stuffing of the foam that comes out of like a packing box.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I’m trying to build up these layers so I could build her a more comfortable pair of shoes, because she was always working. Because design hadn’t really reached a lot of high schools and middle schools, it was like, okay, you’re doing that, so you’re supposed to be an engineer. There was no concept of like, you’re supposed to be a designer. I never heard the word design or like designer. I literally was told you’re good at math and science, you’re tinkering, go be an engineer.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I remember telling my high school guidance counselor. I was clearly doing well. And I was in gifted honors classes, and this, that, and the third. So I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go to college. Here’s where I’m applying.” He’s like, “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “I want to build electronics. I want to create electronics.” And he was like, “Oh, go to school for electrical engineering.” And then my uncle was an electrical engineer that graduated from North Carolina A&T.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I went to college for electrical engineering, and it wasn’t until I did a summer bridge program at Virginia Tech, that’s no longer there, but it used to be called Aspire, but it was for incoming black, Latinx. And I believe at that time, even Asian students to take these summer courses at Virginia Tech, the summer before you started your fall semester as a way to promote retention, because minority students had low numbers of finishing in these degrees at institutions like Virginia Tech.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I did this program. And so you then came into the fall semester of your freshman year with this cohort of folks. I became really close with some of the guys, because it was mainly guys. And I think it was like maybe six girls out of like 40 students. But I remember two of my guy friends that did that program with me. They were mechanical engineering students. They were getting a minor in this thing called industrial design. And I was like, “Boy, one day, I’m going to go to class with y’all.”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I went to one of their industrial design classes. I think it was Mitzi Vernon teaching design research at Virginia Tech. And I like fell in love with it. I was like, “What is this thing?” And I literally left that class and I went into the College of Architecture’s front desk office, and I was like, “How do I sign up for this minor? I want to do this too.” And then I went to my undergraduate advisor and was like, “Okay, now how can I make my senior thesis integrate industrial design?”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I changed my whole senior thesis to like, instead of just electrical engineering project, it became designing a sensor and designing a hardware of the sensor that could detect vehicles that were coming at joggers and bikers at a certain speed for like safety. I’ve always been about like safety and designing for impairments and things like that. I just fell in love with design, taking this design research class and then taking this sketching classes. I forget the other classes that were needed for the minor.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And as I moved through that minor and then going back to get my master’s in industrial design, I realized that like, that’s where I want it to be, because engineering, and this is no slight to the engineers, but I just felt like engineering put me in a cubicle where I didn’t get to talk to people. And I didn’t get to understand people the ways that I wanted to. And design was like, okay, you’re designing the thing. You’re also thinking about the core guts of the thing, but you’re also understanding the person that’s going to be interacting with the thing.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And the period between when I graduated from undergrad and before I started my masters, I worked at Motorola as an RF systems engineer. I was sitting in a cube, eight, nine hours a day, designing radio packages for the government. I never talked to anybody. I never went out. And I hated it. So when I went back to get my master’s in industrial design, it felt like some clouds are opening up. So I was like, oh, this is where I want to be. And the further I explored that, the better I defined like exactly what design meant to me and also realized how limited a lot of folks are in being exposed to design, because I could have been doing that the whole time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think an interesting kind of trend that I’m seeing here that is what you’re continuing in your work is that you have the idea that in terms of going into your education, you knew that you were good at these things, but you only had a very limited view of what that could look like, which in turn ended up being engineering. I empathize with that too, because like when I went into school, I wanted to do web design. This was in like late 90s, early two 2000s, and I remember my computer science … Well, no, first of all, I was told, “Oh, you should go into computer science, to design a website.”

Maurice Cherry:
And at the time I enrolled in this computer science, computer engineering dual degree program, you do three years at Morehouse. You do two years at Georgia Tech. You get out with a master’s and a bachelor’s. And I was telling my advisor, I wanted to design websites, and he just laughed in my face. “The internet is a fad. This is what you want to do? We don’t do that here.” I switched my major and went into math because Morehouse doesn’t have a design program. I do think about now how different my career might have been if I ended up going into more of that design route.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m bringing this up because what it sounds like for you is that you started out doing this engineering and then as you learn more information and saw these other paths that were open, that then shifted you more towards design. So like it’s that thing about access and I guess equity in some respect, but just access to knowing that this is an option that you can take.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah. I mean, definitely. I think hearing your story fuels that point of, how often are young black and brown students being pushed towards these degrees or this area? You don’t necessarily have to have a degree to be a designer. I think design is like a skillset. Design is also a way of thinking that a lot of people inherently have or what we all inherently have, it’s just whether or not we express ourselves in that way. I wonder how we are exposing like black and brown kids to exploring that as a potential thing to do to harness your creativity or to make a living or whatever it is you want to do out of life.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s not a lie. I think that there’s so many reasons why design is an expensive, especially like a master’s or a PhD in design, it’s an expensive area because design proper doesn’t fall under a lot of the NSF and the fellowships that are going to pay your way. Oftentimes people that are going back and getting post-baccalaureate degrees in design are paying out of pocket or loans. That’s already going to curate a particular type of folk that’s able to do that, and not feel financial stress.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And then I think now people have more of an understanding and a vocabulary around design. But 10 or 15 years ago, when you say, I want to be a designer and it’s was like, well, are you going to make any money doing that? And I think black and brown students are oftentimes limited in having that as a constraint when they come out. If they go to school, it’s like, I got to pick a major that I’m going to do a job that makes money. We’re not always afforded the opportunity to say, I want to do this thing regardless of what the return of investment is going to be.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And so all of these things contribute to, we push, in the past at least, our communities have been pushed to do certain things, to study certain things, and design has not been one of them. And so then it becomes this like elite thing that people think I can’t do design. [inaudible 00:46:38] doesn’t think in that way. And it’s like, if you had a problem at home this morning and you no longer have it because you figured something, you created some type of work around, or you Jimmy rigged your door to no longer creak. Or you’re trying to go in and out of your bedroom to get watermelon in night, like whatever, you’re doing design.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s reframing how we think about what design is and how people think about what they can do with design. I think we’re starting to see that more now. You have designed this trickled out throughout so many sectors. You have literal government agencies that are now wanting to hire people talking about design, to address city infrastructure problems. To address urban planning problems. All of these things, there’s so much value now. And people considering design as a lens to just think through things. It might not even have to be about problems. It can just be about the process of ingenuity and creativity. But I think for my generation at least, that’s just such a new thing, because when I was coming out of K through 12, people were not talking about [inaudible 00:47:54].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I’m going to just put this out here and folks can quote me on that. I attribute a lot of that, I think, new thinking around how folks approached design to the fact that the people that are talking about design, like you look at just the general makeup, has gotten a lot more diverse than it has been in previous years, because you’ve got more black and brown people, more queer people, et cetera, bringing their perspectives, which are a mix of education and lived experience into what design is, that it’s helping for a lot of people to expand what the definition of design looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I remember in like the two thousands, I mean, I was out of college. I was like early in my career and everything about design, at least around like web stuff, because it was still pretty early. It was just all about web stuff. What’s the latest framework. And it wasn’t about, how are we solving problems? Like UX wasn’t really a … I want to say UX wasn’t a thing. It certainly wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. People did UX stuff, but it was not as, I think, known or accepted, I want to say, as being like a hardcore frontend person or backend person or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I mean, it’s amazing the titles that you see, the type of work that you’re able to do in design that is, in large part, I think there’s just more diverse people are out there talking about it, sharing their experiences and really showing other people how design is not just something that’s done like on a computer or with a pen and paper or something like that.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
But even to your point, those tools have also helped to break down the barriers to design. One of the reasons I love what people on social media and the ways, I don’t know if you saw like, it was like a couple of years ago, and someone created a movie poster, like coming soon for Set It Off 2. And it was so real that I got upset, because I was like, no, leave, Set It Off alone. We do not need a Set It Off 2. There’s nothing you can do with that. I think it had Teyana Taylor on the cover and somebody else, but it was because someone got in Photoshop and was so sick with Photoshop, that they created this thing that looked like it came out of somebody’s media company. Like it was actually happening.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
We’ve gotten so sick with our Photoshop and illustrator and just our creative skills because of these digital tools, that you have so many people that you don’t need the four year degree to be like, I’m an illustrator. I’m a designer. I create flyers. I do the promotion for this restaurant. You know what I mean? I help this photographer clean up their prints. There’s so many different ways to do it now because of digital tools.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I think that that’s the dope thing about design, because we’ve now started to see it literally infiltrate corners where folks never would have thought about doing that type of thing. And again, like I said, that then starts to bleed back into one of designs origins of political propaganda, because now I can literally build a career doing the social media promotion for Elizabeth Warren, or I can literally build a career doing a design for Black Lives Matter direct action.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think now when you’re seeing organizations and collective designers protests and design justice network and all of these people that are coming to use design as a lens with all of these different mindsets and backgrounds like, oh, I studied social work, but I now lean heavily into design for ways to really communicate my work and to get things out there and to make change. It’s like, that’s what design to me is and how it should have been talked about for all of this time.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Design, it’s not just this insular, oh, I am in design studio for eight hours a day, studying at this university. And I have this portfolio of these very specific pieces, and now I’m a designer. Design is so many different things, so many different people coming to the table or literally the streets and moving in so many different ways. And I think that all of these things have built for us to get to this moment. I just think that that’s so, it’s dope. It’s dope, where we’ve been able to get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. And one thing that I have to mention, you shouted out some of your peers earlier, Dr. Dori Tunstall Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. Raja Schaar is a doctor also, right? I know I’ve heard her name. I don’t recall if she’s a doctor or not.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Raja’s not a doctor. But Raja is actually one of my academic mentors, because Raja was teaching at Georgia Tech when I was a student there and gave me my first teaching gig. I always have to shout that out. Raja is the first person that let me teach the class, when I was like, please somebody, let me teach. I need to know how to teach for what I want to do. Raja let me do that.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it like being a black woman at the top level of design education in this way?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
That’s an interesting question, because I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it like that. The design PhD in general in the United States is not widespread. We’re still trying to figure out what’s the utility of it. Like why do you need a design PhD? In the United States, you get a master’s, that’s the terminal degree you can teach. You can go into industry. You don’t even need a master’s to have your own firm or your own consulting, whatever. Well, you can teach in certain design programs.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Having a design PhD is, in my perspective, literally because Lesley-Ann, Dori and myself, we all do a particular level of writing and research and getting grants and things like that, to move in the ways that some of the other sciences do. I think about it less than the framework of like, oh, I’m one of the few black women that has a PhD in design.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Although I think that if I stopped and thought about it, that is kind of like, oh, that’s … Whoa! I’ve thought myself as another black woman academic. Still few. Still few and far between. Like if you looked at my department right now, it’s not like, oh, I’m the only black woman with a PhD in design. I’m the only black woman in my department. Differentiating myself in that way is not something I oftentimes think about, but I do hope, and I do see, coming on the horizon, if not already here, maybe not myself. It’s just because I don’t always put myself in that equation. It’s kind of like an imposter syndrome thing, but I definitely see where the Doris and the Lesley-Anns are shifting design.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I think last year was a moment to put that on grand scale, because more people were coming to them, but their work was already at that nexus of like, y’all, the way Lesley-Ann thinks about design, the way Dori is talking about design, what Dori is doing at OCAD and bringing in all of these black faculty and design. And even Raja, I don’t think a PhD really matters, because Raja is one of the people that is … I mean, you want to talk design, to me, the first person I’m going to mention is Raja Schaar. I think it’s more so the impact that they’re going to have in the field of design because of the types of work that they do, not necessarily because they have PhDs, but I guess they’re probably synonymous or maybe I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we spoke about this a bit before we started recording and I really want to talk about it more now. Last year, a lot of organizations and companies really stepped out there to talk about how they support black folks across a number of different fields, design included. And we talk about sort of what it looked like to have that influx of interest and support. Do you still see that support now, a year later?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yeah, like I said, I don’t, but I also am not particularly looking for it, because I don’t think anybody was naive to what that moment was. As I mentioned, there were literally foundations that came and were like, we want to put you on an advisory board so that we can start to think about the equity within our products and our projects. They were also, again, throwing out the same names that I mentioned, you, Lesley-Ann and Dori and Raja. I haven’t heard from them. I couldn’t tell you what’s going on with that project.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
It’s one of those things where it’s like take from it what you needed to take from it and continue with the work. Don’t let that be the sole motivation for the work. Don’t let the die down of that make you feel like the work is any less important or necessary. Because for a lot of us, we’ve been talking about these things and we’ve been doing this type of work, way before anybody was slapping our faces on flyers or panels or whatever. And we will be long after folks no longer care we are. And I think that that’s what energizes me. I think about like a Chris Rudd, who has been talking about anti-racism and design. That’s the whole reason that he ever started working in design. And how in the moment of what happened last summer, I’m sure he like other folks, folks became really familiar with who he was and was speaking on panels and this, that, and the third.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
But he’s been doing that. He’s been doing that work. He’s been so invested in the community in the south side of Chicago. That is his whole lens to design is equity and anti-racism and workers’ rights and thinking about design from a lens of, what would a less racist Chicago look like? What would more equitable Bronzeville corridor look like? He’s been defining those things. I hope that the moment of last year doesn’t overshadow the fact that folks have been talking about these things.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
A lot of the organizers with designers protests, Brian Lee has been doing this area of design. A lot of folks just came to know him in the moment of what happened summer of 2020, but he’s been organizing in this way. He’s been talking about design in this way. To me, I didn’t really even see the companies as much as I saw my friends and colleagues and people that I knew from afar and looked up to, kind of pushed into people knowing their work as people should.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
The companies and all of the organizations and all that, all that was like kind of noise that I knew would fall off anyway. That was never my focus. It’s more like, okay, great. Now we have folks knowing the name of Chris Rudd, of Brian Lee, of Dori Tunstall. That’s kind of what came out of that moment for me. I don’t even really think about the fact that in 2021, those organizations or whoever, are not still knocking down, at least my door, I don’t know about other folks. And the folks that I’m mentioning, they’re still doing the work. They haven’t stopped doing the work because whoever is no longer showcasing 31 days of black on their social media page or whatever, they’re still doing the work.

Maurice Cherry:
To piggyback off of your response there, you’re a hundred percent right. I think what last summer did is that it did help to, I think, amplify a lot of the work that those of us have been out there doing. It sucks though, that that support hasn’t been continued or sustained. Like you can very much tell it was just like a, in some respects, kind of like a flash in the pan kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll share the anecdote, I won’t name the company, but I’ll share the anecdote that I share with you before we started recording, that there was a certain, very large pharmaceutical company that I spoke at last year. That definitely was like, yeah, we really want to help out and do this, that, and the third and whatever. It had just becomes sort of very clear, because they were asking like, is this going to be like a continued thing? Do you think that there’ll be more support out there that people know about this?

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m like, “Ask me next year.” Because right now, I mean, for those of us, like I said, I have been doing this for a while. We’ve seen these kind of like spikes of support that come along as it relates to, it could be a societal issue or it could be an industry issue or something like that. And you get that little spike. That’s great when it happens. If you can sustain that, that’s even better. But a lot of that support I know of from last year did sort of just like dry up. Or the company got selective amnesia about what they said or what they promised. It’s been all sorts of stuff. It is what it is. How can the listeners get more involved in the research areas that you’re a part of?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think a lot of the organizations that I mentioned. I mean, I think that there’s always going to be like that shameless, you want to do a PhD, come to death row type comment of like, come work with the kid. You could definitely do that. I also know that academia is not the only avenue to do this work. I even push some of my students to be a part of design justice network, be a part of do the check-ins with designers protest.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think that a lot of the collectives that I’ve come to learn about, when we did the Denise and Designer project, which it started before the pandemic even hit, but we weren’t able to put things out until I think like late last summer. It kind of overlapped with, we were talking a lot about this area of design and then it was like, oh, the timing just kind of coincided of us starting to put out the zine and the website and highlighting folks on social media.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think following the Denise and Designer project on Instagram and some of the folks that we highlighted, like looking into their work, looking into the collectives that either they lead or that they’re a part of, or some of the projects they’re doing on their own, I think that there are so many ways now, as we talked about equity and design justice is becoming more widespread. There’s so many ways to get involved. I think that people can tap into any one of those.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t went into academia?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Real answer, I wanted to go to culinary school. I wanted to go to culinary school. I wanted to do a bunch of different things when I was a kid. I don’t know if that’s like some sagitarious type stuff. But there was the point in time, pre 1998 when I was like, I’m going to be the first girl in the NBA. And then there was, I want to go to culinary school. Cooking was so sexy to me. I don’t know why I just thought I wanted to cook. And then I think when I got to undergrad and I was grounded a little bit more, and even then barely, because I remember end of my sophomore year under my freshman year, calling my mom and being like my, “I hate electrical engineering. I hate it here. I want to get my degree in Africana Studies and be a writer or something.”

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And my mom being, “No, you’re not [inaudible 01:04:08].” I wanted to do so many things and it was like engineering oddly was my safety net, because I was smart in math and science. It could have been a number of different things. And it still might be a number of different things, because I don’t believe that we are fixed to what we do in terms of our productivity or making money in this light. I don’t think we have to be fixed to that.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I still might end up opening a smoothie shop and being the old black lesbian in the neighborhood that’s just making smoothies and minding her business on the porch. That’s just my character and how I see the world of just wanting to do what feels good and what makes sense in the moment. I think this past year has showed me that I don’t want to die working myself to death and stressing over a job. So what that looks like in the next 15, 20 years is very up in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
Woo! You hit me with like a shot to the heart with that one. Woo! I know exactly what you mean when you say that. Stress will kill you. And if you happen to be black, if you happen to be anything else on top of that, it’s a lot out here. I don’t blame you. I think a lot of people are starting to come to their … I won’t want to say come to their senses, because that implies some form of like brainwashing. But I think a lot of people are realizing like, to be quite blunt, fuck these jobs.

Maurice Cherry:
The work is always going to be there. I think I had to come to terms with that a few years ago myself, when I really saw that I was really overworking myself. The work will always be there. I may not. Someone else can easily sub in for whatever, but like I don’t want to burn myself out trying to … You don’t get a medal for being a workaholic.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Yep. I think last year I was talking to a friend about this. I mean last year literally showed us whose job was essential and whose wasn’t. And the ways that we need to let go of some of that internal guilt of taking rest, of taking time off, of going on vacation. I know at least like black, queer, trans, non-binary folk in the academia and the academy, we tend to carry that. Like, I got to work harder to get where other people are, and so, no days off. I also have the invisible labor of holding space for all of the students who don’t see themselves typically on campus and all of these things. And it’s like, we also tend to statistically die younger because of it, and not last, and still not get tenured.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think the last year has taught me, I’m going to rest. I am going to take time. I’m going to take vacations where I’m not touching my laptop. I think as burnt out as I was starting to feel with academia, one of the beautiful things that I quickly realized coming into CMU, there’s a faculty by the name of Jessica Hammer in the HCI Institute, who is all about that. Making sure that you’re working efficiently, such that you can unplug and take care of yourself and have that balance.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And I think that that’s just the place that I’m kind of in, because we watched the world go topsy-turvy, and a lot of us didn’t know how to put down productivity. We didn’t know how to not be defined by that. It was kind of sad and a little scary, watching folks scramble to do what felt like normal, but what felt like normal was work, at least in the context of the U.S.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Shout out to the Nap Ministry. I first heard about them last year. I think it might have been right around the summer of last year. Shout out to the Nap Ministry, rest is resistance. Absolutely.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Shout out to the Nap Ministry, shout out to Pleasure Activism, shout out to any messaging that is just like, take care of you. We have to be reminded of that. I think Denise is a great example in the way that they’re operating Black Womxn Flourish is like, hey y’all, we’re taking a break in a couple of weeks. And I’m like, that is like such a symbol, but I’ve never thought to just be like, no, it’s not a holiday, but I’m just going to go to the lake for a couple of days and not answer my email, and y’all will be okay. We know the jobs that are essential now. We know what we need to literally survive as a society. More than likely my journal article isn’t part of that, so I can take a break. I can take a nap.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I love it. I love it. What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So many things from Real Housewives of Potomac, do not shame me, but I love them. I’m obsessed with that. I am upset with, in terms of design, like this concept of futuring and speculative design, but through a lens of Afrofuturism. I’m obsessed with the concept of like, there are black people in the future. I think it’s become ingrained in everything I see and everything I do, from like TV shows. I like a lot of like sci-fi and those psychological thrillers or like those, the world has ended as we know it and now it’s 2442 and here’s what civilization looks like. You watch those shows and you’re like, wait, so in 2442 there’s no black people? In the casting call, you don’t even think to put one mixed girl, nothing?

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
And it’s like that concept of like us, the longevity and what our futures looks like has become something that I’m super obsessed with. I’m obsessed with art, of course. I think that that’s what attracted me to design because I was introduced to design as like this mesh of engineering and visual art. So the visual art is always going to be something that like aesthetically … Like I love collecting art in my home. I love going to museums and learning the history of, especially like political art, what people were trying to say through their art. I’m obsessed with my travel bucket list. That is part of my selfish Americanism of like, when am I going to be able to just roam the world again and feel safe? Safe to the extent of being like black masculine presenting queer woman on this earth, as safe as we feel anyway.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I will admit this, but if you see me in person, I’m not going to want to engage in it in person. I’m not a LeBron hater, but I follow his career. So I’m slightly obsessed with how long is this man going to play in the NBA? It’s not even like a Vince Carter. Like where Vince was like, he’s old. He might go in for like five minutes and do a dunk and then you can see him kind of limping off the court and he’s done. LeBron is still playing as like the centerpiece of the team, going into what? 35, 36. So I’m kind of obsessed with like what that moment is going to be when he … Is that going to come? I mean, he’s conditioned his body so well, and I think he’s obsessed with proving to people that he can still do it. As an avid basketball fan, I’m kind of obsessed with seeing how long he goes.

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

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
I think I’ll still be doing similar work. I mean, I have great interest in doing more like civic technology fellowships, where I’m taking a year and focusing on a project that sits outside of the academic institution, like the walls of the academic institution or consulting with folks that are thinking about larger scale problems. I think that that’s the next direction that I feel like I want to go in at some point. I don’t know what capacity that’s going to look like. Because like I said, I tend to let the work lead me, but I would love to do some type of fellowship that was focused on like a larger scale problem that was dealing with digital access or design equity somewhere.

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

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
So my personal website, christinaharrington.me, although it’s not, I mean, that flashy, it’s somewhat updated of like my travel and where I’m speaking, my research project, the papers that I’ve published and things like that. You can always follow me on Twitter @adapperprof. I’m always ranting about academia, design, The Real Housewives of Potomac, rest, productivity. I have pages on LinkedIn and stuff like that. I don’t use them as much, but I’d say that those are the two places.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Christina Harrington, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I know when we first met, actually it was a few years ago, we met at black and design, which they are having again this year. So I think by the time this episode comes out, people will start hearing some of the advertisements around the events. That’ll be happening in October, again, virtually this year.

Maurice Cherry:
It was just so good to talk with you and to learn about the work that you’re doing around design equity, your new role at Carnegie Mellon. I just feel like we’re going to hear so much more from you in these coming years about the work that you’re doing, because it’s really super important. I think now that so much of our world has been driven online because of the pandemic in terms of interactions and just general socialization that a lot of the work you’re doing around design equity and stuff like that is going to be super important. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Christina N. Harrington:
Thank you so much for having me. This is really exciting.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Black in Design 2021 Conference

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On the weekend of October 8-10th, join the Harvard Graduate School of Design virtually for the Black in Design 2021 Conference!

This year’s theme, Black Matter, is a celebration of Black space and creativity from the magical to the mundane. Our speakers, performers, and panelists will bring nuance to the trope of Black excellence and acknowledge the urgent political, spatial, and ecological crises facing Black communities across the diaspora. You don’t want to miss out on this weekend of learning, community, and connection!

Visit them online at blackmatter.tv to learn more and be a part of the event.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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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.

Zariah Cameron

September means it’s time for back to school, so what better way to kick off the month here on Revision Path than by talking with a design student? Meet Zariah Cameron, a soon-to-be graduate of North Carolina A&T and an up-and-coming voice in the design industry.

We talked about going through her senior year and working as an intern during this pandemic, and we also spoke about the AEI Design Program, an initiative she started to foster and establish relationships with partner companies to create a pipeline for Black college students. Zariah also shared some of her future goals, current obsessions, and what she’s learned from her internships throughout college. Keep an eye out for this young designer — she’s definitely going places!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Zariah Cameron:
Hi everyone. My name is Zariah Cameron. I am a senior graphic design student at North Carolina A&T State University. Within the past two years, I’ve been independently studying UX design, which is now the space that I’m in. And I’m now evolving into a UX equity strategist. It’s now my evolving role.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has the summer been going for you?

Zariah Cameron:
This particular summer is definitely been an unexpected turn of events in the best of ways I could say. Of course, just the opportunities of being able to speak and be in spaces where I definitely feel supported by my black community, specifically Black Designers has been great, but it has been hectic. I’ve been working my internship as a UX designer and then preparing for my last semester of school and just with my program and all the things we’re gearing up for. So it’s been a very busy summer. I’m trying to find ways to prevent burnout and exhaustion, especially again in the middle of pandemic. I’m currently home. I haven’t really gone anywhere in a year and a half, so I think that mental exhaustion is hitting me a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. This whole year, I mean, especially I think this summer in particular, it is probably harder than last summer, well for two reasons. One, we have a vaccine. And two, people aren’t taking it. COVID rates are going back up. And so, I really feel for, I mean, not just parents right now that have unvaccinated children, but also students right now. This is such a pivotal time in your development right now, from 18 to 21, 22-ish, you don’t really get this time back. And for it to be take in place during such a very stressful time in the world right now is really tough. But I mean, given all of that, what are you kind of doing for self care? How are you maintaining yourself while taking on all these responsibilities?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I feel like I always tell people sometimes it’s not enough time in the day, but I’ve been trying to force myself to implement that time and schedule that time because for a lot of people that do know me, I am a scheduler. If it’s not on my calendar, it pretty much doesn’t happen. So I’ve been trying to schedule in that time, whether it be through writing, whether it be through even binge watching. Just to have some mindless TV to just get my mind away from all the other responsibilities that I have. Going outside for a walk. I love hiking and going in nature whenever I can. And also, just journaling has been another way of me kind of releasing and relaxing from everything.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve changed over the past year?

Zariah Cameron:
Gosh, I’ve changed a lot, but I really didn’t think that I’d change within a year being in the same exact place that I have been since March of 2020. But it’s surprising what a year will do. And within a year, I feel like I’ve gained so much confidence within myself and been able to really vocalize a lot of the things that I was maybe apprehensive or scared or anxious to express, whether it was me as an individual designer, as a person, as a community leader now. Those types of roles, I never really saw myself being a part of a year ago. And now, I’m leading the community. I’m advocating for other black design students. I’m being able to speak on that work through various different speaking engagements, which, one, I never at all saw myself as being that person to kind of go up and speak. But now I’ve just definitely seen myself evolved with being more authentically myself and being able to be comfortable doing that even if other people may have their own negative opinions towards that, and also being okay with that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, speaking of opportunities, you spoke at this year at Where are the Black Designers Conference that they had back in June. I mean, that was a pretty stacked panel that you were on. The panel was called Navigating Different Design Professions and Levels as a Black Designer. And you’re on there with people that have been on Revision Path before; Kevin Bethune, Timothy Bardlavens, Gabrielle Smith, Raja Schaar, who I think is a professor at… I think she’s at either at Temple or Drexel.

Zariah Cameron:
Drexel.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the two. I get the-

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, at Drexel.

Maurice Cherry:
At Drexel. I get the E in Temple and Drexel mixed up, but yeah, she’s at Drexel. And then moderated by Omari Souza, who someone else has been on the show. I mean, you held your own in that panel. Those were some really heavy hitters. I mean, to be able to really speak about the work that you’re doing and you’re still a college student is great. I mean, I think that’s wonderful.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. One, they’re all amazing people. Raja, I’m very close with. And so, to just be on the panel with her was just amazing, and just having that community. And I tell people being able to speak at the Where are the Black Designers Conference was really a full circle for me because I was an audience member just last year watching that. And so to be able to have that opportunity to speak on that panel and speak about my experiences was definitely an honor.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned this internship that you were doing, or you just finished up. That was at Ally Bank. How was that experience?

Zariah Cameron:
It’s definitely a surprising experience. I did not know what to expect. I mean, I had gotten accustomed to… Well, I got a feel for the culture of the company with a few of events that I had been able to participate through my university and just Ally being a connected company. But I really didn’t know how that experience was going to be virtually. And from my past experiences, I kind of mixed the idea of interning or working at another financial institution. And so, I really wasn’t sure what this experience would be like.

Zariah Cameron:
I had expressed to my recruiter before I even accepted the offer and even when I accepted the offer that I really want to focus on inclusion work, equity work within the design space. Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to do that in a bank and what that would even look like, but I definitely had a really good experience and just being able to not only connect with other interns that look like me, that went to other HBCUs and even non-HBCU students and just the closest we had together in that virtual space, but also having like, I realized how important it is to have a manager that really supports you in your growth and your goals. And so I was very grateful to have a manager that did that. He kind of helped me to maneuver through that summer. And through that, I was able to get connected to this inclusive design team that was actually just starting up within our design organization.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, being able to be a part of that and lead a lot of discussions that I believe needed to happen, it allowed me to kind of realize or see what role I fit best within design, and also to see the importance of how design fits into helping marginalized communities reach that economic mobility and financial freedom. And so, it was definitely a great moment for me, and also just to have people that were supportive with me during that process too.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting how financial institutions are starting to become sort of the vanguard of that kind of equity center design. We’ve had several people on the show before from Capital One. That’s such a huge part of their design ethos, is making sure that as you’re saying about underrepresented or marginalized communities have that financial freedom, but just the level of care that they put into all of their interactions to make sure that equity is part of the goal from conversation design, to even how they sort of lay out the physical layout of their banks and everything. It’s really interesting how that sector has been sort of a forefront when it comes to that.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I definitely agree. I think I was able to see that from a financial lens and being able to have those conversations of like, “Hey, we really need to focus on the culture of our customers and focusing on working with our communities” and being able to provide this assistance, or, “Who are we actually excluding in these conversations?” and uncovering what our biases are or our assumptions are of our customers, or even people who could be potential customers of our bank and being able to create that organic relationship because we are an online bank. And so we have to be able to foster some type of connection to them, especially if we’re not going to be face-to-face.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, look, my money is at Ally. So I trust that they’re doing the right thing. They’re doing something right. Let’s talk about the AEI Design Program. I first heard of this actually at the Where are the Black Designers Conference this year when you were speaking about it. But tell me more about the project. I mean, you started this while you were still a student. I mean, you’re still a student now, but you started this while you were at North Carolina A&T, right?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I did. I started this right after actually Where are the Black Designers last year, and I was just very empowered and inspired by [inaudible 00:13:45]. I was able to connect with so many different black designers and have that support in that community. But unfortunately, I realized that a lot of what I was seeing, they were professionals. And I wanted something where there was a space just for us as students. Looking at my own journey, I realized that there were so many gaps that I was missing, and not just within my own education, but just the support whether it be mentorship, sponsorship, things like that, that were hindering me from really fully being successful or having access to certain resources or just knowledge in general that would help me get myself in that door of even just landing my first internship.

Zariah Cameron:
I realized there was a lot of other students, whether they went to a PWI or an HBCU, were experiencing those same challenges and they really didn’t have any type of community. No matter where they were, they didn’t feel any sense of belonging. And I wanted to bring that element to this space. And of course, there are tons of design student communities that were out there, but I wanted there to be a community just for us. And so we’ve evolved. I’ve evolved ever since then. I think AEI has definitely helped me to evolve into a leader that I never expected. I’ve always wanted to be some form of a leader, I just didn’t know what. And being able to have this program outside of just school has allowed me to flourish and have my own space and create a freedom to put all of these things out here with our programs, our events, all those different things. And also to be able to reach a larger audience than just the students that are within my school.

Zariah Cameron:
And so I was leading a team of three other students. And now we’re growing. We just added a few more team members to our group. And so I’m really excited of what we’ll be able to accomplish this upcoming school year too.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, as far as when you’re doing all this organizing and you’re getting students and stuff together, are events kind of part of this as well? Are you staging any sort of virtual events?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. All of our events are virtual because I realized, again, there was that access component, and I want students to be able to access us even beyond this pandemic if we get out of it, and just being able to have access to those resources whether you’re in our state, whether you go to our school or you’re not. And that’s what I want to be, provide through this program. Actually, within the next few weeks, we’ll be actually launching our Fall Design Bootcamp where students will be able to work with our company partners and create a design solution based on their stated problem. And so I’m really excited for this because it not only gives an opportunity for students to connect with each other, with other black students, but also for them to connect with companies and for them to see firsthand on a more personal level of how these companies operate, what their processes are like, and to ask those hard questions and for the companies to just see that talent that’s there. So I’m really excited for this, in particular for this year.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you like to see AEI continue to grow? I mean, it sounds like you’re already on a good path right now.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I’m really excited. I mean, of course, I’m hoping to have more company partnerships of course. But I mean just this year, this year in January, three or four of my students got landed their very first design internships. I think two of them are at Facebook right now. One of them’s at Spotify, and one of them landed a full time gig at Allscripts. I basically help them to transition through their interview process. And so, to see them land those interviews and land that offer was so thrilling for me. That’s one of my goals that I want to do this school year, as well as to continue to allow students to receive those offers and find a place where they feel comfortable and safe.

Zariah Cameron:
I also want within this next year to transition into our mental health initiative. A lot of students, especially during this pandemic, have definitely had burnout, have had several different experiences where their mental health has been at risk. Especially as a creative, I feel like we sometimes burn ourselves out even more because we’re exhausting so much creative energy. And so, I think one of my goals is to really start implementing different sessions or conversations around the importance of mental health and just finding that joy in our lives as black people and helping to separate ourselves from all the trauma that we have to endure and see and experience. And then I think my final thing is I’m in the process of making us an official nonprofit. So our main goal is the bootcamp, this mental health initiative, and leading into our nonprofit status.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I mean, I’d take my hat off to you for being able to accomplish all of that even while you’re in school and doing these internships. I mean, that’s really admirable. I mean, I have to say you’re getting your career off to such a fantastic start right now, like you said, just helping out with community, it’s one thing to be able… Of course, you’re doing internships and being able to speak and stuff like that, but then to also give back to that community at the same time is, I mean, that’s really admirable.

Zariah Cameron:
Thank you. I definitely appreciate it. I think the reason why I wanted to start this out while I was in school is because I can see it from the lens of the student and I understand what those struggles are and what I’ve experienced. And I’m able to really advocate for what is a need. And not that people who are outside of school or far moved from school can’t advocate for those things, but I think within my current generation and just being within in the know of what really is going on and the realities of these educational institutions, I’m able to really speak on those gaps, those issues, and what solutions need to be implemented to move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. Students know what students need, you know? I mean, I couldn’t possibly guess what students now would want. I’m 20 something years removed from that so I couldn’t tell you. I mean, to be able to do it from that perspective is also a really added benefit.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of switch gears a little bit here, because I’m curious where that spirit of volunteerism and everything sort of comes from. Tell me about where you grew up.

Zariah Cameron:
I grew up about… I always say I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, because a lot of people, when you say somewhere else, they’re like, “What? Where are you from?” So I’m about 30 minutes on the south side out from the city of Atlanta.

Zariah Cameron:
Design was never really a thought in my mind, that I would ever major in design. I’ve always seen myself as creative with writing, being an outlet, whether it be poetry, things like that, or even just expressing myself in a lot of different ways, but never really saw myself going into design. Because I was such a strong writer, I actually had in my mind all the way until my senior year that I was going to be a journalism major. That’s what I wanted to do. Everyone was always telling me that I was a strong writer and that was the direction that I was going to take.

Zariah Cameron:
But I was very fortunate enough to have the opportunity, for those that don’t know me, I went to a year-round school. That allowed me to have breaks in between the year when other students were in school. During that time, I was able to be around my dad who works in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. And I was submerged in technology. I was just completely at awe by computer science and how tech was able to just change and impact lives. And through that, just being around there, I was able to work with Black Girls CODE and work with students and teach them and volunteer in those different ways. I think through that, it was like, “Wow, I’ve really liked doing this type of work.” I don’t know how I’m going to do it or what I’m going to do, but I really do like the space. And I also really love working with children and teaching them in some capacity because I love just when their eyes light up when they’ve learned something new, especially when it relates to technology.

Zariah Cameron:
And so at the time, design really wasn’t this great big… Especially UX design, it was not this great big buzz word or exciting space to be in that people were talking about, especially within academia. And so everyone was like, “Okay, if you want to be in technology, go into computer science. That’s the only way. That’s the only possible way you’re going to be in technology if you want to impact tech.” And so I was like, “Okay, well I guess this is the path that I want to go into.” And I always tell this part of the story because I think it’s important for students and anybody else to know and understand the path is not going to be perfect. It’s definitely not going to be linear. And just because you get one rejection doesn’t mean that is end of your journey.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, I applied to our Computer Science Program at my school, and I got rejected. I thought it was the end of the world and that I was not going to be able to make the impact that I wanted. But I’m very glad that I did get that rejection because I don’t think I would be where I am right now in my journey. My school has a Graphic Design department which explores elements of game design and obviously the foundational elements of graphic design. We learn a little bit of CAD and modeling and all these different areas. I decided to kind of go into that space because I’m like, “Okay, well I can go into design, and maybe still somewhat have an impact in technology.” Through that, I was able to transition into UX design very easily through just like me researching, doing things on my own.

Zariah Cameron:
UX design isn’t offered a part of our curriculum. But through that foundation that I did have through my school and just the support of my teachers, specifically my black teachers, they were able to kind of help me and guide me into this new space that I am now in, which is UX design. Like I said, this path was definitely not linear. It took me a long time to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. But I think with UX design, it allows me to get the best of both worlds of working in tech if I want to and being able to still be in that design space while also just being able to understand people and implement their stories and understand who they are to implement within the experience. I think that’s probably one of my favorite parts about UX is, it’s really is all about people. And I think being a writer, I’m a natural storyteller. And so I think it always resonates with me when I’m able to connect someone’s story to the experience that we’re creating within design and tech.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really great way to sort of tie those two concepts together. For a while, Revision Path had a kind of this writing initiative, we called it Recognize, where it was sort of like an essay submission sort of thing. People would submit essays around a certain theme, but they would have to be designed focused. For last year for example, the theme was Fresh. And so you would write design essays that sort of in some way encompass the theme of Fresh. My goal with it is actually kind of the goal of what you were sort of alluding to. It’s about using writing and using texts and using storytelling as a way to kind of also put forth these certain design concepts or things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Unfortunately, Recognize was not super successful. We have to kind of shut it down this year. I hope to bring it back at some point in the future. But I like how you’re able to kind of tie into what writing does for you as a designer and how that storytelling ties into what you do with UX design. I think that’s a really powerful connection to make.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. Like I said, I think I finally found my space. Just because I think even within computer science, there is that level of strategy and critical thinking that I had the knack for. And now to be able to kind of have that skill set or mindset and implement that ideology within design has been just really great for me. I think now I’ve definitely seen myself evolve from just an individual contributor, like an individual design contributor, to this person that is really being able to lead conversations about how we think about design, in again as I mentioned before, that inclusion equity space.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the program at A&T. I think when folks look at HBCU and then they think about design, I’m not sure of North Carolina A&T is a school that they may readily think about. But can you just tell us like a little bit about the program and sort of what you’re going to remember the most from being at A&T? Because you’re about to graduate this semester.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. I wish that our program was a little bit more marketable. I wish they marketed us a little bit better, because I think a lot of students would benefit from just having black teachers that really want you to succeed and do well. And I think also, I wish that our particular department sat in a different space because I think sometimes we can get overlooked. So we sit within the College of Science and Technology. And so when a lot of people think of science and technology, you think of biology, chemistry, mathematics sits within that space too. And then you’ve got IT, informational systems, all those things like that. So you’ve got all these other majors, and then we have graphic design. And so, a lot of people whenever they think about the College of Science and Technology, they don’t think about that graphic design technology space being an option for them to major in especially because North Carolina A&T is especially known for agriculture, in the name, Engineering especially is one of the largest areas that we’re known for.

Zariah Cameron:
So again, design is really second priority. But I wish that it wasn’t, because again, like I said, I’ve had really great professors that have really helped me grow as a designer. Some definite tough love that’s been given to me and brief anecdote. I had a professor. I failed his class in my first year. I really just didn’t do well and had to retake it. And the second time, I got a B+. He had written and I told him, I was like, “Thank you. Thank you for helping me to get to this point.” And he was like, “I already knew you could do it. You just have to really prove to people that you can do it and you have the capability because I know it’s already in there.” And just him really believing in me and giving me that tough love that I needed, just helped me to appreciate not only him more but the space that I’m in, and really been able to push myself that much harder and see what I can achieve.

Zariah Cameron:
I think having those people in your corner that are looking out for you in that way is one of the best experiences. Now, reflecting and looking back, now that I’m getting ready to graduate, it’s something that I definitely love and will miss. Yeah, I have some more thoughts, but I’ll stop talking [inaudible 00:31:10].

Maurice Cherry:
No, I have to say that’s one thing about HBCUs that… I don’t know. You just don’t get that at other schools. The professors really do care. And that’s not to say that at PWIs and at other schools, other professors don’t care. But I mean I can only speak from my experience also going to an HBCU. I went to Morehouse. I mean, there’s just a certain different level of care. They’re really looking out for you in ways that you may not even really be considering. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There’s some professors that are like, “You’re just another student, just another number, et cetera.” But I think once you get into your degree program, you’d be surprised just how much the professors are really rooting for you and wanting to make sure that you succeed, because it looks good on them if they have graduates that come out of the program. So it makes sense that at HBCUs that they would just be more open to that.

Maurice Cherry:
And then of course, it’s just as black people helping black people. I’ve had several other folks on the show that when they talk about their time at other design institutions that I won’t name, but they’re not HBCU, but at other design institutions, it’s rough. Their educational experience is rough. There’s no mercy. And certainly not anywhere their having black professors or even really able to design towards their culture in the work that they do. I mean, you have all these different inherent benefits that come with being able to study at an HBCU. And just from what you’re sharing about the program, sounds like it’s a really great program. I mean, NC A&T overall is a great school. I think it’s one of the biggest research institutions in North Carolina. I’m guessing probably second to UNC.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, [inaudible 00:32:59]. I mean, of course, every school has it’s… I really had to advocate for myself and try to reach out to certain people and do certain things that I was like, “Hey.” That I actually saw everything that these companies had to offer, the realities of what things were, and being able to kind of bring that back to the students within my program and show that like, “Hey, there actually is great black designer talent that needs to be sought after.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Duke is the other school that I was thinking about.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Folks that went to Duke don’t kill me, I was like… But I know that North Carolina A&T though, is one of the big research institutions in the state. So that’s good to know. And also while you were at A&T, you worked at a number of internships. I mean, you mentioned Ally. But you worked at what? Like two or three other companies while you were there, right?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I did. I worked for Wells Fargo last summer. It’s kind of weird because all my internships that I’ve had have all been virtual so I have no idea what this corporate world will look like once we go back in person. That’s going to be a whole another, I guess, hill or road we’ll have to cross to get there. But yeah, I interned at Wells Fargo. I wasn’t a designer, but it gave me the perspective of just how things work, how systems work, how corporate space work, how financial institutions are run, and in some ways being that fly on the wall of seeing the realities of what things were. But it gave me perspective of not just… Even though I wasn’t a designer for that particular role, I was a QA, I was a quality assurance analyst. And so that role taught me how to really pay attention to the details, the importance of how things work and how things function within a platform, a tool, and pointing out those shortcomings of how we can really better improve those products for the user.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, that really helped me to analyze a lot things better when it came to actually designing. And then recently what this is, I worked for a startup. It was really small. That was really catered to black women’s hair and finding the right hair regimen for them. And that was a really great experience to kind of work on it from the ground up and being able to work with other black women that had natural hair and just pouring my own experience, my own stories, and other people’s research and hair journeys into that. So that was a really fun experience. It’s also challenging in that quick, fast paced type of environment.

Zariah Cameron:
And then recently, before Ally I worked at PepsiCo as sort of a UX, UI designer, which I focus more on UI. And so, I realized I’m a better UX designer than a UI designer. I think people definitely should understand the difference because I think sometimes we group it together, but they definitely are separate things and have their own responsibilities. And I think people are stronger or, I guess, weaker in certain spaces. I definitely saw myself as more of a UX designer. But through that experience, I learned so much. I learned about the responsibilities and the job of a UI designer and how much work it takes in the input and all the different intricacies that you have to think about when developing certain things.

Zariah Cameron:
So that was a really good experience as well. And then I think just as I’ve grown, I’ve evolved and figured out what’s the best space for me to be in through all these different internship opportunities that I’ve had, and just where do I not only feel the most supported but also safe because I’ve definitely thought a lot about myself as a black designer. I’m not just a designer working at a company. But really just caring about the impact that I make. And does that company actually, or the people really care about my wellbeing and not just my individual contribution to the product?

Maurice Cherry:
And you say all these internships that you’ve done have been virtual. What is that like? What is a virtual internship like? Just kind of give a brief example of what that’s like.

Zariah Cameron:
I’m not going to just say, oh my gosh, it sucks, but it is a lot harder. Because, one, with PepsiCo for example, I was working or having to interact with working on a project with a physical product. And so it was a lot harder because it was like, “Okay. I’m designing for a physical product that I can not see, feel, touch anything. I can’t interact with to see how it functions to better make improvements on it.” And so it was more or less like, “Okay, well I have to watch videos. And I have to figure out, watch customer reviews on this product to see what are their pain points without me actually being able to physically interact with it myself, which was definitely harder.

Zariah Cameron:
I think if I was in the office, I could just go to that room, look at the product, be like, “Okay, this is what’s wrong.” And I think it’s even more crucial for black people because you do want to make sure that this is a safe and healthy space for you. I heard a lot of people have very toxic experiences from companies. I think that’s the one big fear because you can easily hide behind a screen and you don’t really know what that culture is like, and they could be portraying something that may not even be realistic. And then you get in the office and it’s something completely different.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting. The conversation in tech over the past, I don’t know, maybe like six or seven years has been around, of course, making sure that these tech companies and design focused companies are safe spaces for black people and people of color to work in. And now with the pandemic and it’s driving people to have to work from home, how do you make sure that that same feeling is also existing in the virtual space? I mean, I just know from the past few places where I’ve worked at that have been sort of a hybrid of remote and even in the office, and then of course with the pandemic driving it to be fully remote, it’s amazing how different sort of microaggressions can kind of pop up or just different sort of ways that you can feel left out in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s something that companies are still going to have to deal with and try to figure out as it looks like this is not abating anytime soon. We’re still going to be on this kind of hybrid/fully remote sort of workforce thing. But how do you make sure that those digital spaces are also going to be safe and accommodating for your workers that are people of color? That’s the best way to put it.

Zariah Cameron:
I definitely agree. I think working with Ally is probably one of the best [inaudible 00:40:36] so far, just because, like I said, I’ve never been able to connect with other interns in this way. I think that was a big thing. The way that they’re recruiting was… I don’t even know how they did it, but they just chose a really good intern class that reflected the culture of the company that they were really trying to promote. Of course, again like I said, every company has its shortcomings and things like that, but I believe like from the top down, everyone was welcoming and really wanting to promote that culture where you can email an executive and they would reach out to you and they would meet with you and answer your questions or talk to you and have a brief conversation.

Zariah Cameron:
I think that openness is something that you don’t always get a chance to have and get exposure to. And so, I think not only having a intern class but also having your recruiters really just help you have that personal experience as best as you can in this virtual space. Again, like I said, it was hard not being able to be in the office and collaborate. Especially as designer, it’s so hard. You’ve got to find all these alternative ways to collaborate together to design, to communicate virtually, that it can make things a little bit more difficult. But I mean, if the people are good, I think the collaboration will kind of fall in line with that energy and that team chemistry.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Right now is your… I mean, again, you’re at this very pivotal point in your educational career as well as just your professional career, about to get out there in the working world. Do you feel supported as a black designer?

Zariah Cameron:
There’s many different ways we can take that. I want to say yes, but I feel like yes is such a short answer. I think depending on what area of my life that I am a black designer, it could go yes, or maybe, or even no. I think with my Black Designers community, I’ve been able to find amazing mentors/friends who have really supported me and been like, “Hey, if you want to take a break, it’s okay if you want to take a break. We’re still going to be here when you come back and we’re going to be holding down the fort till you get back while you’re gone.” And being able to be comfortable and also vulnerable with these people has been such a privilege because I know a lot of people don’t get a chance to do that or don’t feel comfortable enough to.

Zariah Cameron:
So I think in that way, this community like Where are the Black Designers, my Black Ignite community, those people have really allowed me to be comfortable being my authentic self and also being vulnerable enough to express certain concerns or issues that I may have that’s going on in my life, whether it be personal or within my career. So I think in that way, I feel supported. I think in a corporate setting, I’m still navigating through that. I would say yes from certain people, but of course, I’m still getting a feel for what that is and what people’s intentions are. I think for the most part, I would say yes.

Zariah Cameron:
But then again, it’s just been something I’ve been thinking about. Even looking at Simone Biles and her deciding to leave the Olympics because of her mental health. And people just giving so much backlash to her making that decision because she was prioritizing her mental health and just the exhaustion energy that she was giving out and probably just how tired she was. And just seeing how people only appreciate your skill and the value you bring over your actual health and you as a person. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m concerned about is like, “Are you really caring about me and my self as a human being? Or is it just the value that I bring to this company? The value that I bring to this community? The value I bring to this school?” or whatever it may look like. That’s where I’m trying to find what that balance is, and who are those people that I should have in my corner, and who are those people that will have access to those versions or sides of me. So that’s kind of where I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s really tricky now. I mean, I say that as someone that’s been in the industry for a while. I mean, certainly within the past 10 to 12 years or so, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in really just black spaces at design. There’s podcasts like this, but there’s conferences, there’s meetups, there’s initiatives like what you’re doing with AEI Design Program. A lot of that stuff really didn’t exist 10 years ago. It was hard to find. And so it can be interesting now, especially if you exist among different identities. Like, if you’re just like a cis black man, and there may be one thing. But what if you’re a woman? What if you’re a member of the LGBT community? What if you identify a different part of the gender spectrum? The level of support that you would get as a black designer can even vary within all of those spaces and so. It’s still evolving like you said, I think. It’s a big question with a not so simple answer. So I feel you there.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. That’s kind of where I’m at with all of this. It’s like in certain places I could say, yes, that I do feel supported. In other spaces, it’s like you’re on the fence and you’re not really completely sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Zariah Cameron:
You still have to only give one element of you. I guess that’s where code switching comes in. But even then, it’s like code switching is this element of losing a sense of your identity. That’s a whole another thing that I’m trying to navigate through.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What are you obsessed with right now?

Zariah Cameron:
In terms of personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say you can answer that any way you like. Personal, professional, whatever.

Zariah Cameron:
I would say… What am I obsessed right now? I think right now it’s maybe a weird answer, but I’m honestly obsessed with the friendships that I’ve gotten to have over this past year. It’s very overwhelming. I’ve never had friend group of black designers or even designers that have really been so overwhelmingly loving to me, not only my career but just me as a person, and really being that support system that I needed. I think for so long…

Zariah Cameron:
I mean, even the people that are like, “Oh, well you go to HBCU. Of course, you have support.” And I’m like, “Yes, but even within that HBCU, there are groups.” There are groups. And so, sometimes you don’t always fit into those groups. Or even within those groups that you may be a part of, you still don’t completely feel a sense of belonging. And so to be able to go in a space, be around people that care about me and love me for just who I am and whether I change or evolve or whatever phase of my life that I’m growing into, that they’re there to support me and guide me through those different shifts, those different transitions.

Zariah Cameron:
And I know, like I said, weird answer in terms of being obsessed. But I think, like I have my own podcast with Heatherlee who’s the founder of Black Ignite, and just how our lives cross within a year, I would have never imagined for our friendship to be where it is, going from professional relationship to this very personal friendship that I value very deeply and to be able to work on this podcast with her and hear her story and how much our stories literally are parallel to each other. And so being able to have people like her and other people like Mitzi, like my Design to Divest Community as well. Having them in my corner is something I’m truly become obsessed with and want to continue to be around and want to just have that energy around me, that healthy energy. Because sometimes being around your own people still isn’t healthy, so having those people in those relationships has been really great for me within this past year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Aside from those friendships, have you had any mentors or anyone that have really kind of helped you out either over this past year or just along the way in your journey as a designer?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. I’ve had a lot of different people, some that I’m very, very fortunate and very grateful to have in my life. And they’re all for different reasons. At first, at the start of my career or even school experience, I thought that I could really only have one said mentor, and that’s what it is. But as I’m evolving, I realized I need different mentors for different things, different spaces in my life. And so, I’ve had mentors that have taught me about just how to run my program, guiding me answering those questions as we’re moving into becoming a nonprofit, understanding elements of brand strategy for our program. Then I have mentors that who I now can call friends as well, who have helped me, guide me as a person and just where I need to go on my life.

Zariah Cameron:
And then of course, I have two of my really close professors. One in particular that has become a very good mentor to me, that actually was the one who got me into UX design that just I go for not only personal advice, but of course career advice as well. So I think over this past year, I’ve definitely had some great champions and mentors in my corner that are designated to different areas of my life to help me to flourish.

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

Zariah Cameron:
Getting my PhD.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Zariah Cameron:
I mean, yes, that is a goal of mine. I’ve expressed I will not… a lot of people have told me like, “Oh, why don’t you just go ahead and get your PhD now?” I’m like, “I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I do not want to go through school again at the moment.” But I think eventually, right now I currently see myself leading a community, wherever that may be in, whether that be in the corporate space, I definitely see myself leading those conversations surrounding equity within the design space and growing in that, because that is a space that I want to continue to be in, in various different areas, whether it’s like I said, in the corporate space, leading my community, or even teaching. I think eventually I want to get my PhD within this element of design and psychology in understanding people. And to be able to eventually [inaudible 00:53:17] down the line teach to students, teach to that next generation college students that are coming in.

Zariah Cameron:
I think by then I already have that experience of being in the corporate world myself, and I can be able to instill that wisdom and have those connections to people through my community to be able to give back to those students that I’m teaching. That’s eventually where I want to evolve myself into.

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

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, one, they can find me on Medium, in terms of my writing. By the way, an article will be coming out, not through my Medium, but through the Ally Tech Blog on inclusive design being more than a buzz word. So definitely look out for that. And then you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m very active on there, and it’s of course just my name. And then you can find me at Instagram. It’s just my name, zariah.cameron. And then of course our program, our program’s Instagram, aeidesign_. You can find me active on all of those. Definitely feel free to follow me and stay connected, especially those who want to get plugged into my community, my program, and even companies wanting to work with us, and just people just wanting to connect and definitely open to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Zariah Cameron, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, for taking time to come out on the show. Like I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had a design student on the show, particularly one from an HBCU. But when I first heard about you at Where are the Black Designers and heard you speak and everything, I was like, “I got to get her on the show just to have her talk about what she’s doing.” I mean, just the fact that you’re accomplishing this much as a student, I think bodes so well for your future career. I’m really excited to see what you’re able to accomplish once you graduated and really got out there in the design world, and are able to make an even bigger impact. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Zariah Cameron:
No, thank you. It’s been such an honor, and thank you for asking such great questions. I love being able to share my story with you and the audience.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

Adobe MAX Logo

Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

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.

Lisa Cain

Striking out on your own can be tough, but I can tell you from personal experience that it can be one of the most rewarding things you do in life. And what better person to talk about this feeling than design strategist Lisa Cain. Lisa has worked in the visual design field for well over 20 years, so she knows a LOT about what it takes to get things done.

We started off talking about how she started her studio, and Lisa gave a peek in to her creative process on some of her projects. Lisa also spoke about her early career in visual merchandising, how that has helped her as a designer, and how her family has helped motivate her drive to succeed. (Also, did you know she was a backup singer?) It’s awesome to have designers like Lisa to show us how to thrive as a creative on your own terms!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Lisa Cain:
I’m Lisa Cain of Lisa Cain Design and I’m a design strategist that helps nonprofits. Some of those nonprofits are healthcare and medical organizations, advocacy organizations and educational institutions. I help their brands stand out and build awareness, raise funds and also build their membership.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we’re in the second half of 2021. I’m kind of curious to know how has the year been for you so far?

Lisa Cain:
Oh the year has been really good to me. I’ve been very busy this year. This year’s busy. Actually, 2020 was actually pretty busy as well. It was a little bit interesting at first and it slowed down and had to kind of pivot and do business a little bit differently. But for the remainder of 2020 and throughout right now at ’21, it’s been very busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any sort of plans or things that you want to do for your business for the rest of the year?

Lisa Cain:
Just continually working on great ad campaigns, finishing out some of those things, really exciting projects that I’m working on.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned your focus is on medical, education, advocacy, nonprofits. How did you come to specialize in those particular fields?

Lisa Cain:
Right out of art school, right out of college, I worked for… It was a nonprofit management company and basically they managed hundreds of nonprofits under their umbrella and it was a group of designers that they had to do all of the design work. So I had maybe 10 clients that I managed, design project management, things like that, and just learning how to work with nonprofits. They were called my clients and just doing projects from high tech, medical, healthcare, food manufacturing. I just began to love work for nonprofits. My niche, for me, became healthcare, medical and advocacy because I just really love helping people and making a difference in their lives.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that what sort of really gets you truly excited about your work?

Lisa Cain:
It is. It is. Really seeing that project come to life and then seeing the numbers. For instance, one of my clients is the Organization for Autism Research and we created a brochure years ago to send out to schools and the teachers would present it to the students and teach them about autism acceptance. And to date, this brochure has probably influenced, touched the lives of children, over 125 million children worldwide so –

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Lisa Cain:
To me, that’s really huge. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a huge. That’s a big… It’s always good when your work is able to make that kind of a big impact. I think oftentimes … I’ve worked with nonprofits too and I’ve worked one in particular here in Atlanta. It’s the Grady Health Foundation, this was years and years and years ago, but some of the work that I did, I’ve actually seen on billboards and that’s such a… It’s a good feeling. You’re driving along and you’re like, “Wait a minute, I did that.”

Lisa Cain:
It is. Yep, it’s awesome. So yeah, seeing your stuff plastered all over the place and then getting those numbers in that this many people have been touched by it, it’s a wonderful thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does your creative process look like when you’re starting on a new project? Walk me through that.

Lisa Cain:
Sure. My creative process, I usually like to kick off every project with a meeting, so meeting with the client, listening and gathering information to better understand what the client is working with, then we collaborate and strategize their goals and challenges and expectations. Then from there, I’ll create a scope of the project using a creative brief and a proposal just to make sure we’re on the same page about vision, deliverables, costs, timeframes, things like that, and then once that is agreed upon, we move forward. It could be a mood board or concept development. From that gathered information of the creative brief, find out about the clients, target audience and mission and work on different concepts and different design solutions. From there, present those design solutions and explain my thinking behind that and my recommendations. Usually, we’ll narrow down one direction to go in and there’s the revision, refine process. Usually within my proposals, I’ll include up to three rounds of revisions. Once we go through that, there’s delivery or production.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I hope for people that are listening, they got a sense of like that’s a pretty rock solid way when it comes down to starting the process. I mean, part of it is that creative and strategy work, but then, as you’re mentioning, you’re getting a proposal, you’re making sure that you and the client are really on the same page as you move forward is super important because nonprofits, they can sometimes change on a dime. They want something completely different midway in the project and you have to make sure that you have something that can hold them to what they promised would come from the project.

Lisa Cain:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, do you mostly do print design or do you do a mix of that with other mediums?

Lisa Cain:
I think it’s a mix, but more heavily print, yes. Usually, I’ll create a theme around something, say for… Nonprofits do a lot of event publication, event collateral, things like that and so I’ll create a theme around that and that is printed on everything. If it’s around an event, then it’s their lanyards, their brochures, their signage and then it can go digital where it’s social media, banner ads and even apps.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, aside from Lisa Cain Design, which you’ve done now for what? 20 plus years.

Lisa Cain:
20 plus years. Yep. Officially though, officially it’s 16 years. That’s when I truly got the business license and this is the name that I decided upon. But yeah, before I was freelancing and burning the candle at both ends, working a full-time job and freelancing on the side, kind of making my path to truly going into my own business.

Maurice Cherry:
I think once you make it past 15, you can round up to 20. I think that’s acceptable. But yeah, aside from Lisa Cain Design, you also have a company with your husband. Is that right?

Lisa Cain:
That’s right. It’s called Black Action Tees. Black Action Tees is a pop culture website that offers T-shirts and the T-shirts feature superheroes, music culture, sneaker culture and TV and movie pop culture.

Maurice Cherry:
I think I told you this when we talked earlier, but I actually had ordered something from Black Action Tees way back in… I think it was like maybe 2010, 2011, something like that, I think so.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah, probably about 10 years. Yeah, 10 years ago. First started it, yeah. Yep. Yep. Yep. Well, I hope the experience was really good and you really enjoyed your tees.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you and your husband blend business like that a lot? I mean, you have your-

Lisa Cain:
[inaudible 00:10:46].

Maurice Cherry:
Well, you have that business with him with Black Action Tees, but does he end up doing anything with Lisa Cain Design or is that just a separate thing?

Lisa Cain:
You know what, he doesn’t do any of the design, but he’s an IT guy so he does IT as his professional. He’s a IT manager, but he’s my IT guy. That’s as far as it goes within my company.

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. Now, we’ve gotten to know a bit about your work and everything and we’ll probably dive more into the specific things later, but tell me about where you’re from. I know you’re located in Chicago. Is that where you’re originally from?

Lisa Cain:
I’m originally from South Side of Chicago. I grew up in South Side and then, yeah, moved to the south suburbs in the mid 70s.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What was it like growing up in Chicago back then?

Lisa Cain:
It was good. I think it was a really good experience. I mean, we had a neighborhood full of kids. I remember playing. You had to come in when the street lights came on, things like that, but it was a really good experience. Lots of great kids to play with. Families intact still in the 70s, I’m dating myself, yes. But it was a wonderful experience growing up in the city.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you get exposed to a lot of design and art growing up?

Lisa Cain:
The only real exposure that I had creatively was sitting at the kitchen table with my grandpa and he would teach me how to draw different things. Then I don’t know if you remember the TV guide, there was this ad on the back and it would say, “Draw this pirate and you can win a scholarship to art school.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. It would be like a pirate or like a turtle or something like that, yeah, I remember that.

Lisa Cain:
So I would draw that and I would send it. I was too young but I would draw it and send it in but I would never hear back from them. So that was pretty much the extent of being creative. I also had this set of books, it was kind of a sister set that came with an encyclopedia set, and there was this one particular book called Make and Do and so it was a book full of crafts and I would just do crafts endlessly in that book. So that was pretty much the extent of being creative at a young age.

Maurice Cherry:
Now was your family kind of supportive of you going into design?

Lisa Cain:
Absolutely not.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Lisa Cain:
They came from that generation of thinking that design, you would become a starving artist. I remember back in high school, I had finished all of my graduation requirements as far as credit so I was able to take a lot of electives so I chose to take nothing but art and photography classes and just be totally immersed in my last year and it was absolutely wonderful. I had wonderful art teachers and I think from that experience that’s where I knew and chose that I wanted to be a graphic designer. They had alumni come in and show their portfolios from art schools and it was just so inspiring and exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually you started out studying in visual communications, even though your parents didn’t really unfortunately support you going into that.

Lisa Cain:
That’s correct. I remember I got a catalog for the Art Institute of Chicago and I was so excited and I showed my dad and he saw one look at the tuition cost and he was like, “Why don’t you take some secretarial classes at the local community college?” Yeah, we’d butt heads on hat. We’d butt heats. But again, he came from that generation where just they couldn’t see it. He meant well and I have to say that years later, when I did go to a different art school, he bought my first Mac. So he was supportive down the line.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you were at Prairie State College majoring in … Back then it was called visual communications.

Lisa Cain:
Yep. Visual communications. That’s right, and back then, nothing was computerized yet. So I was taking illustration classes and intro to graphic design, things like that. So we used, my supply list at the art store, you had this long list you had to go get all of these supplies for for your classes. It was things like hot press boards, Zipatone, technical pens and Prismacolors with Letraset type that you kind of rub down and using light boxes and making folding dummies for brochures. Everything was really hands-on. I remember walking with those gigantic portfolios and a little tackle box with all your things. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, a lot of the design back then was really … I mean of course it was tactile because the personal computer I think was not fully in homes at that point. I know it was available, but it was really expensive.

Lisa Cain:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
I remember seeing ads for RadioShack for the … I think it was the Tandy?

Lisa Cain:
Tandy.

Maurice Cherry:
The Tandy 1000 I believe? It was like $1,600.00, $1,700.00. It was expensive. I mean –

Lisa Cain:
Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
For folks that are listening, that’s about the cost now of like maybe a souped-up MacBook Pro or something like that.

Lisa Cain:
Right. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean you’re talking something that had maybe, maybe 512 megabytes of RAM. Like there’s no way you’re really designing anything on something like that.

Lisa Cain:
Anything.

Maurice Cherry:
It was basically just a very expensive calculator at that point.

Lisa Cain:
Yep, and at Prairie State, they did have a computer lab and they had like a handful of … I think they were Apple [inaudible 00:16:39], the Macs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh goodness.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah, so you know you couldn’t really do much on it at all. You’d draw a circle and put some color in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and even if you really drew a circle, it wasn’t like smooth. It was sort of like a jagged kind of … Yeah. I remember those times very fondly. I remember I was learning Basic and I’m dating myself by saying this but I was learning Basic in elementary school and they were … Like little graphic stuff, like you’d make a rocket or something like that. I mean it was very rudimentary stuff compared to certainly what you can do now, but it’s amazing to see how in such a fairly short amount of time, how much design on computers has really kind of taken over and changed and grown. It’s amazing.

Lisa Cain:
It is amazing, it is and you have to stop never learning and keep up with all of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So from Prairie State, you ended up going to the Art Institute. But you studied a different kind of sort of design. Can you talk about that?

Lisa Cain:
Sure. So I decided … I wasn’t sure about graphic design, I was trying to just kind of find my way in, discovered the Art Institute of Illinois which at the time was called Ray-Vogue College of Design, and I decided to go for fashion merchandising but minor in visual merchandising. At the time it was kind of interesting being middle class and it was kind of hard not being able to get a student loan for like your full four years. It’s like you ran of money and your parents needed to get a plus loan, you didn’t qualify for grants. It was kind of hard. That’s exactly what happened. I finished my first year and couldn’t get another loan, my dad couldn’t get another loan. I decided to go ahead and finish out my minor which was in fashion merchandising, finish that, and then I was able to get a job at a big department store in Downtown Chicago. I was already working there as a salesperson so making that move into that position was fairly easy. So it was exciting. I thought once I got that job I thought I had made it. I was a visual display designer down there and it was fun and again it was a lot of physical work. But a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you say it was physical work, like you were … Were you like designing storefronts and stuff like that?

Lisa Cain:
We designed all of the store windows. Then we did interior design and we set up for fashion shows, things like that. So it was like set design and prop building. I remember once we had to spray-paint hundreds of styrofoam trumpets and then glue them to eight foot panels. So we were making like sets and backdrops and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. It’s interesting, it sounds like the design got even more I guess … I don’t want to use the term analog, but it got a lot more physical I would say because you’re now really building the designs that you want to see.

Lisa Cain:
Right, right, and then on top of just the set design, you were dealing with these really heavy, expensive mannequins. Like a rite of passage for being a visual display designer is learning how to strike a mannequin and basically it’s posing, but what you did was you wrapped wire around the mannequin’s waste and then it would be under the clothes and then you would have to attach nails to the end and you would actually … So I’d be walking around with a hammer all day and you were hammering these nails in, striking the mannequin so they’re standing up and styling a wig was a rite of passage and getting burned with a glue gun on a regular basis because you had to do everything, you had to dress this mannequin from head to toe and that meant clothes, shoes, sometimes pantyhose, even the jewelry. It was fun, it was interesting and very physical.

Maurice Cherry:
How often were you kind of doing these displays?

Lisa Cain:
On a weekly basis. So there were –

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Lisa Cain:
Oh yeah. The downtown, that store was eight floors. So yeah, there was a whole team of us. That was interior, windows, everything and then there’s like these little light boxes. You did like the cosmetic displays, you had home furnishing. All the different departments.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds kind of thrilling actually to be able to kind of turn around and do that so quickly every week.

Lisa Cain:
It was. It was fun. It was again a lot of physical work, and at the same time the building that we were in, it’s a Chicago landmark. So a lot of times we would be goofing off and we would go and explore this building. This building was built in 1904, the architect Lou Sullivan did it and it was like this beautiful elaborate rotunda entrance and be exploring and we found like hidden staircases that were absolutely beautiful and beautiful tiled flowers. There was like sub, sub, sub, sub basements, so yeah, we were running around there and just having fun.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I mean for people that want to look up or have not heard of Louis Sullivan, he was like the father of modern architecture. Like he was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, a lot of what I think people see now in skyscrapers is really thanks to him.

Lisa Cain:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And the building was the Carson Pirie Scott Building.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Wow. That’s amazing, so you were doing that while you were at Art Institutes or was that after you left there?

Lisa Cain:
It was after, it was right after I left there. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Why did you decide to sort of make that shift from visual communications to merchandising like that?

Lisa Cain:
It just seemed more exciting to me at the time and again I’m young and I’m just trying to find myself. So just trying out something new, and that’s something that I do encourage up and coming designers. Don’t be afraid to just take chances and try out new things.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from doing that kind of storefront set building kind of work, what other kind of career experiences did you have after you graduated from the art institute?

Lisa Cain:
After that, I decided actually … I did kind of a detour and believe it or not, I ended up getting secretary experience. I became an administrative assistant. I guess again trying to find myself and I ended up working for The NutraSweet Company. It was a big company at the time. This is in like the early 90s, mid 90s. They had a Mac there that no one knew how to use. So I volunteered and they decided to send me back to school, and so I ended up at the Illinois Academy of Design and Technology. So there, computers were for the design community and design studios and all of that. They were starting to make that transition from doing everything by hand to going digital and doing everything on the computer, I remember at the time it was a lot of animosity between new people coming in and people like old-school people that just refused. They would not learn, they would not get computer skills. So it was a good time, a good transition to kind of be on that cutting edge of learning. Up there I learned how to do Photoshop, I think it was Photoshop 2.0 and CorelDRAW and some 3-D animation applications. So by the time I finished that, I had three job offers before I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice. So even then, you have kind of this burgeoning … I guess this burgeoning rise of design on computers and now that you’ve learned these tools or you’re learning these tools, it’s opening up these different opportunities.

Lisa Cain:
Right, right. Because when I graduated, it was a student portfolio but I think they could see the creativity there and the ideas that were sparked. But more importantly they knew how to work within these applications. So that was huge at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Would you say that your work in fashion merchandising kind of helped with that though?

Lisa Cain:
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I think just from doing fashion merchandising or visual merchandising, project management, bringing something together like on a set, we had to like plan things out on paper first and decide what was going to go where and then this color scheme, there was always a theme about something so that kind of translated to design, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean I would imagine also just being able to come up with those concepts. I mean that’s creative direction, that’s art direction. Those are things that if you look at a blank Photoshop canvas or something as your stage, like you can kind of bring those same visual elements in with perspective and sizing and all that sort of stuff.

Lisa Cain:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now you’ve said that you came through the back door to become a designer at age 30. Tell me what does that mean? Because it sounds like you were already doing a lot of design.

Lisa Cain:
Well you know what? For me I felt like I truly didn’t arrive until after I graduated from the Illinois Academy of Design and Technology and I was actually doing graphic design on the computer, and that was at age 30 and The NutraSweet Company sent me back to school and yeah, I felt like, “Okay, it’s official now, and I’ll officially have the title graphic designer.”

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean aside from I guess getting that title, did that … I’m curious, did your family at that point kind of see like, “Oh, this is something like serious.”

Lisa Cain:
Oh yeah, oh yeah. Even when I was in school, they finally came around. Like I said, my dad, he was the one while I was in school because it was rough. You had all these projects to do and they had a computer lab but you needed something at home to work on and so he bought me my first Mac and that was what, 1996? It wasn’t inexpensive at the time. We’re talking, you had to get the modem and everything else separately and yeah. And speaking of modems, my first job … So out of school was with USRobotics who actually built the modems. That was quite interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
So now you’ve made this shift. I’m looking, kind of trying to follow this. So you’ve made this shift now from visual merchandising to graphic design. How was the work different, I mean aside from obviously physical to digital but how was the work different that you were doing now?

Lisa Cain:
I think with graphic design, this opened up a whole new world. I think I personally felt like the possibilities were endless to be more creative. As a visual display designer, you’re working at this one particular place and you’re doing stuff at one location. But as a graphic designer, it’s like endless possibilities to creativity. There’s always different projects coming up and not only that but it could be different clients, different organizations or companies. So the creativity is endless.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I really remember from those like early days of kind of digital graphic design. It really was like … You could do anything you wanted. It was like … I don’t want to say it was like the wild, wild west because that implies some level of lawlessness but like you really could get away with anything because the tools were so accessible. Like everyone can point and click, but not everyone’s going to do the same combination of filters or colors or even settings on certain things. So you end up coming up with just the wildest kind of designs just by playing around. I felt like there was a lot more play back then to get to kind of what the end result could be.

Lisa Cain:
It was, and then at the same time … I actually started creating websites with my husband at the time we were dating and we were doing webs, I created my first, my website, my portfolio website like in ’98 and I thought it was like the coolest thing because it was like this crocodile on the front. Remember it was like landing pages and it was like maybe a little bit of animation. I thought it was so cool because my crocodile’s eye was like winking at you.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, those early animated GIFs. I love those.

Lisa Cain:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Now as you kind of continued on in your career, you worked in-house as a designer for SmithBucklin and then you were an associate creative director at Urban Ministries Inc. When you look back at those particular experiences, what did they teach you?

Lisa Cain:
I think most importantly they taught me how to work with my clients, how to project manage everything, stay on timelines, stay within budgets and be creative at the same time. They were invaluable experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
Were they like different? Because I mean I’m imagining in Urban Ministries, that’s kind of more religious whereas SmithBucklin I guess you could say is secular. I don’t know. Was it a big difference in just like the type of work that you were doing?

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. SmithBucklin was very, very fast-paced and they had to account for every 15 minutes of our time so they could build a client and if you had to go to the bathroom, you had to figure out a way to pad that in there.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Lisa Cain:
It was rough but at the same time it was such a good learning experience and truly taught me everything about working with non-profits. Urban Ministries definitely. It’s a publications company and way more laid back. I designed the Vacation Bible School curriculum there, so they were much more laid back and actually even just the attitude, they were way more appreciative of your work. You felt valued there.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where the seed was kind of planted for starting your own studio?

Lisa Cain:
It was. It was because at that time I decided to go part-time. They allowed me to work part-time and I started again burning the candle at both ends and I would work like till 3:00 a.m. on my freelance projects and then get up and go to work and yeah. But it was definitely the stepping stone to build Lisa Cain Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from it sort of being that stepping stone of seeing how your work impacted people, did you just kind of feel at this point like you were just ready to strike out on your own?

Lisa Cain:
Absolutely. Because at the time, I had small kids that I desperately wanted to be here for. My son at the time, we had found out, he was diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum and he was put in a special pre-K class and I really needed to be there for him. So I was driven to be here, be home, and run my own business.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. What do you wish you would have been told about the design industry when you first started?

Lisa Cain:
I think the number one thing, and it’s something that I’m truly still working on to this day and that’s boundaries. Healthy boundaries. So what I mean by that is it’s okay to say no to some things. Being selective in the type of projects that you want to work on, the type of budgets you want to work on. That’s super important to determine and work within.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the mentors and people that have really kind of helped you out along the way as you sort of rose as a designer?

Lisa Cain:
Besides my high school teachers, there was one particular person that actually I grew up with. I’ve known him since first grade and I remember, he could draw really, really well in grammar school. So I was kind of drawn to him and we remained friends over the years. He is a graphic designer and at the time he was working for Frankel, it’s an ad agency in Chicago. But he was also freelancing for Burrell Communications. So I would go to his design studio and he’d let me just kind of hang out and work on some of the stuff he was working on here and there and kind of built my skills but then there was one particular project that stood out and it was a media kit for the Sprite Voltron ad campaign and it featured rap artists like Fat Joe, Goodie Mob, Common and Mack 10. So it was really cool to work on that project, and at that time, we made stock art. Stock art was really, really expensive at that time, so I remember they wanted like a sky created for like a Voltron thing and with stars, and instead of buying that stock art that was like $300.00, I like hand-placed each star in the background.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. It’s on my Instagram page if you want to take a look at it but yeah. I’m super proud of that project. That was in ’98 actually, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s where that visual merchandising muscle kicked in. You’re like, “I just got to go and do it.” That was a really … God, I remember that campaign too. That was dope. They had two of them, there was one that had male rappers with Voltron and then I remember there was one with women rappers that was more like … I think like kung-fu based?

Lisa Cain:
I don’t remember. I didn’t work on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
I think they both might have been kung … Okay, there was one I remember that had … Oh god, who was on it? I think it was Eve, Angie Martinez. I don’t remember who else was part of the fighting squad but the last person they fought against was Roxanne Shante. Like they unmasked the villain and it’s like, “Oh.” I remember those, those were really good.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there any advice about like design or about your career that’s really stuck with you over the years?

Lisa Cain:
I would say … You know what? My teacher back in art school, she said, “Don’t work for free to get a deposit.” You know what? It’s advice, don’t work for free, don’t give your work away. However at the same time, like currently, there is a project that I’m working on and it’s a newly created non-profit organization and it’s a school, they’re teaching kids with disabilities how to do automotive and carpentry and stuff like that. So I think it’s okay to do a pro bono project every once in a while for a good cause that means something to you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is it that you’re obsessed with these days?

Lisa Cain:
Sleep. Sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
See, I thought you were going to say the dog. No, sleep … I mean look sleep I think is great, don’t get me wrong. I’m probably going to take a nap after this interview but sleep, I totally, totally understand that.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. Actually my dog, my dog, I’m not obsessed with him but he is my inspiration. There is this quote that says, “To grow creatively, you must give yourself time to play.” So my dog is my hobby. He’s my play. It’s humorous dog photography and it’s kind of my inspiration and kind of way to get away from things and have some fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of having fun, there’s one thing that you had shared with me before we recorded. I have to bring it up because I think it’s just so dope. You were a house music backup singer once upon a time.

Lisa Cain:
In another lifetime.

Maurice Cherry:
In another lifetime. Please tell me about that because you sent a YouTube video and I can put it in the show notes if people want to check it out but like I noticed it was like, oh it was like Frankie Knuckles Productions? I have to know how did this happen.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually I was dating Jamie Principle at the time. I was right out of high school, so it [inaudible 00:37:57] era. Yeah. Yeah, and so he needed a backup singer and at the time he was making music actually out of his home and we went to the studio and I did my part and at that time there was no sampling. So that part that you hear? I’m saying over and over and I had to say it perfectly, all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. That time was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun. We performed in a lot of Chicago clubs and went to New York and performed. That was a whole nother lifetime.

Maurice Cherry:
Now were you just on this one record or id you do others?

Lisa Cain:
Just that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean that’s quite a claim to fame though. That’s really dope.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it was really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you would like to do in your career that you haven’t done yet?

Lisa Cain:
Yes. Actually I want to do kind of a pivot. I guess this would be kind of a career/hobby thing but I would love to get into doing newborn photography. [inaudible 00:39:03] kind of my hobby and I absolutely love newborn photography, so I’m kind of working on really perfecting my craft in that and that’s something that I see myself doing somewhere down the road.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied now?

Lisa Cain:
I do. I do. I actually absolutely love what I do. I absolutely love campaigns, the ad campaigns that I’m working on currently and doing some really exciting projects with a Chicago PR firm. Yes, I love what I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Now after … I mean I know you’ve had a storied history as a designer, both with your studio as well as this kind of physical design work with visual merchandising, but when you look back over all of that, especially with being in the game as long as you have, what’s next? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Lisa Cain:
I think I want to focus more on … I guess I love the ad campaigns. I’m not sure if I’ll get away from non-profits. Right now I’m working on some things like the Chicago Department of Public Health and we’re also creating like a food bank app. So I want to do more things like that. It’s advocacy but not so much non-profit. Like you said earlier, just seeing stuff come to life and seeing it kind of plastered all over the place is really exciting. I want to get more into that.

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

Lisa Cain:
My website is Lisa Cain Design, that’s L-I-S-A C-A-I-N Design, or on Instagram at Lisa Cain Design.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well Lisa Cain, I want to thank you so much, so, so much for coming on the show. When I reached out to you initially, I really wanted to have you on to talk about just the fact that you’ve had your studio for 20 years and the work that you’ve done. Because I think that’s something that’s so rare that we really hear about from black women. I don’t know if I mentioned this when I initially reached out to you but I had saw you in I think it was a Graphic Design USA like people to watch for one year.

Lisa Cain:
Yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I was like … I had put your name down on my outreach list, like I’m going to get around back, I’m going to come back to Lisa one day, and I’m glad now to have been able to do so and to talk with you and learn more about you and of course share your story of how you have come up in the design industry throughout the years. I think it’s really inspiring and hopefully for people that are listening, they get something out of this too to know that they can do … They can sort of accomplish their dreams and design like you have. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Lisa Cain:
Thank you for having me.

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Derrick Fields

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of video games, so when I learned about Derrick Fields and Waking Oni Games from the Wholesome Direct Indie Game Showcase back in June, I had to have him on the show.

We talked about how 2021 has been going so far — a new gig and a new baby! — and he spoke on why he created his own gaming studio and gave some history behind the studio’s first title: Onsen Master. Derrick also shared his inspiration behind getting into game programming, the indie gaming scene for underrepresented designers, and he gave some great advice for anyone looking to start making their own titles. If there’s a video game out there that you would love to see, hopefully Derrick’s story will inspire you to create it!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Derrick Fields:
My name is Derrick Fields. I’m the founder and studio director or game director of Waking Oni Games, also the assistant professor at Northwestern University, teaching 3D modeling and game design.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’d ask how your 2021 has been so far, but I mean that sounds like a pretty big announcement right there, teaching at Northwestern. Congratulations.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. 2021 has been a series of transitions. Formerly, before leaping into Northwestern this year, I was the lead artists over at Uplift Games which is responsible for a really popular Roblox game by the name of Adopt Me! And so it was a significant portion of my life being able to create a title that contributed to kids. But now, I get to teach some of those children in an academic setting and all the while working on games and creating projects for myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I guess as you settle in to your new role, do you have any other plans that you might have had for the rest of this year?

Derrick Fields:
One is in the oven or I should say, I’m thinking of a pun that doesn’t sound so morbid. I’m not sure like in the oven. The package is on the way. And my partner and I are expecting a little one in November and so it’s been a lot of at home, nesting and preparation as we invite a small human into our lives or another small human into our lives, I should say.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations. Look at you.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
A new job, new human. 2021 sounds like it’s your year.

Derrick Fields:
It has been my year. I am very thankful.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about the Northwestern gig. How did you get that?

Derrick Fields:
Sure. So through some work and prior to working at Uplift, I had always maintained doing some freelance work and working on side projects and other projects. It’s like simultaneously balancing a lot of plates there. The one that came along was through a friend and colleague who was creating a grant-funded project out of Northwestern. And they were, at the time, the assistant professor who held the position. And so I have done some talks with him and his class and met some of the students to discuss aspects of game design and 3D modeling. And a little later on, this individual ended up leaving the position for another university out of state. And so I was very surprised to see an email arrived from Northwestern asking if I would be interested in interviewing for the position.

Derrick Fields:
And that’s when I carried on the discussion with the same individual who was leaving the position. And he was very excited that they ended up reaching out off of this recommendation. And so from there, it was a lot of paperwork. I did a job talk which was new to me, which feels like giving a TED Talk to other teachers, faculty and students and to discuss the aspects of why I would enjoy teaching, what I hope to bring to the space and sharing bits about my past. And everything worked out for the better, so I’d be starting with them in September.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Is this your first foray into academia.

Derrick Fields:
I’ve always been on the periphery of the space doing other conversations. I’ve done some talks over at the University of Chicago in their Media and Arts Design Lab, I believe the name is. So yeah, always tangential to this space, but yeah, this will be the first time that I’ll be responsible for my own class, my own syllabi and a handful of students in that capacity. Prior too, I am a board member of the Japanese Arts Foundation where, before we transitioned to this quarantine and pandemic state, I was teaching how to draw anime classes to people of all ages. And so education has always been a really important component. And so I’ve been very fortunate to be able to provide that in certain spaces and this really just became the crux of it all.

Maurice Cherry:
Very nice. That should be a really good gig. I don’t know, forgive me for saying gig, I used to be a musician years ago, so I call every job a gig.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. I’d use that too.

Maurice Cherry:
But that should be a really good thing to settle into, especially because I remember just when I was in school 20+ years ago, goodness, this kind of stuff wasn’t really taught. I didn’t go to an art school. I just went to a regular liberal art school. I know now technology has allowed for so many different types of things to be taught. So it’s really good that you’re going to be able to teach this, because I would imagine, this is probably you passing that knowledge on from your own personal experience with 3D design.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely, hopefully, being able to lens an avenue for students who are interested in that space and give them direct feedback based on my experience within the industry, I think is going to be really great and I’m excited to be able to share that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s talk about Waking Oni Games. How did you decide to start your own studio? Where did that come from?

Derrick Fields:
Right. So I was, I think, definitely mid store at the beginning of some freelance work. And some years after, I’d say, I don’t even know at this point, but definitely some time after, would be a more accurate description, some time after university and not finding the career placement that I wanted in games that I had grown to expect, I started mingling with other friends. And we got to brainstorming about what would it be like to create our own project and what type of experience could we get out of that just with limited resources. And at this time, it was just myself, my friend and a friend of his and so just the three of us, whom is now a very great friend of mine as well.

Derrick Fields:
The three of us, we were brainstorming, we played around and I said, “We should,” so pausing real quick to rewind, just a tad, but Spirited Away, the Ghibli film directed by Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite movies and has left a lasting impression on me. And so I had always imagined what it might be like to play a game that takes place in an onsen or hot spring as what we might know it as. And so that was really the origin of the idea and the motivation to wanting to create something for myself. And so with that came the need to have an LLC formation and go through all the legalities to make sure that we can be eligible to receive various licenses and things like that. And so then Waking Oni Games was invented or generated.

Maurice Cherry:
So how long has it been since you started?

Derrick Fields:
It has existed, I would say, from the signing of legal documents for six or seven years and Onsen Master was a hobby project throughout that time period. And so it wasn’t until two years ago, I believe, two almost three years ago that we decided to take that project and actually pursue it as something of an actual game, a game that we wanted to share with audiences, a game that we wanted to put up on Kickstarter for crowdfunding and see what the interest would be. And so very thankful that in September of the year that we did Kickstarter 2019, that it went successfully.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. Since then, we continued working, of course, maintaining full time jobs and any other commitments outside of that to get this game out to audiences that were interested in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me a little bit more about Onsen Master for those that might not be familiar with the concept, you mentioned as being hot springs. Talk to me about what the game is about.

Derrick Fields:
Sure. I’ll say I can’t explain it without getting past the elevator pitch part. So it’s a hot spring strategy game about healing. You play as a character who has been tasked with managing their own bath house, their own hot spring. And that managing component comes by way of various customers who will arrive to your hot spring. And they each have a different ingredient that they desire. And so it is your job as the player to sort them into one of four baths that are located in the hot spring, locating the ingredient that matches to their needs and then mixing it up and tossing it in there with them. And so you play this mix and match game while moving through different environments that may change in scale or layout.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like it can also be partially educational as well because I’m assuming this is based off of how onsens actually operate.

Derrick Fields:
In a very broad stroke, some details are true, some details are not. I would say there isn’t the component of somebody procuring an ingredient for you and lofting out into the bath. What is true to reality is that when you go to an onsen, a hot spring is a naturally heated water and there are many towns and prefectures in Japan, across Japan that have onsen and bathhouses that are, I should say, sento. So there’s a difference there. Sento or bathhouse is artificially heated and onsen or hot spring is naturally heated. And so it’s like small detail. So those are the types of things that really what I hope players will get other experiences that when they play Onsen Master, I hope that it will spark interest in wanting to find out what real onsen like or what real sento are like and learn about those.

Derrick Fields:
Another component in the game that I hope will spark interest in players is, as you’re playing through the game, you’re visited by these spirits called yokai. And they are essentially personifications of the unexplainable. If we hear a creek in the night, we might say, “Oh, that is a creek monster that is responsible for making this noise.” And so when you play Onsen Master, not only will various customers be arriving, but these various spirits that take the form of one that looks like a turtle, one that looks like a skeleton and so on will also be visiting the onsen. And they’ll come bearing with a couple antics to them. One might spill water all over the place, for example, or one might try to come after you and grab you as another thing that you have to deal with while managing these different customers.

Maurice Cherry:
It definitely sounds like you put a lot of thought and care into the game and with all of these different mechanics and such. It sounds really cool.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you. It’s definitely my experience in … I’ve spent a lot of my time learning about Japanese history and culture and mythology and so wanting to build a game that can spark that same interest and hopefully lead others to wanting to educate themselves about what yokai are, for example, is really the desire out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I think anyone that has kids under 15 probably knows what yokai are because they’ve seen Yo-kai Watch or something like that. It’s amazing how much, I don’t even want to call it American shows because they’re just Japanese shows that have been in many cases dubbed over, but there’s so much anime from Japan that gets dumped over that now are, in some cases, cultural staples in this country like Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, etcetera, but then there’s a lot of newer shows like Yo-kai Watch and others that that’s how people tend to find out about Japanese culture through these different shows and through videogames as well. I remember playing videogames as a kid and that’s how I really learned about small things about Japanese culture. I’d probably say I got more from anime, but videogames definitely played a part in that as well, even through localization.

Derrick Fields:
And I really agree with that, we’ve got to say the sort of subtext to Waking Oni Games and Onsen Master and the projects that are to follow that are intended to explore specifically the intersection of Japanese and African American culture because there are many BIPOC individuals that have had their experience in childhood and through their adulthood, tangent to all sorts of pop culture and media. But mine specifically intersects a lot with Japanese culture and continues to even in my adulthood, being a board member at the Japanese Arts Foundation and teaching anime drawing classes. And so wanting to explore that and hopefully articulate that at my age now has led me to learn that there are many Black individuals that also have that sort of intersection.

Derrick Fields:
And wanting to find representation in the media that doesn’t necessarily originate from our culture can be a challenge depending on the circumstance, but it has led to other outcomes. And things like when we watched Dragon Ball Z, this is why we might code Piccolo as Black. Having those shared experiences with other Black individuals is something that’s very specific. And so with Onsen Master and with other projects, I would really like to continue to explore that conversation and build content that is derived of anime and the pop culture that surrounds the medium, but also insert people that look like us and be able to center that conversation a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:
Right around this time last year on the show, we had Arthell Isom. He’s a Black guy who owns an anime studio actually over in Japan called D’ART Shtajio. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this.

Derrick Fields:
Yes, I’ve heard of this.

Maurice Cherry:
So a lot of what you’re talking about, it’s funny because this interview was literally about a year from now, a year ago from now. And what you’re saying mirrors a lot of what he also said in terms of working within the culture but also working to bridge that gap and tell these stories in a way that is not only, I would say, culturally relevant but also is appealing to customers. So that makes a lot of sense.

Derrick Fields:
I was just going to say hello to Arthell in a year ago. I wish we could cross paths, but I do. I love a lot of the work that he and his studio are doing.

Maurice Cherry:
So what do you think it is that people misunderstand when it comes to being a game designer?

Derrick Fields:
Sure. I think the term game design can be a little bit obfuscated. If you aren’t readily in school and learning about what the role might entail. It isn’t just thinking about all how one might want to create a cool thing and just enacting on it, it can become a lot more granular than that. And there has to be, and I can explain further, but there has to be a willingness to want to pursue getting very nitty gritty about details but also hoping to drive and create certain or, I should say, elicit certain experiences out of the audience that you intend to interact with your media.

Derrick Fields:
And so taking that to a game, let’s say, Mario or Final Fantasy, any of those things, everything that you do in that game that you don’t necessarily notice per se, the reason why the text, the font looks a certain way or the reason why when Mario jumps, a very specific height or just help conveniently placed that height and that distance from when you jump off a ledge and land on a platform is just so far away or just close enough that it creates ease or difficulty. Those types of things are thought about by somebody else and labored over constantly to make sure that you as the player can have ease of access or have experiences in difficulty but not difficulty that’s hard enough that turns you away from the game and makes you not want to play it.

Derrick Fields:
There has to be that balance in wanting to engineer an experience that maybe makes you feel just close enough to a reward that you are now driven to want to achieve it. I will say that that’s one component of game design. There are many ways to create experiences and engineer outcomes in a way that you are trying to impart that on somebody. I’ve been trying to stray away from falling into just spouting off nothing but buzzwords, but it really is. It really is that. You’re thinking about the player. You’re thinking about what type of experience you would like to give them while also wanting to share entertainment and fun and cool things happening.

Derrick Fields:
And maybe it’s swords, maybe it’s horses, or fairies or robots, but also wanting to make sure that your vision for it all is concise among those components that you’re trying to sort out.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like there’s a lot of testing that has to happen with game design. It’s not just as a simple as Mario Maker or something like that. But even that, I think also, I love how Nintendo has really abstracted a big part of the game design process when it comes to a game like Mario Maker or this new game that they have called like Game Garage or something like that. They make it seemed pretty easy because you’re just dragging and dropping sprites onto a canvas, but there’s so much logic and testing that has to go behind that to make sure that it’s playable, it’s enjoyable, hopefully that you’re guiding the player along and you’re making sure that they’re having an enjoyable experience as well.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. And what I really love about both of those software is that they create accessibility to individuals who may otherwise not have the background in programming or have the background in 3D modeling or 2D art or everything else that comes along with creating a game. There’s so many resources there that they can, as you said, drag and drop and immediately get a reaction on whether or not it works. And I think those types of systems are great because it allows burgeoning creators and players to be able to explore those limitations and hopefully build something out of them and test, test, test away.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, this might be a bit of a easy questions. I think anyone that’s grown up in the United States in the past 30+ years has been exposed to videogames, but tell me about your history with games. Were you always into design in videogames? Tell me about that?

Derrick Fields:
Yeah. My experience in games has definitely been lifelong. I grew up with Nintendo and Sega and Sega Dreamcast and etcetera, leading all the way up to now, but wanting to contribute to games wasn’t always a component that … It wasn’t always something that I had considered. There was a disconnect. You bought games or you receive games as a gift. You loaded them up, you played them to the end of the credits and then you look for the next one. But I, for a long time, never really bridged the gap that somebody else was behind a computer, somebody had labored over this to give the experience that I’m now having in my bedroom or on the couch.

Derrick Fields:
When that happened, I think that’s when things really, really shifted for me and wanting to envision, creating worlds that I could interact and that other people could interact and what that might be like. Prior to that, my background has always been in drawing and illustration. And so I used to always want to create comic books and create cartoons. And so I spent a lot of time drawing and imagining worlds and imagining characters. Getting into high school, I think that’s when things started to transition and I understood that there was a pathway to being able to create these games that I was playing on PlayStation 1 and 2 at the time. And then I started to reengage with these worlds and imagine them as virtual spaces and seek out opportunities as we start getting into university in how I might be able to achieve that.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, like you said, growing up in Nintendo and Sega, especially if you were a child of the ’80s. I would say even like a child of the early ’90s. It was inescapable. I don’t even know if it’s really so much now because kids have the internet to contend with and social media and stuff. But it’s hard to really understate just how much of a vice grip Nintendo had over your childhood. If you were like a child of the ’80s or the early ’90s, there was television, there were videogames, there was breakfast cereal, there was clothes. You really could not escape it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say Nintendo probably more so, I’d say probably more so than Sega, but even still, as both of those systems grew in popularity, you really could not avoid the Console Wars, I should say. You really had to be in one camp or another. And games often would come out for one and then come out for the other one later. And it’s just amazing how much of that really is, because of course, the foundation for what we see now in gaming, but also what it’s done is it’s helped to create a whole new generation now of game designers and people that want to work in games and comics and similar fields like that.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely. And I got to ask, you mentioned the Console War, which side did you find yourself on, whether intentional or unintentional growing up?

Maurice Cherry:
So definitely Team Nintendo 100%. I had a Gameboy I had a regular. I remember when the NDS came out in ’80, I think it came out in ’85, I think, ’85, ’86 and I got it me and my brother. I have an older brother, we got it. And the cartridge was like the combination of Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, so you put it in and then you choose which one you wanted to play and whatever. It was Nintendo for a long time. My cousin, I have a first cousin named Jeff and he had a Genesis. And so I got to go over his house and play a little bit of Sega. I always thought the three button controller was really weird. I didn’t quite understand that like, “I’m going to go back to Nintendo where the buttons have an even amount of numbers. That makes more sense to me.” I’ve been trying to do that. But yeah, mostly Nintendo. I think I’ve had every Nintendo System except the 64 and the Virtual Boy. I don’t think anyone really had the Virtual Boy.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when the Virtual Boy came out because it was around, I want to say ’94, ’95. And the Walmart in our town had one as a display. So I did get to play it, but I’ve never had one. But yeah, I was firmly, firmly Team Nintendo until probably around college and then I diverted to Dreamcast. Although, well, someone of my friends’ floors had a 64 and we just play GoldenEye all the time.

Derrick Fields:
You got to play GoldenEye. Absolutely. My upbringing did find itself seeded in the Sega route and it was a bit of the opposite for me where my first cousin was the one who had the Super Nintendo and …

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Derrick Fields:
… the Virtual Boy. And I will not spend any time just discussing how VR has been an exploratory tangent to videogames for so long with something like the Virtual Boy and seeing where it is now to a device like the Oculus. But Sega led me to Sega Dreamcast and all of those, unfortunately short-lived experiences on a very cool system. I headed down the path of PlayStation and I got to say it I probably never looked back. I’ve loved PlayStation ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the game that hooked you into gaming?

Derrick Fields:
Final Fantasy IX. I definitely played plenty of games prior to that, but Final Fantasy IX and just the PlayStation 1 console in general, I think, is bookmarked as a significant part of my life. I think I played tons and tons of games on the PlayStation. And there were so many when you think of the time period, this is why I love PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 especially, but when you think of the time period of both of these consoles, there’s so much development and exploration on both of the consoles from the beginning of their release to the end of their cycle when the next generation of that platform is coming out.

Derrick Fields:
And so looking at it a title that released on the beginning of PlayStation and looking at a title that released at the end of PlayStation 1’s time period is significant. There’s really vast differences. You find games that explored with voiceover and games that have walls and walls of text, games with sprites, games with Final Fantasy stuff, blocky 3D bodies and everything else. So it was a time. It was a time that all these different companies were trying out new things. They’re always trying new things. There’s always iteration and development, but something felt really cool about that transition to 3D and everybody trying to figure that out at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
The game that hooked me into gaming, there’s a few. I think if I think about what was on the regular Nintendo, the game that probably hooked me was, it’s a very rare choice, there was this board game on NES called Anticipation. Have you heard of it?

Derrick Fields:
No, I haven’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Look up Anticipation NES on YouTube. I’m sure there’s probably videos of it, but I remember I would check that game out from what we had a Blockbuster adventure, but we had back home this little place called Movie Gallery. And I would check out Anticipation or I get my mom to check out Anticipation, let me correct that, to check out Anticipation every two weeks or so and keep playing it. And it’s essentially like a, I don’t know, Pictionary-style game …

Derrick Fields:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… where it’s like for players. You’re either a trumpet, an ice cream cone, a pair of pink high-heeled shoes or teddy bear.

Derrick Fields:
I see that now.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s these different board configurations. And you roll the die and you land on a certain color. And then there’s like this pencil that just starts drawing and you have to guess what it is that it’s drawing. And usually like at the beginning levels, they’ll give you some sort of hints like the number of letters or something. So you get a sense of it or the category, I should say, that’s drawing. But then as you go up to the higher boards, there’s no clues, no category. It just starts drawing and you have to figure it out and you have to get four of the different colors to proceed to the next round. And I loved that game. I think my brother hated it, but I loved that game. And that game sort of hooked me into like, “Oh, this is cool. This is like a board game, but it’s on videogames.” That blew my mind.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I’d say also, was this NES or SNES? So this is SNES. The SNES game that hooked me was also a Final Fantasy title. It’s Final Fantasy II which is Final Fantasy IV in the Japanese line of games. But that game, it’s sunk its fangs into me deep.

Derrick Fields:
Great.

Maurice Cherry:
And it is to this day, I don’t know if it’s my favorite Final Fantasy title, it’s top two. It’s top two definitely. I love that game like no other. Because that game aside from just the story aspect of it and you had the double-crossing character and all this sort of stuff. Also it’s my foray into music. I really liked the music and tried to learn how to play the music. I have little keyboard or whatever. And I would record it on my little tape recorder and then go back and try to play it on my keyboard and stuff like that. But Final Fantasy II and Anticipation. Those were the two games that got me into games, just like, “Oh, man, this is such a great, great medium to tell stories in.” Because Final Fantasy II, I had never run across a story like that before.

Derrick Fields:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s like on this thing and you play as these people, it’s like, “What is this?” It was my first role-playing game too. It was great. Absolutely great.

Derrick Fields:
That’s a really great story in it. I think that’s why Final Fantasy IX sits with me so well. And again, there were plenty of games that I definitely interacted with. Leading up to that, I fondly remember playing Rocket Knight on Sega which was a really cool side scrolling, incredibly difficult game. Wow. I think a lot of us have memories with titles like Aladdin and The Lion King and Animaniacs on that system as well, but it wasn’t until PlayStation and Final Fantasy IX that, again similar to what you said about for the character, the story, the very imaginative world that is being set in front of you. And it just raises the bar on, “Oh, this is what fantasy can be when …” Prior to this, it’s just been Dungeons and Dragons and medieval shows and medieval fantasy, but that presented an entirely new world.

Maurice Cherry:
Or you’re like Mario or Sonic, you’re just playing this linear left to right, up and down sort of thing. And Final Fantasy really came along and just like, I don’t even want to say it shattered expectations, it certainly shattered my perception of what can be done now with the medium. And my God, that was 1992 I think. Wow. It’s amazing what they were able to accomplish with so little back then, just in terms of the technology that tells us the vast story and with such few elements. I think now with computers and with software and everything, there’s no telling what you can create, even just on your own without having to do it through a big studio.

Derrick Fields:
We have so many possibilities now. And I think developers AAA all the way to indie, we continue to share and show reinvention within this space. And I love marveling at it. Every time there’s a new game trailer or game event that is coming with a handful of announcements, I cannot help but tune in because I know it’s going to come up with some indie game or some other studio that’s revealing an experience that you just didn’t imagine could happen with a controller in your hand or with something like an Oculus VR headset.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m trying to get more into Oculus. I got one fairly recently. And I’ve been just playing around with it, sitting on the couch or playing around the living room, but I need to get more into the VR experiences because I know there’s probably some really great stuff there.

Derrick Fields:
I’m trying. I’m trying as well. And I think right now felt like a time that was okay to leap in because the space is starting to hit its stride and starting … It’s hit its stride and it’s definitely developing and creating all these cool experiences now that the devices have so much fidelity to them which was always limitation leading up to what we have nowadays. Now, there’s three, four different pieces of hardware that you can acquire and create that experience for yourself and dedicate an entire room to VR if you wanted to. So I too have an Oculus and I’m dabbling on the store. I got to say, I’m very interested in a title called Demeo, I believe is the name where you are … Essentially, my favorite part of D&D where you have the D&D dungeon, you have your character sheet, but you have a miniature representation of your D&D dungeon in front of you and you’re playing through this campaign with little figurines that are an indication of your character and your party members.

Derrick Fields:
Well, there’s a VR version of that now and I got to say the way I’m passively just recruiting people to want to play that game, some handful of time from now is my side mission, but it looks very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you went to school for design. You went to Columbus College of Art and Design. You eventually graduated from Kent State. When you think back on your education studying design, how much of that has really helped you out now, as a game designer?

Derrick Fields:
I think some of it came from not getting the experience that I was hoping to have and some of it came from gaining way more than I even thought could come of it. Getting into university at that time, the discoverability of spaces that were teaching games was still new. There was, I think, a lot of advertisements around this time for the art institute and going to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh or whichever state [inaudible 00:36:35] that it had and trying to explore, “Where am I going to get that? Where am I going to get the experience? At the risk of loans and everything else, where will I find my seat in all of that?” And so it’s bizarre. I remember going to the Art Institute of Chicago or sorry the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for a preview. They invited … You could register for a summer preview camp and stay there for, I think it was like three days or three or four days or something like that.

Derrick Fields:
But the idea was it was to introduce students to the campus, their experience, get them hands-on experience and playing around with game engines and tantalizing or giving the movie preview of what game development might be. Instead, what that experience for me was connecting with a bunch of very cool students, but ultimately never getting that experience. I remember distinctly we went into this game lab and the teacher who was supposed to be providing preview of education on Unreal Engine was absent. They were just gone and nobody knew where they were.

Derrick Fields:
And so the entire class just played Unreal Tournament. And that’s what we did. I remember thinking, “This is cool, but this isn’t what I came here for.” So I was so frustrated because I thought I came in, the veil was yanked away in what I was supposed to expect when I got there. So yeah, I ultimately went to Columbus College of Art and Design. I pursued illustration. I said to myself that I’m going to find entry into games, doing concept art. I still was feeling really keen about 3D modeling and wanting to do something with that. And so I remember asking my advisor if I could switch to 3D modeling because I wanted to pursue game development. And they said, “Well, we only have 3D animation. We don’t support game development here.”

Derrick Fields:
And I thought it was another moment that was disillusioned and I’m going, “Oh, man, am I thinking about this wrong? There’s got to be other spaces where people are really driving for this outcome that they too want to create games, that they too want to 3D model and rig characters for videogames. I love Pixar films, but that’s not where I’m trying to land.” And so I transferred to Shawnee State University. That is where I was introduced to this really amazing game development program that was still in its earliest stages, but the community of teachers and students really brought an experience together that continues to thrive today.

Derrick Fields:
I think, if you go to their website, they’re doing all sorts of really cool in-university events to support their students and give them that experience that I think a lot of us were going for at that time. So shout outs to them. I ultimately ended up transferring yet another time and graduating out of Kent State University with a degree and I don’t remember the name, but I graduated there and here we are with some gaps and other stories in between there.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say though, what you’ve mentioned though is actually, at least from my experience with talking with others on this show, it’s pretty common because the technology in the industry changes so quickly that schools aren’t really able to keep up and be able to have curriculum and stuff like that. And then, as you say, because it’s so new, different schools are going to have different just types of programs. It’s not really standardized. You can go to any college in the country and learn English, but you can’t go to any college in the country and learn game design. Different programs are definitely going to be just better suited to what’s currently in the industry. They might have a better alumni program. There could be a whole bunch of other things. There’s a guy I had on the show. This was, I don’t know, maybe 2017 or so. His name is Michael Hollander. Do you remember the ’90s show, VR Troopers?

Derrick Fields:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
He was the Black guy on VR Troopers.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, cool.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a game designer now.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, wow. What a track record. That show is amazing. And there’s a side note, but the genre of tokusatsu, VR Troopers, Power Rangers, Kamen Rider, all of that stuff, there’s a really cool story, I think I saw it on Netflix, just the whole process of how that gets localized and arrives to us and then this relationship that we have with, I think it’s the … I forgot the company that licensed Power Rangers here, but they have a specific relationship with the original source that they are allowed to take the fight scenes and reedit it to add in actors from the US and-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s Haim Saban, right?

Derrick Fields:
Yes, that’s the one. Thank you. If you end up watching shows like VR Troopers, shows like Kamen Rider or Power Rangers, the original content has a completely different story, but the battles will be the same in a lot of ways or they’ll be … You’ll recognize certain battles or certain confrontations, experience in the US version. And so cool thing there, but that’s amazing. What a life to live to go from VR Troopers to game designer.

Maurice Cherry:
But a lot of what I remember him saying from that interview was about how he had to jump from place to place to really almost cobble together the skills that he knew he was going to need once he got on in the industry because one school maybe didn’t have this or another school had it. So it’s that process of transferring. And for him, it sounded like he just learned more working in the field as opposed to going to school to prepare to be a designer.

Derrick Fields:
I relate to that in a lot of ways that I think in that time period, when you said that there were a lot of universities trying to figure out how to do it correctly, I think similar to who you just mentioned … I’m sorry, what was the name again?

Maurice Cherry:
Michael Hollander.

Derrick Fields:
Michael. Thank you. Similar to Michael’s experience, we weren’t the only ones knowing that. I think we could see that universities were also trying to figure this out and we’re trying to figure out where can we get the best education with limited resources as far as research goes. It’s not like there’s a university out here just being championed by others in the industry saying, “I graduated from here and this is the space that taught me the best.” Everybody was flying by the seat of their pants. Unfortunately, for some people who are seeking education in that space, you flew by the seat at the risk of your wallet, so there’s that aspect there and you landed somewhere and you said, “This is close. So maybe this is the one that I’ll go with because I don’t want to go through registration again.”

Maurice Cherry:
He said the same thing. It can get expensive doing all that transferring from school to school, especially because it’s such a specialized field.

Derrick Fields:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
So you freelanced for a few companies after you graduated from Kent State. And it looked like your first big long-term game design gig, you’re at William Chyr Studio, is that right?

Derrick Fields:
That’s right. And touching back to what we were just talking about, after graduating, it was still trying to find placement in the industry, trying to figure out what to do with my portfolio and learning how it stood up against other candidates that were getting positions in 3D modeling and so on. And so that process led me to having to, again, reevaluate where I was and pursue continued learning, taking to YouTube and books and everything else to continue to make sure that I’m developing content that was on par with what the industry was asking for.

Derrick Fields:
I had a lot of difficulty trying to find career placement. And so this is where I began to seek dabbling in creating my own world, playing around with engines like Unity, but constantly going to events and networking with other individuals whom were already in there and already creating and developing projects, sharing my portfolio and ultimately landing freelance gigs from time to time.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you remember most about working at that studio?

Derrick Fields:
With William Chyr and the other team members, everything was fun and it was great. We mostly communicated digitally because people were across time zones and different locations in the US. It was very just casual, “Hey, can you model this or animate this thing.” And I had a lot of fun being able to contribute to manifold garden, which was the title that ended up releasing. And so my primary role there was creating a lot of environment objects. There are a lot of doors that I did the animations for and some other objects that are throughout that space.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I know we’re recording this right now at the time when there’s a lot of news actually in the videogame industry, particularly around certain company known as Activision Blizzard which people may know from some of the big games that they put out like … Oh, God, I’m blanking. Like Crash Bandicoot and things of that nature. I’m curious, as a Black man that’s in this industry, have you ever been privy to any discrimination just working at studios or showing your portfolio or things like that? What sort of things were you surprised about when you really started to get out in the industry?

Derrick Fields:
I think most of all, that came down to finding an entry level position, trying to weigh the quality of my work against other potential candidates for positions that I was applying for. And as an outcome to that, not finding a lot of opportunities where I felt like I was good enough to apply to a lot of spaces. I received no a lot, a lot when I was at the beginning of trying to become a 3D artist. And I would oftentimes turn to other portfolio websites, spaces like Art Station, what we have today, to look at the quality of my work and again weigh that against what other people were doing, other people in roles that I was trying to apply to.

Derrick Fields:
It just never made sense to me why I wasn’t even getting past the interview phase. I tried going to job fairs and sharing portfolio and receiving very poker-faced feedback on the content that I was sharing. And then would watch peers and other people who had also exited university game positions. And it wasn’t fair to myself or to them to want to go, “Well, now I got to look at their portfolio and see what did they do and what did I not do.” It’s never fun to have to draw those types of comparisons, but I couldn’t help it at that time because I wanted so badly to be able to be in this space and really, really had this dream that I can …

Derrick Fields:
The veil has very, very much been lifted to since then, but I used to dream so much of sitting next to a colleague in a game studio and working on 3D models and discussing which piece of armor should this character have or stuff like that. Back then, it was the labor of videogames, was something that was romanticized. I, not only has that but the space in general, continue to receive their scrutiny that it should to redefine what it means to work within that space, that creating games and creating experiences should not come at the sacrifice of your time in a way that is a detriment to you by way of how individuals used to romanticize overworking themselves in videogames.

Derrick Fields:
And that is still a narrative that we’re trying to separate from and relating to what you said with Activision Blizzard. The constant harassment that women and other marginalized folks experienced within these industries are other things that continue to need the scrutiny that they are receiving in order to hopefully get the change that we’re all asking for.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if this is a good follow up for this, but I’ll just throw it out there. Do you think that that is why we’re starting to see so many indie developers and games out there because they’re just not meshing with this AAA title, big game studio kind of culture, they’re just striking out on their own and doing their own thing?

Derrick Fields:
Yeah, I think there’s many layers to why indie developers create the games that they do. One is absolutely they themselves could not find placement within the industry. One is, we’re not ever fairly represented within the industry. One is the experiences that were being set on store shelves, weren’t the experiences that they wanted to have and that, just the word experience can mean so many different things in terms of gameplay or narrative or style and aesthetic. I think all of those things motivate indie developers to create their own games. And I think, just as you said, that’s absolutely why there’s so many of us out here now creating cool things.

Derrick Fields:
And now there’s so many more avenues to be able to access the experiences that they are delivering with platforms like itch.io for people who just want to create something small or fairly sizable and distribute that out to their own audience. We now have publishers and platforms that vocalize their support for indies and now have a much more visible pipeline for indie developers to be able to release games on spaces like the Switch and so on. So I hope and I always had my fingers crossed that that will continue to grow in the way that it has and that more indie developers will be able to receive the support that they want.

Maurice Cherry:
What games are you currently playing right now?

Derrick Fields:
I was revisiting Final Fantasy VII Remake after purchasing it when it came out and then not touching it for a long, long time. The announcement of the, I think, it’s called Intergrade DLC, was enough for me that it sparked motivation to want to return to the game and I said, “You know what? We’re going to finish this.” So yes, I’ve been casually pursuing that and I think I’m about three quarters of the way complete with it finally. But aside from that, I spend a little bit of my time streaming on Twitch various stealthy games. It’s another genre of games that I just really, really take to and enjoy playing. So titles like Thief … One of my favorite games is Thief Deadly Shadows which is this older medieval fantasy stealth game replays this thief called Garrett. I almost said the main character of The Witcher, Geralt. I mixed them up there, but great game.

Derrick Fields:
Immersive sims is the genre, so other games like Hitman or Dishonored, any of those things where you’re presented with a level and you have to decide how you are going to solve the level and get from point A to point B are some of my favorite types of games to play. So I’ll dabble with one main game and then pursue other ones in the background. And so that’s what I’ve been doing. How about yourself?

Maurice Cherry:
What am I playing now? That’s a good question because, and I said this before we record it, I am really big on buying games and then never playing them. I’m more of a collector at this point. So the games I’m currently playing now? So on PS4, I don’t know, I guess about halfway through Persona 5 Royal, I think. I think I’m halfway through. I’m in July because the game starts out in April and then it like goes to I think January or something, but Royal has a third semester. So I think I’m about maybe not half, I’m probably about a third of the way through that when I think about it because I’m in the summer. So I’m playing Persona 5 Royal.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on my Switch, I have Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I feel like I’m just tending to that, I don’t know, neglected child. I’ve gotten my island to a point where I’m not going to change anything. My villagers are at a point where they’re not moving out. So my island is just in stasis, and because Nintendo’s not really rolling out a whole bunch of new content for it, I just log in every day, speak to people, dig up fossils at the islands. I just bought The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, which I look forward to getting into that this weekend.

Derrick Fields:
Great. I’ve been looking forward to that one.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking to get into that pretty soon. And that’s what I have now. I’m a big fan of puzzle games, so I also just recently bought I think it’s Picross S5 I think is the latest one in the series. So I bought that. I haven’t played it yet, but I know eventually I will. Picross is just one of those games you just, I don’t know, you play it in the airport. You play it while you’re waiting for the train or something like that. It’s one of those games you can easily pick up and put down because it’s a puzzle game. Have you heard of Picross before?

Derrick Fields:
I have. I’ve not played it. Honestly, most puzzles I usually keep to something that’s like haptic, though I’m not opposed to them. They’re usually not my go to, but yeah, I’ve heard of Picross, but I didn’t know that they released a new iteration.

Maurice Cherry:
Jupiter cranks these games out every three months.

Derrick Fields:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
And they always have 150 puzzles or more. At least 150 to 200 puzzles, they just crank them out regularly. It’s insane. I think they just recently announced there’s going to be a Picross with, I think Sega and Master Collection. So it’s going to have Sonic sprites and things of that nature, Puyo Puyo, that kind of thing. I saw it and I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to buy that,” because also the games are like 10 bucks. So they’re like really cheap, they have a ton of replay value and they’re long games. Each puzzle is maybe anywhere from like a few seconds to maybe an hour, depending on the size of it and putting it all together, but that’s what I’m playing right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking forward to … What did I preorder? I preordered Metroid Dread. I think I pre ordered No More Heroes III. And I also pre ordered Advance Wars 1 and 2, the remakes that are coming out because I love some Advance Wars. I recently bought, not that I’m showing my age here, but I recently bought a, there’s this guy on Instagram that does these custom Gameboy Advance builds.

Derrick Fields:
That’s very cool.

Maurice Cherry:
They are pristine. I’m not going to say how much I paid for it. I paid too much for it, but they are pristine. And I bought one of those and I bought some games off eBay because I was like, “I love the form factor of it, plus I just love those old games. And now that Advance Wars 1 and 2 is coming out on the Switch, I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m getting that. Absolutely. No questions asked.” There’s a couple of games that I don’t even have to think about it. My credit card’s already out like magic. I don’t even have to think about it like, “Oh, yeah. I’m getting that.” That’s what I’m playing right now.

Derrick Fields:
Cool. Cool. Those are definitely some exciting things to look forward to. No More Heroes, especially, is one that I am a big fan of that. I’m trying to think if there’s anything that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. It is on the tip of my tongue. Elden Ring, From Software, so the new From Software title has been one that is definitely on my list, definitely looking forward to that. And then Deathloop from Arkane Studios which again talking about how as a fan of immersive sims and games that include the option of stealth. The creators of Dishonored are releasing a new title and this one looks like a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Derrick Fields:
So I’ll be getting that one right away.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course, you’re creating your own game, Onsen Master, but what videogame would you love to see developed one day?

Derrick Fields:
When it comes to the games that we experienced now, I’m just touching on the arc of indie games and how there are so many developers who have taken to their own to create experiences that they aren’t seeing. I would love, love to see a game that centers just like an Afro fantasy or Black fantasy or like Afro futurist game that is at the scale of a Square Enix title. If I could play a game that feels like Final Fantasy XV or any of those titles with that sort of fidelity and story and amount of hours dedicated to creating an original world and high-fantasy narrative, but it centers on Black people and the genre of Afro futurism. I think it would be phenomenal that I would preorder that before.

Derrick Fields:
I would somehow hear about it before the studio made formal announcement and be sitting at their front door just saying, “I’m ready. Just hand me the disc whenever you’re done.”

Maurice Cherry:
Now, say someone’s listening to this, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to become a game designer themselves. What resources or things would you tell them to check out to try to start that journey?

Derrick Fields:
So we briefly talked about things like Mario Maker and the Nintendo’s, I believe it’s the garage, I don’t remember the full name of it, but resources like that, going back to PlayStation 1, there are games like RPG Maker and stuff like that. There are avenues to be able to create games and use systems that are available now. You may not be able to completely realize the version of the game that you are seeking, but I think it’s important to remember that vision, that lofty vision that we all have for the game we dream of creating is an iterative process. We have to create the small games and the other experiences to get ourselves there. And so use these platforms, use these systems.

Derrick Fields:
Dreams is another one from Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet, where you can now create your own assets, your own experiences using their platform. That might be one avenue. Another one is the Unity Engine that we use for Onsen Master is free. And there are a lot of resources not only on YouTube, which I affectionately call YouTube University, but Unity itself offers courses that are available for free for individuals who have no background in either programming or creating or 3D modeling, an avenue to be able to get access to those. One of the most important things that I want to acknowledge in saying all of that is the availability of resources is not equal. It’s not across the board for everybody and not everybody has the computer or the game hardware to be able to leap right into creating those things.

Derrick Fields:
I imagine that if they do, a lot of the times, they’re already exploring those possibilities already, taking to Google and figuring out which one of these might be the application or software for them. And so if pencil and paper are what is available for you, creating tabletop games and board games is game design. And I always think to myself that if it works on paper, it’s going to work digitally, but we just have to trade some of those paper systems for code and some of those cards or drawn assets for 3D models or 2D pictures and etcetera, but practice game design, creating board games between yourself and your family, creating card games.

Derrick Fields:
These are ways that still lead you to becoming a game designer because you’re creating experiences that you’re trying to elicit that from somebody else and have these sorts of fun moments with other people and design those fun moments. Use that. Use that as a platform. And so those are the things that I would say for individuals who are looking to explore game design, looking to leap into it, take one of those things and just try a little bit every day because those moments that you spend in it in doing it, that you’re just getting closer and closer to it every moment and it’s going to take time.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at the work that you’re doing now and you look back at your career and you think back to a young Derrick who was getting into Final Fantasy IX and was really starting to learn about game design and everything, are you where you want it to be at this stage in your life?

Derrick Fields:
I am. This is like one of those things that a … Very recently, I was all sorts of emotional about it and stuff because I was talking to my mom, whom … She is my number one hero and she has helped create an environment that has allowed me to thrive creatively and watched me evolve into the person that I am now and have the hardships and the hiccups that have led through to that. When it comes to creating games and what I would like to be doing in this space with Onsen Master on the way out and seeking to fund, our next project and most recently stepping into Northwestern University, I’d say I think I hit everything on young Derrick’s checklist.

Derrick Fields:
And so the only other thing left is to make sure that everything that I’ve earned sustains and that I can extend it to another young Derrick or a young individual out there who has their own checklist brewing.

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

Derrick Fields:
I want to stay in education. I want to be able to continue contributing to Northwestern and hopefully help build a space that is comprehensive. Right now, I’m just one individual within the department who will be providing games education. And I would love to find ways to collaborate with other faculty and student across like interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty and students to be able to share experiences. I’ll be in like the radio, TV, film department. So there’s a lot of creativity that’s across these spaces, but the other thing is wanting to bring in other faculty or hopefully be able to advocate for bringing in other faculty to touch on other experiences and facets of game development.

Derrick Fields:
There’s music, there’s narrative, there’s so many other components to be considered and I think developing a space that feels conducive for all of those is really important to highlight for burgeoning creators or writers or musicians. As far as Waking Oni Games goes, Onsen Master is not the only title that I want to build and I want to develop a studio that can create games and create them sustainably. And when I say sustainably, I mean support every individual at their choice of part time or full time and not have to burden anybody with a decision of balancing life in a part-time job and a freelance gig on top of that.

Derrick Fields:
I hope that this game studio can be a space that somebody can, not only lean on for support, but feel as though they are contributing to the type of games that they want to see represented as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and your studio and your game and everything? Where can they find that online?

Derrick Fields:
So for the games, that is like waking up in the morning, wakingonigames.com. I can be found as WakingOni on Twitter and those are primarily the two main spaces that you can find us interacting between. There’s a Waking Oni Games Twitter as well. And I mentioned earlier that I stream on Twitch, sharing not only gameplay, but game development from time to time under the name Waking Oni.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Derrick Fields, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, one, sharing the work that you’re already doing through your studio and the game that you’re creating. I just have a soft spot in my heart for indie game designers. I just think it’s so cool that you all get to do this kind of stuff. And even just the Black community around gaming is so good to see. There’s developers, there’s designers, there’s musicians, there’s artists, game artists, voiceover, etcetera. It’s just so good to see all of that, but then also to really hear about your story of getting into it and the type of games that you want to see out there in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope that this interview is a way to introduce what you’re doing to our audience, so more people can discover what it is that you do and hopefully can help support your work. So thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Derrick Fields:
Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to be here.

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